March 2014

Diversity involves difference, but not all difference is diversity. Diversity requires a background of sameness, of a shared nature and shared values. Diversity is difference that still speaks to us, presenting possibilities we might pursue and challenges to which we might rise. Diversity is difference in which we see ourselves, in both our possibilities and our failures.

As biological specimens, humans vary in innumerable ways, small and large, but not all biological difference is the kind of diversity we celebrate. Diversity involves the differences that matter, that reveal our essences and that challenge our self concepts. We are revealed to ourselves by what we recognize as diversity and how we respond to it. Differences can matter to us in two different ways, in ways that celebrate who we are and in ways the challenge it.

We notice some differences because they demonstrate the full potentialities of a form and nature that we share, because they reveal more perfectly what we might be and the beauty of a form in which we participate, that is us. There are countless kinds of laughter, of smiles, of dancing, music, cuisine, and culture. There is a dazzling panoply of different kinds of well-formed human bodies, faces, movements, and expressions. Plato had seen long ago that a fundamental feature of form is its expansiveness, its ability to expand outward into more and more different reflections of itself. In the Timaeus, he remarks of the creator that it would have been regarded jealous, or miserly, had it held back any measure of its overflowing goodness, any possible reflection of its form. Normally we make choices and pursue one possibility, disciplining ourselves to the perfection of one possible flowering of form. But it is the essence of joy and of celebration to overflow boundaries, to seek more and more expressions of ourselves. Differences are beautiful because they are us, our human form, our nature, unconstrained by the boundaries that limit one individual and allowed to flower freely. They celebrate a fullness of human life that no one of us can hold.

Difference can also challenge us. But how it challenges us also reveals who we are, our most fundamental faults, and our most essential value. As far as I can see, differences challenge us in three related ways: (a) they challenge the integrity of the communities in which we develop most fully; (b) they reveal to us our vulnerabilities and fears; and (c) they reveal to us our moral failings. Diversity flowers from the similarity behind our differences and, in so doing, reveals our failures to remain true to our common source.

All of the various forms of our individuality require nurturing and care within a community or family. The purpose of a family or a community, of civilization itself, is to allow for the safety, security, and intimacy in which our individuality can grow and perfect itself most freely. There is in us, therefore, a deeply ingrained, perhaps even biological, tendency to resist the stranger, the different, whatever threatens our communities. There is a fundamental tension involved here: On the one hand we see the necessity of communities that nurture our individuality: we all know what it is like to belong, to be brought inside, to come home. On the other hand, it is the very preciousness of this sanctuary that leads us to exclude those who are different enough to make us feel them a challenge to its integrity. Every community that aims to be diverse must struggle with this tension: We build a community on shared values to foster the growth of the forms of individuality we have chosen, but this makes us exclude those who do not share those values. It is a mark of our status as creatures that we can express the diversity of human nature only in particular ways, as the individuals we choose to be, and that these choices exclude others.

But all this begs the question: Why do we feel difference to be a threat? What differences matter enough to place someone on the outside? What differences define our community? Who is our neighbor? The strong need not fear, and what we know with certainty can admit no doubt. This means that the differences that threaten us reveal our weak spots. Just as we only revel in the diversity that reflects back on our common nature, so we only fear the differences that still present real possibilities for us, that still have some secret hold on us, the reveal some weakness. If someone likes broccoli, while we are allergic to it, we do not feel threatened by their difference. When a difference really gets under our skin, it is always because, in some sense, it really is already within our skin. We feel the pull of that alternative in our common humanity; the spark that lights its fire feeds our flame too. But we feel it pulling us away from the space we have created for our own individuality.

Of course, this reveals the answer to the question “Who is our neighbor?” and the most fundamental way in which difference challenges us. Beneath every difference, in the face that looks out at us, we feel the common spark, the common nature that makes them feel different to us. They are us. Their individuality tries to express the same life as ours. They deserve what we deserve. And yet we feel their difference. They are on the outside, and we fear to let them in. They are our neighbors, yet we cannot bring ourselves to treat them as ourselves. One of Dostoevsky’s major insights was that we do not hate people because of what they are or what they did, but because of what we did to them or what they make us see about ourselves. Seeing difference indicts us of our inability to rise above it. It reminds us of what we would rather not see: that all men are our neighbors and that we cannot bring ourselves to love them as ourselves. Much of the hatred we feel for those different than us involves this deflection of guilt and a demonizing of their differences to escape it.

Now, diversity is not the absence of discrimination. The purpose of education is to make certain kinds of discriminations, between the true and the false, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Valuing diversity does not mean that anything goes and that all alternatives are equal. We don’t value a diversity of answers to the question “What does 2 times 3 equal?” Debating our differences about how we make these discriminations is no threat to the real basis of our community. But some human differences are expressions of what we have in common, and the value of our humanity lies in the common spark from which our individuality flows. We may not make the same discriminations another person does, but if we find our differences worth talking about we recognize them as flowing from values we share. We may not love the actions and opinions of every person in their diverse forms, but we are called to love the spark of humanity, in all its conflicts and convolutions, that gives rise to them. They are us; they are our neighbor, and the hospitality of a community that brings them inside can only make it stronger.

There are many kinds of diversity: diversity of styles and preferences, diversity of cultures, diversity of religious belief, diversity of gender and sexual preference, diversity of races and nationalities, diversities too diverse for enumeration; yet all of them reflect our similarities as much as our differences. Diversity celebrates the flowering of the full potential of being human and challenges us to ask of those who, in their flowering, are different from us: Where can I belong, if they do not belong? What do I fear in myself if I fear them? How can I value myself, if I do not value them?

Somewhere Aristotle says something to the effect that: “The truth is like the broadside of a barn. Everybody hits it.” By this, I presume he meant that everybody grasps some part of the truth. Not necessarily the whole, not necessarily with clarity or precision, not necessarily with confidence about which part, but nobody gets it 100% wrong.

I would qualify Aristotle’s “everybody” with “everybody intelligent and thinking.” The qualifier “intelligent” is not meant to mark a hoity-toity upper limit such as only “us educated folk” or “we PhDs” or “me and my fellow professional academics” but rather a lower limit. IQs in some people plummet to such depths that some people are no longer to be counted among Aristotle’s “everybody.” Similarly, “thinking” is not meant to indicate some rarefied phenomenon but rather to exclude obvious absences of the use of intelligence such as when a person is sleeping, under hypnosis, insane, intoxicated, whacked out on drugs, and the like.

The practical takeaway from Aristotle’s remark is, I think, the following. Whenever people (people intelligent and thinking) think something is true, then the fair way of dealing with them is always to search for what part of the truth they have grasped and to give them credit for it. Even when we are sure that their beliefs or convictions are ultimately wrong, we should always attempt to determine how they too have hit the barn in some fashion. This is respecting another person as a rational being.

Here is a case in point. The other day I found Frank Keating in an essay of his expressing a sentiment that I have heard many other people express at different times. Frank Keating is clearly intelligent. He went to Georgetown as an undergrad, earned a JD, served as a U.S. Attorney and as Associate Attorney General in the DOJ, was twice elected Governor of Oklahoma, and in the early 2000’s was picked to head the investigation of U.S. Catholic priests in the child sex abuse scandal. He also was clearly thinking when he wrote “The Death Penalty: What’s All the Debate About?” In the essay, he tells the story of Roger Dale Stafford, who was the first person executed in Oklahoma on his watch as governor. He asks the reader:

“Tell me what you do with a Roger Dale Stafford who, south of Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City, waved down a car with a staff sergeant of the Air Force and his wife and their eight-year-old son inside. Stafford took the staff sergeant over the hill and shot him in the face, killing him. This was a robbery, yet he also took his wife over the same berm and shot and killed her. Then he came down to the truck, and, whimpering in the back of the cab of the truck, wrapped up in blankets trying to get away from it all, was the eight-year-old son; Stafford fired until he was out of bullets into the back of the truck to make the whimpering stop. Then he went to a steakhouse in Oklahoma City, a family restaurant. As it was closing up, he herded four fifteen-year-olds and two adults into the freezer and killed them execution-style while taking money from the cash register. Now, what do you do with someone like that?”

Frank Keating’s own answer to this question is that we should execute people like Roger Dale Stafford, and he, as Governor, allowed the execution of Roger Dale Stafford to continue without a stay in 1995. Thus, Frank Keating is in favor of the death penalty.

As far as I can tell, Frank Keating’s answer to his question is wrong because the death penalty is wrong. We do not get to execute people, not even people as depraved as Roger Dale Stafford. Thus, at least so far, I think Frank Keating has missed the broadside of the barn.

But the sentiment that I am interested in is Frank Keating’s explanation of why he thinks the death penalty is justified. He says:

“According to my sense of ethics, my sense of morals, my sense of right and wrong, you don’t chop off someone’s hand for bouncing a check, but somebody who kills nine human beings forfeits the right to live. That is my sense of values, my sense of ethics. I look at someone like that [Roger Dale Stafford] and I think to myself that this good earth, this wonderful land, is too good for that person. I honestly believe that.”

What, if anything, is right about this heartfelt conviction?

Perhaps many things. But I can find two things right, and I give Frank Keating credit for recognizing those two.

First, Frank Keating is right that this good earth, this wonderful land, is too good for Roger Dale Stafford. But it is also too good for me, you, and every other person that lives, has lived, or will live in this country or on this planet. I can find nothing in what I have ever done or in what anybody else has ever done that makes me or them deserving of the goodness and splendor of this life. This life, this world, is a great gift that none of us have earned. Nor can I find any evidence that this world or some God owes us this life, this world.  We puny human beings are simply undeserving. We don’t earn this life, and nobody and nothing owes it to us. This truth is piercingly clear in scoundrels like Roger Dale Stafford. But it is also obvious in the glorious, crescendos of life: when we fall in love; when our children are born; when we melt in the panorama of a high mountain just climbed; and when we finally see the light of truth. We do not deserve so much of what we enjoy. But from that fact it does not follow that we get to willfully deprive others of this life, this world.

Second, Frank Keating is right that banishment or exclusion can be a reasonable and justified response to wrongdoing. Time-out for little children, suspension from school, eviction from movie theaters, barring from Wall Street, ostracism from Athens, transportation to North America and later to Australia, removal to penal colonies like Devil’s Island, and placement in the Phantom Zone (as in Superman comics) might all be perfectly good ways to deal with wrongdoers. Banishment by death, however, is no part of the broadside of the barn.