Magazine article National Forum

Limits to Pluribus, Limits to Unum

Magazine article National Forum

Limits to Pluribus, Limits to Unum

Article excerpt

Since its inception, the United States has engaged in a continuous, delicate balancing act involving varying and sometimes conflicting principles. One of those balancing acts has involved the alternatives posed by pluribus (pluralistic and individualistic) and unum (unifying and cohering) imperatives, both deeply embedded in our nation's history and its Constitution. Such pluribus values as freedom, individualism, and diversity live in constant and inevitable tension with such unum values as authority, conformity, and commonality.

However, this historical balancing act has involved more than values. Intersecting the pluribus--unum value tension has been the pluribus--unum tension of societal composition, because the United States began and has evolved not just as a nation of individuals, but also as a nation of groups--racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups, to name just a few.

Americans vary in their relative emphasis on pluribus and unum. Some emphasize pluribus, giving primacy to the defense of individual freedom and societal diversity. Others emphasize unum, arguing that the maintenance of societal unity reigns as the more essential value, often superseding the protection of pluribus rights, privileges, predispositions, and desires. While those who emphasize pluribus seek a capacious society that permits the maximum amount of socially benign diversity, those who emphasize unum focus their attention on upholding the societal core, not on preserving freedom for diversity.


Both pluribus and unum zealots sometimes become extremists-in support of their own particular versions of pluribus and unum, of course. Yet both pluribus and unum must have limits. Pluribus extremism can result in societal disintegration, particularly in light of our growing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. However, unum extremism can lead to the societal oppression of individual rights and group options.

Pluribus extremism sometimes takes the form of the defense of all diversity, whatever the societal costs or threat to unum. Knee-jerk supporters of such pluribus extremism love diversity so much that they constantly preach "tolerance" of all differences, continuously "celebrate" all diversity, and proclaim nonjudgmental "acceptance" of every group, regardless.

I believe deeply in diversity, but I also recognize my pluribus limits. I am not "tolerant" of bigotry, even if its roots are cultural--fortunately black and white abolitionists were not "tolerant" of the culture of slaveholding. I do not "accept" the restriction of opportunities for women simply because that restriction might be traditional within a particular culture. I do not "celebrate" the use of violence to resolve differences of opinion, although such problem-solving techniques might be endemic to some cultures. In other words, I do not subscribe to absolute pluribus because that necessitates a rejection of personal values, except tolerance, and an abdication of the right--better yet, the obligation--to make judgments. Such pluribus extremism, inshort, becomes amorality.

At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum stand the unum extremists. Not only do they

give primacy to unum, but many of them also fear diversity--particularly racial and ethnic diversity--viewing it as a threat to the future of American society. So fearful are they that some even seek to punish others for their diversity.


Since both pluribus and unum extremism are societally destructive, all Americans consciously or unconsciously grapple with two balancing-act questions. Whose pluribus should be limited? Whose versions of unum should triumph? To address these questions, I will briefly examine two balancing-act issues: language and ethnic-based religion.


The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press without restriction on the language to be used. …

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