Fix on Fail I: Everyday Arguments for Pluralism, Multiculturalism and Diversity

This is the first in a small series of essays about everyday forms of social reason behind commonly defended values or propositions, each of which will argue that those values are now profoundly at risk. Political elites, intellectuals, and civil society activists often assume that there is or ought to be broad acceptance of those values. They act as if breaches and challenges to those dominant beliefs are the result of ignorance and backwardness, and that these challenges will fade eventually over time if sufficient power is used to contain and suppress those challenges in the present. Instead, I believe that the arguments for these values are in serious crisis, that they no longer persuade many people in many societies (if they ever did), and that elites in many cases are stuck enforcing views that risk becoming parochial or local values held by their own social class. We must undertake the work of rethinking, refurbishing and revisiting these ideas in the real everyday experiences of 21st Century humanity.

First up: pluralism, multiculturalism and diversity.

Whatever happens in today’s Brexit vote, the fact that the vote to leave the European Union was strongly supported by many voters in the United Kingdom, largely in connection to antipathies towards immigration and unrestricted border control, is precisely the kind of graveyard that cosmopolitan elites, liberal policy-makers, self-satisfied activists and Hallmark-card level celebrators of multiculturalism have contrived to whistle past, louder and louder as the close calls have become razor-thin and the documented failures of actually-existing pluralism to achieve most of what it has congratulated itself for achieving have piled higher and higher.

I am a person of my own social class, and pluralism and diversity are values that I deeply support and aspire to practice in my decision-making and everyday life. So the following critique is very much intended to protect and strengthen these values with the ardent conviction that many people who are not part of my immediate social world should share these values. It has come to the point, however, that if we cannot investigate with an open mind why pluralism is at risk and with whom, and thus begin to understand how to renew what it might mean to cherish an ideal of pluralism across our society, I fear very much that in thirty years time some forms of performed and expressed fidelity to diversity will be drawing-room manners for an aging and sequestered elite.

Keep in mind that valuing self-conscious commitments to pluralism, valuing the idea of building communities that cherish a wide range of life experiences, cultural and expressive practices, convictions and beliefs, is not the same as living in necessarily pluralistic societies. Even if we lose an aspiration to intentional pluralism, we will still live alongside people who are different in many respects than we ourselves are. That’s a deeply human experience, in greater profusion and intensity over the last four centuries. So the alternative to cherishing and building pluralism is not homogeneity.

This is a good place to start with refurbishing the argument for intentional pluralism. It starts with thinking about what has been wrong with the sort of pluralism that grows out the accumulated relations between peoples and identities which have been thrown together by the accidental, organic or incidental movement of groups or through the forced or violent migration of one group under the oppression of another. Groups living next to one another or alongside each other within a single place have often reached practical understandings about the limits and rules of their relations, but they have not often had any principled or persistent view of those rules. In many cases in history, peaceful and mutually advantageous relations between relatively equal groups or societies hold for as long as the overall political economy of a region or place is stable (a rare enough circumstance) and as long as no one thinks they can gain a permanent advantage through violence or subordination directed at other groups. Or as long as a small minority group of residents have some particular skill or resource that the dominant majority find useful. Merchants who have access to long-distance trade networks, scholars from far away who have linguistic or interpretative competencies, artisans who keep some craft knowledge opaque to others, and so on.

Why try to build communities, societies, nations, or a world that set out to be pluralistic on purpose, and that enshrine pluralism as a central value or belief system? What many people today might support is the promise that this is a way to break the wheel of uncertainty about accidental neighbors, to escape from a cycle where violence, flight, compulsion and mistreatment are always the threatening possibility of every understanding or contract. But this then is the first place that we’re failing, badly. Intentional pluralism defended as a state ideology or a civic virtue in the early 21st Century does not feel to many people as if it is an alternative to being left to your own devices to work out as best you can an understanding with neighbors welcome and unwelcome, and if necessary, to violently resolve a bad understanding with whatever collective power your own communities can mobilize. There is no greater security or understanding for most people in most nation-states that arises out of an official or civic endorsement of pluralism. Nation-states rarely offer safety, protection or rights evenly to all identifiable groups and communities within their territories. Having neighbors who are different religiously, ethnically, or in terms of lifeways and everyday practices, is for many people not a source of strength but of danger, even if the overall society claims otherwise. The only people who consistently experience multiculturalism and pluralism as an empowering and affirming value system are those with the resources to take the best of what it offers materially and socially, who are associated with historically dominant groups, and who are in charge of civic and governmental institutions that take pluralism and multiculturalism as their authorizing principle.

Wider populations in nations or across transnational boundaries will never embrace pluralism as an official political and civic value system until it actually keeps people more secure in their bodies, their hearts and their material circumstances. More secure and consistent in outcomes than the unpredictable processes of negotiation and struggle that unfold between groups that have been thrown together by history. No matter what, groups will deal with other groups as they must–and struggle or fight when they judge that inevitable–unless official pluralism is a consistently and truthfully better alternative. Unless it’s safe to be different, unless the language of rights and the realities of power conventionally and commonly align.

What else do we need to know or need to rethink? Elites who delight in cosmopolitanism and diversity need to listen carefully to individuals and communities who tell us about the times that diversity exhausts, weakens or exasperates them. That’s not just in the case often described by social justice activists, who justifiably point out that having to explain your difference to majority or dominant groups largely for the educational benefit of those dominant elites is at the absolute minimum a tiring cost of co-existence and at the worst feels degrading and affirming of the power of those elites. It’s even true in situations where groups have some degree of parity in their social power and have substantial reservoirs of understanding about the other social worlds that exist alongside them. It’s true even for groups that are dominant over others: they do not need remedies or special consideration, but their emotional experience of difference matters in trying to make sure that diversity and pluralism thrive as real values that are actually held by consensus. In-group social life has all the affordances (and dangers) of intimacy: the possibility that you can simply exist without explanations, in comfortable fellowship. That you can have the inward discoveries that long shared experience allows. Much of our valedictory rhetoric about pluralism and diversity ignores, downplays or denigrates the value of exclusive social belonging, or justifies it only in an instrumental and functionalist sense that historically oppressed groups need such exclusivity in order to feel safe. But this feeling is not just practical or politically necessary: it is in some sense a necessary part of a good pluralism. Without groups that also have a sense of exclusive, inward belonging and intimacy, there is no pluralism. Without heterogeneity that is genuine, there is no diversity.

We are often blithe about just how hard it is to live in a continuously diverse or heterogenous situation, how abrading it can be to a sense of selfhood and autonomy to have to constantly defer to every other practice or lifeway in the name of being happily multicultural. We also forget how profoundly confusing it is in the context of everyday life to have to distinguish between the diversity that we are called to embrace and the divergence that we are called to oppose or condemn. Educated cosmopolitans sometimes act as if this is a simple matter (though others, thankfully, regard this as among the hardest kind of everyday work we do as human beings.) We have got to acknowledge how hard it is to do, and how many difficult cases there can be when we set out to distinguish between a way of life that we should embrace as part of the range of diversity and a way of life that we should condemn as a violation of basic democratic or moral principles. The current trend in a lot of left or liberal activism is the opposite, to mock and condemn some for their hesitation at that boundary and to see the distinction between the two as obvious and undebatable. When we act as if it’s easy to be pluralistic, as if it’s a simple and obvious moral imperative to embrace diversity at all times and in all places, we are again substituting a narrow, class-bound and institutionally privileged habitus for the values we hope to see our entire society adhere to. It’s not even easy, really, for highly educated professionals who live within communities that have a picture-perfect kind of visual diversity. Until we let people have back a kind of honesty about what’s hard about living with difference and hard about being labelled as different, we will see people quietly slip away from pluralism. More and more will come to see pluralism as the parochial view of a narrow elite, as the specific cultural belief of a specific kind of person who lives somewhere else.

We also have got to get real about when pluralism and diversity have at least some relationship to the zero-sum games that neoliberalism in particular but not neoliberalism alone or exclusively have established within the global economy. Here I do not mean the idea that racism is an ideology that the dominant elites encourage in some subordinate but favored group of proxies for the sake of social control. I mean instead simply this: that if there is a fixed pool of wealth and power with an upper bound, then a justly pluralistic society where diversity is protected and supported is also a society that is redistributive. Even in a situation where that redistribution was absolutely equitable, that means some people will have less than they did. A lot of elite liberal or left commenters who live in more privileged situations with mannered cosmopolitanism tend to either politely ignore objections about redistribution or to regard redistribution as a just outcome about which they are entitled to gloat–as long as it’s happening to someone else. Now the real answer to all of this has nothing to do with pluralism or diversity: it is really about the ghastly consequences of extreme concentration of wealth in very small groups, and about the need to find as many ways as possible for economic and material life to not be subject to strict zero-sum limitations. People who believe in pluralism and diversity as supreme social values are not doing their cause any favors when they mock or ignore fears among those who stand to lose some wealth or power, however modestly or justly, if we move towards a more just and equitable kind of pluralism.

All of this points the way to more listening, less telling. In particular, more listening about how people experience difference and pluralism. Maybe even the best parts of that experience are not what political and cultural elites in many nations expect. The 21st Century cannot become more securely pluralistic, more committed to diversity in all nations and across nations, unless the people and institutions that hold to those values stop lecturing and hectoring and condescending to those who have violated, condemned, or most worrisome of all, quietly and without fuss slipped away from those values. A better world will be, must be a pluralistic one. The desire to make that the world we live in has had and will continue to have real enemies who have to be fought. But it needs many more friends than it has, and that takes doing more work to keep the friends we have and seek out the ones we’ve lost.

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5 Responses to Fix on Fail I: Everyday Arguments for Pluralism, Multiculturalism and Diversity

  1. The idea of “redistribution” grew out of the idea that gold was the commodity that gave value to our money. There was not enough to go around, so redistribution was necessary, or so it seemed. But FDR, realizing that fighting our way out of the Great Depression would require more money than our supply of gold would support, he, in 1933 and acting on his own initiative, took us off the gold standard. So, for more than 80 years we have had an infinite supply of money. We have more dollars than there are subatomic particles in the universe.

    Now our task becomes how much money each citizen will need in order to avail himself of the resources, opportunities, rights, and protections that our new democracy and our new economic system will provide, and thereby enable him to build a long life that is worth living for himself and his loved ones. I have already computed this annual income so you won’t have to: it is $36,000 to each and every citizen from birth to death. Because this money, I call it the Social Security Lifetime Stipend (SSLS), will come from our unlimited supply of money and will be given to each citizen, we will be distributing, not redistributing. Equal distribution—how American is that?

    And this brings us to the question I asked you several years ago: “What are the lessons of history?”

    The answers are many and easy to see. You describe them in your posts all the time. The lessons of history are the myriad examples of man’s inhumanity to man. And the greatest lesson of all is that, even though we catalog them daily all over the world, we never learn from them. We should take such lessons and translate them into new systems that will remove the causes of these inhumane acts, and if we can’t do that we can at least minimize their effects.

    But there is no cry from the people for new systems. Instead they demand that offending officials be replaced, and when the new ones are no better they repeat their demand. Bad systems will always produce bad results no matter who operates them.
    We live in a world of ideologies and false hypothesis, and we are destroying our civilization and possibly our species.

    Ideology: ideas or beliefs that are taught or believed to be true, but which are not supported by rational argument, and which give exact rules, directions, or instructions about how one should do something.

    We need to live in a world of systems:

    System: a process containing mechanical, biologic, and intellectual components that are brought together in rational ways, and which together operate on resources or relationships to produce results that are of benefit all humankind.

    A new democracy can be rational, it can be fair, and it can be moral. The same is true of a new system of economics.

    There are four fundamental questions that we must answer or meet our doom.
    “Where do we stand?” “How did we get here?” You and others of your profession have the answers already.

    “Where do we want to go?” We want to cure the ills you describe.

    “How do we get there from here?”

  2. Pat Bowne says:

    I cannot tell you how much I love this article. Sometimes I’m ready to give up on progressive values entirely – not because I disagree with them, but because the arguments for them are so often undeveloped, blinkered, and in-groupy. I find myself thinking that if I really care about society’s underdogs, I should be more interested in their opinions than in those of people who routinely dismiss their perspectives.

    As you say, more listening and more honesty. If a position cannot survive being discussed with the people it will affect, outside a fog of buzzwords and self-congratulation, it shouldn’t survive at all.

    This blog is such a breath of fresh air! I look forward to the rest of this series.

  3. Angus Lockyer says:

    Thanks for this Tim. On a sad morning in London it provides not just solace but hope.

  4. CarlD says:

    I really think you nailed this, and around the side of your larger points I’m struck by the analogies to teaching, where so often the approved diversities run afoul of the unapproved ones, and the costs of real people pluralism cause the ideologies of respect, celebration, and inclusion to collapse right when they could actually be doing some good.

  5. Barry says:

    Tim, it’s clear by now that Brexit was a very, very elite project, conducted by the Tories and some extremely wealthy media barons. For example, Murdoch confessed that he was for Brexit because he had more clout with the U.K. PM than with Brussels.

    Most of the policies which impoverished many Britons were very elite policies, quite deliberately implemented by The Tories (with support from the neoliberal wing of Labour – i.e., the more elite wing). The consequences were then quite deliberately used by those same elites.

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