toward Unity in Diversity
Heiner Benking & Sherryl Stalinski
still under cosntruction - please excuse
Unity in Diversity
Ludwig von Bertalanffy 
100th Anniversary Conference
University of Vienna, November 1-4, 2001, Vienna, Austria

The authors seek to briefly address the persistent challenges of applying general systems principles to our human cultural systems. We identify individual and cultural worldviews which continue to cause us to resist integrating diverse human perspectives and cultural systems in relevant and meaningful relationship. We introduce dialogue methodologies which can lead to cultural praxis toward a more unified and ‘whole’ global humanity which not only retains our individual and cultural diversity, but celebrates and integrates this diversity into ever-increasing relevant and meaningful relationship. The authors introduce the five global ethics identified by the Institute for Global Ethics as the "centralizing influence" which can guide our inter- and intra-cultural dialogues.

General System Theory would seem to point out the obvious reasons for humanity to value, and thus seek out Unity in Diversity. Further, to even carry on a dialogue on the topic within the systems research communities should seem trivial: We understand the value of diversity. We understand the principles which govern a complex, open system to be stable and sustainable over time. We, as systems researchers, should readily conceptualize a complex global human system, made of increasingly specialized and diverse individuals, communities, countries evolving in ever increasing integration and relationship, and evolving around influential centers which continually catalyze our increased organization. As systems researchers, a conference on Unity in Diversity should seem like a kindergarten reunion; an exercise in ‘preaching to the choir.’

And yet here we are, still reconciling what we have learned through empirical systems research with what we have learned through personal experience. And for many of us, influenced by the wisdom and understanding of the new sciences, we find ourselves still reconciling the experiential and the empirical with new, relativist or postmodern perspectives. We continue to struggle to validate and honor our own diverse ways of knowing (Earley 1997; Harman, 1998; Stalinski, 2001) along with the diverse perspectives of others. The struggle comes from trying to choose between perspectives; an ingrained insistence that we must choose one perspective or another, rather than holding diverse and multiple perspectives simultaneously and then seeking their integration.

Jay Earley (1997) articulates the same fundamental processes of integration as von Bertalanffy by concluding that "differentiation (complexity), autonomy and wholeness are the three basic tendencies of evolution." The authors propose that in and among human systems, this process happens concurrently at the level of individual consciousness and the societal/cultural levels. It seems significant however to remind ourselves that this evolution—increased wholeness and individuation (unity)--happens through the relevant, effective and right relationship of increasingly diverse (differentiated and autonomous) components (Bertalanffy, 1968). The evolutionary process is not reliant merely on differentiation, but on the appropriate relationship of differentiated systems components; whether biological, organismic or human perspectives.

Human evolution likewise follows this principle—human perspectives which drive human behavior—is the process of evolving individual consciousness and the inevitable concurrent evolution of our social systems and their cultures (Banathy, 2000; Earley, 1997; Harman, 1998). Rose (1998), Gebser (1949/86) and the authors (Benking & Stalinski, 2001) argue that this process is central to being, and emergence of evolved consciousness (and thus the integration of human culture) is an experiential, "concrete," as well as conceptual reality. Earley likewise calls for the integration of "participatory" and "reflexive" consciousness—again underscoring the integration of the experiential, rational and spiritual towards increased individual and cultural wholeness.

The evolution of consciousness is not a process so much of changing perspective and personally held meaning and worldviews, as it is a process of integration (Gebser, 1949/86, Rose, 1998; Benking & Stalinski, 2001) and finding internal congruency among what we know empirically, experientially and from our understanding of meaning (Stalinski, 2001). Our cultures then are the lived and experienced reflection of our individual consciousness and awareness and thus likewise, cultural evolution is a process of living and experiencing both internal and external differentiation, integration and congruency. Often our contemporary cultures express contradictory and conflicting values internally, and even as we ignore these internal conflicts, humanity seems to be striving for a more global wholeness and unity.

Within our human communities—whether local, societal or global—the unity or ‘wholeness’ of the systems complex of diverse individuals and sub-systems is centralized by shared meaning and value. Human cultures are value-guided systems (Laszlo, E. 1996; Banathy, 1996, 2000) and we learn through personal experience and cultural influence to value that which benefits our ability to not just survive, but thrive as individuals and social systems. The cultures within our small local geographic communities or larger societal systems evolve around the ‘highly influential centers’ (Bertalanffy, 1968) of the values adopted by and the norms agreed upon by the system. And yet central meaning, values, and norms are rarely reflected upon and evaluated at a conscious level.

Internal-External Dialogue

In the process of evolving to a more unified, whole systems complex of diverse cultural, socio-economic, religious, psychological individuals and social systems, it is dialogue which can enable us to discover the relevant and integrated interrelations which will make us a more autonomous individually, and more unified globally. This dialogue may be internal as we seek congruency between what we know empirically, experientially and from our understanding of meaning for our individual and collective lives. This conscious reflection of personal values and meaning impacts our behavior choices, especially in how we view and perceive others who may seem different from us, and cause discomfort. The willingness to engage in external dialogue – the co-creation of meaning with others—becomes an exploration in discovering how we fit together, as individuals, communities, cultures and nations (Bohm & Peat, 1987; Lopez-Garay, 2001; Christakis, 2001). The level and focus of dialogue may require various dialogue methodologies, a few we introduce here with encouragement for further exploration:

Models, Maps & Metaphor

That which we experience in life: the tactile, sights, smells, sounds, tastes and emotional feelings make up the strongest sense of understanding our human experience. While we may sometimes use our capacity to reason to try to understand these experiences, it is often difficult to argue rationally against what is learned experientially. In dialogue, we can create valuable experiential learning through our senses and emotions by languaging with the concrete. The use of models, maps and metaphor are strong tools for sharing verbally, in writing and outside the parameters of our symbolic languages. (Benking 1996, 1997; 2001 Rose, 2000; Stalinski, 2001)


The purpose of dialogue is to create shared meaning. Since we currently experience life within the constraints of linear time, it is important that diversity is nurtured by enabling diverse participation in equitable ways. Time-sharing roundtable exercises enable participants to reflect the other perspective and at the same time practice "communion" through empowerment, giving voice and sharing empathy in a process of establishing shared meaning. (Judge, 1994; Benking, 1998; Bohm [online]). The theoretical framework for embodied shared meaning was established by Hellmuth Plessner who re-established our ability to take on other viewpoints with the definition of "eccentric positionality." (Benking & Rose, 1996)

The Design Conversation

Dialogue which seeks to create, redesign or refine human systems requires competence in the area of design. The design conversation engages participants in both generative and strategic dialogue in order to gain design competence and effectively conceptualize and create complex human systems. (Banathy, 1996; Laszlo, Laszlo, et al, 1996; Stalinski 2001)

Computer-Aided Dialogue for Addressing Complex Societal Issues

Complex systems can be challenging to design, and quite impossible to fix when they are not functioning optimally. Addressing the systemic mess of complex organizational and societal issues, as well as designing ways to re-create them to be healthy, viable and sustainable can be aided with the help of computer software technologies. (Christakis, 1996, 2001; Judge, 1998).

The Influential Center of a Global Dialogue:

Systems evolve around ‘instigating causalities’ which influence and catalyze the organization of a system (Bertalanffy, 1968). In our cultural systems, these influential centers are the values which define the cultural system and the norms and behaviors which reflect these values are catalyzed by our cultural leadership. By understanding the role of leadership as "centralizing" and influential for the application of a culture’s values, leadership can be seen not as a "dominant" role, but a "predominant" role which empowers integration and interrelationship among all system members to create a more unified and individuated ‘whole’ culture (Stalinski, 2001). At a global level the Institute for Global Ethics already lists five values identified around the world: respect, honesty, compassion, fairness and responsibility (Glenn & Gordon, 2001). These fundamental, life-affirming values, by being integrated within cultural dialogues at all levels of the global human systems complex, can provide a meaningful and valuable ‘centralizing influence’ as we strive for an increased unity, bound and influenced these central values, and expressed in myriad diverse cultural, ethnic, and even religious traditions.

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