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Problems with Pluralism 8 December 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights.

In another forum I participate on, we’ve been commenting on the past few years of anti-gay politics in America and this great article from the Philadelphia Inquirer. A good friend of mine posed this question:

Can we ever really acknowledge, embrace differences without somehow ordering them? What say you, Todd?

Here is my meandering response:

I have a pretty negative outlook on this because of some stuff I’ve been reading in cognitive science lately. If the findings are correct, one of the functions of our ‘social brain’ (frontal cortex, among other things) is to determine ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, or as one research calls it, enemy/friend distinctions. Less than 15,000 years ago [corrected 20/7/07], humans as a species lived in small bands of hunter gatherers, and you can see how this function of the brain would be useful for survival and would mediate in-group conflicts while promoting care when dealing with people who are “different.” It seems clear that various cultures have their own in/out definitions that are based on any number of factors, such that the definitions of in/out, friend/enemy are not hardwired, but learned. But the capacity (need?) to learn them is, or seems to be, at present.

In american society, pluralistic and immensely diverse as it is, we find multiple (innumerable?) in/out and friend/enemy systems layered on top of each other, perhaps corresponding to other kinds of institutions and identities, where even individuals may have different systems depending on context, and they probably change over time.

The only hope, to me, seems to be the ongoing debates and dialogues about inclusion and exclusion that democracy itself fosters. That’s the only way to manage in an ethical way that kind of pluralism, without devolving into violence. canada, the U.S., and in some respects brazil are actually doing the best job of it at the moment (maybe Australian, but I don’t know enough about that country to say). I think europe is creating some intensely problematic formulations of multiculturalism right now that cannot work in the long run, all the while ignoring the deep-rooted racism that underlies their surface multiculturalism (esp. Holland, England, France, Sweden, Germany).

In other words, I think that social conflict may simply be inevitable among humans, and multiplied exponentially in large, pluralistic societies; so the trick is to set up a system of interaction with concomitant values, whereby those social conflicts can be continually worked out. The in/out boundaries will be quite different in 50 years, I’m sure; so the key is to have, maintain, insist on the democratic values that allow the “out” parties to fight their way in, and the “in” parties to increase their capacity to share power.

Democracy is messy and slow and fragile. But I can’t think of a better way to manage pluralism. What scares me is its fragility. Democracy relies on its citizens (i.e., participators in the civil society, not its nationals) sharing a set of values revolving around Tolerance (e.g., human dignity, equality, individual freedom and rights); if the central values of tolerance disappear or whither, the democracy cannot stand. The far right of the Christian Right, the Dominionists, are the antithesis of democratic tolerance; likewise some of the anti-speech policies being enacted right now in England from the left. To me, the fundamental battle against the Christian Right isn’t about specifics like “gay rights” or “immigration,” but about the meaning of Tolerance and its practice in our pluralistic society.



1. -e- - 13 December 2006

I’m wondering if differences could avoid being ordered by not seeing so many of them as differences at all, but rather as tendencies; as sliding scales in all of us. Being gay for example, is something that is viewed as being either “gay” or “not gay” (in/out as you said). I think the reality is that everyone has tendencies to both and sliding scales of behavior depending on the individual. Much of this scale gets suppressed by social programming, because one if forced to choose the group one allies with. If the groups are gone, and are removed from upbringing then a person could just have their set of nuanced behaviors. This is of course about as utopian as it gets, but I don’t think the idea is humanly impossible or biologically impossible so much as culturally impossible.

2. C. L. Hanson - 16 December 2006

I have spent countless hours contemplating this same question — the fact that humans attribute a whole range of humanity to their own familiar community, yet can’t help but flatten every other group into stereotypes and cartoon characters. Even with groups one doesn’t actually hate, it seems impossible to grasp the idea they are fundamentally the same as us.

It only goes to show how hopeless the situation is, that in an article about this very subject you can’t help but ironically do it yourself: eg. at least the familiar countries I know — whose people I can talk to — aren’t doing too badly on this, but those unfamiliar foreign countries — I hear they have a really bad intractible case of this in/outism, and no good solutions like we have…..

3. On Human Categories « Todd’s Hammer - 21 December 2006

[…] [This is in response to comments made on the Problems with Pluralism post made be C.L. and -e-. I thought it was an interesting enough converesation to merit its own post.] […]

4. Todd - 21 December 2006

Hey C.L., I understand what you’re getting at, but I actually meant something different. I meant that the countries whose modes of multiculturalism I have so far studied; and there is no implication in such a statement that there aren’t others who do it as well or better, just that I haven’t studied them. I don’t think that actually supports your point about flattening other groups, other than as a simple case of I can’t know everything about everyone at once.

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