Diversity vs Pluralism
I seem to be completely unable to write original prose nowadays. Instead, I offer you yet another blurb from my archives, this time from a group blog called specialagency.net that lasted for, like, two months.
I went through elementary school in the early eighties, during the formative years of the movement that would come to be known as "political correctness." My teachers, God love them, were totally keen on the idea and worked as hard as they could to recognize and celebrate the diversity of the students in their classrooms.
Unfortunately, we lived in a small, ethnically homogeneous town in southwestern Virginia, and in second grade there were three of us in Ms Branchaud's class who could concievably be considered "diversity." On our annual Culture Awareness Day, the three of us would be trotted up to the front of the class for a special show-and-tell, during which we would show off some cultural artifact demonstrating how we enrich the fabric of American society with our weird foreign ways. On this day, Benjamin (Jewish) wore a yarmulke to class. Kanaka (Indian) brought a small figurine of the Hindu god Ganesh. And I wore an elegant Korean hanbok, an elaborately embroidered silk garment that had been passed down through generations of my family to me.
Or, to put it in second-grade language: there was the guy with a frisbee on his head, the girl who prayed to elephants, and the boy in girl clothes. Needless to say, we got beaten up almost as soon as recess started.
I want to point out, this wasn't anything having to do with racism. It's just the nature of second-graders to mock and torment kids who exhibit any difference at all. The first kid in our class to start wearing glasses, for example, got into fights every day for weeks, until Bruce broke his arm playing touch football and we all got distracted by the cast. But I think this illustrates, on small scale, why the rhetoric of political correctness is failing ethnic minorities in America.
Politicians will often make grand, sweeping speeches about the virtue of "diversity". The ethnic and cultural diversity of America, they will argue, adds vitality to American culture by offering fresh opinions and new points of view.
Hogwash. Diversity, as far as it goes, isn't a virtue at all. It's already an undeniable fact of life for residents of almost all American cities that this country is no longer a white, Christian, Anglo nation, if it ever was. "Diversity" takes no work. Moreover, race riots, like the one that gutted Los Angeles' Koreatown in 1992, are still possible even in the most ethnically diverse of American cities.
"Tolerance", I suppose, is a bit better. "Tolerance" at least moves us away from outright violence between minority groups. But mere tolerance is still not the same thing as acceptance. Consider the recent history of the gay culture in America. Will and Grace has been a hit sitcom since 1998. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was the cultural phenomenon of the year last year. Ellen Degeneres' eponymous talk show has already won four Emmys in its first season on the air. Tolerance of gay culture -- or at least, of depictions of gay people in the mass media -- is at an all-time high.
But as soon as homosexual couples start demanding the right to have their relationships recognized by the law in the same manner as their heterosexual counterparts, states start passing laws defending the institution of marriage from being sullied by this queer taint. The apparent "tolerance" of gays in America is still, at best, a superficial, begrudging acknowledgment of our existence. Former blogger noahlogue went further and once referred to Queer Eye as a kind of gay minstrel show -- straight culture's ironic and patronizing appropriation of those aspects of gay culture it finds humorous or useful.
I'd like to suggest that we stop thinking about diversity and tolerance as if they are ends in themselves. If American society values diversity at all (and democracy inherently should), it has to be in the context of an active, engaged pluralism in which individual cultures interact substantively with one another while preserving their own unique and valuable aspects. I would argue that the cultivation of this intercultural dialogue should be the real ultimate goal of all identity politics.
Now you see where I'm going with this.
Diversity isn't a goal; it's an undeniable fact of life in modern America. But multiculturalism without intercultural understanding is dangerous, as different cultures have different and often incompatible values and interests. Recent history provides any number of examples of multicultural nations where internecine tensions remain unaddressed and eventually turn into ethnic violence. And the problem with tolerance alone without a commitment to dialogue is that it doesn't provide a way for groups in conflict to cultivate a truly pluralistic common society.
Political values, like all social values, are culturally contingent, and insofar as American society can be thought to consist of competing "red" and "blue" political cultures, I would argue that American political discourse between liberals and conservatives demands the same kind of active engagement that the interaction of any cultures in conflict do.
What's most upsetting about the vitrolic tenor of American political discourse, for me, is how much it sounds like the rhetoric of ethnic conflict. Both liberals and conservatives accuse one another of being immoral, leading to a contemptuous sort of superiority complex. For pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Roger Moore, and increasingly the webloggers who attempt to emulate them, political discourse is all about belittling their interlocutors and suggesting that their opponents are not only less ethical and less rational than they are themselves, but also somehow less human.
The internet has this amazing unrealized potential to become just the sort of meeting space where pluralism can flourish. Getting to know how The Other Side thinks about an issue could be as easy as hopping over to a conservative chat room or reading through any of the now countless gay blogs on the net. And message boards, to me, seem like they could be the perfect place for people from different backrounds and different political cultures to interact.
But as it stands now, the internet may only be helping to exacerbate the problem, because it's so easy for me to limit my reading to only those blogs that I already agree with. Why should I have an open mind, I might think, since there are all these people who already agree with me?
So while we here at specialagency have been a little obsessed with how the political discourse in America is broken, I'd like to suggest that the problem is really much deeper. People naturally just aren't good at dealing with people who are different from themselves, and the ability to be open-minded when confronted with difference is something that has to be learned. The impulse that drives us to be intolerant -- whether this manifests as racism, homophobia, sexism, religious intolerance, or poisonous political rhetoric -- is always the same, and, unfortunately, all too human.
June 15, 2004