E Pluribus Unum

By Cameron Garrett

 

Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.

-Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community”

 

My name is Cameron Garrett, and I am ostensibly average.  Here’s how:

  • I am a heterosexual, white, Protestant man.
  • I grew up in a (predominantly white) upper-middle class suburb called ~Westchase~.
  • My GPA is just to the right of the meaty part of the bell curve. Which is to say that I am college educated.
  • I’m 5’7. How average is that?  Not short. Average.
  • Both my first and last name amount to 7 letters. That fact feels crazy average to me.
  • I thought the (now not that) new Star Wars was pretty good, all things considered. I feel like J.J. Abrams did what he was asked to do.

Allow me to be presumptuous for a paragraph: you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Wow, Cameron, you’re remarkably average.” If I were to ask you, my presumably also white-college-educated-Christian-male-friend, what the average American looks like, you may picture someone like me.  And guess what?  You’d be wrong. It turns out that in the country I live in (and love), my identity is in no way average. Of course, my identity affords me “an invisible package of unearned assets.”[1]  But in modern America, Whiteness and Maleness and Christian-ness is in no way representative of our cultural landscape.

There are 319 million citizens in the United States.  In our cacophonous country of nearly 320 million folks:

  • 51% are female. Therefore, the average American is a woman.
  • 54 million are Latino/a.
  • 40 million are senior citizens.
  • 27 million are disabled.
  • 18 million are Asian.
  • 9 million identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender. This is more than all of the folks that live in the state of Virginia.
  • Around 10 million are redheads.
  • 1 million play ultimate Frisbee.
  • 5 million are Muslim – triple the number of folks who serve in the United States Military (about 3,000 of whom are Muslim).
  • And almost half the country is comprised of minority groups.[2]

In light of the aforementioned statistics, it doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see that the United States is an audacious experiment in the human capacity for cooperation.  American democracy is undoubtedly and irrevocably hard work.  This is because of (1) the nature of democracy and (2) the nature of modern life:

  1. For Interfaith Activist Eboo Patel, democracy is marked by “the power of speech, association, and election.”[3] In a democracy people are free to bring their personal convictions into public life.  Citizens in a democracy are free to base their worldviews on whatever they want and express them (within broad limits) however they wish.  In sum, Democracy is fundamentally about the ability of its citizens to freely bring their deepest, most personal convictions into the public life.
  2. According to social theorist Peter Berger, “Modernity pluralizes.”[4]  In the modern world, particularly in the West, we have an amalgam of different folks with different backgrounds, worldviews, and shades of skin bumping into one another more frequently than has ever been the case in human history. The defining characteristic of our world is globalization.  The Earth is effectively now flat.  Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the United States.

These simple facts about democracy and modernity beg the question: “Isn’t it possible that encouraging people with very different religious [and non-religious] convictions to express those identities in public might lead to protracted violent conflict, or at least a society where people are living in separate and mutually unintelligible religious universes?”[5]  Indeed, in a diverse democracy where “deep disagreements on fundamental matters are to be expected,”[6] how do we flourish as a society? Is it possible to disagree on fundamental things and still work together on other fundamental things?

Right now it doesn’t seem that way.  At this moment in our nation’s history, it seems as though our grand democratic experiment is yielding less than stellar results for the Humans Are Capable of Cooperating Even If They Fundamentally Disagree Department (affectionately known as HACCEITFDD).  And though the platitude “we live in a divided nation” has been beaten into banality by pundits and politicians for well over a year, the thing about platitudes is that they typically carry culturally meaningful cash-value. Our not-so-long-ago presidential election has definitively proven that the United States is almost evenly split down the political dichotomy of Left and Right.  Take a walk in the realm of social media and you’re liable to stumble into the growing political chasm between friends, family, and fellow citizens.  I am guilty of “un-friending” and “un-following” those with whom I disagree.  In doing so, I am guilty of contributing to the Wall currently in construction between perceived others that rests upon the cornerstones of ignorance and pride.

I’m not interested in diagnosing how the borders that serve to separate us into mutually unintelligible universes get started, nor am I interested in finger pointing or gesturing broadly.  I already know, as scholar Robert Putnam writes:

“Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to volunteer less, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”[7]

I am interested in how we move forward together, how we step out of fearful isolation as one nation.  And I have some designs as to how we can do that, but I first have an obligation to tell you that my solutions are steeped in my own deeply held convictions.

I’ve mentioned that I am Christian.  For me, this means that I deeply believe in the power of compassion and reconciliation.  I believe that there is no wall that Compassion cannot bring down, that there is no gap that reconciliation can’t bridge.  I believe that there is no force on Earth stronger than Love; indeed, I believe Love has already won.  I believe that each person possesses a bottomless well of compassion from which to draw. And I believe that this idea does not have to be highly abstract.  All this means is that if I so choose, my capability to love is endless.  In this way, I believe that I possess infinity – the infinite capacity to Love.

Consequently, I believe that the strongest bond that can be built between strangers, between Republicans and Democrats, is the bond of compassion.  A love ethic claims that one must love thy neighbor as thyself.  Notice that in order to love my neighbor as myself, I must love imaginatively.  I must creatively try to see and feel as my neighbor sees and feels.  I must attempt to understand where they come from on their own terms, not mine. I must do the work of stepping out from the box of myself and into the box of an-other.  In other words, to love my neighbor, I must begin the process of identification.  In order to identify with my neighbor, I must humanize them.  This is impossible so long as I see my neighbor as an object.  It is entirely too easy to objectify and stereotype my neighbor according to the identificatory hats we all wear.  It takes work to try to see beyond what I’ve already made of another person.  It takes work to not bare false witness against my neighbor through the creative force that is imaginative love.   In a community of folks that are not intimately bonded to one another through shared tradition, in a community of 320 million widely different identities, a love ethic guides me towards the construction of the bridge between perceived others built by and through compassion.

May we consider that our very selves are constituted by our multitudinous relationships and dependencies.  May we consider that divine, revolutionary love does not discriminate.  May we live into our nation’s chosen motto, “Out of many, one.”  And may we consider that though the time we live in is indeed undoubtedly dark, that this darkness is perhaps not the darkness of the tomb but, as Valerie Kaur suggests, the darkness of the womb.

Cameron presented this essay in the form of a speech at the Solidarity Rally hosted by the student organization Better Together at UNF on February 8, 2017.

 

[1] McIntosh, Peggy. “White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (PDF). Independent School, Winter90, Vol. 49 Issue 2, p31, 5

[2] All of these fun facts brought you by none other than professional Wrestler John Cena.  For further inquiry see Cena’s Youtube video “Love Has No Labels” for the Ad Council’s We Are America campaign: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MdK8hBkR3s

[3] Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer

[4] Peter Berger, “The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age.” (Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2014).

[5] Patel, p. 10

[6] Patel, p. 11

[7] Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century,” 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture, Scandinavian Political Studies (June 2007): 137-74.

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