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14.3.06

Two Types of Egalitarianism

I've been horribly remiss, going days without posting about Cultural Theory. But never fear, for I've come across a great example of Egalitarianism in action. A recurring theme in the feminist blogging community is the boundary question -- who's a real feminist, who should be allowed into feminist discussion spaces, etc. (if you start here you can find your way into the latest round). It strikes me as a very nice illustration of people trying to deal with the characteristic pathologies of the Egalitarian way of life.

In this discussion there seem to be two sub-types of Egalitarianism operating, arising from a tension between the conflicting goals of universalizing the way of life, and maintaining the agreement among members that allows Egalitarianism to function:

1. Exclusivists. These are the folks (mostly from the more politically radical end of the conventional spectrum of feminisms) who want very strong boundaries around feminism. They attack people whose credentials are suspect, and are alert for traitors and infiltrators. They have a very long list of beliefs/practices that one must adhere to before productive discussion is possible, and hence they discount the possibility of useful engagement with outsiders or the need to show respect for those who are clearly enemies of the cause. Exclusivist Egalitarianism seems very close to the classic examples of Egalitarianism used in the literature -- Douglas and Wildavsky's Amish, Rayner's Marxist-Leninist collective, etc.

2. Inclusivists. These are the folks who want a "big tent," allowing anyone who wants to join -- even, in some cases, the hated "Men's Rights Activists" -- into the group. They have a great faith in the possibility of dialogue between people of very different perspectives on the basis of a very small (Habermasian?) set of ground rules. It's tempting to label Inclusivist Egalitarianism a hybrid of Egalitarianism and Individualism, but I think the commitment to collective action and identity, and the desire for dialogue leading to agreement, and the desire to exclude competition, seem to place it firmly in the Egalitarian camp. Looking beyond the feminist bloggers, Inclusivist Egalitarianism seems to be a very popular ideal in the modern West. Its presence seems to me to explain why we have such strong agreement with Egalitarian items in surveys, but so few real cults -- note too that the items used in all the CT surveys I've seen focus on the question of internal equality and largely ignore the issue of strong boundedness.

The Exclusivist/Inclusivist distinction may also explain why it's usually a very different set of people who take an Egalitarian perspective on risks coming from "the system" or nature (e.g. climate change or nuclear power) versus risks coming from Outsider individuals (e.g. terrorism or illegal immigration).

My own viewpoint is conflicted. I find the Inclusivist position very appealing, but my cynicism about human nature makes me suspect that Exclusivism is the more viable way of organizing an Egalitarian community.

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