Has diversity become adversity?

Over the last couple of years political rhetoric in Western countries has become increasingly polarised. Tensions seem to brew everywhere on several topics like income distribution, migration, the environment and diversity & inclusion. Has the diversity of our societies turned into adversity?

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).
The Bible story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) relates of the construction of a tower to reach the heavens. To thwart the vain project, God descended upon the town and caused the people, who before had spoken the same language, to speak in different languages, so that they no longer understood each other, dispersed and abandoned the project.

People’s political opinions have become as diverse as our societies are. Where traditionally the left stood for income redistribution and progressive ethical positions and the right stood for fiscal and ethical conservatism, this has started to diverge. Since about two decades ago economic and ethical policies are politically separated. One can be in favour of income distribution and at the same time be ethically conservative and vice versa one can also be fiscally conservative and ethically progressive. One way parties can be mapped according to these dimensions is depicted below.

The Nolan Chart is a political spectrum diagram created by American libertarian activist David Nolan in 1969, charting political views along two axes, representing economic freedom and personal freedom.

With the growing attention for migration, diversity and inclusion (D&I) on the one hand and the environment on the other another new dimensions have been added. I note that these are separate, because for example to some migration is an ethical issue, for others it’s an economical issue. There are people who are in favour of open borders for refugees and economic migration alike. There are others who favour differing policies for either group and those who want to minimise migration across all groups.

The environment, traditionally a topic under the custodianship of the progressive left, has started to appeal to voters across the spectrum, resulting in centre and centre-right parties incorporating green policies into their programmes and on the other hand green parties, that used to be radically left-wing, adopting more moderate policies to become palatable to the main stream (in some  German states (Bundesländer) the Green party has the largest share of the vote).

Left, right or mentality?

Perhaps more useful than talking about left and right is the ‘mentality model’ developed by research institute Motivaction, pictured below.

A depiction of the Mentality (TM) model developed by Motivaction

Without going into further details about the logic behind their model, what stands out to me is the stratification or fragmentation of society that this model implies. If a population’s main concern is the economy then policymaking is relatively clear-cut (albeit nevertheless contentious). But with contemporary Western societies troubled by so many different dilemmas that appeal to different mentality groups in different ways, no wonder it’s a mess.

How do we deal with differing views?

However, taking a step back from all these differences, the fundamental question seems to still be: how do we deal with differing views in the first place? Do we strive for harmony by attentively listening to our adversaries in order to find a commonly acceptable solution? Or do we fight it out until some stable majority forms that pushes through its agenda without regard for whatever minority.

Fundamentally I am inclined towards the former harmony model, because I think it delivers better and more reliable results in the long run even if it takes a little more work to get there. However, I also have to admit that: 1) I’m at a loss of where to start with so many different factions, and; 2) It takes two to tango, meaning that it is increasingly difficult to tame a polarised debate, if one reasonable position is met with radical opportunism on the other.

Perhaps the solution does not lie in a particular policy, but more in how we, you and I, position ourselves towards one another. Are we over-assertive (i.e. aggressive) on our own interests and distrustful of others’ motives or are we willing to take a risk by opening ourselves up to different views and needs?

Fishing for souls by Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne (1614).
This is not the first time Western society was strongly divided; the 16th century Reformation struggle in Western Europe wasn’t less troublesome as this painting illustrates.
In 1614 politics and religion are inextricably bound up with one another, as is very clear to see in this painting. At the left are Protestant ministers and leaders of the [Dutch] Republic (including Maurice), and at the right the archdukes who govern the South, with countless Catholic clergymen. The North, according to the painter, has a promising future: the sun shines there, the trees are full of leaves. Whosoever wants to be saved is better off swimming to a Protestant boat. (text by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Do we care?

With the phrase ‘opening up to needs’ I think we touch upon another related and fundamental aspect. To use some Christian expressions: am I my brother’s keeper (Genesis 4:9) or does God help those who help themselves? Looking for example at income distribution I can see both sides of the argument. However, looking at for example the environment; can we really afford to even take the risk of not taking climate change seriously even if one doubts the existence of manmade climate change? Some contemporary philosophers have argued for replacing an ethics based on individual rights with an ‘ethics of care’, which would take a moral obligation to care for our surroundings (humans and nature alike) as our primary guiding principle.

Although I like the intent behind an ethics of care I wonder if human care and support doesn’t always ultimately presume reciprocity, which in turn requires us to empathetically see ourselves as part of the same group. An increasingly more diverse and less cohesive society may not help us perceive ‘bonds of reciprocity’. Is reciprocity required to create cohesion, or is cohesion required to produce reciprocity? If cohesion and a sense of reciprocity are eroded at a national level, how can we continue to support the national institutions that hold our societies together?

Coat of arms of the “Republic of the Seven United Netherlands” (the Netherlands between 1581-1795) – relief in Dordrecht.
The lion holds seven arrows, each representing one of the Netherlands’ provinces that together formed the republic.
Concordia res parvae crescunt

Whatever the way, I note that all great advancement that humans have achieved has been a collaborative effort. It is humans’ capacity to collaborate, combined with our ability to think that has made us the dominant species on the planet. I am concerned that failing to collaborate going forward will not only be a strategic disadvantage as we face a unified power like China; how will we face the other challenges of the 21st century if we don’t pull ourselves together – literally. The motto of the 16th century Republic of the seven united Netherlands read: Concordia res parvae crescunt – or loosely translated in English: United we stand, divided we fall.

I wonder what contribution I could make towards a more collaborative community … ?


Ants collaborating to cross a divide – by Igor Chuxlancev

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