In praise of the Edmonds Diversity Commission | Guest View

By Nathaniel Brown | Oct 26, 2018

Karl Popper, who fled the Nazis in his native Austria and found safety in New Zealand during the war, found a new home in the United Kingdom, where he became a reader at the London School of Economics and, in 1949, professor of logic and scientific method at the University of London.

While in New Zealand, Popper wrote “The Open Society and its Enemies,” a book we stand in need of now more than at any time since its publication.

In the book, Popper predicted the death of monolithic states – Nazism and Communism in his examples – on the theory that closed societies, those who adhere to One Established Way of Thinking, will sooner or later die of rigidity.

Unable to adapt or innovate, they will sooner or later be unable to cope, and will crumble into the ash heap of history.

In 1973, Jacob Bronowski presented a BBC program called “The Ascent of Man,” a “science version” of Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization.” Bronowski traces the development of science and technology, and the series ends in the stark and brutal reality of Auschwitz, where Bronowski stands by a pond where, he narrates, ashes from the crematoria were dumped.

He reaches down into the water, and brings up a handful of mud.

A number of years ago – rather more than I care to remember, my friend Robert Gage said that it while it took us hundreds of years to understand the power of the printing press, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what the internet is and can do.

One of the things it can to is to allow us to live in our own bubble, in the echo chamber of People Like Me.

We are thus able, if that is our leaning, to be even more isolated and intolerant than at any time in history, picking and choosing our “truth” and dismissing all else as “fake news” or “virtue signaling” – all at the same time that the internet and widespread prosperity can also enable us to be more diverse than at any time in history.

Diversity can do two things: it can enrich us, as Popper saw. Or it can frighten us and make us cruel and inflexible, as Bronowski perceived.

Knowledge can only be exchanged within a context of toleration, and respect of diversity – especially as we already live in an era of increasing diversity – and is a path to increasing knowledge, sometimes a difficult process to accept.

Ironically, to deny diversity is to deny that things constantly change, no matter what an individual may accept or tolerate, changes influenced by “outside” events and ideas.

When I was growing up in Edmonds I lived in fear. I knew I was gay from a very early age, though when I grew up the word, as well as the social construct, was still in the future.

I remember siting on my bed looking at a pistol, thinking I would never be happy, always be alone, never be accepted. This was at a time when Edmonds residents planted lawn signs supporting a candidate for governor who wanted to make homosexuality illegal.

My despair was the dark underside of the isolation that comes with rejection of difference. I am wryly grateful to have grown up gay, because it has taught me what rejection of difference looks like from the receiving end.

I regret that I have few friends of different races.

I do have friends of different religions and many nationalities. I attend Seder meals most years, and in the context of the sort of discussion that the Haggada always sparks, conversation ranges wide indeed.

I have had to learn to accept sometimes widely different cultural assumptions and customs – some of which I find upsetting – because these are my friends whom I care about and know to be good people (this does not mean that I would wish to adopt such customs).

I have to accept that they are as “right” as I am, within their own culture. This has made it very hard to justify judgments about other people’s ways of life, and it has made my life easier and richer because I no longer care if you have a different accent, or celebrate different holidays.

Embracing diversity can also be liberating to those poor souls who live in rejection of differences. To say that we do not need to gain by experiencing diversity is to say that no one has anything to teach us, that we refuse to learn.

As Popper pointed out, that is the road to fossilization and collapse. And as Brownowski showed, ignorance and isolation produce the sort of “certainty” that leads to horrors.

A recent letter to a website decried the Edmonds Diversity Commission. I want to reject that letter by saying that not only does the examination of diversity make us stronger and perhaps a bit wiser, it also opens doors to the alienated and isolated among us, be they LGBT, of a different race or of a different religion or sexual orientation.

Embracing diversity can also be liberating to those poor souls who live in rejection of differences. To say that we do not need to gain by experiencing diversity is to say that no one has anything to teach us, that we refuse to learn.

As Popper pointed out, that is the road to fossilization and collapse; and as Brownowski showed, ignorance and isolation produce the sort of “certainty” that leads to horrors.

We cannot afford to isolate ourselves. That is to live in fear and fester in resentment. The choice is ours to make.

The practice of accepting diverse views, and the strength it can require to take difference on board, can make for hard and sometimes uncomfortable work. I believe though, that this is a task we need to take on now, in our increasingly interconnected world, more urgently than at any other period of history.

The alternative is to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by fear and blinded by polarization, isolated on our own small island of self-satisfied ignorance.

All praise to the Diversity Commission!

Nathaniel Brown lives in Edmonds.

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