Once every two years at an Olympics venue we are treated to the spectacle of the Parade of Nations. In Los Angeles, that happens every day.
I experienced it recently when going to the Santa Monica pier for its Thursday night free concert. I have no idea how many thousands of people came to see Cibo Matto and Save Ferris, but I was struck by the wild, multifaceted diversity of the crowd streaming across Ocean Avenue and down the incline to the pier itself.
One heard Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese and many languages I couldn’t identify from Africa and the Middle East. Women with tattoos crawling up their necks and women with hijabs, pink-tinged hair and muscle shirts, tight clothes and baggy, skimpy and flowing.
In the Old Testament one reads of the Tower of Babel, and a Golden Age when all spoke one language before our vanity and our over-reach led to fragmentation and a multiplicity of tongues. Yet there is something beautiful in our babel, in our rainbow of skin tones and languages, our dress and our ornamentation.
I think God loves diversity. His creation, from the micro to the macro, sings of extravagant abundance. When one species of ant would certainly do, we have 12,000. The heavens team with every manner of star and planet and the human soul is as distinct as snowflakes.
Isn’t it interesting that when we portray aliens from outer space, we so often portray them as indistinguishable and uniform? Their sameness is what makes them different from our gorgeous mosaic.
We do this all the time with our “aliens” here on earth, too. Those we don’t encounter, we don’t see and interact with on a daily basis become the “same.” They are lumped into one template of otherness. They are defined as “not us.”
When diverse becomes “different from us,” it is ripe for exploitation and fearmongering. For eight years we saw rumor mongers trying to convince people that our president was “the other”: foreign born. Muslim. Not us. We see stereotypes abound about the undocumented or the residents of the inner city. We typecast one another as “liberal God haters” or “conservative people haters.” Author Bill Bishop pointed out some years ago in “The Big Sort” that Americans increasingly segregate themselves ideologically: The CNN ghetto vs. the Fox News ghetto. Red state, blue state. And the ideological other becomes an alien we don’t understand and we too easily come to fear.
Diversity should inspire a certain tolerance, and California is famous for its tolerance. But the paradox of tolerance is that when it becomes the supreme virtue, then anyone judged intolerant is, well, not tolerated. Tolerance itself becomes an ideology, a weapon for dispatching our opponents, a tool for identifying and ostracizing the “other.”
There has been a lot of debate recently about Senate Bill 1146. It was seen as a way of using a massive financial stick to punish religious academic institutions that did not conform to current standards of tolerance regarding LGBTQ issues in particular. As originally proposed, the bill was what Archbishop José H. Gomez called “an overreach that violates the religious freedom” of religious institutions of higher learning.
The most punitive aspects of the bill have since been removed. The archbishop’s quite logical suggestion was to have such schools state what they believe, what they will provide students and what they expect of students regarding “religious practice and personal conduct.”
But the issue exposed a contemporary tension between those who advocate freedom of religion and those who accuse religious principles of encouraging bigotry. In a diverse society such as ours, such issues will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis that recognizes both freedom of religion and tolerance for those who are different.
As we address these contentious issues, we must take care not to stereotype one another’s positions with exaggerated and inflammatory rhetoric. In our diverse society, it is increasingly important to carefully listen to each side, and to seek responses that spur further conversation.
Catholics have historically known what discrimination feels like. Many Catholic immigrants today are feeling it anew. So we must be particularly sensitive to unjust discrimination toward others. But we also must be strong in affirming our own beliefs lest our diversity devolves into mere conformity.
After our visit to the Santa Monica pier, my wife and I had a late dinner at one of the rooftop restaurants at Santa Monica Place. We were surrounded by the touristic and the hip — all colors and nationalities. Our hostess was Asian. Our waiter was from Bulgaria.
When the food came, we made the sign of the cross and said grace. A few glances came our way and I began thinking about diversity again. We Catholics are part of this tremendous mosaic, but only when we don’t hide who we are and what we believe.
Greg Erlandson, a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, is the editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.