Martin E. Hellman
Work on Diversity

In January 1986, I returned from an eighteen month leave of absence during which I had worked as a full-time volunteer working to end war, to a campus that was in many ways at war along ethnic lines. As I looked at the problem, it appeared to me to mirror the Soviet-American divide that had been the focus of my leave and continued to occupy me on my return.

America and the Soviet Union were each preoccupied with the other's misdeeds, over which they had no direct control, but were largely blind to their own, where they could bring immediate change. In the same way, I found the minority communities focused on racism directed against them, but could not see their own prejudices. And many white students complained about "having multiculturalism shoved down their throats", but were blind to the significant racism that still existed in society, including Stanford. In response, I developed what I called a "no fault" approach to diversity.

In the usual approach, prejudice is seen as an illness that infects a few diseased individuals. The solution is to identify them and force change in their behavior. In the no fault approach, prejudice is seen as a universal that affects us all, white or black or brown or yellow, male or female, rich or poor. And the first step in the solution is not directed at changing others, but in changing one's self. Discussion of differences and conflicts become sources of understanding and learning, instead of salt thrown on an open wound.

The no fault approach is not universally applicable. I recognize the danger posed by well organized hate groups, and I support those working to put them out of business. I also recognize that such high-minded ideals will not be very welcome in the mind of a person whose family has just been slaughtered in ethnic conflict, and I support the use of international tribunals to bring war criminals to justice. But, I also believe there is a need for the no fault approach, working in parallel with the others. And where better to start implementing it than within the Stanford community, where neither hate groups nor ethnic slaughter is an immediate threat?

This approach met with some success and was recognized by three teaching awards from minority student organizations. But the problem is far from solved, even on this idyllic campus, and is in need of all the attention it can get, both here and in the world at large.

To truly value diversity, we must seek to understand why the seemingly crazy people who see an issue differently from us see it the way they do. The following allegory, paraphrased from Indian folklore explains much of what is needed:

Three blind men, who have never experienced an elephant, stumble across one. The first man hits the tusk and complains about the sharp rock that he has struck. The second man, who runs into the elephant's leg, laughs at the foolishness of his companion. Clearly this is a tree! The two men start to argue, each enraged by the other's intransigence. Meanwhile the third man, who has encountered the elephant's trunk, knows that both of them are crazy since this is clearly a serpent.

As human beings, we have only a limited view of the infinite truths of the universe. If we pretend that our piece of the truth is all there is, it becomes a falsehood. The elephant is neither a sharp rock, nor a tree, nor a serpent. We get closer to the truth only if we are open enough to attempt to synthesize larger truths out of seemingly contradictory viewpoints.

This story helps show that valuing diversity does not mean capitulating to another's point of view. If I am the man who stumbles across the elephant's leg, I need to remember how often in the past someone else's "crazy" idea turned out to be merely a function of his different vantage point. If I stop calling the man at the tusk an idiot long enough to come over to where he is and put myself in his shoes, I would not agree with him that the elephant is a sharp rock. Rather I would apologize for having called him names, indicate that I too would have thought it was a sharp rock if I had been in his place, and invite him to come experience the leg that I had stumbled across. If he took me up on my invitation, neither of us would be happy with our original view. We would explore further and learn more of the truth about the elephant.

New information that does not fit my existing world view at first produces conflict. But, in a sense, all new information comes from conflict. When you and I agree on a subject, there is nothing new I can learn from you about it. But, if we disagree, there is the chance I could learn something new from you. So, properly implemented, multiculturalism -- which now produces a lot of conflict -- has the potential to provide much new information. To learn, we need to value the opposing point of view.

Those who believe multiculturalism is sorely needed, need to work to understand the viewpoint of those who feel that multiculturalism has been carried way too far. Only then can they hope to get more people to care about the problems faced by minorities and thereby reduce that burden.

And those who are fed up with the emphasis on multiculturalism need to work to understand the viewpoint of the minorities here. Only then can they hope that minorities will stop complaining so loudly and the issue of multiculturalism will subside in importance.

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