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Community and identity in late modernity: Part Three

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 18, 2008

The delineation of particularity vs. universality, and the negative things one has to embrace along with particularity, is perhaps too stark in the theoretical understandings of some pro-particularist thinkers. For example, could it not be confidently said that certain practices are always aberrant? There was, for example, the case in Canada of a man who had committed long-term incest with his daughter, and was applying under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to have custody of their children. Some would argue that there is no argument from within liberal premises that could be made against this case, assuming that he "takes proper care of the children". However, it could be assumed that many people would feel an incredible sense of revulsion at this practice. But what is the source or justification of this revulsion, if not some sort of incipient concept of a "higher law" (or whatever one chooses to call it)? Does the acceptance of some sort of general normative principles necessarily entail the embrace of what sometimes tend towards becoming socially-corrosive, so-called "universal human rights" (sometimes also called “abstract universals”)? Would it also be considered as an undermining of the particularistic thesis to point to the prevalent practices of most earlier human societies, existing before 1965 or so, as a standard, that is, the use of "history" itself as the normative standard?

Might it not be argued that, whatever the occasional barbarities such as female circumcision or mass human ritual-sacrifice, there is in fact, ultimately, little difference between what various human societies consider to be good or evil? Mothers everywhere still take care of their children, and so forth. In fact, it might be possible to derive a roughly similar general ethic from most of the human societies that existed before about 1965, in contrast with contemporary society.

C. S. Lewis has argued that there are rules for society and social existence (which he interestingly enough termed “the Tao”) that exist across all times and places. He brought attention to the fact that most of the aberrant phenomena of social existence occur as a result of taking one aspect of “the Tao” and elevating it above others. For example, extreme nationalism is the exaggeration of a proper self-regard for one’s own nation and identity. The type of Western liberalism that flagellates itself in abasement to minorities is an exaggeration of notions of charity and of the desire to be humane.

It might be argued that most human societies differ so exceedingly much not in their general moral prescriptions, but rather in terms of their memory of their specific experience in the world, their pantheon of heroes, etc. Peoples and nations, of course, have a specific history and memory of a pantheon of heroes, which they seek to preserve, but the general structure of these identifications exists across peoples and nations.

It might also be said further that the moral prescriptions for day-to-day life derived from an interpretation of one's history (which generally speaking makes claims of seeing one's nation at the heart of the world, and as being more moral than any other people or nation)  -- are generally similar. Thus, it could be argued that differences between peoples and nations are not ultimately based so much on substantive differences between their "languages of good and evil" (though there may be perceptions of extremely wide gulfs) but rather mainly on the exigencies of survival or power-accumulation in the world.

One would like to question once again if holding such a position (i.e., condemning some clearly aberrant practices of some traditional societies, or, on the other hand, saying that some things are always wrong) necessarily implies having to embrace what may tend to become a socially-corrosive Kantian universalism?

When one says, one is "fighting to preserve rooted particularities," does this not mean that one is fighting to preserve a nation's or people's sense of identity in terms of them retaining their symbolic understanding of their place in history and the world? However, although in a people's self-understanding, their identity is seen to offer a distinctive, worthier moral system than that of any other people or nation, in fact, the moral codes of all rooted societies are – it could be argued -- largely similar. This is not to say that there may not be distinctions in the so-called "character" of nations, both for the good and the bad, but certain bedrock things remain the same across all humanity.

In trying to understand the historical process, some theorists have drawn attention to the fact that the evolution of human history has often proceeded through a series of revolutionary upheavals – such as the founding of new religions and nations. It is argued that tradition – no matter how longstanding -- frequently conserves an initial radical founding. Nevertheless, the very fact that vast social and cultural structures emerge and are built upon the initial founding, is an argument for the importance of tradition. In trying to understand how radical foundings have led to very longstanding traditions, perhaps an idea similar to that of Weber’s “routinized charisma” can be invoked.

One extremely important notion for relations between nations is that – at least in theory – some kind of ethical code must be seen as taking precedence over the elevation of the nation as the supreme end. Although a nation or people may see itself at the center of the world, it can still uphold a moral code that does not give it permission to carry out any kind of evil it wishes to against other nations and peoples. Gross evil and immorality on behalf of one’s nation should not – at least on the theoretical level – be permissible – even if it gains great power and advantages for one’s nation. The most notorious example of seeing the nation as prior to any moral considerations was of course Nazi Germany. It is extremely dangerous when large numbers of members of any nation, or of any grouping in a given society, begin to explicitly theorize that their group-interests take precedence over what could be called normal moral considerations.

Ideally-speaking, the ethical code of a nation (its virtue), will be mutually reinforcing with the nation’s sense of identity (its culture). It’s possible to argue that in situations where a nation is more harmoniously ordered, it can achieve great things in the physical world, as well, because it does not actively go in the direction of a blowhard strife and aggression. However, this is unfortunately not always necessarily the case, as Nazi Germany came close to achieving world-dominance while being based on a profoundly evil order.

Another major issue in relations between nations apart from the embrace of antimoral outlooks is when a nation moves beyond morality into the excess of what could be called moralism. The moralizing and “missionizing” nation can never feel at ease in the world, and typically makes claims to impose its “enlightened” values on the planet on the whole.

A third issue which has arisen in late modernity is the cultural imperialism of (let’s be blunt about this) America. The near-ubiquity of the mostly American-derived, technologically-driven, pop-culture means that rooted and traditional ways of life of many societies around the planet are becoming attenuated and undermined in the direction of Americanization without any need for U.S. troops stationed in dusty garrison-towns. Ironically, the various Hollywood cultural industries are probably even more radically opposed to a more traditional America, as to traditional societies (or remnants of traditional societies) outside of America.

Obviously, human history has been characterized by constant warfare and strife, but considerable amounts of it arose – it has to be said --  out of the virtually unavoidable exigencies of national survival. There were also frequently attempts made – for example through such constructs as “just war theory” -- to try to limit the destructiveness of warfare. There were also notions that claims of different communities had to -- at least to some extent -- be accommodated, through various forms of autonomy or proto-federalism. [1]

Another matter one could look at is the question of seeing Western universalism as "our own particularity". Is this not problematic? -- i.e., if it's our particularity, it's not truly universal, although it claims to be universal.

To be continued. ESR


[1] One of the greatest ironies of our age is that what is today sometimes called federalism in Europe, is centered on the notion of reducing the independence and distinctiveness of the respective European countries. The shift in terminology from European Community (“a union of sovereign states”) to European Union is quite telling. The original premise of federalism was to allow maximum distinctiveness within a somewhat loose framework. In the United States, federalism has come to mean two almost opposite notions – one, the idea of a “Union of American States” (as some argue was the intent of the Founding Fathers) – with only comparatively limited powers allotted to the federal government – and, secondly, a vast federal government and system that has virtually swallowed up the individual States.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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