Perhaps I am a naive starry-eyed idealist. But it seems possible to me that, in our psychologically oriented age, we may be uniquely situated in all of history, to address the division between unity and diversity in a healthy life-giving way that finds a creative balance which both honours difference and embodies some degree of consistent identity.

At the root of the apparent conflict between unity and diversity lies fear, threat, and insecurity. There is plenty of tension to go around and it exists on both sides of the great divide.

Advocates of absolute “unity” fear the disintegration of the social contract. They are drawn to the brick wall vision of social structure. A brick wall is strong and effective only as long as every brick stays in place, conforms to its prescribed function, and maintains the shape of every other brick. As soon as one brick is removed from the wall, or determines to change shape, the wall is weakened and perhaps irreparably damaged. The non-conforming brick is feared as a threat to the entire structure and must be brought back into conformity with the acceptable norm for all bricks.

Advocates of unbounded diversity, fear that their personal integrity may be destroyed by the demands of unity. They feel that their individual identity is threatened by any requirement to conform to a group identity in which they know they do not fit and will never find a place to belong. They feel personally threatened by the pressure to fit themselves into a normative pattern for human behaviour that does not fit with their deepest self-understanding.

The only hope of finding a way through this impasse is for both sides to see and respect the fears and anxieties of the other and to stop demonizing each other. There are real and legitimate fears on both sides.

As long as the proponents of pluralism see the champions of unity as malevolent destroyers of freedom, there will be no way forward.

Unless the advocates of unity stop viewing the supporters of diversity as merely selfish, individualistic, irresponsible and self-indulgent, the human community will never move forward with balance and peace.

The tension between unity and diversity is not a problem. It is a human reality. It will never be resolved and should not be resolved. It opens the possibility for creativity and, when navigated successfully, builds strength and depth. Whenever we try to collapse this tension into one side or the other, we do harm and are diminished as a community. Honesty and genuine communication hold out the only hope of living together in the midst of this tension.

We must come out from behind our sheltered tribal identities and meet the other. The person in whom we see only difference and threat must come to wear a human face. We need to share our fears honestly and acknowledge the root of our insecurities.

When I am unwilling to know you as a person who suffers in the same way I suffer, I am more likely to do violence to the human community with sometimes horrifying consequences. The quote at the top of yesterday’s post, read in its context, is a sobering warning against any attempt to avoid doing the hard vulnerable work of finding a way to balance the poles of diversity and unity.

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*The whole quote from yesterday reads:

What, in the changed conditions after the war, H. was able most signally to exploit was the belief that pluralism was somehow unnatural or unhealthy in a society, that it was a sign of weakness, and that internal division and disharmony could be suppressed and eliminated, to be replaced by the unity of a national community.

It comes from the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s monumental two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler: Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris. London: Penguin Books, 1999, 75, 76. Kershaw is seeking to explain how Hitler’s rise to power was possible in the 1920’s and 1930’s in post-World War I Germany.