Problems with Pluralism 8 December 2006Posted 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.