On Diversity

9 Apr

At times, I’ve complained that words like “liberal” and “conservative” have been so overused to mean so many different things that they’ve been drained of all meaning. Another such word is, without a doubt, diversity. It’s a very delicate topic, as it addresses identities that people sometimes take to be the core of their very existence, and is broad enough to encompass so many different spheres of life. Race is the most commonly mentioned aspect of diversity, but faith, regional identities, socioeconomics, and sexual orientation all come into play.

Just in the past week and a half, it’s been everywhere. From Stephen Colbert to Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, from the grandiose debates of bloggers like Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates to a scuffle over the owners of a market in Portland, all the way down to anti-bullying legislation and a Condoleeza Rice speech here in Minnesota, this sort of thing fascinates a segment of our population. (Another, probably larger segment could care less, though those who care will point out, not without some reason, that this is a large part of the issue.)

The debate is especially ubiquitous in the academy, and from there, it tends to flow easily into journalism and the arts. There are endless debates about affirmative action, of course, and questions about the diversity being brought in. Most every university has what might be called a diversity lobby, constantly pressuring the administration to recognize the unique plight of groups that do not constitute the majority. Core curricula have collapsed under the push to recognize voices from every corner, and the humanities are now filled with a vast array of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-focused departments. For the voices within those departments, it’s a golden age of recognition; the trade-offs come in the cacophony of voices from different corners that are now fighting for attention, and in the struggles faced by those who do not fall easily into one of those categories, or who would prefer to transcend it all.

This much is true: diversity does not yield harmony. Social science even backs this up: much to his displeasure, Harvard Scholar Robert Putnam found a correlation between diversity and lower levels of social trust and civic participation. Diversity is challenging. Frankly, it should be, if we’re going to give different backgrounds in life the respect they deserve. Diversity makes the world rich and interesting, but it is also at the root of so many conflicts.

Diversity should also not be confused with tolerance. Consider this paradox: “to have a tolerant society, we cannot tolerate racism.” I’m not saying that’s wrong; extreme tolerance leads itself to an empty form of moral relativism, and moral standards are probably necessary to protect diversity.  But in setting up those standards, we do need to recognize that we are indeed abandoning some measure of tolerance. Liberalism (in the broad sense of the word) aspires to neutrality because its adherents recognize it’s the most sensible way to live in a diverse world, but it is not perfect, and it is not and never will be fully neutral. Liberals are often guilty of failing to make that distinction, and their commitment to diversity and their commitment to freedom of speech and expression is in ongoing tension. Some of the least tolerant people I have ever met, people who wage eternal war against anything and anyone who disagrees with them, are self-professed fighters for equality and inclusion. It’s almost funny. Almost.

This is all compounded by modern discourse, which is filled with what I rather inelegantly like to call “outrage porn.” You can find this on any issue, of course, and every cause has its provocative radicals, but it is especially ironic when the anger is brought on by proponents of “diversity.” Social media gets much of the blame for its trolling, inane debates, and like-minded echo chambers of affirmation, though in many respects the traditional media, trying to fill a 24-hour news cycle with lots of things that are not newsworthy, is by far the biggest culprit. The emphasis is on calling out the offender, and rarely on actually doing anything to rectify the problem (if it is indeed a problem), save maybe a vague call for “dialogue” on one’s own terms. Everyone yells about what a horrible or misguided person so-and-so (whom they have probably never met, and never will) must be, complaining on and on until they reach the climax, go through a bit of catharsis, feel the pleasure of release, and then it’s over. Vicarious righteousness. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.

It’s tiresome, and it strains people and relationships without ever attacking the roots of whatever malaise might be at play. I’m not saying there aren’t some things worth decrying at the top of our lungs, but the amount of noise makes it nearly impossible to separate the worthwhile causes from the rest of the din. Not only that, the emphasis on hearing many different voices means that no one really agrees on the things that are worth decrying. The trouble is not the sentiment but the instrument used to achieve it, and too often that instrument is a crude bludgeon that just leaves destruction and deeper misunderstanding in its wake.

A recent graduate school application asked me to write an essay on how I might contribute to the diversity of the campus. Not necessarily the easiest task for a straight white guy with college-educated parents from the very white and comfortable side of a town in northern Minnesota. This essay was primarily for a series of diversity-based fellowships (none of which I qualified for, nor expected to), but I still had a point to make to the admissions committee. In short, diversity isn’t found by checking boxes. It’s found in observing life, and in living it. Go stand at the Holiday Center in downtown Duluth, the heart of this supposedly homogenous city, and try to wrap your head around the variety you see, and imagine what must lie behind it all. If you can, you’re probably cheating. It’s too complicated. And that complication deserves respect: recognition that there is a story behind everything, no matter how tortured the logic behind it may be, and while they may be important constituent parts, chopping those stories up and making them all about race or faith or a single key life event is an impoverished view of humanity.

I’m running the risk of turning this into a “we’re all special in our own little way” essay, which irks my inner cynic. Those stories mean we humans are never blank slates, and that will naturally include plenty of prejudices, along with a bunch of other things, good or bad or both or neither. Diversity is messy; diversity is hard. It takes time, and no one who believes in diversity for its own sake should be in any rush to impose a purity test. And then, when we do decide a battle is worth fighting, we might be able to generate a response worthy of the task at hand.

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