Unity without uniformity


Unity without uniformity is rare in nations, communities, churches, and families. Two reasons are obvious. First, the tendency of groups is to stress uniformity in pursuance of clear and distinct group and personal identities. Second, it is easier for majorities or strong minorities to compel unity and conformity by force. That is why unity without uniformity is so rare, so fragile, and so difficult to maintain.

Humans are by nature communal and cannot exist in isolation. Survival requires sustained cooperation that solitary individuals cannot provide. Groups must develop clear and distinct, socially created markers and boundaries that function to display group and individual identities and facilitate collaboration. If groups and individuals develop ideas, attitudes and practices that create doors and windows that open freely for collaboration with different groups and individuals with distinct markers, a win/win situation is created. Ecologists know that creativity and innovation are greater in marginal land between systems. That is true socially when diverse groups cooperate. Everyone benefits.

Unfortunately, a characteristic of human groups is to close rank in order to preserve the group against others, even when some in the group might be sacrificed. Temporary alliances with other small identity groups join to pursue power. Preservation of the group takes precedence. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in Moral Man in Immoral Society that it is easier to attain moral behavior in individuals than in a group or a mob. Especially is that true when power chokes morality. That creates a majority, or a strong minority, or a strong man and leads a group or nation toward totalitarianism.

The best protection against that is the genius of the American
democracy based on concepts and commitments derived from the Enlightenment and religious teachings. The basics are freedom, rule by the majority, equality of rights of all humans, protection of those rights for minorities and individuals, and division of powers between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. E Pluribus Unum!

Successes of the American democracy have exceeded failures, despite failures that academic and media sources currently highlight. One needs to attend to those failures carefully because we and America need to do better. Nevertheless, American successes can be contrasted with dismal failures of numerous totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian rulers create enforced uniformity and thereby can make rapid decisions about policy, about allocation of resources, and about rewards and punishment without restraint. A result is disaster for most of those under them and great prosperity and benefit for those who rule. We witness that now in the rise of totalitarianism around the world.

Democracy is very fragile and at risk around the world. A multitude of diverse groups are vying for position with ideologies, customs, legal systems, and attitudes that push people apart and destroy unity without uniformity. Many forces militate against any unity that preserves democratic ideals.

Preservation of democracy demands positive resolve, commitment, attitude, action, and perseverance. A problem here and now is that we feel helpless to affect the strong, negative global forces. What can we do? Keeping open the doors and windows for creative and positive interactions is very hard work. The result is that people get worn down and give up.

We shout complaints about rise of totalitarianism into the wind and across the omnipresent Cloud. However, if one wishes to preserve democracies around the world, one best start local and small with what can be done here and now. The first step is to work personally on our resolve, attitude, and actions and then take the next step possible in our home, family, church, workplace, civic group, and neighborhood. Everyone can make a difference, and together we can create more unity without uniformity here in Montgomery County. If it is not too late for a New Year resolution, please let it be unity without uniformity.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.