Responding to conversations with Humanists of MN members, I started a series titled “Squinting at Postmodernism.” I will write the third in this sequence that I started a few months ago soon; this time, however, I’m responding again to an event organized by the MN Humanists on issues that, many of us would like to believe, the history of humanism has always been concerned with, namely, inclusivity and diversity. The guest speaker on Saturday, April 26th, 2014 was Vanessa Gomez-Brake, co-president of the Bay Area Humanists Association. Her presentation was lively, accessible, and interactive; the crowd of about 50 people responded spontaneously and eagerly. It was a stimulating and thought-provoking occasion.
One of the most valuable points of this event, to this observer, was that ‘culture’ can be read as a wide and interconnected range of our practices (languages/idioms, audio and visual memories, ancestries, cuisines, landscapes, to name a few). The speaker prompted us to think about and then share what these various practices were for us. This worked constructively and effectively against the most immediate associations many are likely to make between ‘diversity’ and ‘race’ first and only.
In talking about education, work, family, language, sexuality, and dis/ability, among other features of our whole selves, and of race and gender as part of that whole range, the presentation and discussion worked very well to bring attention to visible as well as less visible commonalities and differences. I imagine that many of us realized that each of us is a surprising and unpredictable mixture of such markers; at least, I did.
Of course, we don’t usually go around mathematically or mechanically assessing people as a sum total of these markers. We socialize, we talk, we learn—the speaker and her presentation emphasized this journey of curiosity and inquiry. Ms. Gomez-Brake encouraged us to undertake or proceed on this wonderful journey of discovery about ourselves and others, ourselves in relation to others.
And it is precisely here that I felt a bit of nervousness. The speaker was careful to point out the pitfalls of the enthusiastic humanistic enquiry of approaching and asking questions of ‘the other’ whom we see as ‘different’ from us. I’m nervous for three most immediate reasons: questions can easily tend towards stereotyping and tokenizing; questions, depending on their nature, can only serve as narcissistic tools of gathering and storing information; and questions need not necessarily lead to a process of self-analysis and of discovering interrelations, just simply accentuate separation/difference.
So I returned from the event to look a little more closely at the two key words of the event: ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse.’ ‘Inclusive’implies an universalism that encompasses everyone because ‘we are all human.’ That is comforting and has been seen as the widest basis of what people ordinarily understand humanism to be. But ‘diversity’ implies ‘difference’ that distinguishes each of us from others—also another commonly understood humanist principle that recognizes uniqueness.
Are these two words, then, at odds with each other and cancel each other out? No! A good humanist would say that they coexist—that we aspire to commonality through a recognition that we are different from each other. Some of us may even think, commonality (that we are human after all) despite our differences. If we believe that, locally and globally, we all share the same Enlightenment values—progress, reason, democracy—then it is up to us to scrutinize exactly how people have interpreted these words that stand for values, similarly and differently, and continue to interpret them today, across times and spaces.
I just want to point out that, in a vacuum and de-linked from any context, both of these options—inclusivity through diversity and inclusivity despite diversity—bypass one crucial element—the histories that bind us together and define us in relation to each other. A detour from the inequalities of power that are our legacies and situate us in relation to each other (colonialism and slavery, to name only two) will, I am afraid, force us to repeat tokenisms and exoticisms. As a side-note: it is ironic that in an event focused on inclusivity and diversity, some voices had the power to dominate the conversation and remain unaware that they had ‘represented’ enough and could concede the floor to ‘others.’
I’m happy to say that my very first blog entry for the Humanists of Minnesota—Who the Who is Affects What the What is— reflects upon the intentions of this event, namely, that looking at who (us/them) is part of our membership may lead us to redefine the ‘what’ (humanism). There were many fruitful practical suggestions as to bring more ‘who’ into the ‘what.’ I would offer the same cautions I have above in undertaking this well-intentioned, indeed necessary, venture. If the Humanists of Minnesota values this venture of inclusivity-diversity as an intrinsic part of its reformulation and redefinition, perhaps giving it more prominence on its webpage would be a good start. As of today, the event was missing from the list of past events on the related Meetup page and from the webpage.