Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Culture of Difference


I hope this finds you in good health and good cheer. I've been thinking about my work, and the work we all do, and want to share some thoughts with you. It seems that now is a good time for us to come together a bit, to focus our work and lives -- our efforts -- on our common enterprise, furthering the art of living well together.

Don't worry, this isn't a pitch for anything. I'm talking about building a common culture, and I am convinced that we are all already working on it, each in our own way. I'm really writing today to affirm that effort and to offer you a bit of time to contemplate how it all fits together.
As people of good will, we are doing our work in ways that sustain the people around us, within the constraints and opportunities life presents us with. I want to lift up and encourage that work, to pause and see it as a common effort, and also to counterbalance feelings of divisiveness and strain. We, people of good will, are the vast majority, and our work, though often hidden or seemingly fragmented, is the basis of the relative prosperity and happiness our communities enjoy.

One of the things that can dishearten us is the false conception that a common culture and cultural diversity are incompatible ideas.
Certainly, communities must be based on shared similarities, but I think we all feel that communities also thrive on diversity, difference, and maybe a bit of controversy. Political correctness and diversity are paradigms that suffer from both the low expectations of their creators and from quiet subversion by their detractors. We are all told not to presume that our own culture is dominant, and most of us respectfully acquiesce, but often at the expense of conviviality. I believe we can work around this stalemate and make a common culture -- even as our identifications with sub-cultures deepen and multiply.

I find that my reservations about the current paradigm of 'diversity' mirror those about the older one of 'tolerance'. Compared to the rigor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, say, or the poetry of many mestizo movements, much of the language of diversity sounds like a grade school show-and-tell. The language of tolerance, on the other hand, draws integrity from a relatively intact local culture that feels sure enough of its own value to leave room for other cultures. In a few cases I am able to appreciate the naive or innocent arrogation that this culture is 'central' and the others are 'marginal'; but most of the time the old-fashioned virtues of 'tolerance' are quite eclipsed by its vices -- willful provincialism and triumphalism, dissimulated racism, or the false conscience that is the heritage of colonizers. With these reservations in mind, I believe we must tolerate 'tolerance' even with its hidden constrictions, and we must defend 'diversity' even when it seems terribly saccharine.
But neither speaks clearly about the nature of our differences. They're both framed by ideas of similarity while perpetuating divisions.
The phrase "a culture of difference" is a way of getting around some philosophical dead ends (whose history I'm not going to make you read through here). The awkwardness of the wording, I'm hoping, will help you ease into a new sense of the word difference -- freeing it, if you will, from the pairing "similarities and differences", a pairing that is always dominated and defined by similarity.

Let me expand on what I mean when I talk about difference in this way. I find that consciousness is always consciousness of something outside itself, something other. When we get beyond the various questions of identity we engaged with as adolescents, I think we find ourselves in ever-deepening relationships with the 'other' -- our partners, our work, our communities, passers-by, the exotic stranger, our imagined fears and enemies. All of these relationships deepen because we engage in an open back-and-forth that lets us revise our sense of self in the light of our differences.

When difference and similarity are rebalanced, we can see ourselves midstream in transformation, and release some of the humorless tension of maintaining self identity. And I think it is only in a climate of difference that the deeper shared experience of being human is really visible.

The culture of difference I'm enlisting your help with is a messy thing that seems to involve leaving a lot of doors open, but also involves embracing other people's projects as your own. It means being bolder about your own values and yet simultaneously defending, not just respecting, other people's values. It will certainly involve getting much closer to the people around you, but also taking much braver and lonelier positions. I don't want to over-sell or over-describe the culture of difference, because I'm not in a position to set terms. I'm relying on you to recognize this state in yourself, in the pause as you shift your grip on life's certainties. I'm sure you've seen it recently in relationships and workpaths that went from awkward to comfortable in no time at all (or the reverse!). I hope you're able to recognize this feeling from my odd description, and I hope you'll take the plunge with me into a self-fulfilling prophesy: that we can each renew the feeling in our own way and find ourselves in a common effort.

Now I'll end with a numbered list -- with your indulgence -- four memos for a culture of difference:

1. Avoid reductive thinking. Whether it's applied to your value system or another's, reductive logic will always deaden things. I believe that the mystery of consciousness and the dignity of our lives can't be reduced to materialism or any other 'ism'. In a culture of difference, other people don't simply belong to equivalent, parallel value systems; they are likely to frame and hold their values in entirely different ways.

2. Step aside from the paradigm of scarcity. It's pervasive in our economy and our pop psychology, and it's a dangerous fiction. We all produce a surplus, and it's your right and duty to identify, manage and share yours. In a culture of difference, we don't need to hold identical ration cards.

3. Localize your activities. Localization is a movement away from the idea of a presumptive power, away from the excuse that our choices are controlled or predetermined by external forces. A culture of difference fractures power relationships and lets us more clearly see our oddfellow neighbors and our own capacities.

4. Cultivate humility. I know talking about humility is a contradiction. But I can't find another way to describe the habit of putting other people's concerns first, while risking but sustaining your own needs and momentum. In a culture of difference, the mystery of other people's subjective realities is an endless source of renewal and transformation.

So won't you join me, then, in continuing our work, in celebrating the efforts of others -- even from seemingly opposed value systems -- and in stewarding a messy, vital, local, sustaining and inclusive culture?

Thanks for entertaining these thoughts, and I hope to hear from you if you have the time. Also, please help me pass this on to others who you think would read it.

Roy Wroth
December 2007