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Unity in Diversity

"Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization." —Mahatma Gandhi

We Americans tend to think of ourselves as a diverse country, and many of us feel we're stronger for it. As with many things, diversity is more complex an idea than we sometimes appreciate.

In a pure mathematical sense, the U.S. is right around the middle of the scale in terms of ethnic diversity. In fact, much of what's called the "Global South"—largely developing countries—has high degrees of diversity in this regard, led by countries like Uganda and Liberia, a legacy of the haphazard approach to colonization by Western Europeans, who cleaved many ethnic groups in pieces with arbitrary borders.

The idea of saying to them, You're a country now, govern together, is a folly that has led to countless racial conflicts, the worst of which have put the stain of genocide on the recent history of humanity.

Here in the U.S., ethnic diversity—at least in terms that our own government has acknowledged with the census—has been on the rise since the mid-20th century, with those considered part of the United States having previously been roughly 90 percent white.

While we've often prided ourselves on multiculturalism, many Americans have preferred that other cultures be subsumed beneath our national identity. But there seems to be a generational change happening. Along with our rapid—within a couple generations—move from a low-diversity society to a near-median level one in terms of ethnic "fractionalization," the demand for increasing multi-cultural valuation has accompanied the rise of newly enfranchised voting blocs.

These changes have brought with them an attendant fear among the ethnic majority of a loss of political clout. And this trend is interacting with a countervailing decrease in political diversity, most famously described in journalist Bill Bishop's book, The Big Sort, nearly two decades ago.

In a very recent book about the trends hitting our country at the moment, What's Our Problem?, blogger Tim Urban, of Wait But Why fame, examines how our very human need for tribalism has moved from a distributed nature—where our rivals come in many different forms (religious, ethnic, geographical, political) and at many different levels (from communities to the entire globe)—to a concentrated nature that focuses purely on the threat of our ideological rivals.

As we have continued to sort ourselves along this dividing line, both geographically and digitally, it has caused political sclerotization, making the exchange of ideas between those espousing the two predominant political philosophies rarer, with shared spaces and goals disappearing. The divide is becoming impermeable, and the social media universe we'd previously thought was designed to ensure persistent contact has actually served more to fortify the walls.

This is not a sustainable course for our country, with a chorus of historians and academic researchers warning of the threat to our country's integrity. Americans are wrestling with an awareness of rising political divisions and even political violence, with a growing sense that civil war is a real possibility in the next decade.

We're in dire need of a shift away from this division, and a whole universe of groups has sprung up to address the issue, with several networks of them coalescing to coordinate efforts. They vary somewhat in their approaches and memberships, including around whether to include organizations that don't have bridging divides as a core part of their mission.

The philosophy behind DOC compels us to consider all organizations potentially part of the solution. The network of organizations in a society forms a connective and lifegiving tissue beneath the surface. Like our own immune systems which operate via our network of blood vessels, and even the fungal networks that pervade the earth's soil, this matrix of organizations helps ensure overall health by giving us a medium to share vital resources, including information and ideas. It ties us together and ensures that we keep encountering even those in our community with perspectives and experiences very different from our own.

Organizations also bind us together with shared goals, reinforcing how often we actually do share our values and want to achieve the same ends, even amid such vastly different understandings of how we get there. This sincere overlap of priorities can lead to growing trust and the freer exchange of ideas, heading off the spread of bad ideas through a more efficient marketplace for the genuinely good ones.

Once these cultures of free exchange and mutual trust start to spread, they reinforce our collective immune system, giving it flexibility rather than hardening the membranes of exchange. This healthy communication system across cultures is the only way we can continue our diversifying journey with our unity intact.

The Mahatma Gandhi called out this challenge in his time and context, just as the idea of splitting India along religious lines began to take hold. His country's battle of transition and partition cost an estimated 1 million lives—much of that due to violence—and displaced 14 to 18 million people.

As the previously unthinkable idea of our own national separation has begun rearing its ugly head, as usual the best remedy is a healthy cultural exchange, for which the organizations we share are a vital medium. Only then can we possibly hope to pass the test and realize the ultimate beauty of our civilization that Gandhi spoke of.


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