The Power of Diversity

CHAPTER THREE (Draft)

Peggy Noonan made a heartfelt call to the American people in her book, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now, when she urged us to rise above our differences, however significant they may be, and to reaffirm “what it is to be an American.”  Rarely has there been a time in the history of the United States when it has been more important to reaffirm what it is to be an American.

Peggy Noonan continued:

“Politics is a great fight and must be a fight; that is its purpose. We are a great democratic republic, and we struggle with great questions. One group believes A must be law, the other Z. Each side must battle it through, and the answer will not always be in the middle.  The answer is not always M.

“But we can approach things in a new way, see in a new way, speak in a new way.  We can fight honorably and in good faith, while—and this is the hard one—both summoning and assuming good faith on the other side.

“To me it is not quite a matter of ‘rising above partisanship,’ though that can be a very good thing.  It’s more a matter of remembering our responsibilities and reaffirming what it is to be an American.

“…And so I came to think this: What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace—a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we are in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative.  That admits affection and respect.  That encourages them.  That acknowledges the small things that divide us are not worthy of the moment; that agrees that the things that can be done to ease the stresses we feel as a nation should be encouraged, while those that encourage our cohesion as a nation should be supported.

“I’ve come to think that this really is our Normandy Beach, …the little, key area in which we have to prevail if the whole enterprise is to succeed.  The challenge we must rise to.”[i]

I know many readers will question the suggestion that these are “small things that divide us.”  Some of us feel strongly that there are very substantial issues dividing us.  Certain issues are, indeed, very significant, and I am quite sure that Peggy Noonan would not want to minimize the significance of our concerns.

But, she has a point.  We actually do have a choice.  We can acknowledge the things that divide us, address them respectfully, and unite to strengthen the nation and the civil order that allow us to defend our freedom to differ.  Or, we can let the vision and the treasure slip between our fingers like sand.

Some may say that it is too late.  Some may think their principles are too important to be compromised.

The historical record tells us that unity does not require compromising our beliefs.  If we are committed to defending the right of each to freedom of belief, and to the integrity of both individual and community, unity ceases to concern itself with differences in personal belief and opinion.

The United States was conceived in controversy.  The visionary acumen of the Founders led to recognition that strength depends on unity and can, indeed, only be founded upon diversity.

It will be argued on the following pages that diversity is the foundation for strength.  The United States Constitution is a pioneering assertion of this principle, and history has confirmed its’ truth.

Given our great diversity what exactly does it mean to be American?  The answer that we choose as a nation will determine the shape of our future, and we will return to this question again and again throughout the forthcoming book.

We find ourselves confronted today by one of the great tests of history, a challenge to both the intent enshrined in the Constitution and the coherence of the American vision that has been gradually maturing for more than two hundred years.

Perhaps we have lost our way for periods of time, stumbled, gotten sloppy.  But now it is time for the American people to pull together.  And, as a practical matter this can only be grounded effectively in the context of local communities – the dwelling place of democracy and the seat of civilization.

On the coming pages we will discuss the practical effectiveness of diversity, as well as the challenges of reaching unity in diversity.

How can we maintain the integrity of our personal values and views in a complex society?  How can we build stability and a civil order that allows for a diversity of values and the free exchange of ideas, knowledge, and practical skills?

In a free and vibrant society stability cannot be imposed from above.  It cannot be supplied by law-enforcement and policing.  The kind of strength we can rely on will be built on trust and the dependability of personal relationships.

This book does not simply offer a path to “recovery” from crisis.  Rather, I submit to you that we stand at the threshold of an unprecedented turning point, a historic transition that offers us a window of opportunity to reaffirm and assert an exceptional and multifaceted national identity.

In considering our response to new and unexpected challenges in a rapidly changing world, we are positioned to make positive changes, both pragmatic and ethical, that would have been impossible otherwise.  I believe a creative process is now underway that would not otherwise have been possible.

A tough lesson like this one can correct weaknesses and imbalances that have led to these crises, but success can only be built on the time-tested principles that have made America a visionary model for the world.

In Chapter 4, Freedom and Order, we will consider the foresight with which the Constitutional Convention of 1787 designed the system of protections, the checks and balances with which this nation is graced.  We will consider the visionary thinking of the founders in guiding otherwise destructive forces toward an ultimately generative symbiosis.

First, however, let’s examine the reasons that diversity has ensured American strength, not as a nice idea but as a pragmatic necessity.

Clearly the American identity been formed amid the controversies of divergent and sometimes competing ideas, views, beliefs, and perspectives.  How can the clash of differing opinions contribute to strength?  The idea that unity is strengthened by diversity may sound counter-intuitive at first, but it is measurable and irrefutable.

In the book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki writes of the compelling evidence that large groups of people possess an extraordinary power to solve problems when their judgment is aggregated, and that the more diverse the crowd, the more efficient the solutions. Citing a variety of dramatic examples, and referencing the long history of intellectual resistance to this idea, author Surowiecki presents a fascinating description of the conditions in which collective decision-making works and does not work.

At the beginning of his Introduction in The Wisdom of Crowds, we hear about the surprise of the British scientist Francis Galton when 787 participants in a raffle at a country fair submitted guesses at what the weight of a large ox would be after it had been slaughtered and dressed.

“The analogy to a democracy, in which people of radically different abilities and interests each get one vote, had suggested itself to Galton immediately. ‘The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of an ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,’ he wrote.” [ii]

Galton, who wished to support his view that “the average voter” was capable of very little good judgment, borrowed the tickets from the organizers following the competition. He then ran a series of statistical tests on them. Among other things, he added all the contestants’ estimates and calculated the mean. The crowd had guessed that the ox, after it had been slaughtered and dressed, would weigh 1,197 pounds. In fact, it weighed 1,198 pounds.

Another of the fascinating examples described by James Surowiecki, also in his Introduction, is the story of the 1968 loss of the U.S. submarine Scorpion, which disappeared in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The navy had no idea what happened to the vessel, where it was, or how fast it had been traveling. Mr. Surowiecki recounts the story as told by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew in their book Blind Man’s Bluff, about how a naval officer named John Craven assembled a group of people – mathematicians, submarine specialists, and salvage men – provided them with a number of varied scenarios, and asked them to offer their best guesses without benefit of discussion among themselves.  All they knew was the sub’s last reported location.

Craven’s group laid wagers on why the submarine ran into trouble, on its speed as it headed for the ocean floor and on the steepness of descent, among other things. Craven built a composite picture of what happened and calculated the group’s collective estimate of where the submarine was. The location he came up with was not a spot suggested by any individual member of the group. But, that is where it was.

The navy found the wreck 220 yards from where Craven’s people said it would be.[iii]

Mr. Surowiecki proceeds to demonstrate the astonishing consistency of this outcome in widely varied circumstances. And, he explains how groups work well in some circumstances better than others. As we all know, there are times when aggregating individual decisions produces a collective decision that is disastrous; a riot, for example, or a stock market bubble. Interestingly, he writes:

“Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms – like market prices, or intelligent voting systems – to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think. Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.”[iv]

I recommend the book highly.  But, let me be clear.  I will not suggest that the citizens of a democratic republic will make wise decisions about the nation’s future when they have individual interests at stake.

In my view, we will only find solutions to our problems if we begin locally, where we can have the opportunity to build trust with our neighbors if we seek the skills and the will to do so. Without dependable local community we have no basis in reality, and we are completely exposed to the chaos of social unrest.  Where trust is strong, however, we can choose to create a platform for determining shared values and purpose, and to begin envisioning the future.

Diversity only works when it is sought and embraced.  Living with diversity presents us with the necessity for learning how to engage with one another in practical ways.  Nothing will be possible otherwise.

When, as individuals or groups, we address a problem or plan a project, the more varied the perspective and experience that is brought to bear, the more creative and effective will be the solutions found.

In many institutions, and particularly in government, people are often afflicted with a condition called ‘group-think’.  Everyone thinks the same way and listens only to those they most respect or fear.  Consequently, groups often ignore obvious fallacies and misperceptions.  Not only that, they tend to scorn perceptive critics as trouble-makers.

Our resistance to accepting diversity is often based in our discomfort with those we perceive as “outsiders”, who look or think differently than we do, or who come from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds.  Yet, differences constitute the essence of diversity, and they can sometimes stimulate our thinking in ways we can ill afford to do without.

Why are we afraid of new and different ways of thinking?  No one is asking us to change our minds.  Rather, we are challenged to think.

Aristotle said that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

The healthy functioning of a free society requires that we accept our differences and recognizing their essential value, however strange or wrong-headed some ideas or views may seem to us. This attitude cannot be legislated.  It must be understood and worked out by each of us as individuals.

However attractive this argument might be, I know it will be hard for the thoughtful reader to imagine how it can be realized in the midst of the extreme divisiveness and hostility we are experiencing.

This book is part of a strategic endeavor to answer this question.

Later in the book we will look at practical methods with which groups of very diverse individuals can engage in effective problem-solving and decision-making, and do so in a way that produces unexpected and innovative outcomes.  A variety of approaches to communication and utilization of diverse perspectives will be offered.

If we are to care for each other in hard times, communities will depend on as much knowledge and as many practical skills and diverse perspectives as we are fortunate enough to assemble.

I encourage readers to engage purposefully with friends and neighbors who are recognizably different from yourselves.  Seek to become fully acquainted, to know the humanity of the other, and to understand something of the sources of their views and perspectives in experience.

Friendship does not require agreement.  I would suggest, however, that you will often be surprised by the common ground you discover in your shared humanity.  You will also be blessed by the ways that friendship with very different people can enrich our lives.

I do not need to tell you that this is an immense challenge.  Pushing through feelings of hostility and alienation is the key to the present historic turning point.  A unity of vision and commitment that transcends the diversity of views, faiths, and ethnicities is our ultimate national imperative.

Peggy Noonan put it bluntly:  This is the crucial area in which we must prevail if America is to prevail.

Yet, make no mistake; the rewards are great.  The opportunity to explore the world through the eyes of others is a blessing and a gift.  A life filled with a diversity of people, places, and experiences is an education that never stops giving.

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[i]  Peggy Noonan, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now, pp. 41-43. HarperCollins, 2008.

[ii]  James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds, Introduction p. xii. Random House, 2004.

[iii]  Ibid., Introduction, pp. xx-xxi.

[iv]  Ibid., Introduction, pp. xix-xx.