Unity Without Uniformity: Reflections for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday
January 18, 2019
In most school communities, including Daycroft, we talk about tolerance and the importance of teaching it to our students. On Monday, we celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It’s a good time to reflect on how well we teach our students to follow his example of tolerance, patience and understanding. At a time when we experience polarization and a fractured sense of community, it’s worth a pause to ask ourselves how we can “disagree more constructively.” It’s important that we engage our students to consider the ways in which we can live with diverse viewpoints and multiple perspectives without demonizing those with whom we may disagree.
The voice of Dr. King calls us to rise above the chaos and confusion of disunity to find ways to live in love; even amidst those with whom we disagree. He once described his life and times as “these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail.” Yet in the chaos, Dr. King found ways to celebrate unity. We do well to consider his example.
Fast forward to today where sentiments and disagreements in our politics and social discourse tend to be a bit raw. Dr. King’s description of his times seems prophetic. Author Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University reminds us that good people are all too often divided by such things as politics and religion. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt suggests that to truly understand those who view the world different from ourselves, it requires us to put ourselves in their shoes; looking at the world from their context. It doesn’t require us to change what we believe; only to better understand how others see things. “If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the 'other’ group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light,” concludes the author. You may not agree, he says, but you’ll probably shift from demonizing disagreements to a more respectful and constructive disagreement.
At a practical level, recent research suggests that diversity of ideas and a cross-pollination of thinking is actually good for us; yielding many positive results. Frans Johansson, in his work at Brown University coined the term “the Medici Effect” in describing how breakthroughs in scientific studies are a result of “different people from different fields and different perspectives coming together to find a place for their ideas to meet, collide and build on each other.” Just as the cultural and intellectual crossroads of Florence brought the advancements of the High Renaissance, so too do intentionally diverse community’s of thought today bring out the best in scientific and entrepreneurial advancements.
At a personal level, author Parker Palmer reminds us that diversity is actually a valuable part of healthy communities. Diversity; of people and thought, is a natural part of any healthy ecosystem, concludes Palmer. He suggests that inviting diversity into our midst allows us to experience unity without uniformity. He suggests that we don’t always have to think alike. In fact, it’s better if we don’t. Diversity, handled respectfully and lovingly, allows the “mystery of great things” to unfold.
Teaching and modeling a little less demonization and a little more understanding will go a long way in enabling our students to create their own healthy and sustainable communities. I trust they are learning from the legacy of MLK that tolerance, respect and understanding can be the trademarks of the world they create.