Sunday, March 9, 2014

Strength through diversity (II)

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled, as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.--PRAYER OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI (c. 1181-1226)
In my last post I addressed the need to accommodate diversity, one of three critical challenges to our ability to live together in the 21st century. (The others are economic opportunity and environmental sustainability.) A community that accommodates diversity is one where men and women of all ages, social classes, races, ethnicities, religions, languages, sexual orientations and political beliefs (did I leave anything out? oh yeah, modes of transportation!) would live among each other as full and equal members. No one would retreat to a bubble of people just like them; no one would claim a right to discriminate against others based on difference; and everyone would have access to the benefits of living in the community.

In the first post I argued the advantages of inclusion to previously-excluded groups are obvious, and the advantages to the community as a whole are clear if not universally convincing. Now I'm asking why members of advantaged groups in society would find it in their interest to reach out to include the different. Put another way, is there some reason for the socially powerful to reject Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum that "There is no such thing as society," just a competition among individuals? Some in-group members may see a moral obligation to fairness or equality, but I am wondering about their self-interest. Are there, in a nutshell, self-interest-based arguments for inclusion?

(What follows is in the form of statements, but is really a set of questions.)

Three economic arguments for inclusive communities are:
  • Better towns. A powerful,  inclusive community creates opportunities for all individuals, even the most powerful.  So I reiterate the arguments for community benefits from the first post: Inclusion expands the talent pool (e.g. for entrepreneurship, employment and the military). A broader distribution of wealth allows money to circulate, and thereby to sustain the economy from which individuals and families draw their wealth. The variety of people in inclusive communities make those places more interesting. 
  • Towns that support individual aspirations. The state of the community limits the well-being of an individual or family in other ways. Enforcing barriers, and quelling the unrest that results from having barriers, draw society's resources away from more productive investments. You can't sell things to impoverished customers. You can't keep your children from temptation if the surrounding community is a moral sewer. 
  • Fewer scary places. Urban ghettos, which result from extreme instances of social exclusion, are notorious pockets of crime and disease. It may be that I can be physically far enough away that this doesn't immediately affect me, but there's no guaranteeing those crimes and diseases can be bottled up forever. And even so it limits my ability to move freely around the area.
In a global world, the economic arguments that we're-all-in-this-together-whether-you-know-it-or-not may be weaker today than they were 50 or 75 years ago, thanks to improvements in transportation and communication. So I find myself returning inevitably to an admittedly non-social-scientific domain. Specifically, what does a lifetime of Snarling At The Other do to one's soul? If I exclude, discriminate against, or feel contempt for the Other, do I somehow harm myself?

We can all recognize that difference causes anxiety, if not outright fear. What is the best way to deal with that anxiety? Separation from the Other, discrimination, and feelings of superiority might be our first instinct, not to mention faster, but they can never completely dispel the anxiety that difference creates. To dispel the anxiety requires crossing the divide, and living with difference long enough to recognize that our common humanity is stronger than whatever differentiates us.

Is it counter-intuitive to suggest that personal security can be achieved through openness and inclusion towards others? Well, imagine someone who thinks gays are immoral and poor people are lazy butts. You may be neither gay nor poor, so what does it matter? It matters because, at least subconsciously, you know that the stony finger of judgment or the inflexible verdict of rules will eventually turn on you. The law code you're now so proud of following will eventually bite you in the ass.

Furthermore, exclusion takes effort that could be better spent on something more fulfilling. A healthy soul is an open soul, capable of loving others, consoling others and such. In theory you could love and console some while excluding or feeling contempt for others. But analogizing the soul to a riven community, aren't there opportunity costs to putting energy into keeping apart from certain people, or insisting that society value your life or rules more than theirs? Doesn't it make it more difficult to console, love, &c. anyone? Doesn't make it harder to do things that bring you joy?

Separation from the Other turns you back into yourself at considerable psychic risk. When I read urbanist plugs for diverse communities, they tend to focus on advantages for the poor and otherwise excluded (see Calthorpe and Felton, The Regional City [Island, 2000], 72-87; Duany et al., Suburban Nation [North Point, 2000], 129-133). There may be advantages for social in-groups as well.

SEE ALSO: Allen Vander Meulen, "Refusing to Relate," The Here and the Hereafter, 10 March 2014, http://allenvandermeulen.org/2014/03/10/refusing-to-relate/. Allen is a college friend, now a pastor in Massachusetts, with an eloquent take on the same issue. He concludes:
We cannot avoid relationship with others, no matter who they are. God's gift is that we have the freedom to choose to pursue that relationship, to nurture it to achieve all that it can offer us; or else to refuse to even try, and so limit ourselves, and thereby limit our ability to fulfill God's call upon our lives.

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