restricted access Ruling Norms and the Politics of Difference: A Comment on Seyla Benhabib
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Ruling Norms and the Politics of Difference:
A Comment on Seyla Benhabib

Seyla Benhabib develops a complex analysis and measured evaluation of group-based political claims for social and economic benefits and the recognition of their specificity. She reminds us that the essentialization of group definitions has met with irrefutable critique, but nevertheless cautiously endorses group-based policies such as affirmative action that aim to redress past and present discrimination and disadvantage. She rightly reveals conceptual and political tensions attending any departure from strict individualism or form equality, and in the end calls for a renewed liberalism robust enough to include the group differences that have claimed public voice in many democratic societies in the last thirty years.

I agree with many of the points that Benhabib makes about the wide range of issues she takes up in this essay. Like many others who in recent years have worried about the dangers of group-based political claims, however, Benhabib wrongly reduces the differences that motivate such claims to culture. 1 In these remarks I want to reinstate a more generic interpretation of a politics of difference in which culturally based claims are only one species. In this more generic understanding, the problems that motivate social movements around group difference have to do with dominant norms and expectations in the society. Dominant institutions support norms and expectations that privilege some groups and render others deviant. Some of these are cultural norms, but others are norms of capability, social role, sexual desire, or location in the division of labor. Most group-based political claims of justice are responses to these structures of privilege and disadvantage.

Even on this shifted and broader interpretation, a politics of difference often produces the tensions that Benhabib finds besetting mobilization around what she calls corporate identities. As I believe Benhabib’s own analysis shows, such tensions often arise less from wrongly essentializing cultural identity than from the categorization necessary to resist being positioned as deviant. I shall illustrate these problems by briefly discussing the politics of people with disabilities. I conclude by arguing that Benhabib’s call for a robust liberalism of flexibility and tolerance coincides with that of some of the political theorists of culture she criticizes. Attention to the issues of justice many group-based claims raise, however, goes beyond principles of tolerance and openness to the criticism and transformation of social structures that marginalize and normalize. [End Page 415]

Deviation from Ruling Norms

Benhabib characterizes the distinctiveness of our current post-socialist condition as consisting in specifically cultural claims for recognition. Claims “raised by various groups in the name of this or that aspect of cultural identity contest within the welfare state for redistribution and recognition.” Distinctive about the current period is the fact that groups plead for special recognition from the state and its agencies in the name of their cultural specificity. Especially when such group-based claims influence the distribution of welfare benefits and other bureaucratically mandated benefits, Benhabib argues, these group claims for recognition endanger public life by legitimating fragmented and essentialized enclaves which can only see their own interests and distrust appeals to principles universal in form.

Now I think that it is true that social movements of the last thirty years in many places have asserted a new set of political claims for equality and justice, which are indeed in tension with earlier claims that interpret equality as treating all persons according to the same standards and principles. I call this distinctive politics a politics of difference rather than a politics of identity. 2

A politics of difference is broader than a politics of cultural recognition; it is primarily critical, moreover, as opposed to self-assertive. A politics of difference claims that hegemonic discourses, relations of power, role assignments, and the distribution of benefits assume a particular and restricted set of ruling norms, even though they usually present themselves as neutral and universal. The given economic, social, and political arrangements assume that social members and rights bearers either have or ought to have certain capabilities, desires, forms of reasoning, language, values and priorities, or plans of life. They have certain expectations of what is a...