Charlene Haddock Seigfried (Purdue University)


"How shall we secure the diversity of interests, without paying the price of isolation?" John Dewey asks in Democracy and Education. This question, as Dewey further refines it, is one I want to explore further; namely, how the interests of life and the studies stemming from them can enrich our common experiences instead of dividing us from one another. (1) This issue is not only at the forefront of efforts by many marginalized groups to be fairly treated, a position frequently caricatured in conservative media as identity politics, but it is one that anyone interested in democracy as a way of life is led to ponder sooner or later. Diversity of interests is not only a given in democratic societies, but it expresses a value easier to honor in the abstract than in the concrete. This is true even of those who have suffered the most because of their perceived differences from dominant racial and cultural norms. A ten-hour documentary on PBS which followed the lives of a biracial family raises the issue in clear terms. As reported in The New York Times, Cicily Wilson, a daughter of a black father and a white mother, found herself rejected by both blacks and whites when she matriculated at Colgate University. (2) The black students wanted her to align herself exclusively with them and the white students were even less accepting of her dual identity. She didn't think she should have to choose.

If we are to honor the promise of democracy, then the diverse cultural and social identities that constitute it as a living reality must be protected from enforced uniformity. The problem is that diversity important enough to be worth protecting involves expressions of beliefs and patterns of behavior unsettling enough to invite suspicion, intolerance, even suppression, if steps are not actively taken to avoid such outcomes. What steps are relevant and effective today? How can diverse interests and such varied academic approaches as multicultural, women, lesbian, gay, and black studies both celebrate and enhance a person's sense of belonging to a particular group otherwise devalued by the general population, and still enrich common experience instead of further dividing us?

Jane Addams characterized her turn-of-the-century generation as one which could no longer take for granted that as Americans they shared a fund of common experience. (3) She was acutely aware of the loss of a common civic identity as a result of the civil war, which demonstrated the deep divisions between north and south; the industrial revolution, which opened a yawning gulf between those who benefited from capitalism and those whose exploitation provided the means for those benefits; the waspish destain for the waves of foreigners whose labor was needed as a result of rampant industrialization; and generational conflicts between working class and college educated young women and the paternalistic institutions, family structures, and customs that constrained them. As we begin another century, the divisions which prevent appeals to a common experience, whether as members of a nation or of the human race, have only multiplied and worsened. Appeals to normalcy, to a fund of common experience, have become the battle cry of right wing, reactionary forces who seek to impose a mythical sameness of whiteness, patriarchy, English language hegemony, evangelical religious dogma, and heterosexism on targeted groups who ever more vocally defend their right to be different. If Dewey is right that reciprocity of interest is required for uncoerced social life, then such one-sided demands are evidence of an increasingly hostile environment. We seem to be facing ever more draconian attempts to enforce common experiences and common outlooks, but not the ones he and Addams intended. At the same time, the right to be different at all costs, not reciprocity, seems the order of the day, whether from the right or the left. But there are costs and they have to be weighed against alternative ways of conceiving the relationship between what individuals and groups have to uniquely contribute to the enrichment of society and what role the search for common experiences play in furthering democratic goals.

I will examine the importance of forging common experiences in a diverse democratic society, the nature of the shared experiences desired, and the means required for bringing them about. The reason common experiences are a necessary condition for the survival of democracy and its thriving as a morally responsible way of life is that without them other important constituents of democracy; namely, the ultimate dignity and value of each person and their free association into units protective of such expressions of individuality, will generate conflicting forces strong enough to split such identity groups into opposing forces destructive of democratic values. Reciprocity of interest is one such core democratic value. It is based on the biological and social fact of human interdependency. (4) Such interdependency is both a fact of life and a goal to be consciously achieved. So much is at stake in recognizing and valuing human interdependency and its corollary of reciprocity that Dewey calls the illusion that one can think and act alone a form of insanity that is responsible for much of the avoidable suffering in the world. The referent of pragmatist interpretations of democracy should thus be called 'social democracy' to distinguish it from the liberal model of isolated individuals with innate human rights.

Non-reciprocal behavior is anti-social, as when the more powerful use others without regard to their emotional or intellectual dispositions and without their consent. In the communication that establishes social life, an imaginative grasp of one another's experience takes place. It is necessary to get outside of one's own experience and see it as others would see it and to establish some point of contact with their life, if the other is to appreciate its meaning. An indispensable disposition and core value that must be developed in socially democratic societies, therefore, is the ability and intention to view the consequences of one's "own acts as having a bearing upon what others are doing and" to take "into account the consequences of their behavior upon himself" or herself (MW 9:35). This is an intentional attitude that must be learned, and it expresses the moral requirements of a sound democracy.

We need standards by which to measure the worth of actual interactions and outcomes. The standard Dewey proposes is reciprocity of interest since all associations lacking it enslave rather than liberate their members. He says that without "a large variety of shared undertakings and experiences,...the influences which educate some into masters educate others into slaves" (ME 9:90). Rigid class lines, for example, prevent the adequate interplay of experiences, the less advantaged class being more subject to routine and those more materially fortunate tend to self-indulgence, capriciousness, and explosive behavior. Rigid distinctions between the public and the private in the case of the family are not an isolated phenomenon but are part of a continuum of isolation and special pleading, which includes "nations in their isolation from one another; families which seclude their domestic concerns as if they had no connection with a larger life; schools when separated from the interest of home and community; the divisions of rich and poor; learned and unlearned" (MW 9:91). In another context, he adds the dualistic perspectives of men and women (MW 9:343). Isolation makes for rigidity, especially in reproducing past customs rather than questioning them. Eliminating the distance between peoples and classes historically cut off from one another encourages the dissolution of customs meant to keep them apart and hostile to one another and encourages reconstruction of institutions and society.

A democratic society is one that not only cherishes numerous and various points of view, but one that seeks the recognition of mutual interests. Through free interaction among groups it engages in continuous readjustment to new conditions as they develop through such interaction. The normative status of democracy in pragmatist theory and practice cannot be understood without recognizing, as Dewey so elegantly puts it, that it represents "more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience" (MW 9:93). Education in a democracy so conceived substitutes ends-in-view for external ends imposed by authority. In order to liberate and organize the capacities of each person to direct the outcomes of the concrete situations in which they find themselves, they need to learn procedures to test, correct, and amplify their aims. (MW 9:114-115). Since-ends-in-view "are but prospective points of view from which to survey the existing conditions and estimate their possibilities, we might have any number of them, all consistent with one another." (MW 9:118)

But what if they are not consistent with one another, as seems all too common today? One thing that is apparent from the analysis so far is that rigid and unbending protection of what are perceived to be one's interests is counter-productive. It sets up the very barriers to communication and mutual understanding that allow better advantaged groups to extend and consolidate their power. But how is it possible to secure one's legitimate interests when one is in a minority or relatively powerless without holding fast to them despite attempts by the larger society or more powerful groups to ridicule, undermine, and ultimately defeat them? It seems obvious that in the conflicts Dewey gives as illustrations of a public/private split illustrative of isolation and special pleading the two sides are unequally situated. Some nations can dominate over others because of their more advanced technology, stronger economies, and more powerful weapons; the perpetrators of domestic violence unilaterally benefit by shielding their activities from outside scrutiny; and the power imbalance between rich and poor, learned and unlearned, men and women, needs no further comment. It can be granted that one way of eliminating the distance between groups historically cut off from one another through unjust social, economic, religious, and political barriers may well be through exposing the special pleading and the unfairness of appealing to past customs to justify oppressive situations, since these are strategies by which those in power maintain and extend their power. But does the same remedy apply to the disadvantaged side of the conflicts?

Can they really recognize mutual interests without being submerged in a majoritarian consensus or being further suppressed by those who have the power to impose their perspectives and enforce their interests? How do ends-in-view substitute for the external ends imposed by authority when that authority has the power to enforce already existing power arrangements? How can those who are less powerful direct their concrete situation to bring about the better ends they desire through learning how to test, correct, and amplify their aims? Isn't what is needed simply the power to carry out their aims?

To begin answering these questions, it is first necessary to recognize that aims do not transparently spring, complete and pure, from the interests of any group, but are influenced by past traditions, take account to a greater or lesser extent of present conditions, and are limited by imagined possibilities. According to Dewey social groups are democratic if their members are free and they seek to secure in individuals a consciously socialized interest instead of following customary norms favoring a superior class. Therefore, one should be suspicious of the refusal to question customary norms and seek to determine who benefits and who suffers from the cultural arrangements already in place. Dewey recognizes hierarchies of authority and power and argues that they can be overcome to the extent that interdependency is recognized as a fact and its value expressed through a genuine reciprocity of interest. This democratic criterion implies the ideal of a continuous reconstruction of experience by members of society who as a matter of course have been empowered to do so (MW 9:332). Such empowerment is an ongoing process and expresses "the ideal of a continuous reconstruction or reorganizing of experience, of such a nature as to increase the capacity of individuals to act as directive guardians of this reorganization" (MW 9:332). Such an ideal of continuous reconstruction and personal empowerment are as valuable, if not more valuable, for those who are marginalized as for those in power.

Addams consciously and continuously seeks to empower the more marginalized members of society to actively engage in such social reconstruction. She particularly speaks to, for, and with "that vast multitude of women whose oppression through the centuries has typified a sense of helpless and intolerable wrongs." (5) Women are not treated as an undifferentiated, homogeneous class. Addams perceptively and sensitively enters into the multiplicity of women's experiences arising from the different situations of newly industrialized workers and home-bound women, from the different backgrounds of elderly immigrant women and a younger generation eager to Americanize, and from various ethnic traditions and class differences. In The Long Road of Woman's Memory she develops an interpretive model of utilizing the specificity of each person's experiences by putting them to social uses in order to show that in doing so, they benefit themselves as well as others.

Memories selectively retain the accumulated values of past experiences. Sometimes they reconcile one to life, but at other times they can function to challenge existing conventions. According to Addams, "when these reminiscences, based upon the diverse experiences of many people unknown to each other, point to one inevitable conclusion, they accumulate into social protest." (6) What needs to be recognized by the righteous upholders of traditional morality is that "no conventionalized tradition is perfect, however good its intent," and when a particular tradition is challenged an opportunity arises for reflecting on the actual sufferings experienced because of that tradition with a view to mitigating them. (7) To both utilize the insights gained from diverse experiences and to recognize common injustices, association and communication are necessary. Addams believes that commonalities arise from such accidental associations as that of young women thrown together in the backbreaking work of early industrialized factories and sweatshops and that such association can be the basis for more conscious organizations formed to combat the unjust social conditions they experience. For their protests to be effective, the basis of the grievance must be effectively articulated and appropriate actions initiated. To do so, people must come together in order to exercise justice." (8)

For Dewey, democracy as a way of life requires faith in a personal day-by-day working together with others. He says that "democracy is the belief that even when needs and ends or consequences are different for each individual, the habit of amicable cooperation--which may include, as in sport, rivalry and competition--is itself a priceless addition to life." Like Addams, he wants to develop dispositions of interdependency and concern for others to the point where the inevitable conflicts of life are taken out "of the atmosphere and medium of force, of violence as a means of settlement into that of discussion." Instead, a democratically social intelligence treats "those who disagree--even profoundly--with us as those from whom we may learn, and in so far, as friends" (LW 14:228).

However, this expectation that conflicts can be settled by considerations of friendship seems beyond the limits of possibility or even of desirability for those who have suffered or whose friends or relations have suffered at the hands of twentieth century dictators, in massive campaigns of extermination, or through traditional misogynistic practices such as rape as a weapon of terror in times of war. In a situation of oppression, the oppressor often thinks of himself as a friend to the other--think of the Southern defense of slavery as a benign institution--but the reverse is neither true nor emancipatory. As long as an abused woman identifies with the one who batters her or the slave with her master, they will continue to be exploited. On the other hand, were it possible for this concern for the other to become the explicit goal of socialization in democratic societies, then such oppressive situations would be less likely to arise in the first place. If we take Dewey literally when he says that the characteristic of friendship which he is appealing to is the willingness to learn even from those with whom we profoundly disagree, then perhaps such a goal is not as unrealistic as it at first seems to be.

It is not necessary to think of the other in the intimate terms of friendship in order to achieve the benefits sought for in a genuinely democratic faith which believes, according to Dewey, "in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies and conflicts as cooperative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself, instead of having one party conquer by forceful suppression of the other." What is required, however difficult this is to achieve in practice, is a profound change in attitude away from the self-centered regard encouraged in liberal societies towards one of mutual and reciprocal empowerment. "To cooperate by giving differences a chance to show themselves because of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one's own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic personal way of life." (9) This way of putting the issue was most strongly expressed in Jane Addams's work; for example, a unifying theme in Twenty Years at Hull-House is her contention that in their work with the disadvantaged members of society the settlement workers were not so much doing them a favor as enriching their own lives.

In Newer Ideals of Peace, Addams puts it this way: "Class and group divisions with their divergent moralities become most dangerous when their members believe that the inferior group of class cannot be appealed to by reason and fair dealing." The fact that she sided with the moral righteousness of the oppressed workers did not blind her to the downward spiral to violence that group polarization portended. What she was searching for was a way to recognize the legitimate grievances of the oppressed that could avoid the violent actions that seem inevitable when group identity hardens to the point where communication with others is scorned as collaboration with the enemy.

Addams was appalled by the rioting in the Blue Island community in connection with the Pullman strike and the violence unleashed against the workers, most of whom were black, by local police and federal troops which ended in the complete defeat of both the Pullman workers and the American Railway union. She reflected on what could be learned from the experiences of the industrial clashes of the summer of 1894 in which rage and violence dominated, class lines hardened, and which left a legacy of distrust and bitterness. Her surprising approach was to begin with her own complicity, however remote, rather than begin by demonizing the perpetrators. The perplexities raised by the ease with which violence rather than peaceful mediation was chosen should be an occasion for asking oneself: "How far am I responsible for this social disorder?" Such responsibility is always connected for pragmatists with a call to action, so her second question is: "What can be done to prevent such outrageous manifestations of ill will?" (10) What can be practically done, that is, to replace the incitements to riot and to murder with methods of conciliation and control?

Nothing short of "the complete participation of the working classes in the spiritual, intellectual and material inheritance of the human race" would suffice. This is the fund of common experiences in which all members of society should be able to take part. Addams argues that employers have to be emancipated along with their workers or failures and cruelty will result. Insofar as both capitalists and workers struggled for power over the other, as long as emancipation was conceived of as the expropriation of power or its unilateral use, then they were simply continuing ancient patterns justifying a dominating sense of possession and exclusion of others. The alternative is to seek for social justice. Addams explains that such a "doctrine must be strong enough in its fusing power to touch those who think they lose, as well as those who think they gain. Only thus can it become the doctrine of a universal movement." (11)


1. Democracy and Education in John Dewey The Middle Works, Vol. 9:1916 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 257.

2. Caryn James, "In a Family Portrait, the Future," The New York Times, Section 2 (September 5, 1999), 1 and 27.

3. Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (New York: Signet Classic, 1981), 40.

4. In pragmatic theory the biological and the social mutually inform each other without either being reducible to the other.

5. Jane Addams, The Long Road of Woman's Memory (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 112.

6. Addams, Long Road of Woman's Memories, 53.

7. Addams, Long Road of Woman's Memories, 53.

8. Addams, Long Road of Woman's Memories, 113.

9. "Creative Democracy--the Task Before Us" in John Dewey The Later Works, Vol. 14:1939-1941 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 228.

10. Addams, "A Modern Lear," in Christopher Lasch, ed., The Social Thought of Jane Addams (New York: Irvington, 1982), 107.

11. Addams in Lasch, ed., Social Thought, 120-121.