On Diversity

From The Wall Street Journal:

There is something deeply amiss about the way the word “diversity” is used in American culture, but it’s not easy to describe what that something is. That human diversity is a good thing is self-evident, but do its cheerleaders care about diversity for its own sake? Sometimes you suspect that what they really want is sameness. On Staten Island this week, the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day Parade is the object of outrage because its organizers have not approved a gay and lesbian contingent to march under its own banner. Boycotters cannot abide the thought of a public event in which older opinions prevail in any way. What they want is . . . diversity.

The disingenuous use of the word appears everywhere. The faculty hiring committee can proclaim its dedication to diversity all it wants, but everybody understands that the diversity criterion is incidental to what the committee is really after, which is someone whose general outlook matches that of the rest of the committee. Diversity in the service of sameness.

Russell Jacoby’s “On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era” is very far from a right-wing critique of the left’s obsession with diversity—he is not a conservative of any kind, as far as I am aware. Nor does he indulge the temptation to lampoon the nonsense language of the diversity industry. His aim, rather, is to separate proper notions of diversity from ideological ones: in other words, to distinguish a genuine concern for human diversity from the superficial and opportunistic uses of the term to which we’ve grown accustomed.

Mr. Jacoby, a history professor at UCLA and the author of several books on American politics and culture, believes that Americans are becoming more and more alike—we wear the same sneakers, enjoy the same entertainments, adopt the same opinions and, increasingly, speak the same vernacular. This sameness, he believes, augurs ill for our democracy. “Uniformity weakens the individual,” he writes, “which in turn weakens democracy. If individuals lose their singularity, they form a susceptible electorate.”

. . . .

Perhaps I am too immersed in discussions of political polarization and cultural de-consolidation, but in my understanding Americans used to watch the same movies and read the same books and act on the same moral impulses but no longer do. Mr. Jacoby worries about other forms of sameness: The loss of unsupervised play among children, he fears, leads to a kind of conformity mind-set in adults, and our reliance on smartphones and social media forces us into the same habits and attitudes. Maybe. But in an era in which social fragmentation and national breakup are constantly talked about, I would have welcomed a more robust case for our sameness.

Mr. Jacoby is at his best when he turns his attention to the disingenuousness of the diversity ethic. He recounts, for example, the debate about the deaths of indigenous languages around the globe. This is said to be a tragedy, and maybe it is. But it is striking, he writes, “that the linguists and anthropologists who lament language loss do not address the decline of foreign language study in the United States or foreign language deficiency in developed countries. This does not interest them.” The alarmists love to lament the fate of languages in Papua New Guinea and Cameroon but not the absence of foreign-language study in American high schools. “They love preserving languages,” Mr. Jacoby writes, “as long as they are elsewhere.”

. . . .

Exponents of the French Revolution tended to demand sameness: standardized calendars, currencies, weights, measurements and language. The radical priest Henri Grégoire, for example, felt strongly that any foreign language, indeed any dialect, signified disloyalty to the state. Governments, he reflected, don’t understand “how much importance the abolishing of gibberish is to the spread of enlightenment.”

Against the standardizers were liberal writers such as the Swiss-French writer Benjamin Constant and his lover, Madame de Staël; the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher; the German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt; and, not least, Tocqueville and Mill. Mr. Jacoby is right to point out that Mill’s purpose in “On Liberty,” the work for which he is best remembered, was not to theorize about legitimate limitations on state action, as most modern treatments lead one to believe. The book’s chief aim was to emphasize, as Mill himself put it, “the importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

2 thoughts on “On Diversity”

  1. There is something deeply amiss about the way the word “diversity” is used in American culture, but it’s not easy to describe what that something is.

    It is indeed easy. As commonly used, diversity applies to skin pigmentation and sex. Nothing else.

  2. I’m an old Trekkie. For me, Infinite Diversity in Infinite combination is my go to response for defending diversity.

    Unfortunately, all my friends are too wound up in their ideological positions to recognize that this means tolerating things you find abhorrent. So my right wing friends go on about homosexuality and abortion, while my left wing friends go on about racism and fascism.

    Don’t have time in my life to be wasting it arguing about my white speak privilege.

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