RABIN, QUEBEC, AND DIVERSITY IN AMERICA
This article is part of the PPSA Online Magazine
by Todd J. Sanders
Volume 8 Number 2 - Fall 1995
Until Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, when a Jew was killed because of racial or ethnic hatred, it was at the hands of a non-Jew. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's tragic death showed what happens when racism and hatred come full circle. His killer was a fellow Jew who considered Rabin a traitor for making peace with the Palestinians. Thus, this deranged individual not only hated Arabs, he hated those who sought to end such hatred and the violence it sows.
It is not too far fetched to imagine acts of violence prompted by a similar motivation occurring in this country if we continue to ignore the danger signs of racial and ethnic separatism and diversity. This is not alarmism. Israel, for understandable reasons, has long focused on the world outside its borders, rightfully concerned about external threats to its security. Thus distracted, it failed to fully appreciate the festering elements of extremism and intolerance within. Mr. Rabin was a victim of this momentary lapse of attention and the breakdown of civil discourse on matters political.
The U.S., too, spent many years focused on menaces abroad, paying insufficient attention to the fact that it was becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, and that this trend, while ultimately beneficial, also created challenges that have so far gone unanswered. One of these challenges is the rise of diversity itself. Not diversity in the sense of many cultures living in one country, but diversity as a movement -- a cause; and one that too often contains separatist elements.
To the extent it calls for the recognition of, and appreciation for, the previously neglected contributions of ethnic, cultural, racial and other groups, diversity is laudable. Behind these goals, however, is a dark side. In its extremes, diversity politicizes race and other traits; fragments society; and, in some cases, fuels violence. These injurious effects must be collared, and legitimate diversity should be balanced with the different, but not mutually exclusive concepts of unity and respect for individuality.
The United States is a western nation -- founded by westerners and built on western traditions -- but it is also a nation blessed with a rich history of cultural heterogeneity. However, as Ralph Ellison explained, America does not comprise a host of separate cultures, each existing in a vacuum. Rather, there is a constant interplay between these cultures, and an exchange of the elements within them. In this age of magnified diversity, though, many wish to be identified by a particular trait first, and as Americans second (if at all). They emphasize what they are, rather than who they are. A person's group membership subsumes his individuality. Left unchecked this trend will lead to chaos.
"Diversity," by definition, focuses on the differences between people. It is inherently fractious. As members of society become increasingly concerned with what distinguishes their group from others, they become blind to the similarities. This tendency sometimes reaches sadly comic proportions when factions develop within what otherwise were relatively homogenous groups. Witness the venom hurled at white freedom marchers in the 1960's who were considered traitors by other whites simply because of their association with blacks -- blacks who were fellow Americans in pursuit of the freedom they deserved.
Such hateful and blind irrationality has reared its ugly head among blacks as some declare that others are not "true" blacks, or are, again, traitors to their race because of their political philosophy, choice of spouse, or allegedly "#FFFFFF" values. Rabin was killed because he tried to make peace with the Arabs, Malcolm X was killed by fellow blacks because of a disagreement over how to advance the "black" agenda. Will Colin Powell, who spent much of his life climbing the ranks of the "#FFFFFF" establishment, fall victim to a bullet fired by an overzealous black because of his support for the Republican party? Would some white supremacist have killed white supporters of a Powell presidency on because they were traitors to their race?
Preachers of diversity explain the need for understanding the needs, ideas, concerns, culture, or history of their particular group. Fair enough. As a tool, however, understanding is of limited value. Hegel recognized that understanding's function is to identify the difference between things and classify them accordingly. If the object is to find the truth, however, then mere understanding is not enough. It is also essential to identify the similarities people possess and put them into context. As human beings we have more in common than not. Recognizing this fact does not mean we can't respect, tolerate, and appreciate each other's individuality and differences. It's just that it's wrong to dwell on the differences, and we fail to appreciate this at great peril.
One danger is that, as people place greater importance on inclusion in a specific group, they begin to think less of others. Some develop a kind of a superiority complex and cease to think of others as living individuals with families but, rather, as faceless members of a rival (or inferior) group. An extreme example of the consequences of this mentality played out only a half-century ago. The Nazis, who were assiduous catalogers of human variations, created a short-lived, sanguinary regime by convincing enough Germans that they were better than everyone else.
Others simply want nothing or as little as possible to do with anyone outside of their group. This is what is happening in Quebec where, despite peaceful co-existence as members of a country older than most of those in Europe. Recently, nearly half of Quebec's voters recently expressed their desire to leave Canada and become an independent French-speaking nation. They identify more with their language and French cultural roots than they do with their fellow Canadians with whom they have served, side-by-side, under the Maple Leaf flag, in two world wars and countless peace operations.
Most likely, Quebec will eventually secede from Canada because, inevitably, an obsession with cultural identity eventually leads to separatism. The United States, and, for that matter, much of the world, is being torn apart as racial, ethnic, and religious tensions rise and, of course, tumultuous economic times only exacerbate the matter. But we will never know peace, nor will our children experience the peace of which Yitzhak Rabin so eloquently spoke two years ago as he reminded us all of the effects of hatred and violence on the innocent, if we cannot learn to forgive, to love, and to remember our common heritage both as Americans and as humans.
Celebrate our diversity? Certainly, for this diversity makes this a strong and interesting country. Dwell on our differences? No, because in the end it is self-defeating. Fittingly, it was an icon of African-American literature who taught this lesson best. In The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison used the metaphor of a paint factory in which white and black paint were mixed together to remind us that, different though we may be in some ways, we are all in this together.
Todd Sanders is a 31 y/o former attorney who is now an editor for a legal publishing company in Raleigh, N.C. Todd aspires to write full time, either on a magazine staff or as a freelancer. His essays typically address political and social issues from an unbiased perspective.
Last Updated 11/21/95.© 1996 PPSA