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Different but Equal

stairs of an apartment building

There are so many different ways we find ourselves enmeshed in the problem of difference. It’s a political problem, when nations or communities suddenly fracture. It’s personal, when comparing ourselves to others makes us feel superior, or inferior – or, in dizzying alternation, both. And difference is the sharp and spiky centre of philosophical contradictions.

Of course, the differences between and within us also generate the marvellous complexity of our lives and worlds. Diversity is the great virtue of democracies, as Plato points out: they contain all kinds of characters, “like an intricate robe embroidered in every hue” (Republic 8). But if our pursuit and celebration of difference are to be sincere, we must understand why it also disturbs us.

At the heart of our discomfort with difference is that difference always implies an inequality. The very point of drawing distinctions between two kinds, it seems, is to determine which of the two is more choice-worthy. Surely this kind of thinking is benign or even helpful, as when differentiating two career paths. But it can be toxic when applied to individuals, like two siblings. And it is clearly disastrous when applied to human groups, like men and women, whites and blacks, citizens and immigrants, or any “us and them” configuration to which humans are so distressingly prone.

Difference is the signature virtue of democracy; yet democracy also prizes equality (for the Greeks, democracy and isonomia, or equality before the law, were synonymous). Today, in the heated climate of identity politics, the questions become urgent. How can democracies celebrate and cultivate diversity without undermining the commitment to equality? Is it even possible to describe differences without (re)inscribing hierarchies? Can we conceptualize two people or groups as different, and at the same time equal? Perhaps—just barely. Consider the “default” mode of understanding difference: the more-and-less model. I know I at least am greatly attracted to reducing differences, no matter how complex, to a simple statement of this sort: “At the end of the day, he’s just more of a go-getter.” Institutionalized oppression is a fortress built out of innumerable twigs like this. In the past half-century, Jacques Derrida and his followers have mounted a formidable attack on the typical inequalities reproduced by more-and-less thinking. These deconstructionists try to overthrow the traditional hierarchical categories by blurring boundaries, inverting binaries, or insisting on the irreducible polysemy or different meanings of words. Put differently, this kind of analysis mixes categories, inverts their values, or shows that the categories were never pure. White and black are always linked by a ladder of greys. The deconstructionist approach to difference has helped to create pockets of the world where it is possible to identify as “non-binary” or fluidly gendered. New and different categories have become possible – and this is no small change. But the new categories still operate in a hierarchy. Even when values that used to be normal are mocked as mere constructed norms, we only sidestep the fundamental tension between difference and equality. What options remain? I draw inspiration from the political system of the ancient Athenians, a democracy-by-lot. The Athenians employed several key principles – rotation, subordination, integration, and randomness – that allowed diversity and equality to coexist.

ROTATION In nature, different seasons are granted equal periods to hold sway as the earth rotates through the year. In ancient Athens, executive responsibility for the Council (boulē) rotated through each of the ten tribes, just as the presidency of the EU rotates through the member states every six months. Similarly, Herodotus suggests that at the battle of Marathon the command rotated between the generals (strategoi), each taking the head for one day (VI 110). In all these cases, rotation works to distribute differences over commensurate periods. The takeaway: when faced with qualitative differences, one way to achieve equality is by ensuring equal time. Different, but equal in time.

 Strategoi - Parthenon frieze
Strategoi - Parthenon frieze

SUBORDINATION “When the laws are written then the weak and wealthy alike have equal right,” said the Greek playwright Euripides in Suppliants, contrasting democracy and despotism. The Greeks worshipped justice as a goddess even when they could not achieve it themselves. Truly, one powerful way of equalizing differences is to subordinate them to a higher principle: whether law, or god, or shared humanity. Of course, the danger of this approach is obvious: that differences will be flattened out altogether under some new hierarchy. Still, it is possible that competing interests can retain their differences while taking on a relative equality in the face of their shared, much greater difference from a third and superior kind. This was the utopian intent of international bodies like the United Nations, for example. Different, but equal before a higher principle.

INTEGRATION This third option is both a strategy for confronting unequal differences and, potentially, a result of doing so. In ancient Athens, a famously cosmopolitan city, one of Cleisthenes’ most significant reforms was the reorganization of the population into ten tribes. Each tribe was composed of three different geographic trittues, or thirds: one each from the coast, the city, and the inland region. The resulting ten tribes formed the basis of the selection-by-lot system, and because of this power, they effectively combined and integrated three regions that had very different cultures, interests, and kinship ties. Cleisthenes’ tribal reform took advantage of human plasticity: though we are hardwired to prefer members of our in-group, those group identifications are also quite malleable (“Why Do We See So Many Things as ‘Us vs. Them’?” in National Geographic, 2018.) Imagine the impact of a similar reform in the United States: the creation of new groupings out of people from the East Coast, West Coast, and the middle of the country. Indeed, at the local level, U.S. society remains largely racially divided; in her powerful book The Imperative of Integration (2010), Elizabeth Anderson shows how racial integration across multiple fronts in the U.S., such as housing, voting districts, and education, is both realistic and essential.

Photo of  Homi Bhabha
Homi Bhabha

Integration is the most difficult response to unequal differences, but also the most satisfying. It’s akin, perhaps, to laughing at yourself while you sob: it requires the rare ability to recognize and hold contradictory states or kinds together. In this spirit, critical theorist Homi Bhabha suggests that we replace vapid notions of multiculturalism with the concept of hybridity. By this term he means the real negotiations and translations that go on beneath the apparent simplicity of the Self/Other paradigm. “By exploring this hybridity,” he writes, “we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves” (“Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences”). When we are able to integrate differences, we transform ourselves and our world into hybrid beings.

Different, but equally integrated.


Finally, the unique and fundamental feature of the Athenian democracy was the random selection of individuals to government service, a system sometimes called sortition. Even if Plato and the Buddhists are right about reincarnation, there is surely an element of randomness behind the unequal distribution of privileges in the human world, whether we call them differences of class, gender, or race, or something else. But the Athenians believed that “every cook can govern,” as the title of C.L.R. James’ famous essay puts it. The random selection of individuals to positions of power ensures a diversity of backgrounds, proclivities, and cognitive capacities.

Democracy-by-lot uses randomness to counteract the randomness with which skills and privileges are distributed. While the Athenian franchise was limited to male citizens, the case shows that it is possible to neutralize inequality by applying another filter of randomness. Imagine, for example, that the admissions committee of Oxford or Harvard held a lottery to admit a random selection of qualified candidates. Would the sense of superiority and invidious class distinctions slowly begin to break down?

Different, but equal in chance.


Rotation, subordination, integration, randomness – it’s possible to translate these features of an ancient democratic system into strategies for dealing with difference today, whether in our personal lives, philosophical work, or political struggles.

Certainly the principle of rotation, or taking turns, is an essential tool for any parent of multiples. The Presidency of the E.U. demonstrates both rotation and integration, as the office rotates through member states every six months, while “trios” of presidencies cooperate on a common political program over an 18-month period.

Subordination of differences into equality before the law is still a deeply-held ideal in many countries, despite systematic failures to achieve it. And as astronomers learn more about the universe, it is no longer pure science fiction to think that the hierarchy of human differences might diminish somewhat in the face of a superior alien species.

Integration, on the other hand, is not a bad way of describing the goal of the European Union or the desegregation of U.S. society. It could even be a shorthand for what happens in G.W.F. Hegel’s much-discussed aufhebung, or dialectical sublation, in which the two poles of Being and Nothing are reconciled in a third entity, Becoming.

As for randomness: against the odds, the possibility of sortition is once again gaining currency today. Diverse figures argue that democracy-by-lot is the best way to counter the corruption of democracy by money. Supporters include Italy’s Beppe Grillo, founder of the Italian Five-Star movement, French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of la France Insoumise, and even Kofi Annan, who writes a powerful introduction to David van Reybrouck’s Against Elections.

Though far from a utopia, the political system of ancient Athens still illustrates how we might enjoy our differences and equality too. Diversity need not mean hierarchy, and equality need not entail homogeneity.

But when the question becomes exactly how these ancient principles could help resolve any of the urgent differences now dividing humanity, I remember Hannah Arendt’s caution about the application of concepts: “Practically, thinking means that every time you are confronted with some difficulty you must make up your mind anew” (“The Answer of Socrates”). So for now, I leave these problems to a more practical thinker

Perhaps to you?

Chiara Ricciardone is the Klemens von Klemperer Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center of Bard College, and co-founder of the Activist Graduate School. Her work draws on theory and antiquity to illuminate contemporary political questions. / @BecomingChiara

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 2 ('Us and Them').

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