On unity

by The Editor

SERIES: It’s hard these days, particularly in an environment where collectivism and nationalism hold so much sway, to go for any length of time without hearing a call for ‘unity’. It sounds good enough, but few take time to think about what such a call actually entails. What would a society look like that was absolutely unified? Surely it would be absolutely uniform in turn? When viewed in that light, the idea of unity takes on a different effect.

On unity

By: Gareth van Onselen

17 August 2012

Few things are more common to political rhetoric than the call for unity. One of many politically correct rallying cries employed by the unthinking, it enjoys numerous positive connotations as a result. Rarely, however, is it properly interrogated.

Unity to what end? Absolute unity? Of thought? Of action? Those constitute a series of profoundly disturbing ideas; none more so than the absolute unity of thought, a hallmark of totalitarian thinking.

The moment you place the word absolute in front of unity, it takes on a different feel. One might even say its true implications revealed; for the word, with or without the accompanying description, is absolutist by nature.

If one concedes that absolute unity was never the intention, not only is the suggestion denuded of its purpose but the question, “why not?” is immediately called into existence.

Why is it a bad idea to advocate for a single, uniform way of thinking and being?

The answer, of course, has everything to do with difference and the riches to be found in diversity. We each are different, unique in a special way particular to us. From that simple fact, a thousand other benefits flow: competition, innovation, tolerance, progress, and so on. Uniformity outlaws each one of these and any individual would be the poorer for it.

There is something to be said for cohesion and the idea that a society and its component parts unite behind development and progress but to unite needn’t mean to conform, merely to share a common goal. The method behind its achievement, open to interpretation.

Those who divide opinion are of great value to a society: they test the truth. If their arguments are proven wrong, the truth is strengthened; if proven right, the truth better pursued.

Beware any call for unity. Without the appropriate disclaimer, it is no more than a call for you to relinquish your very nature and, with it, your potential contribution to the world we share.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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