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Difference And Conversation

I'm reading Iris Marion Young's Justice and the Politics of Difference, which if nothing else refutes the claim that postmodernism has to be written in convoluted and opaque prose. She attempts to steer a course between Habermasian post-liberal critical theory and postmodern/poststructural theories of difference. Her central claim is that politics must embrace group differences, rather than erasing them through assimilation into a homogeneous ideal or denying them by viewing individuals as ontologically independent. She portrays group differences as nodal, rather than bounded, regions (i.e., defined by degrees of resemblance and social network linkage, rather than by hard categorization rules).

Her defense of group difference is basically existential. Rather than the classical liberal idea of the individual existing prior to social ties, she argues that we are "thrown" into a situation where we have group membership, common experiences and affinities with certain people, culture, etc. The goal, then, is not to shake off this specificity but to understand it and organize it into a meaningful sense of identity.

One of her main debts to postmodernism is the idea that oppressed groups are defined as Others relative to the dominant group's norm, thus making blackness, femaleness, homosexuality, etc. "deviant" and qualities to be overcome in the quest for full participation. Rather than accept the dominant discourse's definition of the ideal and attack social differences, she urges an acceptance of the existing social differences but a rejection of the definition of one way to be as the right way to be.

But often when she gives specifics, the ideal of "different but not objectively/universally better or worse" breaks down. Sometimes the case is simple, such as her insistence that we not idealize "standard" English and denigrate Ebonics or Spanish. But in other cases, she attributes value to non-dominant ideas/characteristics by reversing their hierarchical relationship to the mainstream. For example, she cites the land ethic that comes out of Native American tradition, describing it as a "critique" of white capitalism that Native Americans can be proud of. To describe this as mere difference would seem to imply that the white view of nature is just different as well -- it's appropriate for Native Americans to have their traditional land ethic and it's appropriate for white people to have an exploitative view of nature. I seriously doubt Young would see it that way.

It's not enough to leave this point there, as simply an illustration of the hypocrisy of people who claim to value difference while criticizing the dominant culture. What is needed is to move the value of difference beyond a separatist "you say to-may-to I say to-mah-to" relativism. Certainly giving a strong benefit of the doubt to other ways of seeing and being is useful, particularly when the individuals doing the seeing and being are less powerful (and hence less able to defend whatever is of value). What is needed is an idea of how groups can productively engage with each other across differences.

Donna Haraway makes a related argument about difference in her discussion of "the privilege of partial perspective." She argues first that a universalizing, objective viewpoint is impossible and that claiming it tends to mask the valuing of one particular viewpoint. Second, she argues that "partial perspective" -- the worldview arising out of the particular circumstances of a person's existential thrownness -- is a productive source of ideas. There are certain things that particular experiences will lead you to see that others wouldn't. But she doesn't stop by saying that the ideas generated by your partial perspective are good for you and similarly for different people. She concludes with an appeal to the usefulness of talking across differences in partial perspective, hearing other people's perspectives and using them to put your own in context and reconsider your own views. This last step is rather Habermasian -- indeed, it's the idea of the importance of real people in concrete contexts defending and rethinking their ideas in actual conversation with other real people in concrete contexts that is at the heart of Habermas's argument for discourse ethics rather than John Rawls' "objective" Original Position.

This Haraway-Habermas view helps to resolve the seeming contradiction of valuing the difference of Native American land ethics while portraying them as a critique of white views of the environment. The specificity of Native American heritage and experience helped them to generate and sustain a different way of looking at human-environment relations. This usefulness points out the importance of difference. But once that land ethic is created, it is not merely held as a point of pride and a guide to life for Native Americans. Rather, it is brought into dialogue with white ideas about the environment and offered as a proposal that merits consideration by other groups. Whites need not (and probably cannot) adopt it wholesale, but neither should we reject it outright as not relevant to us as white people. Rather, we should consider it and perhaps in light of it refine both our ideas about the environment and our existential relationship to our whiteness. Doing so may realign the constellation of affinities that defines our group differences, something that can only be accepted by getting beyond the anxiety about maintaining our identity that Young suggests is at the root of the creation of polarized norm-Other distinctions.


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