On Being Equally Different
The inception of a ‘politics of difference’, most often associated with Iris Marion Young’s text Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990), marked a distinct break in the concerns of and values defended by social and political theory. The emphasis on difference and diversity was underscored by a move away from, and sometimes explicit hostility, to any ideals of equality.
Theorists of this tradition tended to criticise equality for its supposed emphasis on sameness and identity. They argue that equality undermines difference and diversity by requiring that otherwise distinct groups acquiesce to prevailing norms. Equality, therefore, does little as an ideal to challenge hegemonic dominance of particular articulations around sex, sexuality, race, gender, and so on.
A focus on diversity and difference seeks to invert this trend by celebrating the cultural variety of social life by affording distinct and tailored treatment of different groups, rather than an assessment that already begins from a position imbued by the existing status that therefore maintains it. Most recently, Davina Cooper (2004) has argued that difference and diversity are values that ought be defended for their own sake.
I argue that the merits of a politics of difference notwithstanding, it simply goes too far in abandoning equality and, in turn, treating difference as a value that is either normatively superior to equality, or defended against equality. To defend difference for its own sake would entail defending all sorts of differences that a politics of difference would, I suspect, not wish to defend. For example, a self-identified racist is different, at least from other groups and in particular ways, but it is unlikely a theorist would wish to defend this difference because it is different. I argue that equality and difference must be articulated together, if either one of these terms is to be adequately understood and justifiably defended as social values.