The great prophet of Pluralism in our time (in anybody’s time?) is Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), born in Latvia, exiled to England at a young age by the fortunes of revolution, nurtured at Oxford, and embraced by students and colleagues alike as a great sage. He began as an analytical philosopher, but eventually carved out his own academic discipline in the history of ideas and their application to the conundrums of the post-war era.
I don’t want to sound more knowledgeable about him than I am. I have only begun to read, beginning with Michael Ignatieff’s biography, Isaiah Berlin: A Life. From there I derived a reading list of Berlin’s own works, and I am working my way through them. I sense a connection between the Pluralism of Berlin and the Unsolved Riddle-ism of Stephen Leacock, and I am looking forward to exploring it in the months ahead, not only for the fun of it, but as a way of thinking about our own time and particularly about the political polarization we see around us and are likely to see even more emphatically in next year’s election, which is going to fall right in the midst of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial. A happy coincidence.
I am pondering a progression that goes something like this: Diversity is the fact, the characteristic of our society that we can observe and even measure; Pluralism is one of the ideologies that we can apply to it; Unsolved Riddles are what we will meet when we do that. It is important for us to think of them like that, as questions that we must think about enjoyably (which is the purpose of riddles) rather than protest against as “problems”, or “contradictions”, or “conflicts”, because that kind of terminology declares that we don’t like them and think they should go away, or at least become considerably less prevalent. The committed Pluralist makes no such protest, believing either that Diversity is inevitable and therefore might as well be enjoyed, or that it is desirable and ought to be encouraged. I am of the latter kind.
I think that to be a Pluralist is to embrace Diversity as one of Nature’s and Humanity’s great strengtheners. Diversify your portfolio, my professor of finance used to say to me, backed up by elegant probabilistic analysis. As consumers we believe in the benefits of wider choice. Isaiah Berlin reminds us, however, that when we make choices we not only receive benefits, we also incur costs, and when people are being hurt by the choices that benefit us then we can hardly expect them not to resist. When we empower people to make their resistance effective, which we do for good democratic and human-rights reasons, then the choice to avoid making the choice becomes increasingly attractive, and carries costs of its own. As we wrestle with these riddles, our voices become louder, our conversations become confrontations, and we become a polarized society. These effects too are choices, and carry costs, one of which may be the cultivation of a taste for authoritarian governments.
As I come out of my brain break and embark upon the contemplations and conversations of the next sixteen months, and am going to use this blog to explore the issues of the day in a Pluralistic way. Right now three of the most prominent are Free Trade, the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and the arrival of the latest wave of refugees. I will start with them.