Complex Diversity: Acknowledging Group Identities within Democratic Society

By Hoover, Jeffrey | Philosophy Today, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Complex Diversity: Acknowledging Group Identities within Democratic Society


Hoover, Jeffrey, Philosophy Today


The debate between liberals and so-called "communitarians" is now more a memory than a current fault line within political theory. The decline of interest in this debate is in part owing to the widely-perceived inability of communitarianism to accommodate the pluralism of large-scale contemporary democracies, but this decline is also due in part to the partial success of communitarianism which can be witnessed in the degree to which liberal theorists now frequently pay homage to notions of "citizenship" and "political community." Before we relegate this skirmish to the dustbin of outgrown theoretical debates, it is worth considering some lessons this debate has for current concerns involving issues of identity politics, in particular the appropriateness of granting special recognition to certain sub-groups of society, i.e., minorities, oppressed groups, etc.

The mobilization of identity groups in recent decades has helped to blur the fundamental axes that have traditionally run through the political life of liberal democratic societies, along which the Left and the Right oriented themselves. We now find a more fractured political landscape in which mobilizations often center around collective identities that are not originally ideological or economic, but which have to do with ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual preference, etc. The most significant political mobilizations in the West in recent decades have involved the claims for inclusion and/or special recognition by such identity groups. Not only are these identifications proving to be effective in mobilizing individuals politically, they also appear to be better able to secure strong affective ties among their members in many cases than are traditional ideological groups. Identity groups provide individuals with a connection to political projects based on elements of these individuals' most basic conceptions of themselves, thereby giving membership in these groups deeper roots than membership in traditional political interest groups. What defines identity group membership is not merely the presence of a particular interest or a common allegiance to a particular political position, but something very basic to the self-conceptions of individual members. Our self-conceptions are generated in part by taking stock of differences between ourselves and others, and members of identity groups see themselves as having in common certain important differences that set them off from the larger population. Identity group membership also tends to be comprehensive, including not only shared differences with regard to beliefs, values, and lifestyles, but often includes commonalities of language or even the manner in which the body is presented or comported-it is a way of being. It is not just the forwarding of particular interests or political ideologies that are at stake, but recognition and affirmation of oneself, thus members' ties to these groups can be intensely affective. Moreover, identity groups often are formed around a common experience of oppression or marginalization by a dominant culture due to characteristics shared by members of the group. This results in a politicization of such groups, expressed in the groups' demands for justice and equality as well as explicit political and legal recognition.

Without a doubt, the politics of identity groups has helped expand enfranchisement and political access in many cases, and in general, have aided the further democratization of society. In particular, the politics of identity groups have exposed the means by which dominant cultures render subordinate cultures powerless or invisible, and they have fostered an awareness of the diversity that must be given recognition within liberal democratic societies. However, identity politics also present their own particular threats to democratic society. Some might have us believe that the wide range of identity groups whose concerns would potentially require legal and political redress will overload the state with demands for liberties, privileges, goods and services that it cannot possibly deliver. …

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