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from the desk of dan ashe

Unity Amid the Challenge of the Closed Mind

By Dan Ashe
min read

In his inaugural address, U.S. President Biden repeatedly used the words “all”, “people”, and “unity”. He used the word “all” 24 times, which has been reported as the most use of one word in any presidential inaugural address. So, a rather remarkable call for everyone to come together. Sounds sensible, even simple.

Revealing a flaw in simple logic, Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common”. Similarly, the inconvenient truth about “unity” is that it requires an open-mindedness that most of us mere mortals don’t frequently display, especially in these divisive times. Liberal-conservative, urban-rural, black-white, rich-poor, old-young, red-blue, east-west, north-south, beer-wine, country-rock-hip-hop, soccer-football, Yankees-Red Sox, divisions define today’s society. Opening the door to “all people,” which we must do in order to expand diversity, equity, access, and inclusion, means we have to open our minds to some scary things—beliefs, customs and opinions—that we’d honestly rather leave outside.

In late 1995, I accompanied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director, the late Mollie Beattie, to a meeting with former and late U.S. Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT). We requested the meeting to talk with Senator Burns about wolf reintroduction, but all he had on his mind was a species that he could only refer to in a very animated taxonomy—“The Goddamn Griz!”. Mollie applied all of her formidable Vermont charm, expressing empathy for Montana ranchers who she felt were experiencing the same wrenching economic realities she saw dairy farmers facing in her home state. To my astonishment, by the time the meeting ended, the two of them were talking like life-long friends.

But, they never got around to talking about wolves, so as we were leaving Mollie said, “Senator, I want to come back and talk about wolves and make sure you have the facts about reintroductions.” Senator Burns smiled and replied, “Well little lady, you are welcome back anytime you want, but just remember that facts don’t mean a goddamn thing to a man who has a closed mind.” I was shocked at the sexism and dismissiveness, but as we walked out the door Mollie said, “I’m sure it’s a character flaw on my part, but I really like that man. Let’s come back soon.”

Not a flaw at all. Mollie had an insatiable appetite for listening, and an unrelenting tolerance for opinions, even those at complete odds with her own. She wanted to understand why Senator Burns’ mind was closed on wolves, because she knew it would make her a better advocate for wolves. In that regard, he wasn’t her enemy; he was her advisor. And as I was listening to President Biden speak about “unity” I was remembering Mollie.

A pack of wolves

Unity requires more than simple tolerance of others and their beliefs, customs, and opinions; they must be welcomed. It doesn’t mean capitulating, or even compromising. In fact, although it’s certainly a goal to forge agreement on issues of governance and policy, and we all love win-win scenarios, unity isn’t really about the outcome, it’s about the process and creating an environment of trust, dignity, respect, and justice. How do we create that environment when our countries—our cultures—have long marginalized people based on politics, race, religion, sexual orientation, and a range of other factors? Perhaps we begin with an open mind, by holding ourselves accountable to make amends with those who have been wronged, and inviting them to join in designing a process that builds rather than erodes trust.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

And Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness …”

These days our travels are limited, but we can reach out and make a journey across the social, philosophical, and cultural divides in our world. Maybe in our smaller professional world, we might start with anyone whom we may have labeled as an “enemy”, a “detractor”, or an “extremist”.

Let’s take a journey of understanding, and be the change that our world needs desperately. Even if we find closed minds on the other side, we’ll understand them better, and we’ll be better advocates for our own cause.

Dan Ashe is the President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

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