Moving Toward Multiplicity

Listening to Howard Zinn (author of the classic A People’s History of the United States) at a town hall meeting style presentation recorded in 2007 (you can get it on Itunes from  WGBH Politics) I was struck by the need to recognize the sheer complexity of issues and multiplicity of perspectives.

To state it as simply as possible: Not everything is the same. When we attempt to represent EVERYthing as if it were represented by ONE thing, we often neglect the complexity and multiplicity involved in the matter.

I will use two examples that Howard Zinn illustrated well at the community forum, then address the issues that it seemed relevant to connect to.

 Zinn takes on the idea of “Family values”. Some conservative political interest say that they represent ‘family values’. But he asks “Which family?” I think it is a valid question. There are families with single moms and multiple kids, divorced dads raising a family, there are foster families, adoptive families, multi-generational families living in the same house. There are lesbian couples with no kids and gay couples with kids. My wife are were D.I.N.K.s (double income – no kids) hen she lost her job while were trying to adopt (which fell through recently) and every permeation you can imagine.

Which family is represented by Focus on the Family’s values?  It is erroneous to act as if there is one kind of family and that you represent their values.

That is, unless you are saying that you value only one type of family.

That would be fair enough but you would have to stop using the phrase ‘family values’. Some families value making money or achieving success. Some value conformity. Some value religious adherence above all else.  Some value military service while others value independent thinking or even civil disobedience.

 Zinn says the same thing about the ‘National interest’. I am a big fan of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology and both he and Zinn talk about President’s ability to declare war or even launch the nuclear codes should the President deem it ‘in the national interest’.

But which of the many National interests? The Nation is not interested in only one thing. There are hundreds or thousands of interests. Unfortunately the reductive mono-speak is code. These buzz-words become code-words for an assume-unstated single issue that clouds the true complexity behind the language.

Zinn touched another example which has been showing up in a lot of my reading lately. The phrase ‘We the people’ is a magnificent ideal. I admire the phase and the idea behind it so much. But I think that it is worth noting that when it was written – we the people were not in the room. At the time of it’s writing, not every ‘we’ was represented.

There were no native americans in the room, no women, no blacks, no commoners. Just land-owning white males. But they had an idea – and it is that idea that we love!

I actually think that this is the exact type of trajectory mentality that we see in a progressive reading of the New Testament. When Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He is doing this exact thing. He wrote in prophetic expectation using the 3 categories employed in his day were being broken with resurrection power. Barriers between nationality (or race), legal status and gender were being dissolved. My assertion is that it was not for the purpose of homogenization but for multiplicity! The former containers can not contain what it being poured out and welling up in Christ’s new life.

This is why I don’t sweat the fact that Paul appears to by anti-gay (though I argue that he was not anti-gay in the same way that those who quote him today are). You have to read Paul on a trajectory. Within the fruit of the Spirit of God is seed of liberation and transformation. So like ‘We the people’ – it looks forward to a greater reality than was present at it’s writing. Contained within the words is an ideal not yet realized. That is part of why I don’t want to conserve the reality of the time of it’s writing, but spring board off of it to be propelled to a greater one.

We can get caught up in reductive views that ignore the inherent complexity that we are dealing with. For instance, “Is the world essentially good or bad?” or “Are humans inherently evil or innately good?”   That kind of simplicity is blind to the multiplicity of factors that we are dealing with in any conversation and allowing the conversation to be framed that way almost ensured that no progress will be made.

Good people still do bad things or even do good things with poor motivation. People who do bad things often love their own families.

We do ourselves a great disservice when we allow our media to talk about ‘the evangelical vote’ or even ‘the black perspective’ as if those parameters only mean one thing or as if everyone within designations voted the same way or believe all the same things, hold all the same values and act in unison. It is fictitious, deceptive and paralyzing.

You can’t even say ‘gun owners’ and mean one thing! Our language (and the dualism behind it) is crippling our culture.

There has been a great “De-centering” that has happened to humanity in the past 500 years. If you just look at the effect starting with Copernicus and continue to Darwin, the earth is not the center of the universe and neither are humans.

It would do us well to move from a reductive mentality (center/ order) to a dynamic interplay of emergent elements. When we recognize the complexity and multiplicity involved in the reality behind our ‘code words’, we will begin to access the real issues that face us.

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I hate to get all high-school-civics here, but Constitutionally, the president can't declare a war.  When presidents start wars without a Congressional declaration, they do so against the Constitution.


Beyond that, interesting post, and a good early step in all sorts of interesting (which is to say difficult) ethical conversations.


Mass communication by definition is macroscopic. Perhaps, the reduction to individualization via small conversation is the only solution to a problematic homogenization.  


I agree that we need to be wary of language that hijacks popular opinion in order to manipulate an outcome. Of course the other end of the spectrum where we feel that we can only ever speak for ourselves seems a bit weak by contrast but there is a middle ground that can be found with some thought. It's easy to feel overwhelmed when people with authority see unity as uniformity and difference as dissidence but fortunately the world doesn't work like that. Homogeneity might be attractive to those who seek reassurance about themselves but it is rarely an accurate depiction of any reality.


Great post!  This highlights the importance of being in relationship and community with diverse people and ideas. Ironically, the internet has made the world smaller but not necessarily more diverse.  More and more we are able to custom set our social media so we are only hearing voices from those who agree with us.  (a bit off topic)

BoSanders moderator

 @adamelo I'm not sure I agree with your initial assertion.  It is a very similar problem to the one that Barber addresses in 'Jihad vs. McWorld'.  The two seem in an adversarial opposition to each other ... but are in fact somewhat dependent on each other. 


Mass media needs local stories to report on. Then they macro-tize it :)  But I like the direction you are going !   Thanks for the challenging thought. 

BoSanders moderator

 @sweetpotato off topic? possibly.  relevant? absolutely!  In fact, this past presidential election was eye opening for me to see how some of my friends - who have migrated theologically and politically - struggled with their FB feed and the 'folks from back home'.  


That is just a small example of the role social media plays in our connected-lives.  Thanks for the note!  -Bo 


 @BoSanders I may not have clearly stated my point. I didn't mean 'mass communication' as in mass media although that could be included. What I mean to say is that Sweeping Statement & Generalizations are unfortunately a natural feature of our sociology. Much like what 'sweetpotato' pointed out, (I would argue the Only way) to break that monotony is through the hard work of small community. Let me know if that makes a difference.


I'm not familiar with the work you sited and maybe thats why i'm not understanding your point. Could you clarify your point and/or disagreement?