Differences Among Us

Sometime after I began teaching philosophy I started using  “voting” as a  technique for getting the students more involved.  We outlined the different views for a given issue, and then everyone voted their position. It was a way of pressing them for some initial participation, and from there I could move them into more serious and intense discussions about whatever issue we were working with at the time.

Over time, what I noticed is that no matter how much I thought a given question was not controversial, and that there could really only be one answer, invariably there would be conflicting opinions among the students. The only universal vote I ever got was if  I suggested canceling class.  Other than that, there was disagreement. After many years of watching this phenomenon, it ultimately occurred to me that people do indeed see the world in significantly different ways.

Of course, there were times where there was significant agreement, but there were always hold outs for some other viewpoint.  I say that the differences among individuals “occurred to me,” but it was actually stronger than just a thought. I finally after several years of my voting strategy actually felt and experienced that we were truly different as beings in the world.

Most of these differences were benign and not threatening to others’ beliefs, although occasionally they could fall into an either/or category, but the important point that stayed with me throughout the rest of my teaching career is that these differences were what made us unique in the world. No one else sees the world exactly as we see it. There is overlap, to be sure, but overlap is something still short of complete agreement.

What I came to realize is how valuable and precious these differences among us were for the richness of our lives and our ability to create new things in the world.  Every invention, every new idea or technique, every travel down a new road made the world a new and different place , and those innovations emerged out of those differences among us. Not all those differences are benign, but that is the inherent risk of change. It can be beneficial; it can be detrimental.  Change means something new and different, but not always something better, although there can be no “better” without risking the “worse.” That is the way of it. The possibility of failure is unavoidably linked to what leads us to success. Or to put it more simply, failure and success go together. You have to risk failure to succeed. And our attempts to succeed are driven and motivated by how we see the world each in our own way.  Our differences yield up a richer, deeper, more complex, more satisfying, world at the same time that such positive changes can be thwarted and overcome. I realized further that without those vital and precious “differences,” the world would be a very dull and uninteresting place to be.

It is our differences that lead to the sophisticated, complex, and amazing world that we live in, which means that differences are to be embraced and nurtured. Beliefs such as racism, sexism, us versus them, homophobia, ethnic cleansing, rigid orthodoxy and all the other limiting, crushing, hurtful, vicious beliefs that people can and do embrace are based on some unwillingness to accept  differences in others. They shut down possibility, creativity and positive growth for the sake of a false security grounded in some kind of exclusivity of us against them. Rather, our differences call for celebration.

Embrace our differences, and watch the world flourish!

For more of my thought, you can look at my E-book Ten Ways Philosophy is Practical . . . and Counting.    http://www.cole-kiernan.com/  Go to my website and click on the links page.


About The Practical Philosopher

I am a retired Philosophy professor. I taught philosophy for 43 years, and I would like to share some of what I have found pursuing the fascinating journey of philosophy.
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7 Responses to Differences Among Us

  1. Maria Katonak says:

    Hi Bill:

    Loved the story about the students voting and the implications of it. Towards the end of this when you write about people’s unwillingness to embrace differences–there is so much fear in that unwillingness!

    Important piece for our times, should be in the NY Times Op Ed pages.

    Thank you,

    Maria K

    Sent from my iPhone

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