Why We Should Focus On Our Similarities, Not Uniqueness

"Define America in one word... Possibilities. Americans always believe anything is possible."

Tonight, Joe Biden, the 47th Vice President of the U.S., came to Kellogg to deliver a talk on unequal economic growth. For me, that was the first time I've got to witness such a high-profile politician speak in person, so, as you can imagine, I was fairly excited about it. And I definitely wasn't disappointed: overall, it was a very interesting and insightful talk. Unequal economic growth of the last decades remains a significant issue that should not be overlooked, and Vice President Biden in his speech touched on many of the key points.

In particular, his push for the healthcare and education to be treated as people's basic right, and not a privilege, felt appropriate and refreshing, and his comments about the unfair restrictions that the companies today often force onto the workers that limit their job mobility and bargaining power, or about the unreasonably harsh licensing requirements for many jobs that as a result stifle competition, were spot on, while also staying reasonable: he only focused on the right of the workers to compete for the jobs and fair pay in an open marketplace, and not on how people are entitled to those jobs in the first place (an argument that a certain person who-must-not-be-named likes to appeal to so much).

Was Biden's speech mostly focused on the U.S.? Well, yes, yet in a way that was to be expected. In business school, it's easy to grow accustomed to the idea of bringing global perspective into every discussion, but one can't expect everyone to follow on this approach, nor is it really necessary. After all, most of us probably didn't come to Kellogg today expecting Biden to deliver a lecture on the issues of inequality globally - we can always look up to Gates and others for that.

However, there was one thing in today's talk that rubbed me the wrong way. In his speech, Vice President repeatedly emphasized the uncanny ability of the U.S. to reimagine itself, the unique qualities that the U.S. and its people possess, and its special place in history of the world, in the process making a few unflattering remarks about China, and also, to my surprise, U.K., France and Germany.

Curiously enough, I actually do agree with most of those remarks: in my opinion, it's quite fair to say that the U.S. holds a unique place of the in world today, as well as to talk about the very special traits and qualities that brought many people to the U.S. in the first place, and then helped them succeed there and build the country as we know it, and the exceptional ability of the country to reimagine itself, and push forward.

Still, I feel that it's not enough for a statement to be simply correct to make for a compelling, and, more importantly, right, argument, and, in my opinion, that was exactly the case here. In the global world of today, there is more to be gained from focusing on how everyone might benefit from increased cooperation that is predicated on every country acknowledging its strong and weak sides, as well as taking time to praise and learn to work with the strengths of its partners. It's not that the U.S. (or any other place) needs to suddenly lose their unique advantages, or forget its history, of course. Rather, it's about focusing on seeing itself as an essential part of the larger world made of equals, and then promoting that kind of worldview among its citizens.

There is also another argument to be made there. The sense of uniqueness can be seen as a source of pride, but it can also easily lead to the feelings of superiority or entitlement. Yes, Vice President Biden did specifically mention that to him, this discussion isn't about entitlement, but that's the issue with the concept of uniqueness: what it actually means is open to everyone's interpretation. Coming from another country that also has a long history of viewing itself, and its people, as a unique and powerful force in the world (to those of you who don't know that, I'm originally from Russia), I've seen firsthand some of the issues often stemming from such positioning. Yes, the sense of national pride can do a lot of good for any country and its people, but it can also represent a dangerous force if taken too far, with the sentiments of people around it subject to being easily manipulated — which makes me convinced that now is not the time to appeal to it, as the dangers far outweigh any possible benefits.

So while I agree with the essence of the comments Vice President Biden made in his speech, I also strongly believe that in today's world that is becoming increasingly global and yet is also riddled with xenophobia, civil unrest, and white supremacy movements gaining ground, the "identity of uniqueness", if you will, even when tied to a country, and not race, ethnicity, or religion, should perhaps make way for the idea of everyone in the world being essentially the same, and of the ever-increasing importance of all of us working together. After all, whether we like it or not, the world we live in is already global, and nothing would ever reverse this, so the sooner we adjust our philosophies and rhetoric accordingly, the better off we'll all be.