Community is the reigning buzzword of Vancouver, WA. Whether it’s businesses seeking the development of online communities or individuals building and fostering local communities through events and programs, everyone seems to be looking at ways to bring together people for the good of the town. But more often than not, these attempted communities end up being watered down collectives of like-minded people, fostering a club mentality, excluding some because of their beliefs and ways of life, and including others because they fit the criteria of the community.
I shudder at the phrase “like-minded people” because of its implications towards inbred thoughts and ulterior motives. Are people allowed to enter and engage a particular community only if they think the same way or if they have the potential to be converted to a certain way of seeing things? The ramifications of like-mindedness has infected every community from politics to religion increasing the status quo and ostracizing those that seek to disrupt the community, i.e. thinking differently and expressing those opinions for the growth and health of the community.
The past month, I have been reading Susan Jacoby’s book, The Age of American Unreason, a secularist’s view of America’s problems. I read an interview with her in Bill Moyers Journal and checked out her book from the library precisely because in many ways her views were opposite to what I thought about intellectualism, religion and politics. Within the first few pages, I was hit with a strong reality of what we lack in most communities: diversity of ideas and the willingness to listen and debate with people that don’t share our own viewpoints. Jacoby writes:
After the publication in 2004 of my book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, I began to receive invitations to lecture in many parts of the country, and I welcomed what I thought would be an opportunity to educate a broader and more diverse audience about America’s secular traditions. Instead, I have found myself preaching almost entirely to the converted. With the exception of certain university appearances where student attendance was required for course credit, my audiences were composed almost entirely of people who already agreed with me. Serious conservatives report exactly the same experience on the lecture circuit. The unwillingness to give a hearing to contradictory viewpoints, or to imagine that one might learn anything from an ideological or cultural opponent, represents a departure from the best side of American popular and elite intellectual traditions.
What is needed if we are to build stronger communities composed of stronger individuals is diversification of thought, the infusion of cultural traditions and norms without assimilation, and the ability to openly debate and discuss opposing viewpoints, not for the sake of winning others to a particular cause or way of thinking, but for the sake of understanding and acquiring what others have to offer.
Why is diversity often thrown aside in favor of like-mindedness? For myself, I tend to look for others that will bolster my own views and opinions because:
- It is easy to enter a conversation with people that have common interests and viewpoints. It takes a lot of work and effort to converse with others that have differing religious and political views, hobbies and interests, or even a particular ethnicity or cultural background.
- It is difficult to debate and discuss with others because of four things: one, I want to be right; two, I want to be heard; three, I don’t want to listen; and four, it takes time to learn from others and I’m really busy.
- It makes me feel good when others agree with me. I don’t like it when people disagree with me.
Community is beautiful and like nature, beauty is found in the anomalous, the non-uniform, and the diverse species that make up the world. If we truly are seeking a stronger community, all we have to do is just add diversity.