This post is an excerpt from the schmoozeletter of October, 2020. You can subscribe to these here: elishevaliss.com/newsletter
Do you know what Esperanto is?
It’s one of the few random facts I remember from high school history class, is what it is.
Esperanto is a language that was invented in the 1880s, which was intended to be a universal tongue.
(Are you also picturing an actual tongue wrapping around the globe? Cuz that’s gross.)
As a teenager learning about this, I remember thinking that was an awesome idea- instead of thousands of mutually unintelligible dialects for billions of scattered humans, there could be one unified, standard way of speaking. (And that maybe, if it took off real fast, I could get exempt from my French final exam.)
The League of Nations, and its successor, the UN, agreed with 15-year-old me.
They tried to promote this brilliant idea.
But we were all wrong.
Somehow, almost 150 years into the initiative, less than 1% of the world’s population speaks it, and most haven’t even heard of it, despite the viral nature of the “world wide web.” (Maybe if the Kardashians started promoting it, that would help.)
Historians and sociologists have different explanations for why this never really got off the ground. (For the record, I am not a historical scholar. I do know how to google stuff fairly well, though, so same.)
My own uninformed theory is that unity in diversity is far more complex and double-edged than we might think.
It sounds great- we’re all different- cool, we know that. We shouldn’t hurt or hate each other- still good.
We should try to help one another- no problems there. We should respect and celebrate our differences, right? Hm. Sounds nice on paper, but that’s where it sometimes gets a little dicey.
I’ve learned that most folks (including me) can be accepting and open-minded to others’ ideas, feelings, values, and messaging, until a point. We’re all mature and levelheaded until you press that one button.
For (an admittedly extreme) example: I am a practicing Jew, but I can respect the practices of other religious and Ethnic groups whose beliefs differ from mine. But if there were a group whose belief called for the extermination of all Jews, my brotherly love toward them would dissipate pretty quickly.
Now, that sounds like an easy fix: “What we mean when we say unity in diversity is the inclusion of all moral, ethical people and ideas.” Oooooh, I see.
So, that ostensibly fixes the issue except for one thing:
Who gets to decide what is moral and ethical?
If I don’t like the idea of killing animals for dinner, do I get to label omnivorous humans as evil? (To be clear, I literally had a chicken sandwich for dinner last night; this was hypothetical-ish to make a point.)
By now, you probably know about my love of Biblical exegesis (and for gratuitous SAT words).
In this week’s Torah portion, (Noach) there are two big stories: The flood and the towel of Bavel.
The flood, it says, was provoked by interpersonal violence, theft, promiscuity, or cruelty (depending on how one interprets the word “chamas,” not to be confused with chickpea dip, but linguistically identical with the Gaza fundamentalist governing body. Which we are definitely not discussing.)
The tower of Bavel seems to be the opposite reaction to the flood:
“Hey, everyone- we don’t want to end up with a drowned world again- that was terrible for the real estate market. So let’s all put our heads together and build a wall protecting us from another deluge; we can even get G-d to pay for it.” (Sorry- I couldn’t help it. At least I didn’t say “Make Bavel Great Again.”) The verse says that the entire land spoke one language at the time (not Esperanto, apparently.)
But that didn’t work out so well either.
Because the problem with too much organized unity is often a deterioration of individual autonomy.
Like- what would they have done if one person had said: “I don’t know if I wanna build this tower thing. Not sure if I believe in the project, and I think I’d prefer to study classical guitar.”
Ironically, a danger of too much unity is tyranny. It’s also the problem with too much diversity.
Even when the unity value system is initially and seemingly predicated on celebrating diversity, humanism, tolerance, and equality. Because soon, any perceived deviation from a variation of doctrine might be witch-hunted and attacked as a threat to The Cause.
(Which is kind of like killing angry people in order to prevent potential violence.)
Most totalitarianistic “-ism” movements begin with a kernel of perilous good intentions and seductive rhetoric. Almost no one condones true “hate speech” but what constitutes it is incredibly subjective. We’ve come a very long way from “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” (ooh- remember crowded theaters…? Good times..)
When people say they respect and honor those who disagree with them, there’s usually an eventual limit. Can we really handle ideological or political diversity? Until what point?
The word flood in Hebrew is “mabul” which is the same root as the word for “Babel,” as in the tower of Bavel. It means confusion, atrophy, and deconstructive movement. (And the website Babbel that teaches lots of languages- is that why?)
The flood generation’s flaw was societal divisiveness and the tower builders’ was pathological unity to the point of single-minded, rebellious, intolerant uniformity. They were later renamed: “dor haflaga” which means a “generation divided.” Excessive divisiveness OR uniformity BOTH lead to societal destruction. Extremism has never been good for us. Even well-meaning attempts at extreme goodness yield a rigidity of evangelical thought that leads to polarization and tension, as we see too well, in our own times.