Painting by Franz Marc
When I was very small, I believed that I owned a ranch with horses of many different colors. When I was a little older and saw horses painted by Franz Mark, I was amazed. They looked just like mine. Perhaps even at that early age I understood that diversity should be celebrated – not just tolerated. (HealthWrights staff)


The Connection With Health

By and large people are fairly decent to others whom they perceive to be similar to themselves – especially to other people who belong to the same nation, class or group that they do. It is usually the outsider – the one who is different – who is singled out for attack. The difference may be one of race, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality. Perhaps it is a matter of “mental illness” or retardation, or of some shameful stigma. Groups within the culture who do not allow themselves to be assimilated into the mainstream – the wandering Jew, or the Gypsy – are often targets of the righteous indignation of the mainstream. Diversity can be a source of pain and unnecessary suffering for individuals and communities. But this need not be so. From an ecological perspective we learn that diversity is actually a source of resilience and health in biological systems. In human social systems too, it can be a source of health.


Key Issues

“Southern Comfort,” a documentary film on transsexuals, ends with Lola reflecting on the hostility she and her friends have experienced from the straight community. “What a curious thing to be uptight about,” she says. “Nature delights in diversity. Why don’t human beings?” It’s a good question. The ecological perspective teaches us that a diverse natural environment is a healthy one. Perhaps the same is true of social environments. Yet people spend a great deal of time and energy persecuting various beliefs, personality types, and life styles simply because they are different.

Our thinking about identity is dominated by what might be called “identity templates.” These are more or less stereotypical images of various categories of people – the dumb blond, the cowboy truck-driver, the intellectual, the red neck, the good Christian, the patriot, the sophisticate, the outlaw, and so on. These templates are normative, and are powerful instruments of social control. It is good to be seen as fitting into the more esteemed templates. Conversely, it can be disastrous if one is identified as fitting into a denigrated category.

Dalit Children
Which patterns are best to emulate or to avoid is to some extent determined by the sub-culture to which one belongs. But virtually everybody goes to some trouble to try to mold his or her behavior and appearance into conformity with at least one desired template.

A lot of very influential identity templates are connected with sexual desires and behaviors. The various people portrayed in the “Southern Comfort” documentary grew up being aware that society imposed a hierarchy of identity templates over the biological facts of life. They were also aware of a conflict between their inner experience of themselves and the demands of the templates that they were expected to emulate. The surgical procedures that they sought out, the hormones that they took and the patterns of behavior that brought them into conflict with their families and with society were efforts to resolve this conflict.

The cross-gendered people that were portrayed in “Southern Comfort” were determined to be faithful to their inner sense of who they were. They were willing to risk social censure and other difficulties in life in order to affirm the person they felt themselves to be. I admired them for this and was deeply moved by their struggles. At the same time I wondered whether they were not still trapped to some degree within the identity templates that had been such a problem for them.

Those who felt themselves to be “women trapped in men’s bodies” went to great pains to conform to the dominant identity template for women. They tried to act like women, look like women, and have the classical experiences that women are supposed to have. They even struggled to conform their bodies to the woman template – which was never a wholly satisfactory procedure. And the “men trapped in women’s bodies” did the same in reverse.

Suppose that either boys or girls could wear jewelry, play baseball, cuddle dolls, put on colorful clothes, play with trucks, cry, or assert themselves aggressively. In that case we could possibly move beyond the templates themselves. All people could simply be whatever they experienced themselves to be, and could enjoy residing in whatever body they happened to be born into.

Connections With Other Topics


One of the basic messages that has emerged from ecological studies is that diversity is good – that it provides a rich, flexible and stable foundation for the development of all life. Our understanding of diversity in our social lives is broadened and deepened by bringing to it an ecological perspective.


The issue of diversity is closely connected with education. As the song from the musical “South Pacific” says “You have to be taught to hate.” It is important that in schools children learn that to have respect for oneself, ones ethnic group, and ones country need not entail denigrating people who are different, other ethnic groups or other countries.

Humanizing Institutions

We will also be challenging the social forms that are created to deal with discredited minorities. For more information about the kinds of institutions that tend to be created for devalued minorities, the reader is directed to the “Humanizing Institutions” section. In that section, the idea of labeling theory is especially pertinent. We are also concerned that everybody in our society – even those who have been demonized – should have access to the media – and that they should be able to tell their stories there.

Human Rights

We are challenging the whole idea that some categories of people should be accorded less social status than others. This idea is behind many of the issues that come up around the question of human rights - especially minority rights. The points made by David Werner in his article with regard to those with physical disabilities, in his article People with disabilities in the struggle for social change are applicable to any minority group.

What Can Be Done?

What then, can one person do to create a social environment that is more hospitable to diversity? All of us have aspects of our identity that would place us in a less esteemed social template if people knew more about us. Very likely we are we ashamed of these aspects of who we are. If so, that’s where to begin. The pros and cons of whether or not we wish to allow potentially discrediting information about ourselves made known need to be carefully weighed. But at least we should begin trying to uproot the shame that we privately experience because of our differences. Perhaps we could reach out to someone who shares this difference. In the opposite direction, perhaps we could learn about a person or group that really is quite different from us, and then perhaps communicate with them. Maybe we could even come to understand them. This would help us examine and perhaps expand our own capacity for accepting and celebrating diversity. This sort of reaching out is encouraged by Vicki Robin in the article “Lets Talk America.” Finally one might want to pick a specific issue having to do with diversity and become politically active with a group working in that area.


The question asked by Lola about why human beings don’t love diversity is not an easy one to answer. Of course this lack of love has to do with fear. That points us in the direction of an answer. But what is the nature of this fear? In the article “A Tough Weed to Uproot,” which is on scapegoating, some of the consequences of this fear are explored. But the nature of this fear needs more careful examination. Rather than scapegoat the scapegoaters, we need to try to understand them. Then perhaps we will find ways to allay the fears that drive them to do such terrible things. Because of the current conditions in society it is necessary to focus on “tolerance” for differences and on human rights for minorities. But it is time for us to move beyond tolerance and the legal protections for minorities. Diversity should be celebrated – not just tolerated. It is a source of joy, beauty and creativity in life.