It was Plato who gave us the "principle of plenitude." He understood the universe as a place where "all that can be imagined must be," one in which no potential of existence remains unfulfilled.
Plenitude retains its significance in contemporary life. But while the blooming, buzzing diversity that caught Plato's eye was a property of the natural world, our plenitude is a property of the social world. For us, plenitude is a matter of lifestyle, belief, behavior, and an ever-increasing variety of observable ways of living and being that are continually coming into existence. Plenitude is everywhere among us, especially in our culture and our politics, where it is the source of gross misunderstanding and profound conflict.
We have long been accustomed to stuffing the social world into a handful of categories. We used to say such things as, "basically, there are two kinds of people in the world," or to bundle the world into a typology: social classes, psychological types, birth signs, genders, generations, or lifestyles. But increasingly, the world won't go along with our attempts to reduce it. Where once there was simplicity and limitation, everywhere there is now social difference, and that difference proliferates into ever more diversity, variety, heterogeneity.
In the late 20th century, there has been a quickening "speciation" among social groups. Teens, for example, were once understood in terms of those who were cool and those who weren't. But in a guided tour of mall life a few years ago, I had 15 types of teen lifestyle pointed out to me, including heavy-metal rockers, surfer-skaters, b-girls, goths, and punks. Each of these groups sported their own fashion and listened to their own music. The day of the universally known Top 40 list is gone.
Gender types are proliferating. Whole new categories of powerful, forthright femaleness have emerged, while "maleness" is undergoing its own florescence. Gayness, which used to mean adhering to a limited number of public behavioral models, has rapidly subdivided into numerous subgroups. Many of these groups have developed their own literature, music, and even retail communities. They have become social worlds.
New species of social life can form everywhere: around rock groups (Deadheads); football teams (Raider fans); TV series (Trekkies); leisure activities (line dancers); means of transport (Hell's Angels); sports (Ultimate Frisbee); movies (The Rocky Picture Horror Show); technology (geeks).
So various and changing is this new social world around us that we can barely keep up with the pace of transformation. The tremors of change can be felt everywhere: in our schools and in our grocery stores; in our courts and on our playgrounds; on our computer screens and our multilingual ATM screens; in our reading and in our fashion and in our families. Perhaps most of all in our politics, where plenitude is at the heart of continuing and sometimes bitter conflict. Both left and right have attempted to manage plenitude; both have failed. The reasons for their failure may help us understand the commotion around us.
Plenitude is an unsettling prospect, I think, for everyone. But for the political right it is compelling evidence that things have gone terribly wrong. There is anarchic, willful, recklessly individualistic behavior everywhere. There is evidence that we are losing touch with our most grounding and stabilizing traditions, that any kind of kook can give us advice on private and public life. The world feels tippy, puzzling, dangerous, and odd. We have lives to create, children to raise, communities to build, futures to secure. How are we to do this in a land of drive-by shootings, drugs in the playground, guns in the high school, lawlessness, godlessness, and an abiding sense that private and public security can no longer be guaranteed? How are we to do it in a land of rock videos, Mapplethorpe exhibitions, and a persistent sense that the rules of gender, decorum, and politesse have fled the land?
For the right, a well society is a stable society: composed, self-possessed, in control of itself. By this reckoning, the constant speciation of social life is evidence of a deep malaise. Healthy societies do not throw off a constant succession of new groups. They do not engage in constant reinvention. Plenitude, says the right, is a sign that we have lost touch with our founding traditions.
The right has targeted plenitude as the enemy. The Rev. Pat Robertson famously suggested that feminism "encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." Pat Buchanan, campaigning for the presidential nomination, called Mexicans "José" and emphasized each syllable of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's name.
The right is not always so unsophisticated, but it has been inclined to harbor misgivings about "outsiders." In the mythic vision of the right, people live in a heterosexual, two-parent, one-marriage family, preferably in a freestanding house with a white picket fence. There is nervousness here--and a brute and thoroughgoing discomfort with difference.
It is as if the right can't discriminate between difference that matters and difference that doesn't. Teen fashions, rock lyrics, and certain prime-time TV shows are not differences that matter. But with no operative theory of plenitude, the right must dispute every departure from convention. Worse, it must incline to moral panic. Surely some differences are, in the apposite language of the Protestant Revolution, a "thing indifferent": In the larger scheme they do not matter.
Again and again, the right prohibits in a wide swath where something more discriminating would do. The effect is to make the community smaller and more brittle than it needs to be, and to make the right an enemy (real or apparent) of the expressive, creative, sensual, and open-minded. (This was the political advantage of a figure like Lee Atwater. He was "proof" that Republicans were not repressed and life-denying. P.J. O'Rourke has made a somewhat wittier contribution.) The ideological costs of error on this count are great. It gives comfort and place to those who are narrow, provincial, small-minded, and nervous--and antagonizes the rest.
Effectively the right is arguing what it has always argued: Suffer this and the world will come undone. "This" has been the vote for women, access to high culture for those without educations, admission to law schools and medical schools for "outsiders." "This" was always made to seem the last defense of civilization, the innovation that would send the world into a downward spiral from which recovery was impossible.
And...nothing happened. In point of fact, the threatening outsider rarely proves an agent of chaos or the beginning of the end. We have brought virtually all these differences on board, and nothing changed. Civilization did not cease. We will invent many more differences, and these will prove absorbable too. The world of plenitude is as accommodating as it is generative. It turns out the voice of grave and magisterial caution is almost always wrong.