Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

How growing up in the Navy made certain truths self-evident

In Diversity, Navy, Uncategorized on February 16, 2018 at 1:53 pm

NAS Whidbey old seaplane base

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – The Declaration of Independence

Diversity provides a competitive and creative edge, no matter your ethnicity.

I’m a straight, white son of the American working classes. They don’t come much more “cis” than me. Big, hairy, white guy from the rural west. Married. Can tie a tie. I hike, I’ve owned trucks, and I like country music (well, to a point). On the surface of things, it might not make sense to too many that I’m a ferocious proponent of “diversity.”

I want to explain why I am and why it makes me a better writer and why I would not willingly work in a monoculture.

GO NAVY!

I grew up in the United States Navy. I was born into it to a father who was a career sailor, who retired as a Senior Chief during my teenage years. For those of you who have not enlisted or grown up in the military, you need to understand that I until I was 14 I never spent two minutes in a room where everyone was white. When my parents threw parties, we’d creep out of our room to watch and it looked like the U.N. in there — well, if the U.N. were peopled by people who worked for a living. My friends were black, Guamanian, Japanese, Hispanic, Chinese, and Filipino. Us vs. them was never white vs. non-white. It was always Navy vs. other branches of the military or Navy vs. (heaven forfend) civilians. When one of my school friends, whose father was a doctor, told me he was not a doctor in the Navy, I legitimately felt sorry for him.

So I grew up without so much as a touch of racial prejudice in my makeup. This was not due to my ethical superiority. It was a result of my upbringing. Nothing is more fatal to racial animus than whipping rocks at your enemies with a group of friends that look like the cast of Rent. It didn’t hurt that my parents were decent people and I was raised right. But it was also practical. You don’t spend twenty years in the Navy if you’re a bigot. You have to salute way too many blacks and Asians and Latinos — and increasingly women and gays — to be comfortable in that environment, and my father was Regular Navy.

When my dad retired we moved to the largely rural Northwest, which proved to be a bit of an adjustment. Mercifully, hillbillies are not all bigots, but when I went to college I discovered they didn’t have a monopoly on racism either. When I was young, people didn’t care about race. I lived in Hawaii with other Navy brats. When I was in high school, racism was easy to spot. But in college I discovered the grotesque combo of condescension, ignorance, and privilege.

Trump’s running cover for nazis notwithstanding, condescension remains the most persistent type of racism — a combination of cutesy-pie head-patting and deep belief in the otherness of people who didn’t grow up like you  and the most pernicious.

It’s pernicious because at its foundation is the idea that people who don’t look like you, who did not grow up like you, are not just different than you. Or rather that “different” is code for the belief that others lack the things you possess that make you the obvious choice for leadership. Socially, this belief inflects cross-ethnic interactions with a profound discomfort.

ESPRIT DE CORPS

A genuine full-throated chorus, a simple, matter-of-fact multi-ethnic, culturally mixed group has so many practical advantages over a monoculture that they will, it is my belief and experience, always win whenever they’re in competition. Here’s why.

When you grow up with all kinds of kids, as I did, you wind up defining us and them by a shifting set of situational characteristics. In other words, it’s much easier to create an us based on shared goals than it is for those who’ve grown up inculcated with a sense of belonging that derives solely from superficial shared characteristics. It is easier to create esprit de corps when the corps doesn’t literally depend on a shared body. It may not seem as obvious to a civilian but anyone in, or who grew up in, the military understands you have a lot better chance of coming out in one piece if you share stakes with your squad.

Another advantage a mixed group has over a monoculture is a catholicism of experiences and sensibilities. If you define us on qualities that can be shared across backgrounds, it leaves you free to draw as needed upon experiences, mindsets, and solutions that differ from family to family. John Collier, who admittedly screwed the pooch rather horrendously at times during his 12-year tenure as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (stock reduction, anyone?), but one thing he had right was his belief in the value of living Indian cultures as vital elements in American society. In the same way the destruction of the Amazon Basin may well destroy solutions to disease by destroying the plants those solutions could be derived from, destroying cultural biodiversity eliminates new approaches to societal problems by erasing those people whose family backgrounds and experiences, and even languages, might provide them

DIVERSITY AS COMPETITIVE EDGE

Let’s translate these advantages into something quotidian: Marketing. Looking around my shop I see men and women, Asians, whites, Indians, Latinos, gay and straight people, young and mature, fathers, mothers, and single people, Americans and immigrants. I would be shocked if there were less than half a dozen languages spoken at home by my coworkers.

Because of this, our little shop gets gigs bigger companies don’t. Competence and focus is a big part of that. But also important is that, free of the corporate monoculture, we are capable of creating and recreating us, and of expanding the definition of that us. When we take up your cause, we go full Sacred Band of Thebes on it. And we make you part of what we do, part of us. Our shop is mercifully bereft of “organizational operators.” We bring a WWII-movie level of specialization as well as diversity and brotherhood  to our teams.

Another powerful result of our biodiversity is that we come up with ideas other companies don’t. It’s because for us, cultural diversity is a strategic asset that we consciously employ throughout the life of the relationship, not just when we’re pitching. The variety in this outfit is disproportionate to its size and its utility is reflected not just in our work but in our play and in our social exchanges. One look at our “inspiration” email thread would evoke either a Wonkaesque sense of wonder or abject bafflement. Our backgrounds, our tastes, our preferences, passions, and fears are lush and colorful. We come up with more ideas because we are a cultural jungle, not a tree farm. This culture is encouraged and cultivate by leadership, two-thirds of whom are immigrants.

I cannot operate in a monoculture, my glorious white, working class background notwithstanding. I cannot do so because I cannot tolerate being bored. And nothing bores my tits off like agreement, homogeneity, and uniformity. If argument is the road to knowledge, we have developed an entire interstate highway system.

The Dutch philosopher Erasmus praised abundance. Without variety of subject and variety of approach, he said, there is no abundance. Without abundance, style is limited and ineffective. Without effective style, there is no point in communicating. And communicating is all we do.

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