Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Equality And/or Difference: Real Problems, False Dilemmas (1)

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Equality And/or Difference: Real Problems, False Dilemmas (1)

Article excerpt

The opposition between these two terms is so frequently repeated and, above all, so frequently serves as the ideological expression of conflicts of interests or of civilization that we must begin by clarifying it and defining the real content of the discussion; if the terms are confused, the discussion may well remain unresolved. The real choice which confronts us can be reformulated as follows: either equality between individuals and groups is an equality of rights, as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen states perfectly, and not a de facto equality, and it applies to a specifically political and legal order which is above social and cultural realities, or this equality of rights implies a right to difference, which may apply to a specific social category as well as to a culture. If we consider equality from this second point of view, we must recognize the tension between the two terms--equality and difference--, a tension which can lead to opposition and rupture.

Let me try to explain it by referring directly to the main historical form which this discussion has taken within the global process of economic and social modernization known as industrialization. As from the mid-nineteenth century, and in the first instance in Europe, the universalist conception of citizenship entered into conflict with what can be called social demands, that is to say the recognition of the specific rights of certain social and professional categories which can be defined in broad terms like "working class" or the "peasantry." Many of those who defend specific interests accept the idea that there is a fundamental social conflict and therefore give a priority to the liberation of dominated categories against the universalism of citizenship that they consider as an instrument of domination of wage-earners and colonized peoples. The Twentieth century has to a large extent been dominated by the ideologies which can be referred to as Leninist-Maoist, which fought "bourgeois democracy" in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the only real liberation. It was much more difficult for the advocates of the contrary thesis, that of the extension of citizenship to the realities of the world of labor and all economic activity, to formulate their position. Great Britain is the country of origin of the idea of industrial democracy that then broadened into social democracy and further still into the Welfare State. Today we tend to think that this democratic socialism won the day deservedly and through world-wide conflicts over dictatorial forms of socialism; but that could lead us to forget that this democratic socialism recognized, as did its Bolshevik opponent, the key importance of relationships of domination. Its fundamental assertion, and the one which finally won the day at least to some extent is that democratic political institutions are the essential means of defense of dominated categories, and are therefore the tools of a genuine equality of rights.

It is easy to move from this evocation of an ideological and political conflict that, for a century, tore all the continents apart, to the formulation of problems of a similar nature which dominate our times. The demand for equality of social rights depended on the recognition of the central importance of social relations of domination; today we live, as a new stage of democratic thought, the assertion of cultural rights, which are not only rights to difference but, in the first instance and primarily, the defense of ways of living or thinking which are threatened or destroyed by the dominant forces. These forces are endeavoring to destroy what they call specificities in the name of what they declare to be universalism but which, in reality, is only the generalization of the ways of life and thought which correspond to their acquired interests and to their power. Today, as yesterday, the real discussion is not between "differentialists" and "universalists" or between "communitarians" and "liberals," to use the categories which divided our intellectual world as deeply as the conflict between the social democrats and the revolutionaries divided the industrial society. …

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