Written by Harry Burke

On Humanity and Our Addiction to Difference

Walls dividing humanity

Border fence in Nogales Arizona separating the United States from Nogales Sonora Mexico

Over the course of our story, humanity has been addicted to difference. Far too often, distinctions in race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or social and economic class have been the justification for the cruelest acts in history. Thankfully, there have been men and women across the generations who have beaten back the waves of injustice. The late John Lewis – through speeches and non-violent protests – delivered piercing condemnations of America’s racial hierarchy and helped pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi marched 240 miles from his ashram to the Arabian Sea to defy the British prohibition against Indians making salt. With that act of defiance, he – and nearly 50,000 others – put a crack in the edifice of British colonial rule over India. Mother Teresa served “the poorest of the poor” because she saw the face of God more often in the streets of Calcutta than from any preacher in any pulpit. The world has seen immense progress thanks in large part to men and women – known and so many unknown – who have guided the human race away from darkness and toward the light. But humanity’s history is a long and connected chain not easily broken, and the ties of difference and indifference to the “other” still shackle us today.

A child born in the upscale neighborhoods of wealthy nations will have the capacity to achieve the heights of their potential. By contrast, a child born into less affluent circumstances will face the headwinds of poverty, crime, and a second class education. Too often, the decisive distinction between those two children is what side of a border they were on when they came into this world. 

Some use that fact to justify disproportionate outcomes. In the 2018 midterm elections, the President of the United States tried to build up fear and resentment towards migrant families fleeing from the dangers of their homes in Central America to the United States. To the president, the migrants were a horde intent on invasion. They were coming for a free ride. The truth is they left their countries because of epidemic violence and an utter lack of opportunity. They’re not invaders, they are searchers for hope. The president pointed to them as a four year old points to a closet, claiming there are monsters inside. 

I would ask any mother or father in the United States, what would you have done in their place? What lengths would you go to protect your family? I think most Americans would do everything they could to give their children a chance at life and a chance to live. Which side of the border you’re born on is not a reasonable justification for deprivation, or domestic violence, or a lack of education.

I am not advocating the elimination of borders. The nation-state has been the primary organizing structure of humanity for centuries and to scrap Westphalian sovereignty would only lead to chaos and disorder. National identity provides us with language, purpose and culture. A country is a community bound together under a single identity. Extraordinary people have achieved extraordinary things for the sake of their nation. 

But what we must never accept is letting our place of origin blind us to our commitment toward our fellow human beings. When I travel by plane across cities, or states, or countries and I look down at the vast and diverse landscape that is our planet, I see no borders or boundaries from a map. I see the earth, the sea, and think of the challenges and advances of humanity. We are more connected now than ever before. Technology and communication have given us new insights into the lives of others around the world, usually with just the swipe of our finger. And our new closeness is teaching us – especially during this pandemic – that the problems of one can quickly become the problems of all. We cannot let an addiction to difference keep us from solving the defining issues of our time. We must regain our sense of common humanity by working together through international organizations like the UN or WHO. These institutions are not without their flaws. But they are our best tools available to build a better world – one where we move closer toward international community and pursue the equal advancement and treatment of people everywhere. The travails and opportunities of this world are too great for fragmented responses spread out among squabbling nations. To beat COVID-19, or to halt climate change, will take collective action.  

Senator Robert F. Kennedy once sounded a profound note of hope:

We can perhaps remember – if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment that they can.

The struggle will not be easy or swift. There will be setbacks and disappointments. The authoritarians and the xenophobes will not suddenly heed the moral pleas of those who appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” But we have a solemn obligation to make the collective voices of democracy, liberty, and equality heard. Let us now take the first steps with courage and determination.