THR Web Features   /   December 30, 2020

Toward a New Universalism

Our notions of universalism obscure the deeper confluence between our commonalities and our differences.

Shahrzad Sabet

( Lightspring/Shutterstock.)

A year of sorrow, tumult, and promise, unprecedented in recent American history, has amplified two things: how much we share in common and how much our differences matter.

It might seem uncontroversial that recognizing our commonalities should help redress the ravages of our differences. After all, what, if not the recognition of our shared humanity, can upend the catastrophic injustices that a raging pandemic and the killing of George Floyd have so vividly exposed?

In practice, however, the relationship between our diversity and our oneness is fraught with contradiction. Universalist appeals to our common humanity can suppress the recognition of marginalized experiences, yielding damaging and distorted notions such as the fiction of color blindness or the  plea that All Lives Matter. The light of universalism, we rightly fear, can blind rather than illuminate.

But the problem is not that our diversity and our oneness are irreconcilably at odds. The problem is that our prevailing notions of universalism obscure the deeper confluence between our commonalities and our differences.

Whether in philosophy or public discourse, the concepts that have come to express our shared humanity are proving inadequate to the challenges we face. That words like cosmopolitanism and universalism trigger unease and resistance across the political spectrum, and in radically different clusters of American society, is deeply revealing in this respect: how we understand and articulate our oneness as human beings requires urgent reconsideration.

At its best, a universalist ethic is conceived as a rational commitment to the equal moral worth and dignity of all persons by virtue of their humanity. This is a fundamental basic value indeed. But as it stands, this vital and venerated expression of our oneness struggles to give our differences their due. By proclaiming our universal moral equivalence, it yields a recognition of our humanity that is ultimately generic—a commensuration of human beings that can blur the contours of our diversity and obscure the divergent experiences those contours represent. 

But despite these limits, a rationally derived commitment to the basic equality of all is widely deemed the version of universalism most hospitable to difference. Its virtue in this respect is thought to lie in its leanness, abstractness, and rationality. By assuming an abstract and relatively slim concept of what we share in common, it avoids the risk of uniformly imposing the cultural or racial bias that a more concrete and full-bodied conception of our shared humanity might carry. By requiring only thin, emotionally sober bonds of connection between human beings, it avoids the volatile passions and thick identities that have made our differences oppressive in the visceral realm of blood and belonging. 

Indeed, legitimate fears that universalism will erase rather than empower have pushed our universalist notions in a clear direction—away from the affective texture of identity and belonging, toward thinner and more abstract expressions of our oneness. But this is a mistake: The light of universalism will illuminate the particular only when it is allowed to shine fully in the emotionally rich realms of identity, solidarity, and love. 

To appreciate why, think of those you love. You honor and protect the universal aspects and entitlements of their personhood, to be sure. But you’re also moved to recognize meaningfully their distinctiveness. You feel compelled to understand the full texture of their experiences, and to give voice to their particular insights and perspectives. You’re attentive to the singular burdens they’ve borne and the distinctive harms they’ve suffered. Thick, emotional bonds are necessarily conducive to the appreciation of difference. Rationally derived recognitions of abstract moral equivalence are not. Paradoxically, to properly recognize the diverse realities that constitute the human experience, we must lean more heavily into our oneness, not tiptoe timidly around it.

It’s a premise of our prevailing intellectual frameworks that love and justice diverge. Justice, we think, must be universal and impartial, accorded to all regardless of difference. But love is thought to be different: Its domain is necessarily preferential and particular, bounded by the limits of kin, race, religion, nation, and ethnicity. 

This gap between our concepts of love and justice has served us poorly. Of course, justice must be universal and impartial. But it will fall short of that ideal until we free our traditionally bounded concepts—love, identity, belonging—from the confines of their partiality. 

Consider the work of redressing centuries-long, congenital oppression. What this work demands of us is steep: honest and uncompromising self-scrutiny; long overdue forfeitures of ingrained, systemic privilege; the willing embrace of profound discomforts, both mental and material. These are hard, sacrificial labors of genuine love and deep empathy. If we’re serious about realizing the universality of justice, we need to start thinking seriously about realizing the universality of love.  

Of course, cultivating a genuinely universal identity alongside our bounded ones will not be easy, painless, or uncontroversial—but it’s not utopian. Progress has always rested on the achievement of dreams once deemed beyond reach. A boldly reimagined universalism is the dream we need now.