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October 25, 2006 | South Carolina Headlines


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Pluralism-condition or philosophy?
Jonathan Pait
October 4, 2001

Did you see it? NBC broadcast a special episode of West Wing entitled "Isaac and Ishmael." If you didn't, don't worry. You have seen it before if you watch the cable talk shows.

Intended to be more educational than entertaining, the producer, Aaron Sorkin, failed at both. The program consisted of impromptu lectures by several White House staff members (the cast) to a group of gifted high school students. The students are stranded in the White House cafeteria due to a lockdown of the building. We aren't told exactly why-though we gather it has something to do with an Islamic terrorist attack.

The subplot surrounding the interrogation of a Muslim White House employee by Chief of Staff Leo McGarry added a little drama. You found yourself waiting through the speeches to get back to the conflict.

One central theme expressed by character Josh Lyman created a conflict in the understanding of pluralism and its role in our society.

What is pluralism in society? Well, much depends on the context in which the word is being used. When describing a condition, the concept denotes a society with various distinct groups living together in tolerance to one another. When used as a philosophy, pluralism is a belief that no one system can claim to explain life's answers for individuals within a society.

Mr. Sorkin, through Lyman, blurs the line between the condition and the philosophical doctrine. In reality, Josh Lyman's call to pluralism among the hostage high school students is more of a "corporate relativism." It goes a step beyond simply tolerating various distinct groups within a society. It seeks to place all traditions, customs and beliefs within these distinct groups on an equal footing.

Well, what is wrong with that? Nothing, if such an approach is personal and not corporate. The problem comes when a society seeks to impose this doctrine on each distinct group. The philosophy of pluralism when imposed corporately actually destroys the condition of pluralism. It suppresses ideas and cultural diversity rather than allowing them to flourish. It treads on the dangerous ground of telling people what they should think or what is acceptable belief.

Take religion for example and a certain conflict that recently arose in Greenville. The Rabbi Marc Wilson is constantly berating members of the Greenville community because they will not join him in his Greenville Faith Communities United. The purpose of the organization and ones like it is to pull together the "faith communities" in order to address issues within the community at large.

Each religion is to be given equal credence. Never mind that the doctrines of these religions run counter to one another. The Christian is to accept the way of Islam as equal to Bible doctrine. "We all worship the same God. We simply worship him in different ways." "It doesn't matter what faith you have as long as you have faith." In the mind of Rabbi Wilson, and others who hold this position, a great evil in the world is people who would say, "I believe that this religion holds the only answer to life and eternity." It is automatically assumed that these people are enemies of the condition of pluralism.

America has avoided many of the conflicts that engulf other cultures because we have created a condition of pluralism. Distinct groups are free to form common opinions and express ideas in conflict with other groups. When the conflicts go outside the realm of ideas into physical violence, our laws deal equally between the entities. This freedom and protection is the common bond that unites us. It is what has drawn men of distinct-and even conflicting-cultures and beliefs to die beside one another on the field of battle.

We should all fear the acceptance of corporate relativism. We should celebrate rather than bemoan the fact that others can believe differently than we do and debate against our own ideas. It is this freedom that is at the heart of our system of government. Obviously, respect and true tolerance are indispensable to a properly functioning society-these are the responsibilities that come with our freedom.

Back to West Wing. What was the name of the kid that Lyman pulled aside just as the students were leaving? I can't recall but was it Billy? Willy? Nah, it couldn't have been. . .

Related reading:

Local rabbi blasts Muslim cleric for 'deafening silence' on attacks

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