The Problem of Pluralism

Last post, I examined two different definitions of pluralism: one which describes a state of society characterized by cultural, religious, ethnic, and other forms of diversity and one which embraces such a state of society.  I then tried to distinguish the second definition from relativism.  This post, I’d like to return to that first definition and examine why pluralism poses a problem for social systems.  I don’t pretend that anything in this post will be especially original or profound, but it sets up a series of posts that I want to write starting next month.

A pluralist society is a diverse society, and a diverse society is one characterized by differences: religious differences, cultural differences, gender and sexual differences, economic differences, political differences, racial and ethnic differences, etc.  Accompanying these and other forms of differences are differences in fundamental values and ideas: what religious truth is and what role it should play in individuals’ lives and the broader society; the best form of government and how leaders should relate to the governed; the uses of money, what counts as fair and ethical economic practices, and how the economy can best be structured for society’s benefit; how race and ethnicity are defined and how different racial or ethnic groups should relate to one another; how gender and sexuality are thought of, what are proper relations between the sexes, and what forms of sexuality are acceptable; what cultural practices should and shouldn’t be allowed; and a whole host of other fundamental issues that shape how humans relate to each other.

Liberals often like to celebrate diversity as a wonderful and enriching aspect of our society, and conservatives frequently seem to want to eradicate diversity in favor of the hegemony of straight, white, American males.  Both positions miss out on something.  Not only is conservative opposition to diversity often mean-spirited and bigoted, it’s also mistaken in its view of the possibilities of the future.  American cannot, even if it wanted to, go back to the traditional, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant mainstream of the 1950s.  Diversity will not just stick around, it will increase in this country for demographic, economic, and political reasons that would be nigh impossible to reverse.  Yet this increasing diversity is not just a cause for celebration, but a cause for reflection on the social makeup of our country because, contrary to what some liberals seem to think, diversity is not just a source of enriching broadening of our horizons, but is also a big source of conflict in society.

The tensions that come out of a pluralist, diverse society aren’t just tensions within the framework of that society (for instance, racial or class struggles over the extent to which different groups get to participate in an agreed-upon definition of political and economic rights) but tensions with the framework of that society (in which some groups in society reject the validity of the political systems or cultural ideas that define the society).  It’s fine for socially separate groups to have their own ideas about every topic you can think of, but in order to have a social system, there must be something (or some things) that bind groups together, whether it’s participation in capitalism, belief in liberal democracy and the rule of law, shared cultural values, shared religious practices, or simply a shared commitment to keep engaging with the other despite differences.  Without some shared basis, things fall apart, and there is no center to hold groups together.  Anarchy and conflict are indeed loosed upon the world.

Arguably, it’s more important to have shared values in some areas than others.  Without shared values upon which to build political or economic systems, force is unregulated and the exchange of goods is not possible.  People kill each other and starve for lack of food, and that’s bad.  On the other hand, if there are cultural differences but a shared political and economic system, then there’s still likely to be a lot of conflict, but fewer people dying (though probably still some).

That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not important to think through the problem of pluralism in areas beyond politics and economics.  To assume that these two areas of life are all that matter is reductionist in a way I find unacceptable.  Furthermore, the problem of pluralism is more pressing in areas beyond politics and economics.  In these two areas, liberal democratic capitalism has enough buy-in to keep the world from engulfing itself in flames thoroughly or quickly, but what ties should bind us in other areas is anything but clear.

Globalization makes the question of pluralism all the more pressing, as additional cultural, religious, and ethnic groups plug in to a common global economic and political system.  How does the system handle these types of diversity in a way that respects the rights of groups and individuals to have diverse values and identities while at the same type promoting enough commonalities so that the system does break down into too much open conflict?  This question is one of the most pressing of our times.  Thus, as we look at the increasingly pluralist society in which we live on both a national and global level, in addition to noticing and appreciating the differences between groups, we also need to think about what binds us together.

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