Nearly every organization with which I am currently involved (and happily so) has been doing some work on diversity, equity and inclusion – DEI or sometimes JEDI, adding justice to the acronym. This emphasis on racism, current and past, and on repair reparations – what we should do about this racism – is important stuff. We need better and deeper understanding of racism, and from that understanding we should commit and recommit to a more just world.
One of these organizations encouraged my participation in a webinar about what organizations like this one could and should be doing furthering its DEI agenda. The webinar and related events are under the care of a working group. Its presentation, one of the first slides the working group showed was this one, showing the working groups ‘Working Agreements.’ The premise, they explained, was that their effort could and likely would encounter some tough stuff, and they needed some working agreements to help them navigate these tough moments.
I received a request for feedback after the webinar and I sent in the following note:
I appreciated and valued today’s session, and the larger work that [organization] is doing around these issues.
The phrase “We recognize that there are multiple truths” is one I find very troubling. It’s an issue of considerable importance to me and has been all my adult life. I believe that ‘the truth’ is large and difficult, complex and elusive, but I nevertheless believe deeply that there is One Truth. Any one person is likely to see it only dimly and partially. And I recognize that “What you see depends on where you stand” (or “sit”). But that’s quite a different thing from “many truths.”
“Many truths” is for me, at best, a misguided shorthand for seeing truth as large, difficult, complex and elusive. At its worst, “many truths” opens the door to nihilism. Down that road there is, I believe, no understanding of justice. And isn’t it justice (in some form) that we’re pursuing? In recent years, I’ve had more than enough of “alternative facts” and lies and disinformation. I’ll happily acknowledge that my current understanding (of whatever) is partial, and probably wrong-headed to some degree, but the idea — the promise — of one truth is nevertheless an important touchstone, a deep belief of mine. I never quite believe people mean what they say when they say they believe there are “multiple truths.” That seems like the abdication of any belief in truthfulness. And that way, I believe, leads to madness and violence.
In today’s session all this also led me to be thinking about something else, something related. In listing kinds of diversity, DEI discussions have taken to a familiar list: “color, gender orientation, economic situation, sexual orientation, physical ability” — that was how it was expressed today. But rarely (as today) any mention of religion. In Maine, religion has been a very important cleavage point over many decades, maybe less so today, but it’s still a potent identity for many. On the world stage, religious differences are huge. Religion is an important identity for me. (I’m a Quaker.) I think many people who take matters of religion and faith seriously are likely to recoil at the “many truths” statement, even if it is meant in an anodyne way. It’s not just inclusivity that matters to me here, though that’s on the table: to talk of “many truths” will be to turn away many religious people. In addition, it’s much bigger issues about our ability to ultimately understand one another and to live with one another (and with the world) in harmony and justice that are at stake.
I hope you’ll re-word that “agreement.” Thanks for listening.
I received back this reply:
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me. I can see you’ve done a great deal of thinking about this, and I appreciate your perspective. You make some excellent points, and I appreciate the point about religion. It’s true that we haven’t really included that in our thinking too much.
When we were creating our group agreements, we discussed that statement quite a bit, and there were some in our group with a very similar position to the one you’ve stated. I can tell you that it took some time for all of us to feel like it was something we could sign onto. That is exactly why each group has to create their own set of agreements – they are unique for each group and the discussion and sharing that happens as you talk about them is critical. The agreements can, and probably should, change over time, too, as the group evolves. Our group has been working together for a relatively short time.
One point I’ll make, though, is that when a group is actually diverse, with people of all colors, all age groups, all sexual orientations, multiple religions, you are likely to find those in the group that are strong in their belief that there actually are multiple truths. That is where the rubber really hits the road and it creates discomfort and tension but also the opportunity for greater understanding and trust between individuals, and that is the foundation of equity work.
Thank you so very much for attending the session and sharing your feedback, Douglas. I will forward to the others in our work group. I look forward to seeing you next time!
For me, I think this reply is confused. What I find when I am in groups of all kinds, is not ‘multiple truths’ but rather multiple expressions of truth or multiple beliefs. These multiple expressions or multiple beliefs may diverge; they may even clash. But that doesn’t lead me to think there are, ultimately, multiple truths. I believe, instead, that none of us is ever likely to grasp the whole of truth or fully express it. I believe truth is whole and one. It is our inability to fully grasp the truth that leads us to diverge, not a fracturing of Truth itself. That difference is important, and not just to me.