“We had a wonderful discussion about what makes everyone in the world unique, interesting and exciting. Everyone agreed that it is our differences that make the world so fun!” This message came in an email from my granddaughter’s teacher. Callie is in pre-kindergarten at a Quaker school, and I hope this message, so innocent and hopeful, stays with her as she grows into a world that seems intent on obliterating it.
There is an inevitable tension between individualism and community, between the urge to assert our uniqueness and our need to fit in with the group. It’s a healthy tension mostly – until the forces of orthodoxy overwhelm our differences. We see that most terribly now in the murderous brutality of ISIS, but it exists in the enforced conformity of totalitarian societies and the subliminal messages of consumer advertising, in reflexive patriotism and political correctness, in ethnic intolerance and the willful destruction of art.
The health of human communities depends on diversity as much as the natural world does. It is as destructive to crush differences among peoples as it is to eradicate species in nature. Whenever we stifle a voice of dissent, we extinguish a piece of life.
In Excellent Sheep, his new book on the state of higher education in America, William Deresiewicz quotes novelist/philosopher Rebecca Goldstein: “I place my faith in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how different the world feels to each of us.”
That, I think, is what politics must learn from art.