Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ L'état, C'est Moi

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 06, 2004

The problem becomes the loss of common norms, and common standards for those common norms. The "not-normative" schools you propose might decide that they won't try to create the democratic citizen, or the competent reader, but will substitute, say, the Christian, or the Jew, or the Muslim, and they will not create the skilled reader, but the skilled web designer. The issue, then, becomes the loss of a common culture. We become a nation that's all multiculture, all pluribus and no unum. - Steve Eskow

Racism, we agree, is wrong. But what if race were not a matter of involuntary genetic heritage, but something we could choose, akin to, say, the length of our hair or the cut of our clothes? Would racism then be permissible, even encouraged? One wonders what the ground for such discrimination would be, for there would certainly be no more ground than exists for discrimination today. But if racism in such a case were still wrong - as I argue it would be - then it would follow that it is wrong not because race is inherited but because race is irrelevant. Being of one or another race is not, in any justifiable sense, wrong.

There are of course numerous explanations for any instance of discrimination, whether it be on the basis of race or any of dozens of other traits. Among these a single explanation looms large, the desire to create and foster a unity among a people. The motto "E pluribus unum" is in no sense an expression of racism, but it is clearly an expression of a desire for unity. In the past, such desires have certainly led to instances of racism and to other forms of discrimination and conflict. The desire to achieve unity is historical fact, justifiable by the successes evident of a unified people, and psychologically compelling as a means to belong to something greater than oneself. But the fact that some senses of unity are desirable and some are not leads us to conclude that unity, in and of itself, cannot form the justification for a policy of discrimination, and by implication, for social and political policies in general.

Unity was once thought of in terms of having a common nature or essence. We would not think of a single thing as having different parts, but rather, of having different aspects or different instantiations. The elk was not an individual elk, but rather, an instance of the universal concept of Elk-kind. This Aristotelian and Platonic worldview was reflected in political economy. Tribes, nations, and peoples - these were not thought of as collections of individuals, but as instantiations of a single kind. A people. The body politic. The leader was not a representative of the nation, he or she was the instantiation of it. "L'état, c'est moi" was not merely the exclamation of an arrogant tyrant, it was the last gasp of a worldview that ended, decisively, with the Magna Carta and the French and American revolutions.

Replacing this view was a philosophy based, not on quality, but on quantity, born in the atomist philosophy of Leucippus and Democritus and nurtured in the Cartesian framework. What constituted a unity was an aggregation of individuals sharing similar properties. A piece of metal, for example, was called 'gold' if it were composed of an aggregate of atoms all bearing the same atomic properties. The 'goldness' was not in the piece of metal, but in the constituent parts. In a similar manner, political unity came to be that expressive of, to follow Rousseau, the 'will of the people'. Leaders came to be viewed not as instantiations but as representatives. Their essential qualities - their birth and inheritance - came to be seen as less important, their ability to speak for a majority, more important.

In order for such a unity to come into existence, there must actually be a commonality among the people. The great conflicts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had their seed in how this common will, this unity, ought to be founded and defined. In some prevailed the view that unity is based on genetics, and that the aggregate therefore needed to be purged of any impurities. In others prevailed the view that unity is derived from religion or faith. In still others, political and ideological purity was the official objective of the state. And in others, unity was defined simply as the expression of the primacy of the individual, a belief that unity could be obtained through an "invisible hand" if no restraints were placed on the rights and freedoms of the individual.

By and large, this last view has prevailed, though the conflicts against racism, fanaticism and fascism continue in pockets of resistance to this day. But though this last view has prevailed, there is a sense that it, like the others, defines unity in terms of certain essential properties of the individual, and there is a sense in which it, too, is ruthless in its determination to eradicate impurity. The dispute between communism and capitalism - two variants of the 'liberation' theme - nearly brought the world to ruin, and exercises such as blacklisting, McCarthyism and even the French ban on head scarves constitute evidence that, in freedom and democracy, unity is also sought, and that sometimes this desire for unity is capable of becoming an end in itself, superceding the very values on which freedom and democracy were founded in the first place.

Unity is a good thing; history demonstrates this. But at this juncture it is worth questioning whether unity as defined by the sameness of its constituents is a good thing. The world is in conflict today at least partially because there is the perception on the part of many people that E pluribus unum is beginning to define not only the nature of a certain nation, a certain people, but of the world as a whole. There remain people both in North America and around the world who define themselves in terms of their race, their religion, their political beliefs, and even their views on economic distribution, sexuality, recreational drug use, and the length of their hair. The suggestion that there is, or ought to be, a single culture, created out of the similarity (enforced or otherwise) of its constituent parts, is a suggestion they find strikes at the very core of their being.

Certainly from a global perspective, but even from a national perspective, the existence of distinct and fundamentally different political, religious and cultural affiliations is a fact. And though the belief may prevail that a unity could be obtained were only all to align to a single perspective, even if only a partial perspective, allowing some sorts of diversity while disallowing others, this belief is misguided. For there is no means of determining which such perspective should prevail, at least, no means that would be satisfactory to those with an alternative perspective. A means must be found that produces unity without requiring that the constituent parts be the same or even similar. I have encapsulated that political philosophy with the slogan: in diversity, harmony.

Just as a definition of unity based on quality was replaced with a definition based on quantity, I believe that today it is appropriate to consider replacing our contemporary definition based on quantity with one based on relation. In a nutshell, the thesis is this: the unity of an entity is based not on the nature of its parts but on the relations those parts bear to one another. Now one needs to be careful here, for this theory is not to do away with quality and with quantity, but rather, to change our perspective on the functional role of quality and quantity. When we changed our understanding of a piece of gold, the 'goldness' did not disappear, but our understanding of what made it 'a piece' of gold changed. In a similar manner, when we talk of a unity as being created by the relations between the parts, the quality and number of those parts does not go away, but our understanding of what makes it 'a single thing' has changed.

This is not a new concept. Just as counting and measurement existed long before Descartes, so also the concept of relation has existed long before today. And, indeed, just as aggregation was used before Descartes to identify, in some cases, entities (such as, say, a pile of stones), so also we depend on relation, today, to identify some types of entities. A collection of the same number of identical carbon atoms is universally recognized to be, in one configuration, coal, and in another configuration, diamond. Water molecules, organized one way, are ice, and organized another way, are steam. A cloud is distinct from a lake not by the nature or number of its constituents, but in the manner these constituents are related to each other, the earth, and to us. And moreover, for something to be a cloud (or a lake) does not depend in any crucial way on the nature or number of its constituent parts: our experience with other planets suggests that clouds may be made of methane, lakes of molten sulphur.

In political philosophy, then, the unity of a state is defined, not by the culture and beliefs of its people - in other words, not by any property of the people themselves - but rather, by the way the people are related with each other. And the measure of what constitutes a good political philosophy is not whether the beliefs, cultures or religions of its members (or its leaders) are 'good', but whether the network of relations enabled by that philosophy foster the maximum cohesion, and minimum discord, even (crucially) if its constituent entities are very different. In diversity - the antecedent condition - harmony - the desired outcome. A 'good' political philosophy is one that enables a person to undertake a maximal number of interactions with a minimal disruption of personal nature. Or, in pragmatic, concrete terms: the realms of culture, morality, religion and race are separated from politics. There is no 'common culture' - merely a mechanism that allows all people, no matter what their culture, to seek their own good in their own way.

Our educational system, therefore, should not seek to define a common sense of 'good', 'right' and 'just'. These are values that a child will inherit from his or her parents, just as he or she inherits a history, a language, and a skin colour. And at a certain point in time, these are all things that an adult may make his or her own decision about (even, in the age of genetic manipulation, skin colour). No, our educational system ought, instead, to be teaching *how* to live and interact in a multicultural environment in such a way as to allow his or her personal good to be satisfied. The criteria - the definition - of statehood should have no more or less moral import than learning how to drive on a highway, how to make change using a monetary system, how to communicate a message, and these criteria should be taught in the same way. For any other way of teaching is to revert to a definition of unity based on changing the properties of an individual, and will invariably lead to discord and conflict, the disruption of the global net.

This is not to say that there should not be cultural, religious, or other teaching. Quite the contrary. These common cultural heritages are treasures, as important to our eventual future as genetic and biological diversity, and should be preserved, cared for and fostered. Each language represents a unique insight on the world; it would be an incalculable loss were humanity reduced to speaking a single common tongue. Each religion carries with it an important perspective on metaphysics and morality, and we are weaker if any religion is silenced. Our cultures defined, in a fundamental way, who we are and why we exist, and the loss of this would be a tragedy. But it is for this very reason that our sense of unity should not seek to subsume everybody under one common ethos. The role of the state - and the primary role of public education - is not to drain our individuality, but to allow us to express it maximally, in harmony with those of different faiths and beliefs.

It is not religion I oppose, but fanatics. It is not political belief I oppose, but fascism. It is not capitalism I oppose, but oppression. It is not democracy I oppose, but demagogues. It is not unity I oppose, but uniformity.

A system of public education should have as its primary objective the teaching of means and mechanisms of interaction with others in a maximally harmonious network of distinct and autonomous individuals. If such a system of public education has as its core purpose the fostering of unity through political, religious or any other form of conformity, then it may as well be dispensed with all together, for it has ceased to be a system of education, and has become instead a club.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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