Browsing the Washington Post recently, I got a telling glimpse of one of the more pivotal intellectual duels of our time. It pertains to the question of just what humanity is really like, and how we ought to approach and think about those who seem different from us. How much, after all, are we alike? Are the differences between us mere accidents that will be eventually overcome by a project of social integration and new forms of conditioning—or is the concept of “humanity”, despite its considerable biological and genetic validity, merely a vapid catch-all that banishes all the personal and cultural distinctions that give life meaning?
Especially with the sudden growth of right-wing governments and populist sentiments around the world, and the commensurate mistrust of transnational structures like the EU, it is fair to say these two viewpoints—roughly analogous to, or expansions upon, the old notions of “nature” and “nurture”—have been battling it out with a renewed intensity.
Before this, it was generally thought that the “nature and human similarity” hypothesis was sure to triumph, as economic integration and the spread of liberal and materialist values would be unstoppable, in keeping with the narrative of progress as a process of ever-increasing scale and integration.
Yet now, a glance at the Post shows them side-by-side, neck-and-neck, exemplary specimens of each on the very same day. Let us begin with Kathleen Parker’s “If Obama is a Muslim, is Trump a Russian Spy?”, in which she declares, concerning Barack Obama’s youth in Indonesia,
“…there is no logical basis for assuming that a young person briefly raised in a given country — say, Indonesia — necessarily would adopt the dominant religion of that country. He might, however, observe that though people worship in different ways, we’re all essentially the same.”
Leaving aside the ridiculous questions of birtherism or of whether the president is a “secret Muslim”, the piece is far more interesting in the way it defends against these charges, for they provide a particularly salient example of the sameness thesis: an intensification of the more basic idea that people united by a coherent thing called “common humanity”, this new thesis contends that they are, in Parker’s words, “essentially the same”.
While the idea of common humanity, vapid or not, has served a noble purpose at the very least as the grounding for a kind of species-wide Golden Rule—reminding us that even our most despised adversaries are people like us who can suffer, who have families they love and homelands they care about—the intensification of this feeling into sameness marks the onset of absurdity.
Yet the sameness thesis offers a kind of feel-good utopianism and a simplicity that has made it very popular. It is, of course, that very simplicity that makes it also woefully and willfully ignorant of actual cultures, histories, and temperaments. Not only does it belittle these forces—usually without looking seriously at them, much like the guy I met at the bar a few weeks ago, who with a starry-eyed look swore to me that all human beings are the same and want exactly the same things, everywhere, no matter what their origins—but it simultaneously blinds itself to them, and so risks blundering into crises through its own unacknowledged cultural monism.
This monism, however tolerant and well-intending, necessarily carries its own assumptions of just how we are all “the same”; thus, unless the conceptions of sameness are made so crude that they again, like “common humanity”, risk vapidity, they carry their own seed of chauvinism and imperialism.
Moreover, it is a very small step from the sameness thesis to the interchangeability thesis: the assertion that human beings are not only alike, but interchangeable. Once this is accepted, both individual and cultural differences are rendered nugatory; what matters is only the systems in which human beings move. We then aspire, through application of reason, to understand the structural features of all human systems and once that is done, we can interchange human beings just like dollars within a single such system.
At that point, the monism is no longer implicit, but has shown itself as would-be master of everything. Human beings, and their cultural and religious traditions, are mere pendants, adornments to the system; if they are to be acknowledged at all—usually in a mood of self-congratulation for one’s own enlightened tolerance—they are to be rendered not just as part of a common idea, nor just as “essentially the same”, but fungible. Human beings passing through a large modern metropolis or economy are thus to be conceived of in the same manner as electrons passing through an integrated circuit. (Yet it is a keen irony that this fungibility, the enabling notion at the heart of globalization, actually seems to wildly enhance inequality wherever it is implemented.)
This is where economic and social liberalism show their shared origins: fungibility, systematization, and at their extreme, nihilism. Whether interchangeability is viewed as an overarching monist system of dollars or of human beings and beliefs (or both) is an almost immaterial distinction, for they go hand in hand.
They are also subject to similar inconsistencies. For instance, Parker continues by noting that: “Respecting others despite differences is, generally speaking, the hallmark of an enlightened soul”. This seems harmless enough, but in the context of the foregoing it seems strangely arbitrary: if we are all “essentially the same”, as she has said, why should we respect each others’ differences at all? We have already belittled the differences between people to the point of vapidity by invoking the sameness (or interchangeability) thesis; therefore, rather than “respecting differences”, the consistent follow-through would be to argue that, since our differences are really just superficial and unimportant, anyone who demands respect for them is making at most a silly or sentimental demand, which can be ignored as we wish.
The liberal “multicultural” view thus contains an irreconcilable tension, which must be papered over or couched in an implicit totalitarianism or chauvinism: your differences deserve respect as long as they don’t fundamentally change the operating assumptions of our System, or as long as they can be cleanly confined to a “private” sphere—e.g., one that does not impact the market. They are to be respected as adornments, having at most aesthetic but not functional importance—or if anything, they are to be reduced to a boutique, to grist for the monist marketplace.
Underneath it all is the implicit belief that what will prevail over such beliefs and differences is not one religion or another, but the liberal system of materialism, scientific authority, economic expansion, and human functional interchangeability. As long as one’s thoughts can be kept to oneself, or made into museum-pieces of a sort—harmless behind the glass, and long since removed from daily use—so that business as usual is not threatened, all is well, and we will praise your differentness.
The other view of humanity, the one that has surged to the fore and brought with it uneasy comparisons to the 1930s, is the view of human difference. Elsewhere in the Post, we find it solidly exemplified by George Will, who provides a near-perfect foil to Parker’s comments on human sameness. Here he is, on the same general subject of Obama’s legacy:
“The fact that the world is more disorderly and less lawful than when Obama became president is less his fault than the fault of something about which progressives are skeptical — powerful, unchanging human nature. Humans are, as Job knew, born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward: They are desirous and competitive, and hence are prone to conflict.”
“Human nature” is itself a difficult and dangerous concept, because of the very inconclusive information available and the risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. It is not exactly antithetical to the sameness hypothesis—human nature is something we are all supposed to have in common, after all. But its use generally suggests a hypocrisy within the more liberal idea of “sameness”, specifically where the sameness subsists; the liberal, while denying or minimizing human difference, tacitly takes it as a starting-point and seeks to reform it into sameness under an overarching monist system, which is then held up as evidence that humanity was infinitely plastic all along and therefore might as well be the same. In particular, it suggests that human beings’ sameness consists in their conditioning to the system (nurture), rather than vice-versa (nature).
What Will is suggesting is that while we have in common that elusive thing called “human nature”, such nature may not be amenable to whatever overarching system we hope to yoke it to. If human nature, for all it is shared between us, happens to include “trouble as the sparks fly upward”, then it may well prove to be the opposite of a unifying force, the opposite of the interchangeability thesis. Our shared humanity could be the very thing that drives us to seek out tribal identity, to embrace our own distinct customs, laws and ways of life and look askance at others (that is to say, diversity of the inconvenient and intractable kind, the kind the does not submit to the boutique).
Will promptly dives into this:
“Obama’s foreign policy presumed the existence of “the community of nations.” But that phrase is worse than hackneyed and sentimental, it is oxymoronic: Different nations affirm different notions of justice; a community consists of people made cohesive by a consensus about the nature of justice.”
There is also the related ideal of Progress, the motor that is supposed to drive society towards ever greater justice and equality (and sameness). Will has no truck with it, skeptically writing:
“Kerry’s reprimand of Putin expressed a progressive’s certitude about progress: The passage of time should ineluctably improve the comportment of nations.”
“People want their own identity,” said Trump in a recent interview, a sign of the times if there ever was one. Even in the Democratic Party, this desire seems to have worked unintended consequences in the form of identity politics, dividing the organization from the inside into a kaleidoscope of overlapping but poorly coordinating sub-groups, united only in their frustration.
It is again the choosing of one extreme versus another, instead of seeing the blurry middle. Why is it so difficult to see that while indeed all members of Homo sapiens do share a great deal in common, they are not necessarily interchangeable? Going the other way, why is it such a challenge to consider that while many people do nasty things and have imperfect desires, they are not thereby doomed to pure rascality?
Yet the categories are fluid and often imperfect. At times, the conservative focus on human nature as the wellspring of faction, tribe and parochialism begins to sound almost like cultural relativism, just as the liberal focus on “diversity” shades into interchangeability and a domineering monism and inequality. The division between nature and nurture is the same way; for example, on the left, it is typical to argue that “race does not exist” because the genetic differences within a race are larger than those between races—hence race is nurture—while in the case of homosexuality, it is now acceptable to resort to rigid genetic determinism—hence sexual orientation is accepted as “nature”.
The human is a composite, neither all mind nor all matter, a comprehensive merging-together that defeats all attempts at absolutist modeling or description. Those who would ignore human goodness are as fallible as those who would ignore human cruelty, greed and error; and those who would insist on the absolute rigidity human nature (and their own certain understanding of it) will see as crookedly as those who insist that human beings are infinitely adaptable and plastic.
Thus, the monstrosities of the right wing involve charismatic authoritarianism and obsessions with purity of blood, soil, and religion and, like Will, mock the idea that these things could ever be eased; while the monstrosities of the left wing trend towards massive, soulless, impersonal structures governed by absolute and mechanistic rules that reduce the individual to a mere quantum. Either extreme is noxious, and rightfully terrifying.