Wednesday, May 27, 2009

E Pluribus Unum

I heard someone speaking recently about one of the three phrases that appear on all American coins: E pluribus unum, or "Out of many, one." Although its context has changed over time, it is commonly taken to represent the same ideal as the metaphor of the melting pot, many cultures and beliefs forming one society. The speaker was intending to proclaim the greatness of American ideals, but in so doing overlooked one of the hazards of slogans: they are often subject to interpretation.

One of the pitfalls I have witnessed recently is the conclusion that the diversity of cultures and beliefs must reach consensus in order to be a part of the same society. Having diverse origins is all well and good, but some seem to believe that all members of a society must have a common culture and belief system, or at least common behaviors. Of course the corollary to that is "Everyone should believe what I believe, because otherwise there is something wrong with them or me." And if everyone is thinking that, "one-ness" seems a far-fetched goal. Is it possible for a collective to have a unified identity while maintaining the integrity of each individual's choice of beliefs and practices? Or when we say "e pluribus unum" are we really saying, "no matter from whence you come, you are welcome to be subject to the beliefs and practices of the majority (or at least the loudest) in this society?"

But although I can make observations or even suggestions regarding society as a whole, my primary influence is on a much smaller scale. Indeed, most people do not have such far-reaching impact that they are altering societal behaviors or beliefs. In the smaller organizations of which I am a part, it seems that consensus is a more realistic goal. This assumes, of course, that all of the participants are willing to reach a consensus. But a common purpose that holds people together can easily allow for diverse origins, cultural practices, spiritual beliefs, and so on and so forth. Provided the unifying purpose is not compromised.

And yet there are those individuals, even on a smaller scale, who believe that their way of doing things is the absolute right way to do it. Their inflexibility can be a particular challenge to consensus building, and at times unity may even be impossible for them. I can only think that those people are often frustrated and frequently disappointed. I know I am when I fall into that insistence.

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