Democracy’s Growth Pains

One of the things that Nel Noddings analyses in the opening pages of his book “Educating Citizens for Global Awareness” is social and cultural diversity. Noddings states that “diversity” involves “racial, ethnic, and religious differences” while disregarding physical appearances of individuals. In other words, Noddings considers “diversity” along lines of cultural heritage—which, of course, is defined by the social, historical, and cultural context of the people in question.

In his book, Noddings states that recognizing the importance of “diversity” is paramount to the creation of “pluralism,” that is, “sharing power with all those affected by policies and decisions.” By this Noddings means that in order to construct a rich political sphere that is representative of the myriad discrepancies that make up the populace, we must recognize that the “public” is not one homogenous mass but rather one that is made up of an people of eclectic backgrounds.

The thrust of Noddings’s argument concludes with the remark that “diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism—rightly understood—protect us from our worst social/political impulses.” Although Noddings does not provide historical examples of such cases, one can easily make a link between his argument (which is an abstract truism) and say, some of the real, harrowing events which serve as examples to verify his claim (like the Holocaust and the oft-overlooked yet no less horrifying genocide of the Chinese committed by Japan during WWII).

Yet one cannot help but question the limits to Noddings’s rosy vision of a public sphere where minorities and marginalized people can freely express their opinion. Noddings seems to accept the deliberative democracy envisioned by Jager Habermas in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1961)—that is, a democracy that functions healthily by taking into account the multitude of opinions of a non-homogenous populace.

There are many thinkers today who challenge such optimism. Chandal Mouffe is one such thinker, and her argument about agonistic pluralism, that is pluralism where differences are the source of friction rather than deliberation, is convincing enough—after all, is it really possible to completely ignore conspicuous disparities between people of different cultural heritage and view each other as equal citizens who share a common heritage?

Mouffe’s antithesis to Habermas’s claims can also be applied to the argument put forth by Noddings—a deliberative democracy assumes goodwill and well-reasoned, cool-headed (yet passionate) deliberation amongst people of differing backgrounds. Yet Mouffe says that this is impossible; as human beings, we cannot help but recognize our differences, and it is through recognizing these differences in an agonistic way that we can really express, and hope to overcome, our grievances.

At present, those of the deliberative democracy camp and the agonistic pluralism camp have dug their heels firmly into the ground to challenge the other on ideological and conceptual grounds. This all comes to show that present structuralized forms of democracy are well overdue for a serious update, and its flaws once again unearthed.

Once such flaws are unearthed and tended to, we may be able to finally water down the stereotypes and biases so prevalent in the world today and strive for a truly global, peaceful coexistence amongst the people (and hopefully in a green earth too!)

 //By Ryo TAKAHASHI

2 Responses to “Democracy’s Growth Pains”

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