Celebrating diversity and heterodoxy
In “The Gods Themselves”, Isaac Asimov has one of his characters say “The number two is impossible”[i]. The character is talking about the fact that a parallel universe has been discovered and, if there are two universes, it seems illogical for there to be only two – there must be a third, and a fourth, and so on – in fact, an infinite number of universes. It’s either one universe or an infinite number – nothing in between makes sense.
It’s an interesting idea, and the good news for the character is that he gets the chance to test his hypothesis, successfully as it happens. And, of course, he gets the girl, and saves our universe – good outcomes all around, really.
As discussed in chapter 25, we humans seem pretty hard-wired to think in binary terms, at least about our fellow humans. It’s “us” or “them”, “me” or “the other”.
The current dominant narrative suggests that we should try to make it all about “me”. That we are in a struggle for survival which means getting ahead at the expense of others and, eventually, our survival matters more than theirs. It is an attempt to impose a “binary universe” model on the world, which eventually becomes a single universe inhabited by me and mine.
The apparent narrative is “Wouldn’t it be great if we were all wealthy, and could have silk sheets and sail yachts all the time?” The actual underlying narrative is “If you’re not one of us, you’re either there to serve us, or you’re surplus to requirements”. It is feudalism at best, and potential genocide at worst.
The inevitable outcome of our current “binary universe” trajectory is either complete destruction of our own species, or a massive hollowing which leaves a badly damaged planet supporting either a few wealthy people with a larger number of slaves, or a post-apocalyptic nightmare for everyone reminiscent of the movie “Mad Max”.
As I have noted throughout this book, life does not thrive on single trajectories. It builds resilience and regenerative capacity through diversity, through multiple life cycles and experiments which offer new opportunities and create new possibilities.
Interestingly enough, one of capitalism’s strengths is its ability to create new possibilities, in terms of consumer goods at least. Cars, phones, junk food – we are spoiled for choice in the affluent world.
But there are very serious issues underlying this strength of capitalism. That we don’t need to be spoiled for this particular sort of choice to live fulfilled lives. That the use and wastage of physical resources is degrading our common home. And that the choices we are continually being offered distract us from more important things.
We need to focus on the creation of new human possibilities, not new consumption possibilities. And this involves celebrating and supporting human difference. It involves learning first to cope with, then to tolerate, and then finally to learn from and celebrate, people who seem very different from us.
This is not about accepting everything that others do. For example, I find female genital mutilation repugnant from every angle, and doubt that I could ever accept that it is simply “a cultural difference”, as some maintain. I believe it is an ugly use of power by men over women, and if some women accept this, it is because they have been enculturated (ie brainwashed) as to its acceptability.
The United Nations has recognised it as a violation of deeper human rights, and in 2012 voted unanimously to intensify efforts to stamp it out. The “deep human rights” incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are more important as an expression of human solidarity than this particular practice is as an expression of cultural difference.
But those “deep human rights” do not mean that we are expected to treat each other, or try to make each other, exactly the same. They are not there to stamp out cultural difference.
Quite the opposite in fact. They challenge us to first express our human solidarity through ensuring that each of our fellow citizens of the world has a safe and dignified place to stand, through health, education, and political participation.
And secondly, they challenge us to at least respect, and preferably acknowledge and celebrate, the variety of individuals and communities. For example, Articles 18 to 20 of the Declaration speak to freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, expression, and association.
I need to say in passing that there are debates about whether the Declaration is too “Western” in its conception of human rights, and these debates have waxed and waned over the years. I hope the debates will continue, because no set of moral standards can ever be absolute.
I myself think the Declaration is too embedded in current social and economic structures (for example, it includes the right to own property), but I accept that it is, like all things, a creature of its time and place.
Learning to learn about, and like, diversity
When we stop to think about it, we know it’s not just “us” and “them”. In any one situation, it might seem convenient to reduce the problem to two elements, but this is only effective when seeking a very small solution to a very small problem. “Will Frieda or I be first to use the toothpaste?” is about the right level for binary thinking.
Looking at one of our more universal human traits, most of us like music. More than this, most of us can be exhilarated and transported by music, either performing it or listening to it. Our tastes may be fairly narrow, or they may be wide-ranging. But they always encompass variety of some sort. And, while we might despise others’ taste in music (“how can you possibly like Paul McCartney?”), we certainly aren’t going to deny them the right to perform or listen to it – but preferably somewhere else.
When we listen to artists or forms of music we are not familiar with, we often find new opportunities for listening pleasure opened up to us. Music is a universal human activity, and it is a more or less infinite resource – I calculated once that there are about 5,000 simple 8 note tunes for each of us on the planet, and this number increases exponentially as we add length and complexity.
Music is a glorious – perhaps the most glorious – expression of both our solidarity and also our diversity as humans. It is a universal language, but with infinite variety. And, while we might not have listened to it or appreciated it at home, whenever we travel to different places, we tend to find that the local music fits with the location, and that we can participate in and enjoy it in its place. Sometimes, when we transport it home, it opens up new possibilities to us; sometimes we can’t recapture the beauty of place; but, always, we have at least partially accepted the new and different.
Sure, some of us don’t get it, and complain in Africa that they’re not playing Morris Dancing music. But most of us do. We accept and enjoy diversity in music, and enjoy the new.
Like most things, however, music has a dark side. Because of its ability to stir emotions, it can be used to galvanise people into unwise or destructive actions (consider most “patriotic” music), and beat, melody and lyrics can each convey negative as well as positive messages and emotions (consider the punk and hip-hop movements). But this dark side does not change in any way the universality of music as a language, and its ability to offer new ways of seeing or thinking or feeling.
The Internet and its associated technologies also give us the opportunity to expand our horizons. They offer us more choice and more information than we have ever had.
And they too have their dark side. The choices or the information offered are not always good value. And the technologies themselves are susceptible to a wide variety of misuses, such as electronic theft, confidence trickery, and cyber-bullying.
One slightly paradoxical example of their dark side is that, despite the vast breadth of information now supplied, these technologies offer the corporations who use them as platforms the opportunity to insidiously narrow our exposure to new things. In the guise of anticipating our needs, the corporations put in front of us things from the same old stable, based on “what we did before”. This might be fine when we are dealing with basic and repetitive commodities – and even there it can close our minds to the range of possibilities we really have – but it is dangerously restrictive for anything else, particularly as its underlying aim is simply to get us to consume more.
And that brings up another problem with “sameness” – the risk of too much dependence on single or dominant technologies. The Internet has become a crucial underpinning for business and much other activity, in the affluent world at least. It has some internal resilience from being networked, but it has serious security risks, its users don’t have many contingencies available if it fails, and they are being consistently encouraged to increase their dependence on this single technology, for example through “cloud computing” (don’t you love the imagery of the “cloud”? A beautiful but ephemeral thing which will eventually dissipate or pelt us with rain or hail.).
I don’t know exactly how we reverse or at least reduce the risks of this specific example of too much dependence on a single technology.
But I do know the answer to our dependence on another – fossil fuels. The poor know too – they use sandals, bikes, and the power of the sun and the wind. We in the affluent world need to disinvest rapidly from this single technology, which has brought us near to ruin, and embrace different, diverse, renewable, and less destructive technologies.
We need to train ourselves in the values and beauties of diversity. Not only through say ecological science, which teaches us that diversity is essential to the “biology” of life, but also through education and experience which exposes us to and teaches us to put greater value on diversity of technologies, of cultures, and most of all, of people.
There is a Maori proverb, “He aha te mea nui? He tangata. He tangata. He tangata.” Translated into English, it says, “What is the most important thing? It is people. It is people. It is people.”
Not profit. Not power. Not possessions. But people. And, despite sharing 99.9% of our DNA, we the people are pretty diverse. To value ourselves properly, we must learn to better value diversity.
This is not just about superficial differences, either. It’s not just about how we pronounce “tomato”. The Maori proverb quoted above is a tiny hint at a different consciousness of the world. The Maori, and many other communities, see themselves far more as part of the natural world than our “Western” civilisations.
They have not separated themselves as far from Nature. Their concepts of ownership, of relationships, and even of time, are different. Their languages contain concepts of the world that are simply untranslatable into English, the dominant language of the West.
We from the “separated” world have a great deal to learn from them, in particular about how to work better with Nature, but also about how to see the world, and how engage with our own and other communities.
A final cautionary word. It can be hard to value diversity – habit (ie sticking with the familiar) and a sense of stability are often closely linked. It’s so much easier for most of us to do the same old thing most of the time.
But we need to train ourselves to be more open to new possibilities, and not to let that necessary stability blind us to novelty and difference. We need to make a habit out of celebrating and learning from diversity.
By the way, I used the word “heterodoxy” in the title to this chapter. For those who aren’t familiar with it, its general definition is “different ways of thinking”. A more specific definition is “thinking in ways different from the established standards or norms”. The first definition is diversity of thinking – which we should celebrate. The second definition is challenging the current orthodoxy – which we must do. Part 5 has some more about how we might do this, if we’re not doing it already.
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[i] “The Gods Themselves”, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday, 1972