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The Diversity Difficult to Embrace: Diversity in Thought
We laud diversity, particularly diversity in race, ethnic origin, and sexual orientation, but that welcoming attitude slows when the creeds we live by don’t match. Two recent events reflect our need to insist that those we associate with share our values, believe as we do.
In New York, the leaders of the City Council’s Progressive Council decided to require members to sign on to a lengthy statement of principles. It seems that being “progressive” had become too popular. “Progressive” was losing its “true meaning”. It was time to get back to “roots”.
Fifteen of the 35 caucus members demurred. Despite losing more than 40 percent of its members, the leaders said the caucus was “stronger” because it was more “unified”.
About the same time, the Southern Baptist Convention expelled five congregations in five states for appointing female pastors contrary to the Convention’s statement of beliefs. The chair of the executive committee said the action was taken to uphold “theological convictions” and maintain “unity” among its cooperating churches.
I grew up in a fundamental Protestant tradition. My parents were missionaries in China, where I was born and spent most of my first ten years. My adult years have been in politics. The parallels between religion and politics are many.
Beliefs are strong. Principles are paramount. There is a vision of the way the world should be and how to get there. It is a package deal and no part of the package can be discarded. There is a tendency to fight over small differences. Accommodation is difficult. Purity in belief is the prime requisite.
So we fracture and go our separate ways. There are Conservative Baptists, American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Regular Baptists, Freewill Baptists, Progressive Baptists and a dozen more Baptist denominations. Only theologians can explain the differences in doctrine.
The Progressive Caucus demanded agreement not only on multiple goals for multiple problems but also on the path for achieving those goals. Theirs was a complete vision for the City: its budget, tax policy, jobs, wages, housing, public schools, universities, carbon emission, community safety, civil rights, political reform, and strengthening local democracy. Reciting the whole creed is required for admission to the club.
Perhaps it is natural to want to control our labels. The Sierra Club defines what being “environmental” means. NARAL what “pro-choice” means. Pro-Life America what “pro-life” means.
The phone rang one day. It was a volunteer from the Sierra Club asking me to urge my senator to vote for the “Green Jobs Bill”. I asked what was in the bill. He didn’t know. It was a good bill. I should talk to my senator. It turned out that most of the potential jobs created resulted from lifting the state moratorium on nuclear plants. The “environmental” effects of nuclear are debatable, but senators who didn’t go along got their “friends of the environment” score reduced.
Labels shut off discussion. We never get to talk about specifics. We never get to ask, “What about …? We never get to consider nuance or weigh competing values. You are, or you are not. You are pro-life or you are pro-choice.
We use negative labels in the same way. Racist. Sexist. Fascist. End of discussion. There is nothing to talk about. It is my responsibility rather to “confront” you.
At the extreme is the cult, in which one person declares who is in and who is out. The ideas that are acceptable, those that are not. Followers follow without question, even when today’s pronouncement contradicts yesterday’s. We see the beginnings in Trumpism.
Mark Shields, long-time political professional, commentator, and contributor to PBS Newshour, recognized that within politics and religion there is a similar internal struggle. “There are two kinds of political parties, just like there are two kinds of churches. Those who seek out converts and those who hunt down heretics.”
There is a difference, however. You can get to heaven if you are the last True Believer. In politics, however, where the goal is to win elections, you have to bring half the people along with you. Building a coalition capable of governing requires inclusion. Hunting down “heretics” is counter-productive. Even the “apostate” Joe Manchin delivered the decisive vote on significant achievements.
At the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidency there was vigorous disagreement among Democrats about how to proceed with governing. Progressives wanted big, bold, systemic, transformational change. Moderates were looking at more incremental reforms. The words and debate got heated. The specifics of the policy differences got lost as we argued over labels and slogans.
Czechoslovakia in 1978 was a different place and time. Resistance to the communist government was increasing and, not surprisingly, there were different opinions about strategy, similar to today’s debate.
Vaclav Havel, one of the more prominent leaders of the resistance, had advice that resonates. “Is it possible to talk seriously about whether we want to change the system or merely reform it? … this is a pseudo problem … We are not even clear about where reform ends and change begins…What is actually done is more important than how it is labelled.”
It is the labels that get us into trouble, particularly the labels we place on those who are near, but not quite like us, in political approach. “Republicans in Name Only”. “Corporate Democrats”. “Fairweather Progressives” The labels cast shade on motive and integrity. There is a hint of heresy, giving us the excuse we need to dismiss without engaging.
Havel suggests a solution. Abandon our theories of how political and economic structures should be re-created and go back to the place where all politics must start: the everyday experiences and desires of people, not as they are imagined to be, but as they are.
“All authentic changes come from below.” Alternative political structures “do not grow out of a theoretical vision of systemic changes, but from the … needs of real people.” When political policies are “derived from a concrete and human ‘here and now’” the prospects increase for a “genuine, profound, and lasting change for the better.”
Differences won’t disappear. When we abandon the mantle of cosmic virtue, however, our debates can focus on what concrete action to take today to fix this problem, rather than on differing philosophical concepts of the “good”.
We must avoid the temptation of seeing other Democrats, would be Democrats, and somewhat like Democrats as enemies. It will take all and more to build communities where people can live freely and follow their dreams.
We can embrace our diversities. Hold on to our beliefs, but with humility. With an element of self-doubt. Recognizing that none of us embodies the Truth, or has the Answers.
There are many roles to be played. Different skills utilized. Various tactics used. Without agitators there is no progress. Without conciliators there is no community. Some choose to work within the system. Some promote change from outside. All are necessary.
We can reach the same destination by Interstate or rural roads. We will succeed to the extent we open our arms wide and embrace all who travel in the same direction.