>Kenan Malik, Robert Putnam and the Essentialism, or Not, of Groupism

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British writer Kenan Malik takes to task both the multicultural, essentialist left and the socio-biological right in an excerpt from his new book Strange Fruit, over at Sp!ked Online.

Malik highlights the affinity between notions of inevitable group conflict, and individual allegiance, along racial/ethnic lines; long a staple of right wing thought, the modern liberal left too is very much in celebration of diversity, as an end in itself, and of the belief that it shapes the more salient aspects of our identity. Though the latter are split among the more radical factions seeking an ashamed and apologetic stance among those racial groups deemed “dominant” toward those that are “oppressed”, and those who believe in redemption and harmony across race, culture and religion, what they share with the historical right (remember, classical liberals are in fact on the “left” [wing of the National Assembly circa 1789]) is the importance placed upon one’s ethnic and/or racial roots.

That is to say, to many among the current crop of left and right, our race and ethnicity are inescapable, and highly determinant in fostering our individual values, whether we know it or not.

Though my own sympathies lie with classical liberal optimism in the prescriptive realm, the science of evolutionary psychology, and it’s relationship to race and ethnicity, would seem to vindicate the Steven Pinkers of the world, if not the inadvertently reactionary claims of multicultural sympathizer Armand Marie Leroi, who laments the possible extinction of certain groups because they represent an obscure collection of DNA. His is truly eugenic thought (as opposed to action, mind you!) turned inside out. In this case, it is implied that those most vulnerable should be protected, instead of eliminated. It undeniably submits a claim of the normative value of genetic difference as such. Malik writes of Leroi,

It may seem old-fashioned, even Victorian, Leroi observed, to talk of ‘Negrito racial stocks’ but it is also biologically ‘correct’. Negrito is ‘the name given by anthropologists to a people who once lived throughout Southeast Asia’ and who are ‘very small, very dark… have peppercorn hair’ and ‘look like African pygmies who have wandered away from Congo’s jungles’. In fact they are the descendants of the first group of migrants to have come out of Africa along the coastal route to Asia. Today they are largely confined to the Malay Peninsula, a few islands in the Philippines and the Andamans. Negrito populations, Leroi warned ‘are so small, isolated and impoverished that it seems certain that they will eventually disappear’. And when they do ‘the unique combination of genes that makes the Negritos so distinctive, and that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, will have disappeared. A human race will have gone extinct and the human species will be the poorer for it.’

For some, I suspect the difference between a conscious program of racial-ethnic attrition and that of a slow extinction by default – resulting from either the wish to remain apart from the world on behalf of the endangered or vice versa – is of little consequence. Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses this same implicit (if not explicit) fear on the part of the “international community” in his book Cosmopolitanism. In it, he relays the effort to extend the notion of “intellectual property”, an already philosophically and increasingly consequentially bankrupt concept, to the folkways of geopolitically marginal peoples by those in the legislation influencing wing of this so called comunidad internacional. But I digress…

Malik references Robert Putnam’s study that supposedly reveals that diversity reduces civic-mindedness. Unlike some leftists that may strive to refute this – and I’m not sure if they have – I suspect there is alot of truth to it. The nature of group solidarity and reciprocal altruism often rely on what game theorists would call “iterated”, or repeated, encounters. And since historically said encounters were not evenly distributed across homo sapiens sapiens of different cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and across vast distances, but instead occured between persons immediately available to one another, it’s no surprise that the modernist clash of culturally situated individuals and their particular idiosyncrasies reduces the adherence to all those behaviors that stave off textbook examples of homo economicus. Thus, in cities – which are a pretty recent invention, actually – you find a reduced number of the inarticulated, non-calculating forms of exchange that fit well with our intuitive notion of justice (and warmness…and fuzziness) and relatively more “capitalist” ones.

Malik makes precisely this point when he writes that,

The study showed that in more diverse communities people are more distrustful not just of members of other ethnic groups but of their own, too. It is not the case, then, that people are less altruistic in diverse society because they are drawn towards their own. Diversity, Putnam writes, ‘seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down” – that is, to pull in like a turtle.’

What results from all of this (at least for those who have passed through the generational entry stage of city life as “fresh off the boat” migrants) is considered a kind of culture all its own. I believe it was Austrian economist Steven Horwitz who coined the term “Cosmotarian”. I think it fits well, describing those that are culturally liberal as well as relatively shameless in their acknowledgment (or passive acceptance?) of the positive role of calculating, and yes, fairly “selfish”, exchange (including probably that which dispenses with concerns over “procedural utility“). And as Will Wilkinson writes, institutions that contradict our deepest, evolutionarily derived feelings can (and probably will) persist, as path dependence, inertia and status quo bias (for a relatively market economy, incidentally) keep the “extended order” from completely unraveling. But really, this is all just Hayek redux.

This doesn’t mean that people will probably ever overcome the in-group/out-group dynamic, and the preference to be around those who share more than simply the desire to exchange stuff. Heard of the “Big Sort“? The culture war is real, and people get very heated, so to speak, when learning of others who don’t share their views on anthropogenic global warming, a rather marginal issue when people are still dying – constantly – over the more classically divisive “issues” of kinship and religion.

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2 thoughts on “>Kenan Malik, Robert Putnam and the Essentialism, or Not, of Groupism

  1. >Mostly related, Putnam is echoed by what Diana Mutz has discoverd in her book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy.Typically “social capital” and “civic participation” are inversely related to levels of political tolerance and exposure to different points of view.

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