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Pluralism and teh Discourse

Pluralism and teh Discourse

Setting the scene

One of the things that I’m best known for is my general opposition to umbrellas. Of course, I don’t mean those wonderful inventions that keep the rain and sun off you, but rather those terms/identity labels that are intended to cover a wide range of different (potentially overlapping) identities and people. Things like ‘LGBT’ or ‘trans’ or, worse, ‘mogai’1.

The details of this essay are scattered amongst many posts on my blog. I’ve outright stated that I hate all umbrella terms. I’ve discussed the creation of the trans umbrella and why the idea of this community hurts trans women of colour. About how the LGBT movement isn’t a country club. As well as the many tweets and short tumblr posts I’ve made on this topic.

However, one of the things I usually do in these posts (for the sake of coherency) is usually talk about ‘solidarity’ and ‘coalitions.’ Except that this isn’t actually what I’m talking about (at least not so far as ‘coalitions’ are concerned). It isn’t the theoretical framework in which I’m articulating these ideas.

Ever since my days in philosophy and studying logic, I’ve been a pluralist. This is a position I’ve hinted at in many places, but most notably in the introduction to my book on logic. As well as outright stating that I was a truth pluralist in a quick post I made two years ago about my philosophical positions. So this essay will be an elucidation of pluralism within the context of social justice and/or social movements. Especially since it isn’t really an position explicitly held by many people within these movements2.

So what is pluralism?

In the most generic sense it “denotes a diversity of views and stand rather than a single approach or method of interpretation” (from wikipedia). If you peek at the wikipedia page you’ll notice that ‘pluralism’ is used in a few different contexts with slightly different shades of meaning. In the case of logical pluralism it is “the thesis that there is more than one correct logic,” an idea that many people will recognize from my various writings on logic.

In the case of pluralism as it applies to political philosophy it “is the recognition and affirmation of diversity within a political body, which permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles.” Now, I know to a lot of people this is going to sound like liberalism but the two aren’t equivalent (which the wikipedia does point out). However, there is some understanding of political pluralism which does indeed inform liberal politics.

As the wikipedia article continues:

Pluralism thus tries to encourage members of society to accommodate their differences by avoiding extremism (adhering solely to one value, or at the very least refusing to recognize others as legitimate) and engaging in good faith dialogue. Pluralists also seek the construction or reform of social institutions in order to reflect and balance competing principles…

Of course, pluralism recognizes that certain conditions may make good faith negotiation impossible, and therefore also focuses on what institutional structures can best modify or prevent such a situation. Pluralism advocates a form of realism here, or that one begins with a given socio-historical structure and goes from there.

None of this, I’m sure, looks terrifically controversial. And, by and large, I don’t think it is (unless you do believe in a single value or system that is more ‘right’ or ‘true’ than all others). But many people articulate an implicit, and perhaps weak, form of pluralism.

Pluralism vs relativism

An example of this is the ongoing tension between white feminists and Muslim feminists. A lot of white feminists view the hijab, niqab, and/or burqa as a symbol of Muslim male patriarchy and, thus, of oppression. Leading to things like the paternalistic laws in France where Muslim women are prohibited by law from wearing them in varying contexts. Of course, if you listen to Muslim feminists, many of them have different priorities and don’t take issue with (choosing) to wear one. Pluralism states that if Muslim women don’t think they need to take off their religious headscarves to be free, then white feminists/women should stop pushing for it.

Of course… A few people reading this are probably wondering how this is different from cultural relativity, by which of course they more likely mean moral relativism:

The term ‘moral relativism’ is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to the moral standard of some person or group of persons.

Cultural relativism, for the sake of contrast and clarity, “is the principle that an individual human’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture.” We can see from the religious headscarf example that these two kinds of relativism can be closely related, since part of the ethical force of the idea that Muslim women ought to be able to define ‘liberty’ for themselves, is understanding the wearing of the religious headscarves within their own cultural framework, rather than outside of it (ie, by white feminist values).

But this also shows how they aren’t equivalent. Since most white feminists are willing to concede and understand that, for Muslim women, the religious headscarves is not a symbol of their oppression because of its religious significance. Howevever, in their paternalism, they often decide that Muslim women simply don’t understand that wearing the religious headscarves is a sign of their subjugation as women: thus, they must be compelled into stopping the practice. This position uses cultural relativism to understand the practice of wearing a religious headscarves in Muslim culture, but doesn’t take a moral relativist position.

Pluralism, in its weakest understanding, “generally refers to the view that there are many of the things in question (concepts, scientific world views, discourses, viewpoints etc.).” So one can be a pluralist by simply recognizing that there are different cultures (white culture vs. Muslim culture in our example). Being a pluralist doesn’t necessarily imply that you are a moral relativist (at least in the meta-ethical sense, since as quoted above, the ordinary sense is “an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements”). Just as being a moral relativist in the regular sense doesn’t imply that you are a pluralist.

This might still be a little confusing, esp. considering the ‘meta-ethical’ part. So, in our example of the disagreement between a white and Muslim feminist, this is a meta-ethical disagreement, since each subscribes to a different ethical system. So if one were to believe that both are ‘right’ – in the sense that forcing a white, non-Muslim woman to wear a religious headscarf would be oppressive, just as forcing Muslim women to remove their religious headscarves is oppressive – then this position is meta-ethical moral relativism.

In contrast, ordinary moral relativism is exemplified in the ongoing debate within white feminism over sex positivity (esp. as it concerns things like the value and meaning of pornography). Since both positions are under the ‘white feminism’ ideology, this moral or ethical disagreement is the regular kind3.

Pluralism and Identity

As I’ve been known to say, ‘LGBT’ isn’t a singular community. Same with trans. Indeed, as umbrellas the whole point to them is one term to cover several different (occasionally overlapping) communities. Communit*ies* as in more than one. To a certain extent the very idea of an umbrella implies pluralism in some form.

Except that this isn’t how people treat it in discourse. Instead, they treat these umbrella terms like identities in and of theselves. This is explicit in Denis Norris’s posts on the creation of the trans umbrella in the early 90s. Rather than understanding umbrella terms to refer to a plurality of distinct identities, they viewed it as a ‘collective identity.’

And so it is with many umbrella terms, even the ones explicitly intended not to be like that. ‘Person of colour,’ for example, isn’t meant to be an identity one holds4, but rather a political identity to signal a willingness to work in solidarity with Black women and other people of colour. In other words, you are supposed to use ‘person of colour’ as a way to tell people what you do politically and ethically, not who you are. Similarly, queer was intended to be something similar. Both as reclamation of a slur, but also as a way to signal a person’s politics and less so their individual identity. When I first started using ‘queer’ for myself, this is what it meant. It was common to (as I did at the time) identify as ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ at the same time. Gay was about me and queer was about my politics5.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that words don’t change and how people use them don’t change. They quite obviously do and have in these cases. But since this is a philosophy essay, I’m not actually concerned with the historical and linguistic changes of these terms in popular usage. Instead, I’m concerned with their implications for organizing and for communities.

A number of my blog posts are specifically against the problems caused by viewing terms that ought to be plural in nature as singular identity terms.

In the case of ‘people of colour,’ this is the issue that some are resisting it as a homogenizing, hegemonic term that erases individual identity. Which of course, as Loretta Ross explains, thinking that ‘poc’ erases differences and flattens racial categories into one generic ‘minority,’ represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the term and its intended purpose.

In the case of ‘queer,’ we have reached a point where some people don’t actually know that queer is a slur. Where they consider ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT+’ to be synonyms. When they really really aren’t. Have never been. And probably never will be. And the problem with how queer has changed is illustrated in the inter-generational conflicts that happen in spaces like tumblr. Where youth go “I thought the queer community was supposed to be this welcoming space for everyone” and people my age are like “queer has never ever meant that.” If we understand ‘queer’ as a plurality intended for political solidarity – which is its intended purpose – then it can never be a community meant for everyone. It is meant to be used by people of different communities who want to work with people of many communities with a general shared purpose.

Why have these shifts happened?

Well… a lot to blame is contemporary identity politics, which I’m not using in the pro-injustice perjorative sense. I don’t actually care that there is a large proliferation of identity terms that people are using for themselves. Why would I? I’m a pluralist. The more the merrier.

The problem, of course, is the issue of shallow analysis and ahistoricity. People who mistake ‘poc’ or ‘queer’ as individual identity terms can only do so if they are ignorant of their histories. Which, yes, isn’t necessarily their fault. As Loretta Ross points out: we are generally not great at transmitting our history. And, worse yet, it isn’t even necessarily a lack of desire to share this history but because our histories are purposefully and systematically erased by our oppressors. The history problem is the easier problem to solve. You simply tell others the history, share resources, and bring them up to speed.

The problem of shallow analyses caused by identity politics is a lot harder to deal with. In part because identity politics itself relies on a certain level of white individualism that a lot of people within that context don’t really care to examine. Within this context, the self is a discreet, autonomous entity that is entirely self-determined: thus, any identity this discreet, autonomous entity ascribes to itself is a priori valid and shouldn’t be questioned.

This is only true to a certain extent. We are individuals and we are autonomous and ought to be able to self-determine. But we are also individuals who exist within a particular socio-political-cultural context. And this socio-political-cultural context means that we must always be understood in relation to others and this context. There is a reason many people use their individual identities as a way to build community with other people. It’s because these terms have a social, communal utility beyond their ability to give individuals a way to express who they are.

However these shallow analyses are damaging. Nowadays, they often take the shape of spurious ‘privileges.’ For example, mono-racial privilege: the privilege of being one race (not mixed). What privileges accrue with this? It mostly seems to be mixed-with-white tears so who knows?

Again, this fundamentally relies on an ahistorical understanding of race and on race as an individual identity, rather than a class. Ahistorical because, in the case of my people, mestisas (Indians mixed with white – or possibly Chinese and/or South Asian) were systematically placed on a higher racial hierarchy than non-mixed natives. A racial hierarchy that persists today, with how media continuously favours mestisas over and above ~mono-racial~ people.

This is also a shallow analysis because it lacks any real attention to power and, thus, actual oppression. Do mono-racial people have systematic power over mixed-with-white people? No. They really really don’t. And since they do not, they cannot be privileged over mixed-with-white people. Ever. Indeed, as the above demonstrates, the opposite has historically been true – with mestisas having systematic power over mono-racial people (in certain contexts, at least).

And all of this is damaging because it shifts our attention away from dealing with institutional, systemic problems to attempting to deal with individual feelings of injustice. It dilutes our discourse and removes some of its liberatory promise. We end up wasting time and energy trying to deal with people coming up with spurious, ahistorical, and shallow analyses.

None of this is to say that there isn’t any value in ‘newer’ identities and analyses based on them. A great example is asexuality. The ace community/identity is relatively newer than ones like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian.’ This doesn’t make them a less coherent group or identity or experiences of oppression less real. However, it does fall somewhat apart with shallow analyses of things like ‘sexual privilege’ – especially as it applies to inter-community relations for those under the LGBT+ umbrella.

For example, framing the horizontal aggression between asexual people and gay people within a privilege/oppression framework along the lines of ‘sexual privilege’ essentially makes the claim that gay men are privileged for their sexuality (relative to asexuals). But this privilege accrues because gay men have sex with other men: it reduces being ‘gay’ to the act of fucking, which is something that homophobes tend to do. And so… some asexuals who’ve been disillusioned by their experiences of exclusion and derision in ‘LGBT’ spaces frame this within privilege/oppression… only to mobilize homophobia in the process. And so we are left with the current situation: asexuals calling out sexual privilege and demanding inclusion with gays replying that they are being homophobic.

When the actual solution is: asexual people must build and maintain their own community and movement. And gay men, especially, really need to stop acting like the spaces they control are (and ever have been) for a singular ‘LGBT+’ community. And then, whenever they feel it is necessary, they both need to do the really REALLY difficult work of trying to establish space where both communities can exist and assert their respective values without engaging in horizontal aggression.

The promise of pluralism

So what utility or function does pluralism have in our contemporary discourse?

So people don’t have to scroll, I’ll put the quotation about what pluralism is in political philosophy here again, “is the recognition and affirmation of diversity within a political body, which permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles.”

And of key importance:

Pluralism thus tries to encourage members of society to accommodate their differences by avoiding extremism (adhering solely to one value, or at the very least refusing to recognize others as legitimate) and engaging in good faith dialogue. Pluralists also seek the construction or reform of social institutions in order to reflect and balance competing principles…

To one extent, this seems rather prosaic, since it is just the recognition that there are different groups that have different values and priorities. But the key to this as a political stance is in the desire to work together to find some way to balance these competing values in a way that allows everyone to retain their autonomy and values. The key is allowing people to retain their differences while also attempting to co-exist peacefully.

We can see that in the more idealistic sense, this is more what was originally intended with political identity terms like ‘person of colour’ or ‘queer.’ We can also see how this contrasts with the original intention of ‘trans’ as a collective identity, which was more explicitly intended to flatten differences between the distinct groups it covers.

Now, in my past writing I’ve used (somewhat interchangeably) ‘coalition’ and ‘solidarity’ to describe these ideas. In reality, pluralism doesn’t actually require either or these things to function. And this is how my interpretation is slightly different, since ‘person of colour’ and ‘queer’ were intended, despite pluralist elements, to be terms of political solidarity. With the implication that the various groups working underneath those umbrellas would work together in some important sense.

The fact that a pluralist interpretation is neutral regarding solidarity or coalition building is an important feature in the current climate where how ‘people of colour’ does have some serious critiques as concerns its contemporary usage re: anti-Blackness, as well as Indigenous critiques of using ‘people of colour’ to reduce Indigenous peoples to a racial minority with no meaningful distinction from settlers of colour. These are legitimate concerns about how the notion of solidarity built into the terms have prevented certain groups from really articulating the uniqueness of their oppression.

However, a plain pluralist conception of this situation would mean recognizing that Black people and/or Indigenous people (as the two groups aren’t mutually exclusive), can and do have different priorities and values. And that this is perfectly okay. That each group can and should pursue these priorities as they desire. What pluralism adds, in the thinnest application, is that each group will actively not interfer with the other. That in the pursuit of their respective goals, they won’t create barriers for the other group to pursue their goals as well.

But this doesn’t mean ‘doing nothing’ to address the concerns of other groups. As we know from our current systems, the default setting we have is oppression. Thus, non-Black Asians cannot hear Black people’s concerns and priority of anti-Blackness and say, “well, I won’t interfere.” This isn’t good enough when our default position is anti-Blackness. This means that doing nothing is interference (in the sense that we are outright complicit and enacting anti-Blackness). Thus, we do have some responsibilty and obligation to listen to Black people and respond in some meaningful fashion.

Remember that pluralism isn’t just the recognition that different groups with different priorities and values exist, it is also a way to perceive and understand inter-group relations. It absolutely does mean that our own pursuit of our goals and values should not occur at the detriment of other groups. It is a recognition that other groups’ values are just as important as our own, even if they are not our own values.

Case Study: Pluralism in the LGBT community/movement

This is perhaps the expression of pluralism that I’m most well-known for. As I wrote two years ago:

The Queer — ‘LGBTQ etc’ — movement is not a country club

Nor is there actually a singular ‘lgbt’ community. There isn’t. most in the community know that there is a lesbian community. there is a gay community. there is sometimes a bi community. there is a trans community.

And one year ago, specifically about the trans community:

the umbrella is a lie. the ~trans community~ is something that doesn’t, in fact, actually exist…

and, lest ppl forget, the fiction that there is an ~umbrella~, that there is a ~trans community~

hurts trans women of colour most

Unsurprisingly, my issue with the idea that there is a singular LGBT or trans community is that it hurts trans women of colour the most. But it also hurts everyone else claimed under these hegemonic umbrellas.

It hurts youth who come out and come of age expecting to find some singular community that will welcome and accept them, only to find out that this is a political illusion pushed by Gay Inc to promote its agenda above and beyond anyone else’s. It hurts real world political organizing by convincing people that once Gay Inc’s (or Trans Inc’s) priorities are met, the movement is over]17:

Bernstein and then-Equality Maryland Foundation Chair Isabella Firth announced in late June that a growing budget shortfall could have forced the organization to close its doors. They pointed to a decrease in funding after Maryland voters upheld the state’s same-sex marriage law and the state’s transgender rights statute that took effect last October as reasons for the potential shutdown.

It specifically hurts trans women of colour because Gay Inc is built off of our labour and violent expulsion:

This is the true beginning of the ‘gay rights movement’. The year is 1971 and Gay Inc is formed using the exploited labour of trans women of colour while at the same time strategically and purposefully pushing us out. And so the formula and pattern for gay rights activism is set out… and repeated time after time thereafter (see also: Human Rights Campaign).

And the current trans movement is built off of much the same, especially if we understand it as a singular, rather than plural movement.

It also really hurts people in burgeoning movements and communities because they really do expect that they can simply join up with an existing one but still be recognized as their own group… but it doesn’t work like that. As I wrote two years ago:

community building is hard fucking work. and the onus is on you to build your own community (if you feel like you don’t have one, if you are unsatisfied with the ones that exist, if you just feel like it). there is no specific reason why anyone should allow you to exploit all the effort and energy they’ve put into building their community.

And trans women of colour have been doing this hard work from the very beginning while all other groups exploit this labour while violently pushing us out and excluding us.

This is the reason why I get so annoyed with certain newer groups (like asexual people) or even older groups with a less clearly established community (like bisexual people), who are constantly engaging in horizontal aggression against other communities under the umbrellas for failing to sufficiently accommodate them in our spaces. Their claims are only valid and reasonable if their is a singular, coherent community. Except, beyond my personal philosophical commitments, it is demonstrable that there is not a singular coherent ‘LGBT’ community or movement with a singular set of values and priorities. This simply does not exist and never has, despite what Gay Inc’s marketing division has tried to sell.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t some validity in the claims, since there are many Gay Inc controlled spaces and resources that claim to be for (and representative of) a singular ‘LGBT’ community. But this is propoganda and an entirely different issue from really talking about how different groups can share space and (maybe) work together. Because the reality is: those spaces were never (and never intended to be) all-inclusive spaces for everyone under the umbrella. And showing a fervent desire to join those spaces, is simply a signal that you want to join the homonationalist (or trans*nationalist) movement and/or community (and, thus, exploiting the labour of trans women of colour).

So another way that the myth of a singular community and movement hurts us is by pre-emptively preventing any meaningful attempts to actually work together. In a way that allows each group to prioritize its needs and values, but also doesn’t hamper or deny those of the other communities.

In the end, I see the problem here as twofold: 1) individual communities must build and organize their own movements and communities; 2) these communities must then negotiate some way to, minimally, peacefully co-exist and, at its best, work in solidarity together.

And all of this sucks and is extremely difficult because capitalism and our current structure of institutional oppression forces us into zero sum competition with each other, such that attention to one group usually means that others are ignored and neglected. It is also extremely difficult for the ways that groups with a cross-section of some relatively more privileged members start off with better access to resources than other groups (this is why it was so easy for white gays to steal the revolution started by trans women of colour).

One significant issue with pluralism

The biggest issue to resolve within a pluralist view is the reality that if we accept competing values as equally valuable, then there will be cases where these values are fundamentally incompatible. And we do need to find some way to resolve these differences.

Perhaps the most salient and clearest example is the conflict between radfems and trans women (inclusive of trans feminists). Radfems have made ‘trans women are men’ an important value within their organizing. Trans feminists, in contrast, have ‘trans women are women’ has an important value. These two are incompatible and cannot be resolved coherently. As a result, antagonisms continue between the two groups.

As movements, not just communities, this also leads to some drastically different priorities that cannot be coherently resolved. Radfems want all trans women to die and most trans women would very much like to live. While, yes, dichotomous approaches to things aren’t always useuful, one binary which fails to have any grey area is life and death. You really can be only one or the other6. There isn’t any real way to resolve this difference.

And being a pluralist does mean that I think some solution needs to be found for how these two movements/communities can coexist.

I’m not going to suggest any solutions because this is actually a long standing philosophical problem with pluralism and several different ‘solutions’ exist but I haven’t actually settled on one myself (and, unlike radfems, I definitely do not think that genocide is a reasonable solution).

The end at last

This has been kind of an epic explication of pluralism as it plays out in contemporary communities/discourse/movements. If it isn’t clear (although I hope it would be by this point), I’m a pluralist advocating for a pluralist approach to organizing.

Obviously there will be people who disagree with me. Not for nothing that the debates between pluralist and monists (the people who believe in a singular community/value) has lasted for thousands of years. That’s fine. I don’t agree but it’s fine.

It’s kind of the whole point, for me at least: we don’t have to agree to live with each other and not oppress one another.

Although, I’m not trying to imply that monism is inherently oppressive. It isn’t. Especially since I’m not quite a strict pluralist since there are some things I don’t think are tolerable. For example, NAMBLA (the north american man-boy love association) which is essentially a movement to normalize and decriminalize pedophilia? I can’t tolerate that. My pluralism doesn’t extend so far as to say that their values and goals are just as valuable as my own.

Ultimately, this means that I can’t be a pure pluralist. I am in a general sense, yes, but not in an absolute sense. Fortunately, because I’m not enmeshed within white philosophy, I don’t have to buy into the dichotomy (that you must be one or the other, but not both). For me, I feel it is perfectly coherent to be a pluralist on one level and a monist on another.

C’est la vie.

  1. Some people might be inclined to include ‘queer’ and ‘person of colour’ as umbrella terms, but this is actually a misconception of the intended purpose of the terms. I’ll get into the difference later on. Although, this doesn’t detract from the reality that many people do use ‘queer’ and ‘poc’ as umbrella terms. 

  2. Although, as seen in context of one of my earliest articulations of pluralism in my writing, the idea has been used. I do remember reading (although I can’t remember where anymore) some intro to feminism stuff that made an explicit point of ensuring that people understood that there were feminism*s*, not just ‘feminism.’ To an extent, people do recognize this. They’ll note there is a difference between radical feminism, mainstream feminism, and Black feminism, just to name a few. There is also marxist-feminism, eco-feminism, Indigenous feminism, third world feminism, etc. Of course, whether or not this is a pluralist conception of feminism isn’t inherent in recognizing that there are different kinds but in how you understand the relationship between the different kinds of feminism. 

  3. One important thing to note about the history of moral relativism in white culture is:

    Nonetheless, the increased awareness of moral diversity (especially between Western and non-Western cultures) on the part of Europeans in the modern era is an important antecedent to the contemporary concern with moral relativism. During this time, the predominant view among Europeans and their colonial progeny was that their moral values were superior to the moral values of other cultures. Few thought all moral values had equal or relative validity, or anything of that sort.

    The article goes on to mention how the impetus for moral relativism in white culture was from anthropology… essentially the cultural relativism mentioned earlier. This connection is clear in the earlier discussion on the hijab example.

    Last, this section the history of moral relativism points out that there is some conflict between the idea of ‘human rights’ and some forms of moral relativism. But since the focus of this essay isn’t moral relativism, I encourage peopel to read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on it (which is the one I’ve been linking to). 

  4. As always, I encourage people to watch this three-minute video of Loretta Ross talking about the origin of ‘woman of colour’, which is the antecedent of the more general ‘person of colour.’ 

  5. The difference best exemplified in the classic phrase “not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you.” The prior is inward looking and the latter is outward. 

  6. At least in the pratical sense, staying agnostic about vampires and other undead.