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Be Like Me. Or Else.

Glenn's DimeBrother, can you spare a dime?

If you still have one, look on the back of the coin where it says “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one) and ask yourself this question: Why do many Americans seem to translate the Latin as “be like me or else”?

This grand contradiction in the land of freedom – liberty means an imperative to conform – came to mind last week as the Texas State Board of Education met to set standards for social studies textbooks. Janie Brittain, a conservative activist, urged the elimination of progressive leaders from the texts and said:

We need to be teaching, in our schools, our form of government versus socialism, because it’s the difference between tyranny and freedom.

Asked if she wanted to indoctrinate students, Brittain responded:

If you want to say we’re indoctrinating, then yes, we want to indoctrinate students in the American form of government.

You’ll be tempted to shake your head again at those darned Texans, but beware. “Be Like Me or Else” is a pervasive motivation, among conservatives and some progressives, too.

Brittain, and many who share her politics, can’t see the contradiction because in her worldview it’s not a contradiction at all. Freedom has meaning for her only within a context of conformity to a set of authoritarian practices.

The “be like me” phenomenon is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Tribal solidarity and security was built upon judgments of the similar and the dissimilar. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds trust of an exclusivist sort.

The great promise of America, though, emerged from its unique historical circumstance:  it was to be a nation of extraordinary diversity, peopled by the folk of many nations, religions, cultural traditions, and skin colors.  It is the potential creative possibilities of diversity that gives American democracy its kick.

Homogeneity is sterile, deadly.  Biologists tell us how fundamentally important biodiversity is to the earth’s creative productivity. Diminish it, and all life suffers. What holds for ecosystems also holds for complex social systems. But it must be admitted that engrained human cognitive and emotional habits work against our comfort with diversity. Difference sets off some alarms in all of us, no matter how hard we try to overcome it.

Robert Putnam acknowledges the long-term political, economic and social benefits of diversity. But in his landmark study, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” he warns that in the short term, diversity leads to a lack of trust. The abstract to his paper sums it up:

Ethnic diversity is increasing in most advanced countries, driven mostly by sharp increases in immigration. In the long run immigration and diversity are likely to have important cultural, economic, fiscal, and developmental benefits. In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration.

Much of our cultural inheritance revolves around efforts to resolve the contradictions of freedom and conformity. Annoyed at the stifling, boring tug of sameness in a new world that promised freedom, Ralph Waldo Emerson preached self-reliance. William James wrote of “a pluralistic universe.” William E. Connolly’s pluralism is perhaps the most innovative political philosophy of our time. Stanley Cavell writes, “One is never to claim uniqueness for oneself nor to deny it to others,” by which he means we should avoid pretense to a exclusive superiority.

We don’t even have to look closely to see that humanity’s great religious leaders tried mightily to warn us away from the “be like me” meme. Buddha taught that people shouldn’t take his word for it and conform to his ways. They should experience the world and discover the path to awakening for themselves. The Old Testament patriarch Jacob was an early non-conformist. Jesus was an iconoclast who challenged the rabbinical authorities of his time and taught that love transcended difference.

Paul attacked “be like me” head-on:  “As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these try to compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.” Paul added elsewhere, “…there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.”

Islam warns against capitulation to the pressures of society. “In other words the purpose of creation is the perfection of human nature, and this perfection is realized in the being of the individual, not in the shape and form of society.”

We also don’t have to look closely to see that these injunctions haven’t met with much success in history, which reads like a long, bloody list of folk forcing others to be like them under threat of sword, pyre, gun and rack. Religious traditions’ tragic rejection of the respect for difference in favor of violent crusades and inquisitions violates the very premises of their faiths. I hope they will see this one day.

Progressives ought to do a little self-examination and discover why many Americans think they are the ones demanding conformity with their vision. This is sometimes a matter of rhetorical style, although the legacy of pro-state neo-liberalism and early progressive fondness for the human management sciences also persists.

While we fight the larger political battles, we would be smart to search our consciences for dangerous claims of superior uniqueness. Respect for diversity need not mean an enforced multiculturalism, which puts at risk Putnam’s “cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.” There is so much creative potential in our diversity its promotion ought to be a first principle of progressivism. We can start on a dime.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith