A Social Criticism: Who We Are, Where We’re Going and How we can Embrace Diversity in the 21st Century

If it is possible to receive the “evil eye” from a duck, I faced off with seven pairs of evil eyes while walking in a park the other day. As the flock foraged through lush green grass, it struck me that these waterfowl were not among the kind I had seen before. They were not mallards, wood ducks, coots or any of the other species that are typical to American ponds, lakes and parklands.

One of the seven ducks seemed to be the ringleader. He — or she — was bent on only one thing: keeping the seventh “odd duck” as far away from the remaining six as possible. How typical, I thought. They’re very much like us!

I wondered, momentarily, if these ducks had the capacity to reason why their boorish behavior ought to be directed at one of their own kind that, by all appearances, was undeserving of such marginalization? For that matter, are dominance-driven behaviors on the part of animals influenced by emotions at all? More tellingly, is in-group/out-group selection any more a negotiable aspect of human nature as it is for our furred, feathered and scaled counterparts in the animal kingdom?

Does Nature have a good reason for why we — and they — behave the way we do?

I would later learn that this flock consists of a non-native species that calls the Nile River region home. BirdingInformation.com had this to say:

“Egyptian geese are notoriously bad-tempered especially during breeding season.  They are quarrelsome and aggressive, very intolerant of other birds, including their own kind. They can even be vicious.”

Now I had an explanation for why the wary gazes of these birds felt, well, mean.

How these Egyptian geese found themselves so far from home, while oblivious to the fact that not one but all seven of them are “misfits” in the sense that they compete with native species for habitat and resources, struck me as more than a little ironic. In a way, these birds are “globalists” of a sort — not unlike us. No longer bound by their native lands, they are learning how to adapt to and exploit foreign resources — a first-step in the process known as naturalization. How we react to the presence of what birders call “vagrants” as they transition into naturalized — permanent — residents, also provides insight into how we perceive change of another sort: our own.

Egyptian geese’ presence in North America challenges those who wish to see native species thrive within their respective ecosystems. Ecosystems evolve over many thousands of years to support a certain balance of life. But when an ecosystem is overrun by an invasive species — be it plant, animal or human — the symbiosis that allows life to coexist in sustainable fashion begins to shift if not break down entirely. Habitat loss, climate change, pollution and resource competition from non-native species, not the least of which includes human activity, threatens many ecosystems around the world. Perhaps the best-known example of this is the plight of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s greatest and most endangered natural wonders.

In the scientific world no one debates whether ecosystems can sustain themselves under disordered conditions. Ecosystems are master-planned communities best suited to a subset of the biodiversity that exists on this planet. When everything is in balance, each organism thrives within a niche — and in doing what they do best they provide a valuable service that helps the planet thrive.

In the world of human affairs, however, social parallels to ecosystems — of cultures, languages, ethnicity and nations — are fraught with controversy. We suffer, on the one hand, a predisposition — much like many of our animal counterparts — to enforce hierarchic orders. As members of a pluralistic society, on the other hand, we reject the beliefs of those who engage in self-serving, insular practices. We have coined a great deal of loaded words to describe the trouble we have with the out-group: they are Luddites, nationalists, bigots and xenophobes.

As humans, we are every bit as fickle as our dominance-driven counterparts in the natural world. What’s less clear is how much we are equipped, psychologically and biologically, to resist what our non-human counterparts cannot.

On the one hand, we partake of nationalistic throwbacks such as the Olympics — in which we pit athletes from around the world against one another in celebration of national identity. On the other hand, as schoolchildren we are indoctrinated with an oversimplified view of the world. Our use of language, similarly, ascribes superficial uniformity to differing tribes and cultures, from indigenous peoples in North and South America to the African continent and beyond as little more than “Latino”, “Indian”, “Asian” and “Black”. In service to perceptual bias we lose sight of the specifics. Few of us appreciate, for example, that in the continental U.S., alone, there once thrived over 600 distinct tribal groups. Tragically, many of these Native Americans — their languages and their ways — have been lost to history.

Human ecosystems, too, succumb to the forces of invasion, subjugation and change.

Early this decade it was learned that the success with which Genghis Khan conquered much of what is now Europe means that as many as one in 200 men are a direct descendant of Khan. Meanwhile, many indigenous peoples in Europe, Africa, Asia and elsewhere perceive themselves as distinct from one another within what, at the face of it, may appear as a largely homogenous group of “black”, “brown” and “white” people.

The increasing popularity of genetic testing has begun to put the finer points on our respective ancestries that family trees, surnames and skin-color identifiers have not. And it may very well mean that words such as “white” and “black” — just as we no longer make use of the term “yellow” to describe Asians and “red” to describe Native Americans — will become increasingly passé.

Today, many of us are orphans of a sort. As AncestryDNA.com and other ancestral DNA databases have begun to reveal, many belong, genetically, to everyone — and to no one in particular at all.

Who we choose to identify with is increasingly more preferential than factual.

The way in which society, media and popular culture characterize issues of ethnicity and race overlooks the reality that after millions of years of human evolution each one of us are 37.2 trillion cell repositories of the Human Story — 7.5 billion individuals strong and counting. We are products of conquest: Romans, Mongolians, the Spanish and the British; the Muslim, the Christian, and Jew — to name but a few. As we advance further into the 21st Century our appreciation for these facts must be reflected in the way we frame discussions about race, culture and ethnicity. Academics, journalists, entertainers and ordinary citizens, alike, must root out the sweeping generalizations that have shaped our identities for what they currently are: broad strokes that serve to reinforce 20th Century stereotypes.

Our collective appreciation for how diverse we truly are must come to inform our social and political discourse, too. While a shift toward a more scientific characterization of human genetics and “social ecosystems” will undoubtedly be seized upon by some to justify bigotry — as those who live in fear of change often do — this does not invalidate the reality that we must come to “think differently” about our roles within the Human Family.

Humankind are among the many species on this planet. And our habitats — as expressed by our languages, traditions, values, cultures and yes, even nations — are no less worthy of preservation.

The pressure exerted by globalization to abide by umbrella trade, governance, legal, and, ultimately, social norms must not be underestimated. Globalization will — perhaps more than anything else — define the conversation going forward. In fact, it already does. Most of us are well versed, thanks to social media, in the cadre of made-to-order insults befitting of those who appear to be more interested in some form of waywardness than any “world citizen” ought: populists, nationalists, racists, “old people”, religious zealots, protectionists — and worse.

Rhetoric, rants and vitriol do us no favors. In recent years we have witnessed racial tensions overrun college campuses, police protests and the 2016 presidential election. In the midst of it all, subtlety and nuance are lost. The more we paint ourselves into Neo Moralistic corners, the more we drive home the very ills we oppose: to divide, isolate and conquer; to fight hate with hate — and to inspire bias-reinforcing hysteria and violence. Instead of elevating an important dialog, we pit the sins of competing out-groups against one another, never to arrive at a more constructive self-critique of our own beliefs, values and implicit biases.

As society continues to drift toward a more amorphous global identity, increasing numbers of people throughout the developed world — especially those who do not identify with traditional religious, gender and ethnic roles — are left with passions in search of a cause. Many of us are attempting to make sense out of senselessness without cultural, social and religious mores by which to guide us.

The new pastor is a professor, the new family is social media, the new religion is globalization and the new crusade is activism — even if that activism consists of little more than disenfranchising those with whom we disagree.

Today we stand at a crossroads. We can celebrate diversity even as that diversity becomes less pronounced, at the genetic level, by the decade. We can promote and protect ethnic and cultural identity with the same dispassionate approach as biologists reserve for ecosystems. We can embrace the remaining vestiges of cultural diversity  — with the realization that borders, like cell walls, ecosystems and firewalls, serve an essential function.We can decide that cosmopolitan values are not inherently hostile to individualism. And we can embrace a truer test of tolerance: To each his own shortcomings. To each his own gifts. To each his own values. To each his own views. To each his own religion. To each his own culture. To he who wishes to live in a pluralistic society, the right. And to he who wishes to live in a homogenous society, the opportunity.

The alternative at this 21st Century crossroads is a dark path that promotes a “neoconformist” worldview under threat, not choice, of “tolerance”. We can choose the “New Religion” of westernization that is globalization. We can extract retribution for the sins of our forefathers both recent and ancestral. We can fall back on oversimplifications about who is “black”, who is “white” and who is “brown”. We can remain preoccupied with questions of dominance, hierarchy, in-groups, out-groups, majorities and minorities. And in spite of historic gains in women’s rights, human rights and other fronts during which time the 20th Century saw unprecedented progress we can, at any time, find sufficient evidence to remain fundamentally pessimistic.

At this fork in the road a “Groundhog Day paradox” looms large: Emphasize the wrong things for the wrong reasons and we risk reinvigorating — not merely reminding ourselves — of already-marginalized racially-, socially- and politically-incorrect evils. Whether by fear or fact, we will be inclined to use such evidence to foment animosity, distrust and unrest.

In the name of tolerance we will hate. And in the name of change we will remain much the same.

Those who unconsciously promote the scourge of the self-fulfilling prophecy by reinforcing the “fear of other” that has haunted human relations for millennia will no doubt point out that losing sight of our history is the first step in dooming ourselves to repeat it.

And they are right.

Each generation must come to appreciate the struggles that shape the world in which we live. And yet words matter. In subjects so delicate as to demand a “moral view” of both history and current events, context matters too. Reinforcing patterns of shame and guilt can damage hope beyond repair. The resulting cynicism can, in turn, work to undermine relations and destabilize society. History, like current events, must not be a rehash, primarily, of all that has gone terribly wrong. It must also be a living celebration of how far we have come. We owe the courage and convictions of our forefathers (and mothers!) much of the credit for the inspiration to move forward today. If we embrace the reality that we are already the living genetic and social embodiment of Change, perhaps it will give us the courage to perceive our differences in a more productive light: not, principally, as our greatest weakness — but among our greatest strengths.

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Research

The Intersections of Biological Diversity and Cultural Diversity: Towards Integration

The degree to which the diversity of the world’s ecosystems is linked to the diversity of its cultures is only beginning to be understood, and there is a great deal about this connection yet to be learnt [Annex B]. However, it is precisely as our knowledge of this linkage is advancing that these complex systems are receding (Maffi 2001; Skutnabb-Kangas et al. 2003). In the absence of an extensive and sensitive accounting of the mutual threats and effective policies targeting these issues, endangered species, threatened habitats, dying languages and vast knowledge bases are being lost at rates that are orders of magnitude higher than the “natural” extinction rates (McNeely& Scherr 2001; Pretty 2002). While conserving nature alongside human cultures presents unique challenges (Dove et al. 2005; Robbins et al. 2006), any hope of saving biological diversity, or even recreating lost environments through restoration ecology, is predicated on a concomitant effort to appreciate and protect cultural diversity (Nietschmann 1992; Stevens 2007; Maffi 2001; Zent 2001; Pretty 2007a).

The full text of the above article appears in “Conservation & Society”, an interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development.

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