Why do we need pluralism in times of disruption? A practical guide
By Małgorzata Dereniowska, Gdańsk University, Poland
Today we are going through a period of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic that impacts us individually and collectively in an unprecedented manner. Because we see how interconnected we are, the sense of unity, solidarity in time of crisis is necessary. So why bother with pluralism in the first place?
Introductory remarks about pluralism and the new normal
We are currently in an unprecedented moment in human history. Although humanity went through several pandemics and disruptions, this is the first time that all the globe is equally affected by the virus, and everyone, everywhere, has to deal with the lock-down and its consequences. Our normal is gone, and we do not know what is ahead of us. The world as we knew it is not there, and there is little left of the “normal” to hold on to. We see the health devastation around us, and worry about the galloping economic crisis, and the social impact of both. We are all urgently seeking for any leftover certainty we can get. This is why it is so important to have standards and to have some objective basis for our understanding of what is happening with us, our societies and economies under the risk of COVID-19. All the more, given the highly politicised debates about coronavirus, misinformation, and fake news spreading – we need something reasonable to ground ourselves in this new reality. A pluralist tolerance to everyone’s right to personal freedom of choice, autonomy, affirmation of differences of perspectives seems to be the last wanted thing right now – especially in science – in navigating through these disruptive times. But is it?
This is a unique situation for pluralists invested in building capacity for democratic dialogue in academic and public spheres. In the midst of a world panic about the spread of the virus, the world has become increasingly polarised. We hear that it is all about survival or economic interest; it is all about public health versus individual wellbeing. This divisive consciousness makes us all, individually and collectively, unnecessarily vulnerable. History knows countless examples showcasing how easy it is to manipulate scared people into extreme expressions of social polarisation and antagonism by promoting “us versus them”, for the benefit of the very few who know the tricks of behavioural sciences and who opportunistically take advantage of crises. Therefore, especially in the face of fake news, the pluralist concern becomes about how to maintain a pluralist spirit in a way that constructively supports the crisis management, actionable research, and individual and collective adaptation process.
Affirmation and practice of pluralism has been an important aspect of inclusiveness in societies, progress in science, and intellectual freedom. It is the pluralist spirit that safeguards tolerance and recognition of perspectives, respect for differences, and creation of a space of contestation and challenging of ideas, testing hypotheses, and making a reality check. At the same time, pluralism has been always raising concerns, not least because pluralism about plurals exists (Lassman 2011).
A prominent charge against pluralism is that it leads to anything-goes relativism, implying no objective standards against which reasoning and practices can evaluated (Dereniowska 2017), giving no grounds for certainty and truth. The worry about relativism, which is a position so easily associated with pluralism, is that it is unhelpful for achieving social cohesion or understanding of truth in science, or even that it can have a destabilising effect on common understanding and common ground for standards and norms. After all, standards and norms are necessary in society, politics, and science. But already here we can see that there is a significant difference between pluralism (meaning that diversity exists) and relativism (in the sense of anything-goes, although this is certainly but one radical interpretation of relativism): relativism aka anything-goes may be unwanted, but we cannot extend the same line of reasoning to pluralism. This would assume communication predicated on consensus, or even imply that unanimously accepting standards and norms could be considered as a superior expression of social and scientific order. But human history is too full of horrific and genocidal consequences of such thinking in action, reminding us also that diversity is an immanent feature of humanity (Berlin 2000). In words of Stuart Hampshire:
“the diversity and divisiveness of languages and of cultures and of local loyalties is not a superficial but an essential and deep feature of human nature—both unavoidable and desirable—and rooted in our divergent imaginations and memories” (2001, p. 37).
The next question, therefore, is this: according to what kind of standards do we exclude some voices, positions, and perspectives? After all, what is at stake is the concern about social order and truth in science. So how much pluralism can be allowed in public and scientific debates?
Instead of answering these difficult questions, I am going to turn the discussion around, and address the following issue: how to be a pluralist without stepping into relativism? Problematizing pluralism in this way is especially important today, in times of disruption.
On the meaning and principles of pluralism
One can be a pluralist in any sphere or area of life. Pluralism, as understood here, is a philosophy that views differences and diversity as facts about social reality (Benjamin 2003). It is also an approach that considers diversity, differences, and even dissensus to be an important element of social, political, and scientific interactions that aspire to a fair and just account of complexity of the real world (Söderbaum 2008). An advantage of a pluralist’s attitude is that its openness to even consider other perspective prevents us from being stuck in our biases. After all, it is through encounters with diversity and differences of perspectives that our views and positions are challenged. We can react in different ways to the diversity and difference challenge: we can deny the value and legitimacy of other’s positions simply because they differ from ours; we can see their point, but fight it and maintain a narrative of “us versus them”; or, we can reason with them and explore whether there is something in our own position and mindset that requires some adjustment.
To clarify further the meaning of pluralism, let me point to three important considerations:
- At the core of the pluralist approach is that in pluralism lies the recognition and acknowledgement of the value of diversity and difference, and a commitment to protect these values in order to prevent exclusion and oppression, especially of the most vulnerable and underrepresented positions and groups.
- Exclusion, censorship and eradication of diversity – be it ethnic, political, or intellectual diversity – has been one of the main tactics of any hegemonic or totalitarian system that wanted to take over control of human perception and behaviour. This tactic has also been used in science to stop progress that otherwise would lead to dismantling some already established scientific paradigms.
- Even if we cannot (and perhaps should not) hope for a full consensus on matters of what is right or wrong, we can and should rely on procedural fairness and common rationality. This is an argument put forward most notably by Stuart Hampshire (2001), who argues that these elements are universal features of human behaviour across the cultures and traditions. Perspectives and opinions about substantive issues (i.e., what is good and what is wrong) arise from human sentiments. But procedural fairness (e.g., the right to be heard) is a fundamental kind of fairness, a constant in human nature; procedures that are necessary for any social order are seen as primary.
Having these three points in mind, I suggest a pluralist do’s and don’ts’ tentative, inexhaustive list of interest of not only those who identify themselves as “pluralists”, but of everyone who wants to build collective resilience in times of crisis:
- Do not condone with violence and stand up against evil. There should be a period here as this should be self-explanatory. But it is not always so. Minimizing suffering as much as is possible is one of the major and most important universal moral principles (Berlin 2000; Connolly 2005). But why create suffering in the first place? Suffering should be avoided and it means that we have to react. Pluralist philosophies promote tolerance, but it is never an absolute tolerance. The sharp line for pluralist inclusiveness lies here: on behalf of tolerance, no one would and should accept violence or violations of human rights and dignity, or any exclusionary attempts at total control. The reason this is a fundamental principle of a pluralistic philosophy is that violence and hegemony endanger the cultivation of diversity (Hinman 2003). Especially today, when people face restrictions due to the lock-down necessities, and some of them see their autonomy and rights threatened, it is more important than ever that our interactions are based on respect to ourselves while respecting the requirements of social distancing. Behaviors and debates that ignite violence only feed an already destabilised sense of safety and value.
- Do the reality-check: An important criterion for differentiating between an opinion (to which everyone is entitled) and reality is whether the statement is evidence-based. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But there are limits to acting on the basis of one’s own or communal opinion. This basis is defined, for example, by professional codes of ethics, constitution, law, best available knowledge (do not mistake this with knowledge accuracy or certainty of knowledge), intersubjective social and moral standards and customs. These all provide a list of checking boxes. Today it is easy to misuse or distort scientific facts and wisdom that come from cultures and traditions. But the “evidence-based” phrase can also be misused to distort the perception of reality if it is applied in a way that covers alternative explanations and dissent, especially in science. There is a great deal of info-warfare. At the same time, commonplace censorship practices (e.g., by the popular social media platforms) are normalised. This implies dumbing down of the people by considering them as incompetent and not capable of discerning things by themselves in the first place. Most likely, this is not the circumstance that you would like to see yourself in, and so the other people.
- Be consistent, live with integrity. Consistency is about integrity between three elements: what you think, how you act, and how you interact with your ecosystem. Being consistent and living with integrity means not only having and cherishing some values and principles, but also expressing the unique you in a way that consistently supports the collective process of dynamic renegotiation of our perceptions and meaning we ascribe to the world so we all can integrate our contributions in a rightful way. You are not living in a social, economic and political vacuum. What you do and think does matter. How you express yourself also matters. You do not have to comply to everyone else’s standards, but you do play a role in collective social and cultural evolution process that we all are a part of. The more polarising and antagonising your expression is, the more bumpy our evolution process—wherever it is taking us.
- Participate constructively in social and political life. Such participation requires a recognition of the other part and hearing what the other part has to say. It also calls for self-scrutiny, as well as taking responsibility for one’s own views, beliefs, and actions. Our judgments, principles, and theories are not fixed once and for all, but they are relative to our best available knowledge and beliefs about the world. This brings us to the next point:
- Be responsible. The exercise of autonomy and freedom by people always goes along with moral responsibility. Practiced responsibility is one of the most important ingredients of ethical and democratic legitimacy. It requires not only transparent communication, but also the final element:
- Moral competence. This term refers to an ability to solve problems and conflicts through thinking and discussion, a process that involves moral principles (Lind 2016). Research in moral psychology demonstrates that morality can be taught (ibid.) through favorable learning opportunities (Schellinger 2006). Lind argues that:
“coercion would not be needed if we would give all citizens an opportunity to develop their ability to solve conflicts and problems through thinking and discussion. This moral competence would immunize us against fear and panic and thus also against immoral practices” (2020).
It is because we have a diversity of people, views, perspectives, and scientific paradigms that we can evolve. By encountering differences, growth opportunities happen for individuals and collectives. The current unprecedented crisis of the coronavirus pandemic that turned the world upside down offers us not only a total disruption of social and economic life; it offers also an opportunity to mutate to a higher level of individual and collective consciousness. We don’t have to be the same, think along the same lines, and agree with each other in order to express solidarity. But we have to respect the differences and recognise the unknown, instead of trying to push for illusory certainty. Recognizing complexity as an immanent feature of reality implies that more than one single answer to the research questions can be found (Dryzek 2005), and in some cases there are no rational rules for adjudicating which of them is the more true (Dereniowska 2017). Indeed, the search for certainty as the equivalent of truth is impossible under the condition of the complete, global disruption caused by the pandemics. Instead, an approach that is about adaptation to complexity is needed. As it happens, these are the features of the pluralist spirit. Pluralistic thinking and practice have the potential to respond to some of the needs of our current, uncertain times by facilitating individual and collective adaptation to the new situation that we are all in with all our differences. Although a pluralistic approach implies an open, dialogical, and tolerant attitude toward alternatives, it does not mean the lack of criticism, or the lack of scholarly identity. To be a pluralist is consistent with representing one particular school of thought, while being open, tolerant, and knowledgeable about others. The pluralist do’s and don’ts, tentatively proposed here, illuminate only the basic steps towards an inclusive and fair social and academic debate across our differences. Pluralist practice and thinking is not about converging views in society and science and silencing any kind of dissent. It is about shifting consciousness from one that is based on division, and therefore divisive thinking that perceives threat in any expression of differences from the perceived truths, towards relational consciousness that is based on deeply ethical and non-violent attitude towards others social, public, and academic contexts. This is why the pluralist philosophy is nowadays more important than ever.
Benjamin, Martin, 2003. Philosophy & This Actual World: An Introduction to Practical Philosophical Inquiry. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham.
Berlin, Isaiah, 2000. The Proper Study of Mankind. An Anthology of Essays. Farrah, Straus and Giroux, New York.
Connolly, William E., 2005. Pluralism. Duke University Press Books, Durham.
Dereniowska, M. 2017. Sustainability, ethics and democracy: A pluralistic approach to the navigation of disagreements, pp. 79-103. In: J. Brown, P. Söderbaum, and M. Dereniowska, “Positional Analysis for Sustainable Development: Reconsidering Policy, Economics and Accounting.” Routledge, London.
Dryzek, John S. 2005. The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Hampshire, Stuart, 2001. Justice Is Conflict. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Hinman, Lawrence M. 2003. Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory. Thomson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.
Lassman, Peter, 2011. Pluralism. Polity Press, Cambridge, MA.
Lind, Georg. 2016. How to Teach Morality. Promoting Deliberation and Discussion, Reducing Violence and Deceit. Logos Verlag, Berlin.
Lind, Georg. 2020. Panic and the lack of moral competence. How we can help to prevent panic pandemics. Paper presented at: 14th International Symposium “Moral Competence”, Vilnius, July 23/24 2020.
Schillinger, M. 2006. Learning environments and moral development: How university education fosters moral judgment competence in Brazil and two German-speaking countries. Shaker-Verlag, Aachen.
Söderbaum, Peter, 2008. Understanding Sustainability Economics. Towards Pluralism in Economics. Earthscan/Routledge, London.
From: pp.10-12 of WEA Commentaries 10(4), December 2020