The fraud of pluralism

It should be obvious that in the modern world there’s no such thing as a pluralistic society. After all, life today is marked by comprehensiveness, pervasiveness and complexity of social cooperation, and those things require common habits, understandings and beliefs. Further, modern modes of production, exchange and regulation depend on standardization. The present day is therefore distinguished by universal all-pervasive centralized institutions that inculcate the qualities of mind and spirit that rationalized organizations need. Children are raised by educational and childcare bureaucracies and by mass-market pop entertainment. Politics and culture have been absorbed by television — whatever isn’t in the mass media didn’t happen. And the uniformity of outlook in modern professionalized educational, cultural and media bureaucracies is notorious.

These are familiar topics, but their obvious relevance to “pluralism” is ignored. Current discussions of “pluralism,” “diversity,” “tolerance” and the like make a common point: the things like religion and ethnic culture that are permitted to be plural, diverse or whatever must be given absolutely equal respect. To do otherwise would be an attack on those who identify with such things and find them of fundamental value. Pluralism thus claims to be a recognition of the importance of religion and the like, and of the legitimacy of attachments to it.

The truth, of course, is the opposite. Things that differ can be guaranteed equal status only if the differences don’t matter. To guarantee the equality of religions and cultures that differ radically is to insist that religion and culture be made irrelevant to everything of public importance. Since man is a social animal, and since the modern state claims responsibility for all aspects of human well-being, insistence on the equality of all religions and cultures is insistence on their practical abolition. The modern “pluralistic” and “tolerant” society is therefore the supremely unitary, intolerant and inhuman society, in which nothing other than formal public bureaucratic and market institutions are permitted to have any connection to the common concerns of life. Other things can’t be social institutions at all but only private practices and tastes in which a man can indulge only to the extent no-one else is affected.

Those who puzzle over the role of religion, culture or what not in a pluralistic society don’t understand the issues. A “pluralistic” society, like every other, has a comprehensive understanding of the world and human life to which it demands assent. Comprehensive campaigns to change how people act, think and feel are therefore a distinctive feature of societies that call themselves pluralistic. “Pluralism” only applies to some things, to the things that it intends to destroy as significant public institutions. It does not include, for example, equal respect for official views and for traditional ethnic attachments, views regarding sex and the sexes, or understandings of the relation between God and society. The latter are simply suppressed, through means that increasingly include direct application of criminal law.

To accept the rules of this game except opportunistically is to lose already. Any hopeful conservatism must start by debunking the pretensions of pluralism. For example, it should steadily debunk the notions that “hate” is hate and “equal freedom” equal or free. It should insist that “pluralism”, as equal suppression of the things said to be plural in favor of a unitary principle, is not pluralistic at all. And it must offer an alternative — a decentralized and somewhat haphazard order of things that accepts tradition and the transcendent — and show why the alternative is less oppressive with respect to the things people care about than what we have now. It is no longer sufficient to attempt to work with the status quo. In a radicalized world, conservatism must seize the high ground and itself become radical.
Posted by Jim Kalb at November 19, 2002 12:15 PM | Send

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