10.01.2008 0

Palin’s real diversity

  • On: 10/30/2008 10:08:19
  • In: Sarah Palin
  • By Stephanie Ramage
    (Originally published by the Sunday Paper here.)

    The difference between truth’s complexity and the media’s shallowness is most striking when it comes to the subject of “embracing diversity,” something that Sarah Palin has done more than John McCain, Joe Biden, or even Barack Obama.

    Palin has embraced diversity in a way that Obama never has. I don’t doubt Obama’s sincerity about his willingness to do so; whenever he’s out on the campaign trail and taking the time to talk to people who seem quite different from himself, like Joe Wurzelbacher, he’s doing that, so I’m not saying he hasn’t done it. But Sarah Palin has done it profoundly and intimately in having her baby, Trig.

    Trig Palin, and how America has reacted to him, illustrates the difference between true tolerance and cheap, easy notions of diversity.

    The greatest measure of any society’s tolerance for diversity is not in how it treats racial minorities, or women, or those with same-gender sexual preferences, or the poor; the greatest measure of our tolerance is how we treat those who cannot contribute to society in the way that most of us do.

    We are all valued because of what we can do for others. Regardless of your color or gender or sexual preference or economic status—even if you’re unemployed as you read this—if you’re healthy and fairly mentally sharp, you’ve got the means of contributing to society in the usual way: work, taking care of a family, volunteering, etc. You don’t need much guidance or care or consideration. You work and produce and generally don’t need the rest of society to do much for you.

    To truly embrace diversity, we have to embrace those who are really, truly, fundamentally different from ourselves. Skin color is superficial. Gender differences are malleable. Economic differences fluctuate over time. But those who are fundamentally less able to contribute in traditional ways are truly different.

    I have a friend who is an autistic adult. She has what is called “highly functioning autism.” I have known her for more than 10 years. I don’t check in with her as I should. I have my own concerns, my own family, and I have seen how worn out people become when they are the caregivers for those with autism, mental retardation or mental illness. It is the single most exhausting job in the world.

    Sometimes she will call or email me and ask if I can help her with small things—writing a letter of recommendation for a job or special program, for example—but in general, my friend fends for herself against overwhelming odds.

    Her father died when she was a child. When her mother, who had taken care of her all her life, died a few years ago, my friend was moved into a group home and, in the curious way of those like her, learned through sheer memorization the basic things she needed to know. She knows entire MARTA schedules by heart. She can recite verbatim the cooking instructions off packages. She knows the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act better than most attorneys.

    Yet, despite this stunning cache of knowledge, most people steer clear of my friend. Despite vast resources aimed at racial equality and countless programs to “promote diversity” we do not truly embrace real diversity. Those who are too different—like my friend—are made to feel unwanted and unwelcome.

    I understand how difficult it is to reach out. I know that impulse to avoid contact. Her voice is very high-pitched and if she has something on her mind she will pretty much shriek it at you on a loop for a stretch of 15 minutes at a time. It can be headache-inducing.

    When she worked at a local bookstore, she wanted to be the reader for the Saturday story time. She loves kids. But the bookstore’s management didn’t like her voice and thought the kids wouldn’t like her, so they made her sort books in the stock room. She never got to interact with people and because she is very social, the isolation tormented and depressed her.

    Reaching out to someone like my friend is a demonstration of a belief in real diversity—not the fashionable so-called “diversity” that requires only that we reach out to those whose skin color and sexual preferences are different from our own.

    Face it, having gay friends is deemed “cool” by society; being seen with a racially mixed group is also considered hip and open-minded. In most urban areas, that’s easy diversity—nobody’s going to tell you to stop bringing that black person or gay person around. But, like what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”—a sort of superficial Christianity that you don’t have to work at—it doesn’t really expand your knowledge of what it means to be human; because what we learn from racial and sexual tolerance is that beneath the thin veneer of color or gender we are all the same, while what we learn from reaching out to those with Down syndrome, autism, mental illness or mental retardation is that some people really are profoundly different from the rest of us and we should love them anyway.

    To embrace them is a greater, broader, and more hard-won diversity. It is not fashionable or hip, but it reminds us to value those from whom we have not one thing to gain. What purpose do they serve? In a world where everyone must be cool and smooth and efficient, Sarah Palin’s son Trig is a reminder that humanity is really none of those things. Only by truly accepting our species’ many imperfections can we begin to understand what tolerance and diversity really are.

    Stephanie Ramage is the News Editor of the Sunday Paper.

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