Pluralism is a modern buzzword that has turned into a rallying cry in some circles. It shapes education at our universities, and it even shapes our politics. Not everyone ascribes to the value of pluralism, but the notion that we live in a pluralistic society and, therefore, that we should highly value pluralism has become a popular dogma.
It might have been inevitable that we would find ourselves valuing pluralism so highly in this melting pot we call the United States of America. Much of the motivation that drives the current focus on pluralism is good motivation and flows from the freedoms we have long enjoyed. Like any doctrine, however, heresies lurk in the shadows.
Even in the midst of championing pluralism and the unity, opportunity, inclusiveness and tolerance that goes with it, dissension comes from various outlying corners. Not everyone is buying it. The visionaries of a pluralistic ideal can be heard to say something like: “if we can only all get along, the world would be a better place!” But would it?
As with many ideals, it’s the reality that is not so easy. But the idealists among us would argue that the ideal is still a good one, and, therefore, we should strive for it nonetheless. But is it? And, should we?
We need to define what pluralism means before we can tackle the questions that linger around the modern ideal. Pluralism is the acknowledgement of diversity and an attempt to be inclusive of that diversity. Cultural pluralism, for instance is the acknowledgment and attempt to include small groups with their unique cultural identities in a larger society.[i]
Pluralism, of itself, is innocuous enough, especially when we value pluralism in the context of diverse cultural, ethnic, societal and familial practices and norms. Our desire for pluralism is a desire to recognize value in the diversity and a desire to be inclusive and universal in recognizing those values.
Pluralism also extends to other things. We have even extended pluralism to embrace the idea of diverse nuances in gender identities and sexual orientations. Political pluralism is the acknowledgment and inclusion of diverse and competing centers of power in society leading to a marketplace of ideas.
Pluralism is an uniquely American ideal that has its roots in the radically democratic thought that formed the basis for the governing laws of our country.
The ideas of freedom of religion and freedom of speech grew out of these roots. Let everyone find their own expression in religion and in the marketplace of ideas and be free to express them without fear of reprisal or coercion from the government. It was a novel idea that has stood the test of time and practice, though it has had to withstand the assault of more expedient ideas at times.
Ironically, the assault today comes from the crowd that waves the flag of pluralism and wears the pin of tolerance. The battle lines are nowhere as marked as on college campuses where tolerance has trumped all truth claims but for the truth claim that everyone is right (but for those who claim that someone is wrong).
In these former bastions of expression, words that can be (or are) taken as intolerant are labelled “hate speech” and the punishment for using them is swift. The punishment is primarily meted out by the masses so far – as administrations try to figure out how to sate the masses without violating fundamental notions of freedom of speech, among other things.
And that is the problem. Consider again the definition of political pluralism: “belief that there should be diverse and competing centers of power in society, so that there is a marketplace for ideas” (emphasis added). Or consider political philosophy: “the acknowledgment of a diversity of political systems”.[ii]
Competing centers of power create tension between those centers of powers. Competing centers of power and political systems cannot survive as equals in the same society. They will clash, and one or another will win out.
Now consider the diversity in philosophies, worldviews and religions that all have some claim to exclusivity of truth. The problem with pluralism as a driving, overarching ideal is that inclusion breaks down where it matters most. Mutually inconsistent (competing) principles cannot be assimilated where they come into tension with each other without destroying the unique identities of the diverse parts. Either pluralism must yield or diversity must yield into an homogenous whole.
The tendency of the modern pluralist is to downplay the differences and to find ways to homogenize them. Pluralism is the ultimate mashup. Nothing is so sacred as the homogenous whole. But, the problem with that is that nothing is sacred, not even the truth.