To Exist is to DifferDifference as a Place of Study
"I tend to see the similarities in people and not the differences."
A cursory look over my more politically- or socially-minded posts in the last few years indicates how obsessed I am with a proper attitude toward difference, even if I was not aware that this was a theme in my writing. In what is easily my most popular post of all time, "Sexy Bodies, Disabled Bodies," I introduce my interest in atypical anatomy, though at this time I was not aware of that term (which is Alice Dreger's). However, it is with my ill-fated (because unfinished) series on The Boundaries of Self that I insist that any definition of "body" or "self" must fully account for atypical anatomies without simply designating them "exceptions." The way I run with McCloud's Four Campfires, which is really a kind of structuralism, is to make it about difference rather than sameness. My most recent concern with ethics has been about meta-ethics, the ethics of addressing differences in ethical beliefs. When I talk about political axes (here and here), I get anxious about categories (left v. right) that ignore other ways organizing political belief and activity. I defend the existence of many denominations insofar as they address differences in congregants' needs. I consider myself a heretic in most communities (heretic: a person who has beliefs unorthodox to the community of which zhe insists zhe is a part). Also, if you were to pay much attention to what I say in the comment sections of those blogs in which I participate--Unequally Yoked, Experimental Theology, Elizabeth Esther--you'd probably notice that many of my contributions, and most of my arguments, involve me saying that someone or another is over-generalizing. What may have started out as simple contrarianism during my years as a teenager--when my Grade 9 English teacher said that a first-person past-tense narrator must always survive the story, I immediately wrote and submitted a short story in which the first-person past-tense narrator dies--has become for me a political and social commitment to the appreciation of difference.
I think my academic career has played a role in this, which I outlined in my previous post, as has my extra-curricular reading of post-modernists and continental philosophers. You could also attribute this, maybe (but only maybe), to my habit of hopping between Protestant churches, or my taste for speculative fiction, or my interest in psychology, or my habit of imagining what it would be like to be a non-human animal. (For instance, did you know that the Common Octopus has semi-autonomous limbs? The octopus's central nervous system instructs a limb to complete a particular task, but the limb works out how to achieve the task using its own local nerve cluster. While humans have something like this going on with our ganglia, octopedes' limbs actually do some of their own problem-solving, which is far more extensive than what our ganglia do. It would be fascinating to experience semi-autonomy of one's limbs.)
OK. So what do I mean by "a proper attitude toward difference"?
1. Epistemology. I don't fully know. I have only recently figured out, after all, that this has been a general issue in my thinking. I am also phobic of completion, or certainty, in my personal philosophy, so even if I had been thinking about this for years I doubt that I'd have come to any kind of conclusion.
2. Axiology. What I don't mean is some form of total ethical relativism. I don't think that different ways of doing things are all equally valid. I would say that there are multiple ways of doing things that are just as good, but that doesn't mean that all things are equal. Some ways of doing things are very bad. It's just that there isn't a single best way of doing things. (You might think of this as a few local optima, but none of those local optima are a global optima.) So while I'm not an ethical relativist, nor a metaphysical relativist, I could maybe called a weak cultural relativist.
3. Axiology. Of course there are certain kinds of difference which I would condemn. For instance, certain kinds of criminal behaviour are unacceptable deviations from typical behaviour. I wouldn't celebrate difference without qualification. But my condemnation is based on ethical violations; whether or not the behaviour is different--or, in a more loaded term, deviant--from other people's behaviour is irrelevant to my condemnation. By the same token, I am willing to criticize normative behaviour (for instance, capitalist materialism).
4. Metaphysics, Axiology. What I am willing to say is that a lot of differences aren't comprehensible in terms of good/bad, or good/better/best. Bodies, for instances, are never wrong; no body is better at being a body than another. Some bodies are in more pain than others, of course, and that might well be a result of differences in those bodies. Social conditions make certain bodies more comfortable than others. But there is no Platonic form of "body" from which any given body deviates. No body is more typical of body-ness than another body. Any claim you make about bodies ought to apply equally to all bodies; if it does not, your claim is false (or at least applies only to particular bodies, but that distinction ought to be clear and appropriate). A failure to account for atypical bodies, in fact, is easily the biggest reason why a lot of atypical bodies are uncomfortable to have; the body itself is often not uncomfortable (cf. Dreger's One of Us).
5. Axiology. I would also be willing to say that the failure to account for atypical bodies, or atypical psychology (or even typical but non-normative psychology, like introversion), is endemic to Western philosophy, politics, art...really just Western culture generally. It is also probably a problem in lots of non-Western cultures, too, but I can only speak about Western culture with any reliability. I opened this post with the Isabel Allende quote because it is an example of a common attitude that seems to be in support of inclusion but must result in a failure to understand, and thus to include, people who are different from me. Focusing on similarity at the expense of difference is not a moral good, but so many people seem to think it is a moral good.
6. Epistemology. In the end, I would say that, as with texts, to exist is to differ. Humans have a lot of similarities, yes, but we are also idiosyncratic. Whether those idiosyncrasies are for good or ill I cannot say, but any theory or program or attitude that fails to account for those differences cannot really explain human behaviour, human need, or human dignity. Such an epistemological failure cannot help but produce metaphysical and axiological failures as well. This, for me, is the bedrock of a proper attitude toward difference. (So, with apologies to Eve Tushnet, I actually am a special snowflake, and so are you.)
It's important to note that I have other commitments than just this respect for differences, and some of these commitments might trump the commitment to difference, but ultimately I don't think I can explain and understand my own ideas without at least addressing the above.
(tl;dr: Just as the differences between texts must be addressed in any explanation of those texts, so too must the differences between people be addressed by any account of human behaviour; failure to do so results in other failures, usually ethical or political ones; these failures are really common in our culture; there are a lot of different kinds of difference and it turns out that I talk about them a lot.)