Difference and Identity

In an earlier modernity, organizations, communities and nations tried to ignore differences. When they could not be ignored, they were pushed over to the other side of a geographical border, or an institutional boundary, or the normative divide of ‘deviance’. Difference was addressed via categorization and separation. In slightly more open moments stringent rules of conditional entry were imposed, such as assimilation or integration. In both instances, however, singular similarity was posited as the norm for successful community.

Here is a typical catalog of dimensions of difference: material conditions (social class, locale, family); corporeal attributes (age, race, sex, sexual orientation, and physical and mental abilities); and symbolic differences (affinity and persona, culture, language, and gendre – this concept capturing an amalgam of gender and sexual identification). These were the categories that marked out lines of separation or exclusion in the past.

Increasingly today, these categories have become the focus of agendas of recognition-in-difference or programs that redress historic and persisting injustice. They present themselves in our late modernity as insistent demographic realities. These differences have become living and normative realities, buttressed by an expanded conception of human rights.

However, as soon as we begin to negotiate differences in good faith, we find ourselves confounded by these very categories. We discover that the gross demographic groupings used in the first instance to acknowledge differences are too simple for our needs. We find that we are instead dealing with an inexhaustible range of intersectional possibilities – where gender and race and class meet, for instance. We face real-world specificities which artificially align people who would formally seem to fit within the ostensible categorical norm.

In fact, if you take on any one of the categories, you will find that the variation within that group is greater than the average variation between groups. There are no straightforward norms. Rather, you find yourself in the presence of differences which can only be grasped at a level that defies categorization: different life narratives (experiences, places of belonging, networks), different personae (attachments, orientations, interests, stances, values, worldviews, dispositions, sensibilities); and different styles (aesthetic, epistemological, learning, discursive, interpersonal).

The gross demographics might tell of larger historical forces, groupings and movements. But they don’t tell enough to provide a sufficiently subtle heuristic or guide for our everyday interactions. The gross demographic categories also find themselves in lists which, in times so sensitive to difference, all-too-often come to sound like a glib litany.

So what do we do to rise above the glibness and the sometimes justified accusations of platitudinous ‘political correctness’? For history’s sake, we need to address the gross demographics, but also today, a lot more.

Diversity as a Program of Action

Difference is the stuff of identities, human realities to be found in the social world. Diversity is a program of action. It is the stuff of normative agendas, where difference becomes the basis of social projects aimed at inclusion. This is where difference, the insistent reality, becomes diversity the agent of change. Many an historical and contemporary response to difference is hardly worthy of the name ‘diversity’—racism, discrimination and systematic inequity. As a normative agenda and social program, diversity stands in contradistinction to systems of exclusion, separation or assimilation.

Divergence and Agency

And another distinction. ‘Difference’ is a found social object. ‘Diversity’ is the mode of recognition of that object. ‘Divergence’ describes a dynamic peculiar to some social contexts, such as the societies of ‘first peoples’ and the just-now unfolding phase of modernity. These are places where there is an endogenous, systematic, active and continuous tendency for individual social agents and groups to differentiate themselves. This is in direct contrast to the earlier modern societies where homogenization was the norm, or at best tokenistic recognition of differences.

We live today in a time affording greater scope for agency, and this allows us to make ourselves more different. And because we can, we do. Take for instance the rainbow of gender identifications and expressions of sexuality in the newly plastic body; or the shades of ethnic identity and the juxtapositions of identity which challenge our inherited conceptions of neighborhood; or the locale that highlights its peculiarities to tourists; or the panoply of identities supported by the new, participatory media; or the bewildering range of products anticipating any number of consumer identities and product reconfigurations by consumers themselves.

Globalization and Diversity

The normative agenda of diversity has become all the more pressing as we enter a moment we might call ‘total globalization’. This is the moment when the global becomes a primary domain of action and representation of commerce, governance and personality. There have been other moments of globalization, to be sure. First, there was a moment when gathering and hunting societies came to live across and speak about most of the earth’s habitable lands. Then came a moment of farming, writing and the formation of societies on four continents so unequal that their rulers could afford to order buildings substantial enough to leave the ruins of ‘civilization’. Later, there was modern imperialism, industrialism and nationalism. Then now, is this a new moment?

If there is a new moment, it is one on which there is no place that cannot be reached in person by modern transport, in conversation through modern communications, in representation through modern media, or by products and services through modern markets. And because they can be reached, almost invariably they are reached. The incipient fact of total globalization brings with it a normative agenda for diversity: the agenda of globalism.

Today’s agendas of difference, diversity, divergence and globalization play themselves itself through in the heartlands of the emerging world order—the heartlands of commerce, governance and personality. Here we find paradoxes at play across the world of differences: the paradox of convergence which fosters divergence and the paradox of universalization which accentuates difference.

Economics of Diversity

In the domain of production, distribution and exchange, diverse labor forces work in organizations that increasingly defy national borders and strive to take their capital and commodities to the ends of the earth. Far from the founding logic of industrialism (mass production, mass markets, the lowest common denominator logic of deskilled workforces and one-size-fits-all view of consumers), the new commerce talks of mass customization, complementarities amongst the persons on diverse teams, catering to niche markets and staying close to customers in all their variability.

We could go so far as to claim that a new systems logic might be emerging in this, a kind of ‘productive diversity’. To make such a claim would be to go way beyond, or even dispense with, regimes of affirmative action and demographically defined regulatory compliance. It would also be to set an equity agenda for productive life, in which even minimalist approaches to diversity and incremental approaches to inequality are, as a general rule, an improvement on unreflective discrimination.

Governing Diversity

In the realm of civic life, local and national communities daily negotiate the differences resulting from immigration, refugee movement, settlement and indigenous claims to prior ownership and sovereignty. At the same time, communities increasingly recognize and negotiate a plethora of other intersecting and sometimes contrary differences.

Going beyond multiculturalism at the local and national level, it may be possible in this moment to create a kind of ‘civic pluralism’, a new way of living in community based on multiple layers of sovereignty and multiple citizenship. Not only does this transcend the old civic—the nation-state of more or less interchangeable identical individuals and its legitimating rhetoric of nationalism. It also promises to move beyond trivializing and marginalizing forms of multiculturalism, and to address afresh the nature and forms of ‘human rights’.

Diverse Personalities

Difference sits deep in our consciousness, our epistemologies, our subjectivities and our means of production of meaning. No longer can we assume there to be a universal personality (normal or deviant but remediable), because the universal today a humanity of personalities emphatically in the plural (the range of our differences), and also in the multiple (the layered complexity of the differences within us—for every individual the unique intersection of attributes, the nature and sources of which may often be ascribed to groups and socialization). This bit of gender, that bit of race, the other bit of socio economic group—this is the stuff of our personalities in the plural and the multiple. Together, these manifest themselves as the complexity of our dispositions, our sensibilities, our identities.