The danger of focusing on human differences

June 9, 2007 | By | 8 Replies More

Bill Clinton’s Commencement Speech at Harvard – June 6, 2007

The former President explained much societal dysfunction when he asked a simple question:  Should we focus on what human beings have in common or should we obsess about their minor differences? 

The outcome of this simple choice determines innumerable personal and political agendas.  To the extent that we choose incorrectly, the resulting contentious rhetoric has the capacity to mushroom into oppression and violence that can displace, maim and kill millions of people.  It has done so repeatedly.

Many of our political and moral disputes stem from this basic low-level perceptual choice: whether to focus on differences or commonalities.  Here is how Clinton captured the issue:

So if you look around this vast crowd today, at the military caps and the baseball caps and the cowboy hats and the turbans, if you look at all the different colors of skin, all the heights, all the widths, all the everything, it’s all rooted in one-tenth of one percent of our genetic make-up. Don’t you think it’s interesting that not just people you find appalling, but all the rest of us, spend 90 percent of our lives thinking about that one-tenth of one percent?

For at least six years, the air has been thick with violence, bigotry and oppression  because too many people are making the wrong choice up front.  The current Administration excels at choosing badly. The result? A de facto national policy that anyone who is different is suspicious. 

As eloquently stated by Bill Clinton, the alternative would be to focus on the fact that humans are 99+% the same (I’ve written on this sameness in many places, including here and here).  Perhaps it’s tempting to resist this thought in a country where we so often stress individual liberties and where our moral system is so rooted in personal responsibilities.  We aren’t as different as we’d like to believe, however.

I agree with Bill Clinton that to the extent that we fret about minor human differences we can expect massive societal dysfunction.  It’s difficult to turn this all around, though, because focusing on differences sells media ads.   We are currently living in an environment created by media corporations that are spraying out stories involving accusations, threats and paranoia.  What’s more interesting, a news story where people get along or a news story where people threat each other?  Massive societal dysfunction is thus the price we must pay to sell lots of jeans, perfume and cell phone plans.

Bill Clinton commencement address is extraordinary, well worth the 30-minutes it will take you to view it.   I also enjoyed several of the terrific speeches by several Harvard grads, all part of this same video.  If you’d like to go straight to view Bill Clinton’s speech, you can pick it up here (at Andrew Sullivan’s site), then start viewing at about 1:36:00.  You’ll find the transcript of Mr. Clinton’s speech here.  Below, I’m printing my personal “best of” excerpts “below the fold,” based upon this transcript. 

When the human genome was sequenced, and the most interesting thing to me as a non-scientist – we finished it in my last year I was president, I really rode herd on this thing and kept throwing more money at it – the most interesting thing to me was the discovery that human beings with their three billion genomes are 99.9 percent identical genetically. So if you look around this vast crowd today, at the military caps and the baseball caps and the cowboy hats and the turbans, if you look at all the different colors of skin, all the heights, all the widths, all the everything, it’s all rooted in one-tenth of one percent of our genetic make-up. Don’t you think it’s interesting that not just people you find appalling, but all the rest of us, spend 90 percent of our lives thinking about that one-tenth of one percent? I mean, don’t we all? How much of the laugh lines in the speeches were about that? At least I didn’t go to Yale, right? [LAUGHTER] That Brown gag was hilarious. [LAUGHTER]

But it’s all the same deal, isn’t it? I mean, the intellectual premise is that the only thing that really matters about our lives are the distinctions we can draw. Indeed, one of the crassest elements of modern culture, all these sort of talk shows, and even a lot of political journalism that’s sort of focused on this shallow judgmentalism. They try to define everybody down by the worst moment in their lives, and it all is about well, no matter whatever’s wrong with me, I’m not that. And yet, you ask Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Bono to come here. Nelson Mandela’s the most admired person in the world. I got tickled the other night. I wound up in a restaurant in New York with a bunch of friends of mine. And I looked over and two tables away, and there was Rush Limbaugh [LAUGHTER], who’s said a few mad things about me. So I went up and shook hands with him and said hello and met his dinner guest. And I came just that close to telling him we were 99.9 percent the same. [LAUGHTER] But I didn’t want to ruin the poor man’s dessert, so I let it go. [LAUGHTER]

Now we’re laughing about this but next month, I’m making my annual trek to Africa to see the work of my AIDS and development project, and to celebrate with Nelson Mandela his birthday. He’s 89. Don’t know how many more he’ll have. And when I think that I might be 99.9 percent the same as him, I can’t even fathom it. So I say that to you, do we have all these other problems? Is Darfur a tragedy? Do I wish America would adopt sensible climate change regulation? Do I hate the fact that ideologues in the government doctored scientific reports? Do I disagree with a thousand things that are going on? Absolutely. But it all flows from the idea that we can violate elemental standards of learning and knowledge and reason and even the humanity of our fellow human beings because our differences matter more. That’s what makes you worship power over purpose. Our differences matter more . . .

I believe the most important problem is the way people think about it and each other, and themselves. The world is awash today in political, religious, almost psychological conflicts, which require us to divide up and demonize people who aren’t us. And every one of them in one way or the other is premised on a very simple idea. That our differences are more important than our common humanity. I would argue that Mother Teresa was asked here, Bono was asked here, and Martin Luther King was asked here because this class believed that they were people who thought our common humanity was more important than our differences [APPLAUSE] . . .

In the central highlands in Africa where I work, when people meet each other walking, nearly nobody rides, and people meet each other walking on the trails, and one person says hello, how are you, good morning, the answer is not I’m fine, how are you. The answer translated into English is this: I see you. Think of that. I see you. How many people do all of us pass every day that we never see? You know, we all haul out of here, somebody’s going to come in here and fold up 20-something thousand chairs. And clean off whatever mess we leave here. And get ready for tomorrow and then after tomorrow, someone will have to fix that. Many of those people feel that no one ever sees them. I would never have seen the people in Aceh in Indonesia if a terrible misfortune had not struck. And so, I leave you with that thought. Be true to the tradition of the great people who have come here. Spend as much of your time and your heart and your spirit as you possibly can thinking about the 99.9 percent. See everyone and realize that everyone needs new beginnings. Enjoy your good fortune. Enjoy your differences, but realize that our common humanity matters much, much more. God bless you and good luck.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, Culture, Good and Evil, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Videos

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    The first thing I thought of when I read this post, especially Clinton's remark that humans are 99.9% the same, and Erich's observation that the Bush Administration "excels at choosing badly," is the notion that America's most important priority should be the so-called "war on terror." If ever there was a case of fixating on the wrong 0.1%, while ignoring the more important 99.9%, this has to be it. Alleged terrorists represent less than 0.001% of the "evil doers" in this world. When they demolished the two WTC towers, they killed 0.001% of the U.S. population. Yet, for the past six years, despite the numerical insignificance of this problem, America's budget and its government have both been obsessed with fighting this inflated foe. If we were to list the top 50 leading causes of death in America, terrorism wouldn't even be on the list. Yet, listen to any Republican political speech, or look at any Republican-drafted budget, and you would be hard pressed to find one that doesn't focus on terrorism, as if this were as big a problem in America as AIDS is in Africa. Americans need to pull their heads out of their backsides and see what havoc the Bush Administration has wrought by focusing 99.9% of its time (and taxpayer's money) on 0.001% of America's problems.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Grumpy: I interpreted Clinton to be recommend a somewhat different approach, though I do agree with your point entirely.

    I understood that Clinton was asking us to consider that the terrorists and their sympathizers (as well as everyone else in the world) are human beings with much in common with us. Consider that many people who hate the U.S. really do want the same sorts of things we want: a roof over their heads, food for their families, a sense of security.

    For me, the Clinton point is well illustrated by the neocon claim that "terrorists" simply hate us because "they" allegedly hate freedom. Listen to what Ron Paul has to say about that.  Paul did not obsess that "terrorists" are different than Americans or that terrorists are irrational. To the contrary, he drew parallels between how those who hate the U.S. think and how Americans would think and react if a foreign power occupied America.

    I'm not suggesting that we need to agree with the reasons anyone posits for any position. On the other hand, if we want to be admired, we simply must start by working to understand the motives of both friends and enemies. The current administration has failed miserably in this regard.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Our culture is geared toward refining the recognition of subtle differences. For example, the school system segregates by age. As a result, kids are more ageist than they would be had they always been exposed to a mix of ages and correlating levels of ability.

    Schools also segregate by gender in so-called physical education. I learned nothing about my physicality in these classes, and even less about the physicality of the complementary gender.

    Home-schooled kids have an even stronger sense of discrimination because they are not exposed to anywhere near as wide a range of cultures as state schooled kids.

  4. Michael Baggett says:

    Is it not traditional to include a persons title? I' sure Fmr. Pres. Clinton would appreciate the respect.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Ron Paul clearly has a better grasp of the 9/11 attack, and the ongoing violence in Iraq, than does any other Republican candidate I've ever heard. The notion that terrorists in Afganistan spent several years organizing the 9/11 attack simply because they "hate our freedom," is idiotic beyond comprehension. Vigilantes don't commit suicide attacking innocent people on the other side of the globe merely because they are envious of the way of life that those innocent people enjoy. They attack and commit suicide because they believe those innocent people are not so innocent.

  6. Mike Keefe says:

    If you have never met someone with whom you share almost nothing in common, then your life have has been insular and your eyes are closed. Talk to a police officer. They can introduce you to people that look human, but have done things you prefer not to think about. Then you can take your daughter into a dark room with this man and talk about how much you have in common.

    People are not the same. It would be nice if it were so, but acting as if it is true when it is not will only get you or someone you care about killed.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike Keefe raises a good point. People are dramatically different. Some of them are incredibly able to master new skills while others are extremely slow on the uptake. Some are gentle and others, if given half a chance, would murder everyone within 50 yards for no reason at all. Many of these qualities are normally invisible, erupting unprovoked in random acts of violence or kindness. Too bad all of our qualities are not visible in some way, perhaps by color patches on our skin or height. If generosity were represented by height, some people would be only an inch tall, whereas others would be 100 feet tall.

    Bill Clinton’s speech was not a denial that people are different. Rather, his speech was directed at finding a way to a better social order. To form a meaningful social order, people need to find things in common, then there can be dialogue. Then there can be negotiations regarding those differences that exist. There will be some people who cannot be brought into the process. A friend of mine recently toured the Miami Dade jail and was shocked and shaken by the types of human beings she saw. Most of the prisoners she saw that day were vile, disgusting, unrepentant and horrifically violent. Bill Clinton knows this, I’m sure. We can’t go around pretending that people like that should be able to run loose.

    On the other hand, there are many people currently in jail who are there because they’ve made mistakes and they are willing to try to rejoin society in a productive way. How shall we view those people? Should we write them off permanently as people who are different, who are beyond redemption? Or should we try to view those people (the ones who are deserving ) as humans who are a lot like you and me, who have made mistakes?

    When we meet gay people, should we view them as Gays, or as people who happen to be gay. When we meet corporate executives, isn’t it more productive to treat them as human beings who happen to be corporate executives? What about women? I’ve been around lots of men who consider them to be a different species, which leads to all kinds of problems. How about treating women as people who happen to be of the female gender? And the French are people who happen to live in France. And so forth. What about those horrible people who are now trying to kill us? Have you ever seen soldiers who fought against each other in WWII having reunions where they now share in their humanity? They can often get along when they reach out. Their violent actions are not their sum totality.

    This subtle-seeming difference of looking for things we all have in common can have dramatic consequences. For one example, bigoted jokes and comments become scarce.

    The important overall benefits of seeing most other people (not the hopelessly violent) as living under the same tent was the point of Bill Clinton’s speech.

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    I'm going to depart a bit from the subject of this post to respond to Erich's rhetorical question concerning repentant prison inmates: "How shall we view those people? Should we write them off permanently as people who are different, who are beyond redemption?"

    According to the American criminal "justice" system, yes. America — by a very wide margin — imprisons a larger percentage of its population than any other nation on earth and it also has a disturbingly high rate of recidivism, suggesting that America does, indeed, permanently write off ex-cons. Politicians campaign with "get tough on crime" slogans while utterly ignoring, indeed, probably exacerbating, the causes of the crime they supposedly want to prevent. America has almost made "writing off people who are different" into a national disgrace. When people in other countries refer to the "ugly American" (i.e., American tourists who are rude and demanding), they are referring to the narrow-minded contempt some Americans have for people who are different.

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