Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Toleration vs Diversity

Both toleration and diversity are viewed by many moderns as good things. I am not sure to what extent people realize that they are to some degree conflicting goals, that toleration can be a threat to diversity.

The point occurred to me most recently in my readings on Jewish law. For about two thousand years after Israel ceased to be an independent polity, Jews, scattered around the world, continued to live under Jewish law. Gentile rulers found it convenient to subcontract the job of ruling, and taxing, their Jewish subjects to the local Jewish communal authorities. One result was to preserve the differences between Jewish culture and the culture surrounding the communities of the diaspora.

What changed that was emancipation—the shift, beginning in the late 18th century, towards treating the Jewish subjects of Christian countries just like everybody else, as Italians or Germans or Frenchmen rather than as Jews living in Italy or Germany or France, as natives rather than resident aliens. Seen from some angles it was a large improvement. But from the point of view of cultural diversity as a good, it was a catastrophe. Jewish law, in particular, ceased to be a living, functioning legal system providing the legal framework for millions of people and became instead a combination of an intellectual game and a legal system applying to a limited subset of activities and enforced only by belief.

In the U.S. the process was almost total, which is why the fact that my ancestors were Jewish is only a minor element of my identity. Elsewhere it is still incomplete. I still remember, traveling in Europe as a graduate student, a conversation with a group of European strangers at (I think) a youth hostel. They wanted to know where I was from; I told them I was an American. Oddly enough, one of them asked to see my passport, so I showed it to him. At which point he told me that he was (I'm making up details--this was about forty years ago) French the same way I was American and another of the group was Italian and ... . They were all Jews, had presumably deduced from my name on my passport and other less obvious signs that I was Jewish, and to them that was a stronger identifier than nationality. And, as evidence that the emancipation was a slow process from the other side as well, I am told that it was not until sometime after the end of World War II that Swedish law changed to make it possible for a Jew to be elected to the legislature.

The same point occurred to me earlier in my studies of different legal systems. Gypsies, for about a thousand years, have maintained their very distinct cultural identity, including multiple distinct legal systems, despite being scattered as a minority through non-gypsy lands. As I interpret my readings on the subject, that identity is now under threat in the U.S. and Canada—because we are too tolerant.

The ultimate punishment under Gypsy law, in most times and places, was ostracism from the Gypsy community. That was a potent threat for people who believed that all non-gypsy were marginally human slime and (correctly) that the attitude was reciprocated by the non-gypsies surrounding them. It becomes less effective in places where gypsies, especially young gypsies, who are unhappy with the constraints of their own culture have a realistic option of merging into the surrounding culture. One result has been pressure on Gypsy institutions to relax their own constraints, under threat of losing control over their own people.

The point of this post is not to argue that it would be better if Americans hated Gypsies or Europeans saw Jews as aliens. Only that it would be different, and that one of the differences is one that many people see as good.


Anonymous said...

An insightful and provocative post.

There is a difference between the diversity we speak of when we use terms like "Jews," "Gypsies," "French," "black people," etc. and the natural diversity that arises from unfettered individualism. Like you pointed out, the former type of diversity cannot survive absolute toleration.

Meanwhile, the latter type of diversity thrives on toleration. It is in fact most compatible with absolute toleration.

However, it is harder to attain this type of diversity because it involves the reexamination and criticism of one's own heritage and traditions, and also receptiveness to the heritage and traditions of others. Taken a step further, it entails mating with a person who looks and talks differently than you do--something that is probably counter to most humans' behavioral instincts.

Perhaps this explains why intolerance is such a recurring theme throughout human history, and also why tolerance is seen as a positive goal?

Perry E. Metzger said...

I've often said that I self-identify as Jewish only to the extent that there are bigots who will hate me for it -- for all other purposes I've lost that identity.

Your posting seems consistent with lots of stuff I've observed over the years, thanks for articulating it so clearly.

As a somewhat related aside, the UK and France, which have been very aggressive about attempting to give special protections to minority groups in order to get them better integrated into society, have both largely failed on this. In the US, where we have very few such protections by comparison, we have almost complete assimilation of immigrant groups after a few generations.

As another distantly related aside, in much of Europe, where there are still established religions and even religiously based political parties, religiosity is on a precipitous decline, while here in the US, where we forbid almost all government intervention in favor of religion, it continues to thrive.

Anonymous said...

If I understand your argument rightly, it suggests that for any given culture enclosed by a dominant surrounding culture, there is some specific optimum of tolerance between zero (elimination) and total (assimilation) under which it flourishes best.

There are two ways of arguing from this that toleration is no clear threat to diversity. Suppose that increased toleration leads to the disappearance of M discrete cultures. Suppose that it also leads to the emergence of N new ones.

One might, not very imaginatively, try to establish that N reliably tends to be greater than M.

But there is another way to look at it - that what is really breaking down with 'disappearance' is partly the cultural enclosure, and that the actual diversity of human individuals, relationships, and institutions has increased in some of these events too.

In this case we're moving from talking about fairly formal, recognizable, discrete groupings of people, and towards informal, perspective-dependent, overlapping groupings. I wonder how one could go about assessing that sort of 'diversity' at all - and how far it is even compatible with the more familiar sense of 'diversity' you work with in this post.

The whole concept of 'cultural diversity' may be insufficiently coherent to chart against anything else.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a better wording would be "assimilation vs. diversity": intolerance of a minority culture by the majority usually implies non-assimilation, but not vice versa (consider the Amish, who are not the targets of significant intolerance but are perhaps as un-assimilated as any minority group in the U.S.)

Anonymous said...

It's the old question again: is American society a melting pot, or a tossed salad?

Anonymous said...

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I would sometimes be asked "what's your nationality?" The expected answer was some European country. This question annoyed me because I have no such identify (both my parents are midwesterners).

Is Pittsburgh "diverse" because many people maintain a (weak) affinity with various European cultures?

Jonathan said...

The Archbishop of Canterbury recently complained that the British government, although tolerant of religion, seems to regard it as an eccentricity practised by minority groups.

It occurred to me that interest in religion would probably revive if religion were made illegal. It would become cool and exciting. At present, I suppose most Brits regard it as uncool and boring.

Unknown said...

Individual diversity = good
having a "diverse" group of minority communities that don't want you to marry outside of them = bad

This is the only meaningful attempt at breaking down these barriers I have ever seen:

Mike Huben said...

Offhand, I can think of two reasons why diversity is regarded as a good thing.

First, because it is the result of a process of exploration, and thus allows adaptation (or survival) of some of the diversity in the face of changed conditions.

Second, because it is necessary to counter the old ideas of difference as a good reason for persecution.

The second reason doesn't give us a cause for preserving diversity, except perhaps that in the absence of diversity we cannot practice tolerance.

The first reason is really important, however since most diversity is due to constraints (geographical, technological, legal, etc.) there's not much reason to preserve it when the constraints can be removed. Except in the "suffering is good for the soul" sense of being prepared for future constraints.

In literate societies with historians, there's not much need to preserve social diversity if it is adequately recorded. Classical Greek and Roman law had largely died out, but the widely-read founders of the US resurrected elements of that law. Nor need it be preserved in excruciating detail: renewed application will rediscover what's omitted and invent new solutions. That would happen even without historical preservation, but probably at a much slower pace.

Thus I don't see much need to preserve living cultural diversity: I value it less than toleration.

Genetic diversity is a different story. Short of genocide, there's no eliminating it, and it is not threatened by tolerance. If all "races" were mingled, we'd still have the same genetic diversity, even if we had fewer extremes of phenotype.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Aloha, David Friedman,
We used to meet at Google groups,

(David): "I am not sure to what extent people realize that they are to some degree conflicting goals, that toleration can be a threat to diversity."

Some of us understand this.

(MK): "Perhaps this will sound crazy, but here goes: Some goods must be consumed to be enjoyed. Lunch is an example. Some goods can be enjoyed without deterioration. A painting is an example. If 'diversity' is a
good (I think so), it occupies some position on this continuum. It seems to me that 'diversity' is rather far toward the 'consumable' end. In fact, the homogenizing function of State school is often touted as one of their virtues. I take no position on the rate at which 'diversity' should be consumed, but I find it strange that people who preach tolerance of diversity promote policies likely to reduce it quickly. The way to teach tolerance of diversity is to tolerate
diversity, seems to me."


(MK): "MK. In 200 years the whole world will be light brown,'cultural' differences will be occupational and not geographic or racial, and everyone will speak some mutated form of English. Nothing short of a great technological collapse will stop this. We can preserve
interesting culture by learning second languages as a hobby, and
recording history. It's important to get it right, and not polish the defects out."

Mats Sylvan said...

I'm afraid you are misinformed about the Swedish law.

Jews could be elected to the Swedish parliament long before World War II.

The Swedish constitution was changed in 1870. Before 1870 the constitution required members of parliament, judges, teachers and some government officials to be members of the Church of Sweden.