The modern political emphasis in the U.S. today is on promoting tolerance of individual, cultural, and religious diversity. Our political theorists believe they can achieve a greater degree of harmony among various hostile factions by melding dissimilarities. If such were the case, they could solve the geometric puzzle posed by the Ancient Greek Delphic Oracle of “squaring the circle.” “A ‘squared circle’ is the ultimate symbol of reconciliation of the heavens with the earth,” wrote Math Educator Michael S. Schneider in his book A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe. “…a squared circle cannot be constructed precisely with the geometer’s tools,” he goes on to acknowledge.
Although the efforts of our most thoughtful leaders are noble and well-advised, the question that defies an easy answer is: How can this nation fit all the square blocks into round holes and encompass them comfortably within our tight family circle? Sooner or later everyone must realize how dependent society has become on the contributions of diverse peoples from all walks of life. The explosion of creativity has been spawned in different locations, developed by different personalities, and driven by different needs. Progress has brought mankind to an average level of material well-being far beyond what was available 50 years ago. Increased productivity, improved efficiency, and more sophisticated production technology have generated higher standards of living for the citizens of many nations, but not all. Stubborn pockets of poverty still remain, especially in the “developing countries.”
The distribution of wealth and possessions has not pleased those who have benefitted least. Latent jealousy, envy, resentment, and hatred of the more prosperous by the under-privileged, poorly educated, and opportunity-deprived are the natural results of the growing disparity between the “Have-a-lots” and “Have-nots.” Profuse, aggressive advertising spread via the ubiquitous, penetrating print and electronic media reaches into most of our lives and homes throughout the world, influencing the young and old and the rich and poor alike. Global and local economic polarization is exacerbated by religious, racial, gender, geographical, and historical differences and conflicts.
The dichotomy between “in” and “out” groups in society is never clear. The familiar lines of demarcation between opposing groups have been blurred over the years by the gradual evolution of our society’s goals and emphasis. Much reform has been tried to help some elements of our society while discriminating against others. Objectives originally adopted by a specific group of people seldom remain the same as older members are replaced with new ones. Yet, the old alignments and antagonisms continue. The original loyalties are perpetuated by many members. These desperately want to maintain a connection with their “roots,” bolster their waning image, and persist in exploiting the advantages their solidarity finally produced.
However, the ideological, geographical, religious, and tribal ties loosen as we age and as the benefits from membership in a group diminish. Fans of last year’s World Champions lose their fervor as the subsequent year’s team loses its edge. Proponents of a quick-fix solution lose interest when its implementation yields surprising, unintended consequences. Followers and hangers-on lose their enthusiasm as the fads phase out and the exotic styles change.
Nevertheless, it still feels “good” to be somewhat different, to fit in some place, to have an identity based on something shared. Difference calls attention to ourselves and satisfies the selfish desire to be recognized by others – for better or for worse. To be a nerd, a jock, a comic, a bully, a leader, or a suck-up – whatever role makes one happy – creates a “square peg” for someone else’s “round hole.”
To accept diversity requires that we eliminate our most strongly-held prejudices, alter the false criteria we have adopted from our parents, teachers, and peers, and look seriously at the rationale behind the cultural differences that challenge our way of thinking. This means that everyone has to consider abandoning some of their ideas that lead to polarization and separation, and endeavor to embrace a more comprehensively beneficial and universal outlook. Good luck!
Not just a tolerant outlook of “live and let live,” but one that encourages us to expand our “circle of friends” to include more outsiders. Such a major change is never easy to achieve. It is most often resisted by those who most need to change. Compromise is a nasty word in most people’s vocabulary. So, maybe we should just accept whatever diversity offers and ignore all the thorny problems. Aren’t deviations from social codes merely the consequence of some poor soul pursuing the happiness that was promised him or her in the Declaration of Independence?
Accepting everyone’s unique position constructs no consensus about those issues that are detrimental to our common welfare. So, there’s the rub. Mathematicians know that we cannot construct a circle from a square. Nor can we fit many squares into a circle. If we desire to make our society more inclusive, we must enlarge the circle and breakdown the rigid lateral sides that compose a square.
The myth behind encouraging people to tolerate polarized, antagonistic diversity is that we can “go on” with no hope for a possible solution. Opposing parties usually insist on holding onto their positions. Like the stalemate in Israel, or is it Palestine? Like the U. S. boycott of Cuba. Like the absurdity of Taiwan being separated from China or the Falkland Islands belonging to England.
Everyone’s culture is important to him or her. So is everyone’s religion, nationality, language, mores, and family. Is it wrong, then, to require that new members joining a tribal circle accept the culture of that circle? Especially when the new culture is at odds with the new member’s former beliefs? Should the Boy Scouts accept homosexuals, or should the homosexual members form a new scouting organization? Is there “room” for two such groups? This, then, is our dilemma. When does tolerance of diversity reinforce the nation’s culture and when does it threaten to change it negatively? And who decides what might have a negative influence??
When immigrants decide to move to our country presumably to improve their position in life, should they renounce their loyalty to what they have left behind? Should they learn the new language? Should they accept the new laws? Should they strive to find a new identity despite all the rejection they face from their new neighbors? If the “established” citizens want to initiate them into their society, should they make it tough for them, haze them, and discriminate against them like fraternity brothers do to their pledges on our university campuses?
Today we preach “accept diversity” hoping to promote harmony. But inside our numerous, tightly woven groupings, we still practice isolating and intimidating outsiders who are unlike ourselves or who do not belong to our particular “sacred” group. Do they have “rights” to join our group?
If we persist in believing that we can force the squareness of diverse opinions into the circle of unanimity, aren’t we kidding ourselves? Aren’t we seeking the impossible dream of “squaring the circle?” Allowing mistaken beliefs to continue is counter-productive. It is foolish like the action of the Catholic Church was in threatening loyal followers with ex-communication if they refused to endorse church dogma. Few enlightened people believe today that the earth is flat, that it is the center of our solar system, and that it is 4004 years old. What can create havoc in society is pursuing tolerance of the diversity of opinions (and the groups promulgating these opinions), when some of these opinions are dogmatic, erroneous, and merely self-serving.
What we should be trying to promote in the U. S. is the serious search for the most correct understanding and most unbiased interpretation of the facts so that any erroneous and misguided diversity of opinions is quickly identified and rendered ineffective. We certainly should welcome diverse approaches and ideas when these can be shown to have sound implications. Uniform thinking is not our objective, but a greater unanimity in making decisions and taking positive action is. Unity cannot be achieved by adding conflictive ideas. Polarization of attitudes is a deterrent to making social progress, and it is usually caused by vested interests taking advantage of their political and financial power. Tolerating the action of groups of powerful, selfish individuals who are not interested in social unity and fairness will be fruitless.
The Greek philosophers preached “nothing in excess.” We can accept the diversity that honestly aims to construct a better society, but not all diversity. We have to reject the diversity of ideas, groups, and individuals that distract us from building unity and lead us in the “wrong” direction. Defining the “right” direction certainly won’t be easy, but building social circles with squares is impossible. Take your compass, straight edge, and pencil and see for yourself.