Sunday, June 24, 2007

"Conscience alone divines unity..."

Amos Bronson Alcott was sort of a literary preacher, a kind of lesser Ralph Waldo Emerson. Among his "Orphic Sayings," which appeared in The Dial in 1843/44, number XV concerns "Identity and Diversity." His description of the tension between our impulse towards unity and our impulse towards diversity is very clear and succinct:
It is the perpetual effort of conscience to divorce the soul from the dominion of sense; to nullify the dualities of the apparent, and restore the intuition of the real. The soul makes a double statement of all her facts; to conscience and sense; reason mediates between the two. Yet though double to sense, she remains single and one in herself; one in conscience, many in understanding; one in life, diverse in function and number. Sense, in its infirmity, breaks this unity to apprehend in part what it cannot grasp at once. Understanding notes diversity; conscience alone divines unity, and integrates all experience in identity of spirit. Number is predicable of body alone; not of spirit.

I've been trying to figure out a way to articulate something like this as I sense, more with each semester, that the word diversity seems less an less interesting to my students, who have heard it sounded through their classrooms since they were 8- or 10-years old. It's not that they are anti-diversity (although many of my peers like to fault them for not having spent a good part of their life in New York City or backpacking through Europe, etc.) -- rather, they are no longer moved by the claims of diversity, which seem to have lost their freshness. In my students' words: "Yeah, diversity--what else is new?"

Alcott is right to suggest that it is the understanding that "notes" and discovers diversity. But given two diverse objects--or better still, two diverse beings--it is only the conscience that sees an underlying unity through surface differences. I am convinced that if my students need any intellectual medicine, it must be some idea that helps them see through difference to discover underlying sameness. Anyone who has ever heard an 18-year old say "Well, everyone has a right to their opinion," or, "He'll do his thing, I'll do mine," might understand where I'm coming from. The "point" of the diversity movement of the '80s and '90s seems to have been lost. It is not enough to be atomistic and mutually uncoercive beings.

Here's to "nullifying the dualities of the apparent." We all know the problems of turning in the direction of unity; it is not without its problems. But the problems involved in shifting our focus may be equal to or even less than the problems associated with figuring ourselves as diverse agents -- it may be true that I am [some quality], and you are [some other quality], but we may very well have more in common than we have been educated to think.

4 comments:

brian said...

What about the "everyone's special" movement in the eighties...I feel as though I have to keep telling myself "You're not special" in order to care AT ALL about anyone else...er something like that.

Wishydig said...

although many of my peers like to fault them for not having spent a good part of their life in New York City or backpacking through Europe, etc.

And of course implicit in the deemed necessity of these experiences is the expected outcome. Surely once young Britney and Travis see the world "out there" they'll realize that there's is not the only view; that there's is not the only culture; that there skill sets are not equal commodities in every setting--and they will learn to respect all those differences that they used to think were liabilities and weaknesses.

But that's pretty arrogant. Let's rephrase the claim: Only by experiences those events that shaped my views can others hope to reach my enlightenment. And it will be inevitable. Therefore it should be mandatory.

Bullshit. Innoculation and education are not the diptych holy grail from which we drink and become righteous. Exposure to other cultures is just as often correlated to intolerance and condescension.

Unfortunately the loudest voices that call for civility have such faith in the process that they proclaim a salvation doctrine through diversity and towards diversity as an end.

The importance of diversity needs to be re-evaluated. The goal is kindness. The goal is humility. The goal is a good-faith exchange and even surrender of power. And that is just as difficult (yet possible) for one who has never seen an alfalfa field as it is for one who has never seen a Euro.

We hear so often the necessity of inciting a social anger in our students. We have to get them to care! But if we don't listen to know what infuriates them we'll never come to trust that they know justice and they will work towards it when they know how. And how many of us are ready to teach them what to do? We get stuck on trying to see evidence that they already care about issues that have touched us. We don't trust that passion is just as diverse and we can't believe that many of these young people who roll their eyes at us would like to yell about an injustice that we have completely overlooked.

It's not Indiana that breeds the indifference. How many people in any city on any continent and on either of the civilized and cultured American coasts don't care about my issues? And it's not because of no diversity. It's because of rampant diversity.

brian said...

What I meant to say was:

Bullshit. Innoculation and education are not the diptych holy grail from which we drink and become righteous. Exposure to other cultures is just as often correlated to intolerance and condescension.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Really good response Mike--and I think this is what makes y.our position so difficult: education administration wants to implement a system. It wants security. I think those of us who work in education know there is no holy grail. Education involves risk. I especially like your point:

Exposure to other cultures is just as often correlated to intolerance and condescension.

I would actually venture as far to say that otherness engenders more intolerance and condescension, people are often harsh towards that we do not recognize or understand. As Casey explains, often diversity is packaged and shipped as a cure all, but I think we agree that its not that simple. How such exposure gets framed / faciliated is (IMO) most important. I've turned to Levinas to approach this framing--if one holds a tentative conception of self, if one is willing to attempt to suppress self-ish desires, then one might act more ethically.

That said, and perhaps its because I'm a "coaster," I find that the Indiana sense of "justice" is often quite unethical, in the sense I outlined above.

This has nothing to do with our conversation, but I found it today and thought of Casey. The corresponding comic is pretty funny too. Worth a look.