One reason the pluralism issue can seem intractable is because there are so many dimensions to the problem, which are all different and yet inter-connected in many subtle, and not so subtle, ways.
The issue can seem strait-forward when it is thought of as “minorities not being oppressed”. But the surface coherence of this idea covers over what makes the problem so complex.
Consider some of the different dimensions along which one can be a “minority”:
- “Woman” is a category of gender.
- “Black” is (or is thought of as) a category of race.
- “Indian-American” is a category of culture.
- “Muslim” is a category of religion.
- “Gay” is a category of sexuality.
- “Disabled” is a category of functioning (without biasing what counts as functioning).
- “Poor” is a category of economics.
- “Depression” is a category of mental health.
Here are some questions about this list:
1) In a given dimension, what is the right characterization of that dimension?
I said above “Black” is a category of race. Is it? Or is it rather a category of culture? How are race and culture related? What are race and culture?
Similar questions arise about each dimension. “Gender” might seem clear enough. But is gender itself a cultural product? If so, is gender a cultural dimension like Black or Indian-American? What does that mean?
Unfortunately, to ask these questions is not nit-picking. Things would be easier if it were. But given that the categories at issue are themselves products of earlier, less pluralistic times, it is hard to know in what ways the categories can be retained, and in what ways they can’t.
To say this is not to say the problem is unsolvable, or that we might as well keep to the status quo. It is to just state one way the problem is hard.
2) In a given dimension, what does a viable pluralism look like?
Consider the dimension of culture. What does a solution look like just along this one dimension? What kind of a philosophy curriculum would be inclusive of all the different cultures of the students in the classroom?
The magnitude of this question can be over-whelming. Inclusive of all the cultures in the world? What would that look like?
3) In what ways can all the dimensions be solved together?
Consider the dimensions of culture and gender. There arises a problem familiar in liberal thought: How can respect for a culture be balanced with more modern ideas of equality? If Indian philosophy (what is that?) marginalizes women (does it?), then in what ways can Indian philosophy and feminism both be represented in the curriculum?
Here is one way the “rich, white males versus the minorities” narrative is problematic. For many of the dimensions cut across each other. Non-European cultures often share the misogynistic, classist, homophobic tendencies of European culture. Feminism seeks the empowerment of women, but “empowerment” is a cultural notion, and so some women, depending on their identity in the other dimensions, might benefit more from certain forms of empowerment than other women. And so on.
4) Who is the majority?
The idea of a minority only makes sense against the idea of a majority – the well off who have become so entitled that they are obstacles to the greater good.
But given that minorities are defined along so many different dimensions, is there anyone who counts as a non-minority? Consider a white, male, tenured professor at an elite department. Is that guy one of the majority? Hard to tell, because one can be a minority beyond dimensions of race, gender and current economic status. Perhaps the person is gay or depressed or disabled or religious. Or he came from a poor background. Or perhaps he has close family members who have these identities. Or maybe he identifies with minorities, more so than with his surface features. Maybe he is an inside-out Oreo: white on the outside, black or brown on the inside. The majority of people aren’t like that, so perhaps he is a minority too.
5) If there is no majority, what can one push against to create change?
There are particular images of creating change which seem so natural: the civil rights protesters standing against the white racists who are turning the water hoses on them, or the colonized people marching for their freedom against their oppressors. In these images there are minorities standing up the majority. It can feel like: change happens like that.
What is the analogue of that in contemporary academic philosophy? There is an internal tension to applying the above images of change. On the one hand, there is the urge to expand the class of who is a minority so that no one, or group, is unwittingly left behind in structures of oppression. But, on the other other, as the class of minorities expands, it is no longer clear who is left to clearly fight against. It is as if while black protesters are marching against white oppressors, the whites also join the protest: not just in solidarity with the blacks, but as members of the oppressed themselves, until everyone has joined the protest as minorities themselves. What happens then? How can change happen when there is no clear opponent to point to?
On this blog I am going to think about these questions. But it is better to not start too directly with the questions themselves. I will instead start with thinking about whether Eurocentrism is right, and in the process I think light will be shed on these questions.