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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

Chapter fifteen. The value of diversity

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1Nationalism is usually associated with appeals to the unity and homogeneity of the nation. Let me now present an atypical argument which centers upon the value of diversity. (Lichtenberg presents it as the Pluralism Argument [Lichtenberg, 1997, 161].) The argument was famously proposed by G. Herder in the nineteenth century. It has been expanded upon by M. Buber, I. Berlin, M. Walzer, and the Israeli philosopher A. Margalit in more recent times. They cheerfully admit that variety is desirable, whereas uniformity is monotonous, dreary, dull, a fetter on the free-ranging human spirit. But they go on to claim that different national cultural styles actualize different possibilities from the total potential of mankind. Buber claims that each nation has a historical mission. The guiding picture is that of a mosaic: like stones in a mosaic, various cultures contribute to a diversified picture of human capacities. This line of thought appeals to ethno-diversity as a good in itself.

Berlin’s basic intuition is that even God cannot choose the best form of life because there are no supervalues, such as variety and order, that can be used to measure the totality of values that a society actualizes. The values embodied in each society exhaust all of the justifications we have for a form of life. (Margalit, 1997, 80)

2One can liken the value of ethno-diversity as it is seen and presented by our nationalists to the value of biodiversity: if the diversity of existing species is a good, as many ecologists claim, then the diversity of cultures and lifestyles should be at least equally valued. It is atypical of political nationalists and is rarely encountered in the political press; on the contrary, it figures very prominently in abstract discussions of nationalism in political philosophy. We shall therefore let our even-handed nationalist abundantly quote or paraphrase contemporary philosophers in presenting it. Here is his statement.

Let me first present the outline of my reasoning in a succinct form. Given that various cultures embody various cultural and moral values, the diversity of cultures (preserved in a relatively pure state) is an important good. Each culture plays its unique part in the harmonious symphony of mankind, as Walzer puts it in his 1990 Tanner lectures, reiterating a picture proposed by Mazzini. But the natural unit of culture is the (ethno-)nation. Therefore, the preservation of a given ethno-national culture—in a relatively pure state—is a good independent of the will of the members of the culture, which ought to be assured by adequate means. To quote A. Oldenquist: “[One] reason there is sympathy for ethnic separatism and self-determination is that we think of a culture or ethnic group analogously to how we think of a plant or animal species— unique, complex, irreplaceable, the result of past conditions that will never be repeated” (Oldenquist, 1997, 325). If biodiversity is valuable, so is ethno-diversity (if I may propose a newly coined word). Now, in order that such a community should support the culture in question, it has to assume the form of a state, and indeed a state focused upon tradition and national values. So, the ethno-national community has the right in respect of any third party and its own members to have an ethno-national state. Equally, the citizens of the state have the right and obligation to favor their own ethnic culture over any other.
Let me now expand upon this line of reasoning, helping myself to the extant literature. Remember A. Margalit’s (1997, 80) idea “that people make use of different styles to express their humanity”, and that there “are people who express themselves ‘Frenchly’, while others have forms of life that are expressed ‘Koreanly’ or ‘Syrianly’ or ‘Icelandicly’”. The Slovenian archbishop F. Rode has similarly claimed that a Slovenian has no other way to feel than ‘as a Slovenian’, in all circumstances. An analogy may make this clearer. Painters generally express themselves in a variety of painting styles, and many even belong to various schools. There are schools of figurative painting and abstract painting, realistic and surrealistic painting, impressionistic and expressionistic painting, yet the members of all these schools share the effort to express themselves in painting despite their differences. There are also eclectic painters who do not belong to any school. They simply paint. Analogous to eclectic painters are cosmopolitans who do not belong to any group. But most people express themselves by belonging to a trend that determines the contours of their expression. The need for belonging in the first sense is the need for means of expression. This need is therefore parasitic upon human beings’ basic need to express themselves. A nation is a sort of school of human expression. There are also other sorts of schools—tribal, class, religious, and the like. Cultures should therefore be preserved, even at the cost of the rights of the individual in question: for example, the traditional norms constitutive of a tribal culture should be respected at all costs. To quote Oldenquist again:

Preservationists would protect the tribal culture and not give full weight to the negative effects this has on income, health, and longevity. There is, I think, more widespread sympathy for the preservationist position. Latvians and Chechens are not different from forest-dwelling tribes in uniqueness, irreplaceability, and in their desire to rule themselves in their own territory. If we value Daflas or Navajo as peoples and cultures and not merely as aggregates of individuals, must we not similarly value Latvians and Chechens and, for that matter, Russians too? Are not nationalities in any case tribes? (Oldenquist, 1997,325)

One may distinguish the diversity of narrowly moral values (“It is both conceptually and psychologically difficult to reconcile a monastic life with a family life”, writes Margalit [1997, 80]) from the diversity of general cultural values (art, language, customs). Both have a moral value: although a single language is itself not a moral value, the preservation of languages in their diversity does have some moral worth. (Take as an example the right to self-defense in the matter of languages.) As already mentioned, the danger of extinction threatens some existing languages: only one-tenth of the 6,000 languages now in existence will probably survive into the next century (Fletcher, 1997, 327). Individuals have a right to preserve their language in the teeth of extinction in the same way in which they have a right to self-defense.
To come to narrowly moral values, my claim is not that values are relative; that different people value different things. My line is not relativistic. It does not assume that something is valuable and worthy of political protection just because it is taken to be so by a group. (This would collapse the Herderian argument into a different argument, based on the decisions of individuals, and give it a more individualistic, liberal stamp. Also, the relativity of values is at best a justification for tolerance, not pluralism.) The idea is rather that different sets of objective values are actualizable by different forms of life. The values, so to speak, find their own worshippers. Take the values of loyalty and fidelity and of independence and experimentation with ways of life. One might argue that typical Mediterranean cultures, such as traditional Sicily and Spain, embody the first set of values, whereas contemporary Scandinavian society prefers independence and the spirit of experiment. To quote Margalit once more:

There are no supervalues of a higher order that provide us with a way of comparing the collections of values that are embodied in each society. We cannot choose between different ways of life that we consider valuable on the basis of rational considerations or justifications—we can only perform an existential act of choice that expresses our freedom to live this way rather than some other way, where both this way and the other way are valuable to us. But more often than we choose a way of life, we are born into one. National belonging is the outstanding example of this truth. The idea that there are no dimensions for comparing national forms of life that embody desirable values is also a reason to avoid seeking national supremacy. There is no point in such an effort, just as there would be no point in the winner of a dog beauty contest entering a beauty contest for cats. The criteria are noncomparable. (Margalit, 1997, 80)

This closes my defense of the value of diversity. I have already sketched how one passes from it to the defense of the ethno-nation as the best framework in which this value is to be actualized.

3How good is this argument? I shall try to show not only that it is deeply flawed, but also that it is doubly self-defeating: on the one hand, it lands the moderate nationalist in a kind of paradox; on the other, it offers the anti-nationalist useful raw material from which to construct an argument in favor of a pluralistic, graded cosmopolitanism.

4First, let me argue that the argument as a whole verges on a paradox. Its avowed aim is to establish the high value of diversity. Now, who is to enjoy that value? Certainly not the intended producer/consumer of the narrow ethnic culture! He or she is supposed to concentrate upon his or her own ethnic values: like a good village cook he or she can only prepare the local specialty and does not care for the diversity of various kinds of cuisine. The value of diversity is a typical cosmopolitan value. Enjoying it presupposes sensitivity to differences, acquaintance with a wide range of local and national cultures, virtues that are anathema to our nationalist. He then faces the following options: everybody should be concerned with their own ethno-national culture, disregarding the panorama of the whole. Thus, in the perfect world diversity will blossom, but there will be nobody to enjoy it. Now, why would anyone want to deprive people of enjoying a value one takes to be fundamental? This certainly has not been the intention of actual cultural Herderians, from Herder, through Berlin, to Raz and others. The alternative, however, is even worse. Alternatively, most people—the worker bees of the cultural world—should be concerned with their own ethno-national culture, but the chosen few may enjoy the panorama of the whole. Besides being morally intolerable, this proposal reverses the intention of the Herderian: he wants to praise ethno-national culture, not degrade it.

5Thus the (Herderian) argument from cultural diversity fails to establish ethno-nationalist conclusions. It also lays bare the tensions inherent in non-invidious, even-handed nationalism: such a nationalist is supposed to value his own culture, and at the same time also to value others because they are different from his own culture. Moreover, he is assumed by the argument to cherish his own culture for the sake of its contribution to the mosaic of other cultures he cherishes less!

6This does not deprive the ideas present in it of any value they might have. On the contrary, one can preserve their sound kernel, that is, the view that each culture has a positive value, rejecting at the same time the nationalist overvaluation which places it above the interest and the will of members of the culture. To see this, we first have to get rid of the idea of purity. We have been postponing the discussion of this nationalist ideal in order to assess its strength in the context in which it plays a crucial role. The demand for purity has three drawbacks, two of which are moral. First, it encourages xenophobia and cultural cleansing; secondly, it condones and even encourages the perseverance of the serious defects which characterize many ethnic traditions (the male chauvinism of several Mediterranean cultures; the racism inherent in many other traditions; irrational and morally problematic religious beliefs: they all are seen as authentic and untouchable parts of pure ethnic cultures). These two drawbacks can be partially eliminated by imposing ad hoc restrictions, but it is far from clear that our ethno-nationalist can impose them in a coherent spirit. The third drawback resides in the fact that such pure cultures, preserved by a continuous tradition, simply do not exist in most of Western and Central Europe and in North America; the purity of a continuing tradition is simply illusory.

7To see the force of the anti-purist claim, consider another analogy, this time with the preservation of artifacts, such as tools, furniture, and works of art. Although the diversity of styles in arts and crafts is a value, nobody in his right mind would consider forcing or even morally obliging producers, including artists, to persist in or return to old-fashioned modes of production. The competing values of freedom and creative (re-)search, of originality and usefulness, join forces and achieve an easy and legitimate victory. The cherished styles are preserved in the museum, instead of being artificially kept alive with the help of the legal enforcement of ideals. The same should hold for the diversity of lifestyles, not quasi-biological ‘forms of life’. There is nothing morally problematic about mixed lifestyles—a mongrel culture is not necessarily inferior to a pure one. Let me be explicit: my criticisms are directed only to the imposition of traditions on individuals despite their better judgment and contrary to their wishes. Voluntary and deliberate attempts at continuation are of course protected from this criticism by the liberal values of freedom and autonomy.

8The cultural Herderian pro-nationalist can reply that every attempt at mixing already presupposes the availability of pure elements to be mixed with each other: the cosmopolitan ‘potpourri’ depends upon the presence of non-cosmopolitan traditions. In reply, one should point out that there is no need for such a presupposition; the mixtures can go back as far as prehistoric times. The proposed analogy is between nature and culture: the long-term stability and the reproductive isolation of biological species does not find an equivalent in the world of culture(s), and particularly not in recent centuries. Cultures are open to novelty and intrinsically non-stable: trying to preserve them in their present state, whatever that may be, is doomed to failure and sterility. The absence of social isolation is fertile from the viewpoint of cultural and social creativity.

9Moreover, isolation is today not an option. Here is a well-informed source, the anthropologist C. Geertz, quoting and enlarging upon the classic work of C. Lévi-Strauss:

In the past, when so-called primitive cultures were only very marginally involved with one another—referring to themselves as ‘The True Ones,’ ‘The Good Ones,’ or just ‘The Human Beings,’ and dismissing those across the river or over the ridge as ‘earth monkeys’ or ‘louse eggs,’ that is, not, or not fully, human—cultural integrity was readily maintained. (Geertz, 1985, 236)

10He stresses that “such a situation clearly no longer obtains” and that “everyone, increasingly crowded on a small planet, is deeply interested in everyone else”. Finally, in contrast to the animal world, in the world of culture individual originality is of the highest value, not to be sacrificed lightly to the ideal of rigid preservation of a collective culture. Of course, this says nothing against trying to preserve some cultural traits, particularly those which are compatible with basic universal values.

11We can now see how the value of diversity might be employed against the nationalist: communication and interpenetration can produce more diversity—and diversity of a more interesting kind—than purist preservation in some presumably ‘original’ state.

12So much for purity. The next crucial weakness lies in the nationalist’s exclusivity, that is, his special pleading for national culture. We have already argued in chapter ten that the ethno-national size classification of culture(s) and cultural phenomena has many competitors. On the level of any given cultural time-slice, there is the competition of micro-regional and macro-regional cultures, plus non-regional differences having to do with various sub-groups within the dominant culture. But even Herder preferred to talk about the ‘Slavic’ national character, and not to go into subtle distinctions between groups which we now see as nations belonging to the Slavic cultural circle. Here is a quotation from J. Tully (see chapter ten) which directly addresses the issue of diversity:

...cultures are not internally homogeneous. They are continuously contested, imagined and reimagined, transformed and negotiated, both by their members and through their interaction with others. The identity of any culture is thus aspectival rather than essential: like many complex human phenomena, such as language and games, its identity and meaning changes as different aspects of it come into view as it is approached from different paths. Cultural diversity is a tangled labyrinth of intertwining cultural differences and similarities, not a panopticon of fixed, independent and incommensurable world views in which we are either prisoners or cosmopolitan spectators in the central tower. (Tully, 1995, 119)

13Indeed, in our world ethno-national communities are never completely isolated; they always enter larger, culturally mixed and ‘impure’ civic communities. The value of diversity should then be judged in light of the fact that diverse cultural formations are to be found at diverse and multiple levels, both smaller and bigger than particular nations, some more ancient and durable, some more ephemeral and transitory. If diversity should be fostered it should be fostered at all these levels, not only at the national one.

14Let us now put the two points together—the importance of communication for diversity and the multiplicity of levels at which diversity becomes actualized—and propose an anti-nationalist argument based upon the value of diversity. First, cultural creation (especially original creation) depends upon the communication and interpenetration of different styles of life and work: such communication and interpenetration of cultures is therefore a moral value. On the other hand, the diversity of cultures (preserved in a state which allows them to be recognized) is an important good. We should then leave a wide margin of choice to interested individuals: in fact, they should do the balancing. If the preservation of a culture does not collide with the preferences and long-term interests of its members (including the need for creative innovation), nor with the interest of the other members of their civic (territorial) community, it is better—ceteris paribus—to preserve it than not. Therefore, in the circumstances specified here, and only under such circumstances, the individual pursuit of the preservation of culture is a morally valuable task (on an equal footing with the pursuit of originality and innovation). The interest of the preservation of a culture for which many individuals are interested by their free choice is a good reason to support it by administrative measures (but only to the extent allowed by the specification outlined above. There is no a priori suggestion that the culture in question is a national one; the support is equally due to micro- and macro-regional traditions and particularities.

15This, then, amounts to the proposal of a pluralist, non-nationalist variant of the defense of cultural diversity. It replaces the quasi-mythical idea of a purity of culture with a more generous condition, namely the preservation of a culture in a recognizable form. It stresses the plurality of cultural forms, many of which are not specifically ethno-national, and it places on an equal footing the antiquarian interest of preservation and the striving for originality and innovation. Further, the importance given to individual interests should include the interest of ordinary curiosity (cultural, creative, or just touristy) which very often works in a pluralistic and cosmopolitan direction, counterbalancing the preservationist interest. This attitude also allows for correction of the morally repulsive traits of any given culture. The proposal takes into account the fact that the creative development of art and culture might require a pluralist context which can in our time develop all the way into a cosmopolitan setting.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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