Structures of Modern Society: Identity, Difference, and Toleration


“ …. In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as  one people.  Let's  resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.

Let's remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.

Those are values that we all share…” Barack Obama - Acceptance Speech 2008

On the night of November 4, 2008, then President-elect Obama gave his victory speech at Grant Park, Chicago. The son of a Kenyan father and a white mother, the young-charismatic  yet inexperienced Obama had just achieved what  would become watershed moment in the country’s history. His speech, viewed by thousands across the nation and globally, tied the essence of his campaign – hope and change. However, it would be a disservice to reduce the essence of his speech as being embodied that. Specifically, his  message was about the spirit of the American people. Of course, this brings up a corresponding notion that the essence of the modern American democracy is built upon a consideration of identities.

It is no surprise a constructive  virtue and principle of the modern American democracy is toleration, a view that acknowledges the pluralistic foundations of American society. Contemporary  views about toleration could be divided along two principal lines – the neutralist versus the perfectionist views. The neutralist  view could be summarized as one requiring government neutrality. Neutrality, by definition, is taken to mean the government not favoring particular views over others in the public sphere.  The  perfectionist  ideal, on the other hand, evaluates differences on the basis of their compatibility with liberal principles - among them being tolerance, pluralism and diversity. In principle, differences that are at odds with liberal and individual rights are deemed to be excluded from society.

Recent developments, however, reveal the inadequacies of both approaches to underlying issues of social division. Within the perfectionist view, toleration is not as much about acceptance and recognition  as it is about  being able to put up with. Not only does this view fail in this regard but it also reveals  a  selectiveness  in  its incompatibility with views of illiberal cultures.  The  neutralist interpretation of toleration, however, does no better. While openness and inclusion characterize the neutralist trait, it turns out its view of non-discrimination is self-defeating.

In the first place, the neutralist stands holds all differences are alike and consequently adopts a difference- blind view as a solution. This is its most important flaw. It makes our differences – notably on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and culture – disappear. The resultant conclusions are that the neutralist proposes a false- openness while the perfectionist view is explicitly exclusive.

Perhaps, to understand these flawed views of toleration, it would be important to look at the underlying connection between the neutralist and perfectionist view. They both evaluate tolerance on an individual level. Being black for that matter is treated as endorsing certain kinds of social practices and ways of life. In other words, being black is viewed as a matter of choice.

This important point leads to a discussion of redefining what we mean by pluralism. Of course, this suggests expanding from  the individual  level to  realize  the collective dimension is crucial. And if it is crucial, it would mean discussions of toleration need to be expanded for all cultures to have an equal footing. This is what modern toleration is about. Liberty, inclusion and respect, not  only in the private domain but in the public circle.

Toleration need not be concerned about the maintenance of liberal values as it should be about equal treatment. It is about time we rid the notion of confusing the public visibility of black presence as a sign of inclusion. If we are to be deemed tolerated, it would depend on us being recognized at every level of society. Legitimate representation is what we should desire not symbolism.