Diversity and Pluralism

26 January 2010


This is the public image of diversity, but there is in fact little tolerance for a recognition of truly diverse kinds of individuals.

At the same time that social diversity and political pluralism have become virtually unquestioned ideals and every society is expected to make at least a half-hearted attempt to put them into practice, there is less recognition than ever of what exactly constitutes diverse kinds of people. Moreover, attempts are made to homogenize different kinds of people. Let me try to explain.

'But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.' Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Chap. 5

When I read about classical antiquity I find it fascinating how many different kinds of people that there were. Everyone is familiar with Aristotle’s argument that some men are slaves by nature, and the economy of the ancient world was a slave economy, with slaves often making up half of the population of the great cities of the ancient world. But there were more than slaves. There were freedmen, for example: former slaves who had gained their freedom. They took pride in their newly won freedom and considered themselves to be a degree above the slaves that were once their fellows in bondage. And there were the freeborn, who took at least an equal pride in being born free and considered themselves to be a degree above the freedmen who had been born a slave. Not content with these diverse kinds of people, the ancients created more kinds of people by, for example, making eunuchs.

Eunuchs were common in the ancient world. The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is a familiar New Testament story.

During the Middle Ages, kinds of people were multiplied by the elaborate feudal system with its endless degrees of social hierarchy. Moreover, the overarching institutions of the time reinforced differences among men: peasants, nobility, and churchmen were understood to have different lives and different functions in society. And in each division of society, hierarchies were instituted according to the feudal model.

A diagram of feudal hierarchy, a stratified society with different kinds of people occupying each level.

Today we are supposed to believe that in the most advanced societies that honor diversity and practice democratic pluralism that all these social constructs of distinct kinds of individuals are either illusory or have been abolished. There is, it seems, only one kind of person in the contemporary industrialized nation-state. I do not agree with this in fact nor in principle. In fact, social classes persist even when they are explicitly denied, and in principle I do not think that it is a good idea to deny that there are fundamentally different kinds of people in the world.

I visited this idea previously in Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism, where I discussed the fatal fallacy implicit in the idea of every man a soldier. With the industrialization of conflict that emerged decisively during the First World War, the nation-states of Europe that had been slowing taking shape since the early modern period had begun to harness the forces of nationalism, and war plans that had been taking shape since the end of the Franco-Prussian war were predicated upon the mobilization of mass man.

Trench warfare during the First World War.

The leaders of these nation-states convinced themselves that one could make a soldier by taking a farmer away from his plow, a factory worker off the assembly line, a student out of a university, or any one from any occupation, give them a gun and drill them for a few weeks or months, and send them to the battlefield. Gone were the days of Enlightenment-era professional armies that won their battles by maneuver; the day of mass war waged by mass man had arrived.

In Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism I went on to say:

The idea of every man a soldier is as unrealistic as the idea — once advanced as the inevitable result of industrialization’s increasing living standards and decreasing work hours — of every man a man of leisure or every man an artist, or, for that matter, every man a wage earner (the present paradigm of industrial society), every man a yeoman farmer (the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy), or every man a peasant (the reality of pre-modern, pre-industrialized civilization).

One of Sartre’s lesser discussed works, Anti-Semite and Jew, also takes on this issue, though from a different point of view of course. That this book is little noticed today (maybe people think that the “Jewish Question” is an outmoded issue from the past) is unfortunate, because the work is a brilliant elucidation of how prejudice functions in society. It would have been more accurate to title the book A Phenomenology of Prejudice. Sartre takes as his example the Jew in western European society, but his argument is valid, mutatis mutandis, for any minority population embedded in a dominant population. What is brilliant about the work is that it resists the familiar oversimplifications that we hear every day in the popular media.

Sartre delineates both the perspective of the anti-Semite and the Jew, and then he goes on to describe the “defender” of the Jew: the democrat. The democrat defends the civil rights of the Jew, but does so at the expense of denying the Jew his Jewishness. But if one holds that there is only one kind of person in a contemporary nation-state, then there is nothing that it is to be a Jew, nothing distinctive about being a Jew (or being anything else, for that matter), and we can, like Sartre’s “democrat” deny the Jew his Jewishness, and in good conscience that we are doing the “right” thing. Obviously, I can’t do justice to Sartre’s work in a paragraph. You need to read it for yourself. And it is well worth reading.

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