E Pluribus Unum

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This blog originally posted on the Community & Regional Resilience Institute.

“For there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Many who fly the community resilience flag often quarter it with terms such as equity, social justice and diversity. They have convinced themselves that these are somehow consistent with the idea of a resilient community. But as Sportin’ Life sang in Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen a city’s residents literally reaching out to each other – in spite of differences in color, creed or sexual orientation – in a celebration of life, in the aftermath of unspeakably evil actions. The Battle Cry from an unknown soldier of peace ringing out from the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston as the human chain formed (“This is the way we riot in Charleston!”) inspired us. And for a moment it was possible to believe in diversity as an ever-positive civic virtue.ravenel bridge

Yet for every inspirational Charleston there are too many Fergusons, Baltimores, Clevelands and others in my country. And, lest we forget, there are also the festering sores of the Muslim slums in Europe which have brought forth the divisive voices of Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands; the longstanding religious discord between Hindus and Muslims; the cultural and religious hatred in the Balkans which has lasted not centuries but over a millennium. Taken altogether, these force us to question the relationship between diversity and resilience.

If community resilience is a manifestation of strength, then diversity can be consistent with resilience only if it strengthens the community. Clearly, this has happened in Charleston. Conversely, if diversity engenders conflict that makes it more difficult for a community to make decisions and take action, it clearly makes the community weaker. Thus, the Le Pens, the Geert Wilders, the Al Sharptons who engage in identity politics make our communities less resilient.

In a globalized society, diversity is almost a given. The challenge for all of us then is to determine how to turn diversity into strength. The unofficial motto of the United States is e pluribus unum – “Out of Many, One.”  We in the U.S. have been remarkably successful in weaving wave after wave of immigrants into the fabric of our lives. But how do we merge diverse racial, cultural, ethnic and religious groups into a community capable of unified action? How do we turn diversity into the social capital that strengthens our communities and enriches their resilience?

I have occasionally been criticized for saying that memories are the currency of social capital. But this is true in so many ways. Social capital involves trust – we only trust on the basis of remembered good intentions. Social capital involves mutual respect – we respect only when we remember being respected. A community’s social capital involves shared experiences, a shared vision, shared successes – what Eugene Tan calls a “Master Narrative.”

If we follow this thread a bit further, we can see that because there are positive and negative memories, social capital is a bit different than financial capital. We either have financial currency or we don’t. Debt isn’t negative financial currency but rather a lien against the future. Social ccharleston strongapital, though, can be negative: distrust is not the same as a lack of trust. Distrust arises from memories of negative experiences; a lack of trust arises from a lack of information – memories again – about how someone will act. Even in the affirmation of the Charleston experience there were some African-Americans who reacted negatively based on their memories of past hateful actions.

One of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century, Lee Kuan Yew – the George Washington of Singapore – rightly recognized that being a good citizen and a good Muslim or Christian or Buddhist or Hindu were not incompatible, but required the development of shared experiences that would reinforce the resilience of the community. Thus, public housing units in Singapore are allotted on a quota system (based on the group’s proportion of the city’s population). Funds are provided for celebrations within each unit to build shared memories – Yew clearly recognized that you can’t overestimate the power of a party. The transformation of a torpid lion into an Asian tiger is testimony to Yew’s success in overcoming the dangers of diversity.

Joe Riley, the mayor of Charleston, also has striven mightily in his 40 years in office to overcome the dangers of diversity.  Early in his first term, he supported minority initiatives even in spite of opposition from many of his own followers. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, he elevated restoration of services to the workforce (most of whom were minorities) over that of the downtown. He has frequently found opportunities to celebrate civic success stories, again developing a shared narrative and shared experiences. Could the secret of turning diversity into community strength be as simple as that?

As I read over what I’ve just written, I have to wonder – does diversity really provide strength to a community? Perhaps a community builds its strength through overcoming the divisiveness inherent in diversity. Perhaps it is not diversity at all but rather the forging of a chain of shared memories that strengthens a community. And with that strength comes greater resilience.

Photos: Yahoo News and CharmOfCharleston.com

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