“Building Bridges” forum discusses tolerance and prejudice in America

A panel discussion entitled “Building Bridges: Appreciation and Acceptance of Diversity in America” was held Monday evening at the Stevenson Union on Southern Oregon University campus as part of the ongoing events held in recognition of Race Awareness Week and specifically in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

The panel consisted of SOU Communication Instructor D.L. Richardson, Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, Pastor Kurt Katzmar, Social Sciences Instructor Flamur Vehapi, SOU Philosophy Professor Prakash Chenjeri, and Dr. David Young, member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is of the United States. The event was sponsored by Amnesty International and the United Nations Association of SOU.

Richardson, who organized yesterday’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at the Ashland Armory, made a point of not putting people in a box even when being supportive of cultural differences and when advocating for human rights. “I don’t like to call Obama our first African-American president,” he said. “I prefer to think of him as our first multicultural president, because why should we disregard his other heritages?”

Richardson wrapped up his talk by commending the country as a whole for wanting to uphold diversity. “We need to celebrate our differences. Thinking about them is not enough.”

Chenjeri came with a prepared presentation written beforehand, something he said philosophers tend to do. He began by addressing the question of what can be done to move toward a society that embraces social justice and equality in a boiling-pot environment. “This [issue] has been going on for decades, but even a cursory glance seems to suggest we have not come far. The gulf only seems to be growing stronger.”

Chenjeri criticized the fast and timeline-driven pace of a culture that does not stop to reflect as often as it should as a major contributor to this gulf and a barrier to progress. He then outlined three ideas that he said can act as helpful components of respecting diverse viewpoints. The first is what Chenjeri called “a nation built on ideas.” He quoted a report by the Bradley Project on America’s National Identity, a project that in 2007 brought together leading historians, political scientists, journalists and others to address ways of channeling American pluralism into a more unified identity.

“America is unique among nations in being founded not on a common ethnicity, but on a set of ideas,” the quoted report said. “But a nation founded on an idea starts anew with each generation and with each new group of immigrants. Knowing what America stands for is not a genetic inheritance. It must be learned, both by the next generation and by those who come to this country.”

Chenjeri talked next about Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French political philosopher who was sent by the French government to visit and study American society, through which he traveled for one year in 1831.

“Tocqueville was very perceptive and prescient,” noted Chenjeri, who quoted what he called a cautionary statement from the French thinker’s famous book “Democracy in America”: “I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself . . . in order to learn what we have to fear or hope from its progress.”

Chenjeri concluded with a discussion of the “idea of public reason,” the third component in his list of factors conducive to a more inclusive society. Chenjeri attributed the idea to John Rawls, one of the 20th century’s leading figures in moral and political philosophy. According to Chenjeri, this is the idea that “citizens engaged in certain civic activities must answer to public standards of value, to principles and rules of existence. We have a duty to abide by public reason.”

Chenjeri called this a moral duty, not a legal one, and advocated a move away from “controversial standards of reasoning that cannot be redeemed.” He included the natural sciences in these standards of reasoning, quoting the late American physicist Robert R. Wilson, who was director of the Fermi National Laboratory (Fermilab) between 1967 and 1978, who said “it [the Fermilab’s first particle accelerator] has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

Kurt Katzmar, pastor of Medford Congregational United Church of Christ, presented a liberal Christian perspective on diversity in America, stating, “Right here in this valley, you’ll find the one thing that ties us together is Jesus of Nazareth.” He talked about Jesus being a middle-eastern man of Jewish heritage, an image he said people tend not to dwell on often, but emphasized what he called the “oneness of the human family.”

“We have ears to hear, but we have tapes running through our heads. But if we turn around and face a new direction, we see something scary. We are all the same.”

Katzmar was less concerned than Chenjeri on the standards of public reason, specifically on questions of science. “I don’t mean same in the ‘black and yellow red and white, we are precious in his sight’ sense or in the sense of 98.9% of our DNA being shared by chimpanzees,” he said. “Those are just platitudes. We are all one in a mystical, organic way. We are expressions of one awareness that is extra-religious.”

He concluded by saying that intolerance is a spiritual problem, not an economic or military issue, and reiterated his theme of oneness. “We are all alike, even if we don’t look like it. This was said by the great wisdom thinkers throughout history, including Buddha, Jesus, and of course John Lennon. Goo goo g’joob.”

Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, an alumnus of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College near Philadelphia and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in Bennington, VT, provided a Jewish perspective on the subject. He began by saying that Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired and animated by the biblical story of the Sea of Reeds, in which Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt escaped their captors by crossing a sea miraculously parted by God. He talked about the oppression of Jews through much of their history leading to an emphasis in Judaism on compassion for strangers.

“There’s kind of a plurality in Judaism worth shouting from the mountaintops. But there’s also troubling passages [in Jewish scriptures], xenophobic passages that teach chosenness.” Hailing from the liberal Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, Boettiger said his tradition is one in which “we hold up texts that trump those Jewish values and which reflect a way forward. Not just tolerance, but change, by making boundaries permeable.”

Echoing what Richardson said earlier in the discussion, Boettiger emphasized the importance of people doing their best to avoid discounting differences in their zeal to be inclusive. “We need to be fully in our particularities, not whitewash differences,” he said. He quoted Rabbi Israel Salanter, who said, “The material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual needs.”

Boettiger, in a slight deviation from Pastor Katzmar’s statements on oneness, said he adopts as his model of compassion the views of French Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Lévinas. “Even though we are all the same, we take [seriously] a command like ‘serve the heart of the stranger.’ The key is to serve them because of their otherness.”

Flamur Vehapi, a social sciences instructor at SOU and published author of a book of poetry, talked about his experiences growing up in his native Kosova, where ethnic warfare pitting Serbians against his fellow Albanians destroyed his family’s home when he was a teenager and forced them to flee.

Vehapi’s experiences have given him a high appreciation for the comparative level of diversity in America, but he added an extreme cautionary note.

“Not everybody appreciates this diversity,” he said. “Far too often, it is viewed as a negative aspect or as a cancer, so to say. This is exactly what happened in the Balkans. Massacres happened in the Balkans because diversity was viewed as evil, and Croatians and Bosnians were massacred by Serbian nationalists for the same reason.”

“To me, I see nationalism as a disease of the human heart,” said Vehapi. “Nationalism is done through myth. It tries to bring people together, but eventually it will spill and burn. It can bring about the downfall of a society. I witnessed this firsthand growing up in Kosova.”

Vehapi also spent a few minutes discussing what is sometimes called “Islamophobia,” or fear of Islam.

“People are really afraid the unknown and they create an enemy out of that fear. Islamophobia is on the rise in America, and Europe is even worse when it comes to it,” he said. He ended by attributing to the famous 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke the famous saying “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” although the source of this quote is disputed.

The last panel talk was given by Dr. David Young. Currently serving on the nine-member U.S. branch of the National Spiritual Assembly, which oversees the affairs of the Baha’i religion in particular countries, Dr. Young shared Vehapi’s appreciation for the degree to which Americans have come to accept diversity.

“This panel would never have occurred a couple decades ago,” Young claimed. “But we have seen the second inauguration of a president whose heritage includes being an African-American.”

He later came full circle to this optimism when he said, “We have seen progress in the abolishment of slavery, in the struggle for gender equality, in the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights.”

Young did give a balanced perspective, however, sharing some of Vehapi’s earlier-stated concerns. “On the other hand, the core problems that face humanity are still the same, and we see more pressing attitudes of prejudice.” Young called for a “new global ethic” to maintain and continue the progress he lauded but saw as wavering. He identified this new global ethic as the Golden Rule, which he also called “God’s Law.”

Young said he could understand the reasons people have prejudicial attitudes while at the same time disagreeing with those biases. According to him, these reasons include pressures and tensions created by climate change, global terrorism, and the growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor. He followed this with making a case for the role of accepting and harnessing differences in achieving global human unity, not hiding from them. He interpreted the famous statement from the preamble to America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence which refers to all people being created equal and being endowed with certain inalienable rights in terms echoing Rabbi Boettiger’s earlier statements on serving others because of their otherness.

“The core issue is to live with considerations of others who are not our concern. [Martin Luther] King called this country to account. Obama made the creed [of the Declaration of Independence preamble] the cornerstone of his speech today.”

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