James D. Cohn


I want to puncture the myth of the “value of diversity.”

Often we hear people fervently applaud diversity.  They speak of it as beneficial to our society.  They present it as a virtue that has value in and of itself.  Yet none of us really believes that, if we just scratch the surface of our sentiments even a little.

For example, I know that our culture would be less diverse without Nazism, but speaking personally, I’ll take the reduction in diversity any day. If I could snap my fingers and get rid of racism, I’d do it.  If I could eliminate from our society all discrimination and antagonism, I’d do that too, and I wouldn’t miss the diversity one bit after the hatred was gone, nor would I feel that our society was somehow the poorer for being less diverse.  

But I recognize that people have different boundaries.  There are those in our society who would like it to be less diverse by virtue of the disappearance of Jews, or gays, or Christians, or whites.  We can all give lip service to the benefits of diversity, but there are elements in our diverse society of which we do not approve, and which we would love to see disappear.  To say otherwise is to say that we don’t stand for anything at all.

Diversity in itself is neither good nor bad.  What it is, is real; and it must be accepted as a reality and addressed as a reality.  The key to our success is acknowledging, not that we should cherish or esteem diversity, but that (whether we esteem it or not) we must accept it as a fixture of our communal life, and manufacture creative ways to address its existence.

We do this first by being aware of our constituency: by understanding who they are, where they come from, what drives their being.  We know we can’t be experts in every culture and every subculture. A Mexican is not a Dominican is not a Columbian. An Orthodox Jew is not a Reform Jew is not a Conservative Jew. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people  aren’t always united in their political agendas.

And we all know by now how the definition of a family is changing.  I’m not speaking here of what you or I might think a family should be, I’m speaking about what a family so often is: a household with one parent, with a parent or parents in jail, with no parents.  The word “family” for those who deal with families on a daily basis across our community doesn’t only have to be broadened to include stepparents, but also to include households with no parents and, more and more often, grandparents as heads of household and the sole parenting figures.

All of these challenges illustrate the fact that, while we can’t know every detail of every culture or every family, we can broaden our general understanding of our constituency, familiarize ourselves with changing demographics, and most importantly, create networks of contacts that can help us when we have questions.

We address the reality of diversity through two efforts: by cooperating where we differ, and by affirming what we share,

First: cooperating where we differ. My emphasis is always on encouraging cooperation and civility rather than the happy melting-pot. All groups in our diverse society might not learn to love each other, but they can cooperate in problem-solving and coexistence.  And I don’t mean coexistence in the sense of separate walled communities; I mean constructive coexistence that fosters community-building. The fact is that groups that are diverse and even opposed to each other, can still constructively coexist and cooperate in community-building.  In your own world, you might not like the fact that a co-worker, or a teacher, or a student, is Jewish or Hispanic or Christian or white or gay, but you can work with that person on building a community and teaching life-skills to kids.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs serves as a useful illustration. Neither party is going to just go away. The diversity of population in the area is there to stay.  The only question is, what kind of coexistence will be crafted?

The lesson of diversity is that we must aim, not for a world in which everyone likes everyone else (which is not going to happen), but rather, a world in which everyone can live with everyone else, enjoy equality under the law, and build a safe, well-functioning society based on shared values.

Which brings me conveniently to the question of how we go about affirming what we share.

This is a mischievous task, beset by enormous difficulties. Some shrink from the idea of “community values.”  Others run to it, to bolster their own personal values. Yet anyone who looks carefully can find such values already articulated and already implemented.  The best place to look is not in words from pulpits or in words from political offices, but in words from those who must live day by day in the practicalities and consequences of the search for community values.

For example, in schools.  The Meeks-Heit health series identifies a set of virtues that are universally accepted as demonstrating good character.  They are:

  • Honesty ‑ refusing to lie, steal, or deceive anyone
  • Fairness‑ following the rules so that everyone has the same chance
  • Courage ‑ showing strength when you might otherwise be afraid
  • Citizenship ‑ following the laws of your community and nation
  • Responsibility‑ being accountable for what you say and do
  • Respect‑ having a high regard for someone
  • Integrity‑ acting on responsible values regardless of the consequences
  • Self-Discipline ‑ the effort you make to follow through
  • Determination‑ working hard to get what you want.

Here are the "Reasons to Have Good Character" promoted in the Meeks-Heit Curriculum:

  • To have self-respect
  • To get along with my parents
  • To keep the respect of others
  • To protect my future
  • To stay out of trouble
  • To keep a clear conscience

The genius of this approach is that it avoids the issue of the source of our values; instead, it presents them as values that are “out there,” “found” values that are demonstrably present and enduring.  Note the absence of the reason, “to get into heaven.” This might be important (even pivotal) from a personal point of view, but not from a communal point of view.  The distinction is crucial.

Here’s an interesting digression: the Institute for Global Ethics conducted a survey that asked people from 40 countries and 50 different faith communities to rank a set of values.  The results are not too different from the Meeks-Heit series, but here’s the interesting sidelight: when asked what their own source was for these values, the respondents overwhelmingly said “personal experience.” Even among those who identified themselves as “very religious,” almost all responded that way.  Now, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t believe in the inerrant word of God or any other divine source; just that this belief-system was the “PERSONAL EXPERIENCE” which led them to these values – values they shared with those whose PERSONAL EXPERIENCE didn’t include any religion whatsoever.

“Community values” is an expression everyone wants to own, and everyone wants to interpret.  I would suggest that community values have a concrete test in reality.  If you want to see whether there really are community values, ask employers.  Ask the industries that are going to employ our high school and college graduates.  When I lived in South Carolina, the State Chamber of Commerce asked business leaders to rank the “Top skills in demand.” What do you think the top items were?  Math skills?  Language skills? Ability to close the deal?  Belief in God, America, Mom, and apple pie? None of the above. Here they are:

  • Integrity/honesty
  • Being a team Player
  • Listening skills
  • Responsibility

A final word about cooperating where we differ.  In the real world, we must deal with a diverse population of actual human beings, some of whom are unattractive or downright offensive. None of us is devoid of personal values (I hope, anyway), and they affect how we view our fellow citizens and coworkers. We might not like the color of their skin, their religion, their political orientation or their sexual orientation.  In the acting out of community-building, it simply doesn’t matter whether we think it’s good or bad that they are who they are.  What matters is how we interact with them.

To be sure, we hold to our personal values and don’t forfeit them – our values are, after all, who we are.  But what we implement in our community is our shared, communal values. Civically speaking, our accountability is for our actions, not our thoughts or personal values.

We build community when we strengthen civic values. Never a bad thing.