Fanfaraï performs at the 2015 Lotus Music Festival
By Paul Sturm
Free speech does not guarantee meaningful dialogue and conflict does not ensure thoughtful resolution.
It’s easy to be self-assured when you’re clueless. The less you know, the more confident you can be in the inherent primacy of your limited worldview. And so it is with our post-cognitive American penchant for imperious verbal delinquency; our affinity for mass-media stone-throwers of distressing vitriol whose thought-speech aligns with some detail from the canvas of our inherited personal beliefs.
Words Get in the Way
2015 has been a provocative year for issues of race, sex and gender in our American laws, crimes and psyche. Encircling the tragedies and the victories of the past year, coursing within the body politic of divergent social factions, has been an army of astute pundits and mental poundcakes weighing in with predictable narratives and laying claim to ever-shifting moral grounds.
Free speech does not guarantee meaningful dialogue, and conflict does not ensure thoughtful resolution or well-springs of empathy. Power dynamics and untempered emotions pollute social constructs that were created, in moments of utopian aspiration, to facilitate increased awareness of our greater humanness; intended to perhaps even usher us to a more enlightened understanding of our world.
So we muddle along, punching at our reflections, shouting at our shadows, measuring accomplishments and setbacks with the same alchemical abacus used to number angels on the head of a pin. Our efforts, proclaimations and deeds are recorded in language, expressed in words desperately insufficient to the task, reduced to absurd memes: freedom, values, equality, family, marriage, rights, opportunity, sex, belief, discrimination, diversity.
Too many meanings; too many syllables….
Clarity would be nice. Some truth would be comforting. Life isn’t so convenient; its tribulations aren’t so generous in offering ready solutions. But there is one idea, one social value that I’m drawn to for its certainty and omnipresence: diversity.
don’t mean ‘diversity’ in organizational terms….not in the well-meaning human resources policies of businesses and organizations that artificially gather people together so that one of every shoe size and astrological sign are invited into the enterprise and on the cruise. I’m interested in the natural and undeniable diversity of the world; a diversity far richer in breadth and depth, and far more elegant and complicated than any attempt at replication in miniature. I’m interested in our differences – as well as our similarities – because they are honest, accurate, and real.
Anything for You
People the world over and across the ages have established communities of commonness; associations with like-types that allow and encourage distinctions of ‘them’ from ‘us’ in any number of ways. When things are good and life seems idyllic, we simply chill in our separate hoods, hangin’ peacefully with our peeps-in-uniformity. But when things are not so rosy, all those differences make ready fodder for suspicion, fear, distrust, condescension, blame, conflict and worse. Collective separateness from others (never perceived as equal) fuels rancor and further division, turning hearts cold and minds intransigent as we dehumanize all disagree-ers. In a combative milieu, diversity serves to identify our sparring partners.
As much as anyone, I take occasional solace in sameness. We all have times when we look to ‘family’ for strength, support, consolation, insight, understanding, direction, pity, even entertainment. Whatever perspectives are spoken within our tribe we call ‘true’ because they are heard with frequency and consistency, born of common ideology. But ideas are too often and too easily contradicted and fiercely debated by those outside our tent, leading to conversational stalemate; or policy gridlock in the case of our legislators.
Words fail and beliefs polarize. Where exactly does ‘liberal’ end and ‘conservative’ begin? When is it definitively ‘global warming’ and not ‘just changes in the weather’? What determines one being right and another being wrong? The answer is increasingly: “when I (and my friends) say so.” Facts and proofs, however incontestable or alleged, are swift victims of opinion.
Not all of our discourse is framed in hostility. Our 21st Century “you-do-you-and-I’ll-do-me” creed seems tolerant of individual differences, or at least approving of coexistence. But at its heart is a dismissal of compromise, of finding common ground when we don’t see eye-to-eye. No need for self-sacrifice; no need for collaboration. Technological conveniences contribute to a paucity of face-to-face interaction, but our growing penchant for uniformity through isolation also reduces the odds for genuine interpersonal dialogue. Let alone the fact that honest conversation is just so difficult.
As we observe past efforts at conciliation we come away wanting. We are fatigued into cynicism. Everybody got together and tried to love one another; it didn’t work. We’re better off remaining authentically independent and headstrong in our self-expression, even if that means staying separate and keeping distanced from the dissimilar world. And anyway….integration is so passé; so you can go your own way.
Turn the Beat Around
A lot of ill will is advocated under the banner of free speech and individual expression: bullying and broken self-esteem; flags, symbols and icons of hate; appropriations of faith and nation to foment violence; utilitarian employment of physical and economic advantage to achieve supremacy. Despite my abhorrence of hatred and injustice, I’d rather acknowledge the existence and know the nature of peoples’ ideas and perspectives, even those diametrically opposed to my own, than feign ignorance. For better and for worse, our differences comprise an undeniable aspect of our humanness.
I can accept that intractable social discord may be part of the ethereal algorithm leading us to deeper understanding of ourselves; but so too is harmonious collaboration and consensus-based inspiration. While many hands make light work, many diverse hands make provocative work, and provocation is an effective catalyst for discovery. In our struggle for truth and certainty, few things reveal themselves as incontrovertible; few precepts are beyond disagreement and immune from spin. But diversity exists as obvious and inevitable; readily available and fairly ubiquitous. It’s part of our planetary DNA.
I’m the first to concede I have no empirical proof of diversity’s worth. Whatever proposition I espouse in favor of a diverse world, I know that premise is the ‘truthy’ assumption of my pro-diversity viewpoint. But if for no other reason than stark pragmatism, I suggest we embrace diversity for its innate abundance. Humankind is a fertile source for thought. Any progress we make toward incorporating and integrating that rich variance taps an essence and energy uniquely suited to helping us make sense of our most nagging problems, solve our grandest challenges, and pursue our boldest dreams. Our finer destiny ultimately lies in our harnessing all that we are, the world over.
Get On Your Feet
We’re fortunate to live in a town that fosters a variety of thoughts and social practices. Bloomington is bountiful in opportunities to engage with wide-ranging perspectives. In particular, the annual Lotus World Music & Arts Festival is an extraordinary vehicle for experiencing cultures from around the world, in a setting that allows tremendous personal control over cultural selection, length of time, and the support-group context within which we share the moments. Inherent in the different musics are lyrics and pedagogies that signal important values, cross-cultural influences, political perspectives, social conditions, assumptions and aspirations of each performer and their cultural home. We only have to want the interaction and choose to act, sparked by the desire to experience, and maybe learn, something new and different.
That’s a choice I whole-heartedly make in the affirmative.