Diversity Debate, Top Stories

The Diversity Ideology

Editor’s note: this piece is the first in an ongoing series on the subject of diversity. If you would like to join the diversity debate please comment below or send a submission to pitch@quillette.com.

The merits of diversity are much discussed these days. It is increasingly accepted that the more diverse society is perforce the stronger society, especially if it is a liberal democracy. And why shouldn’t that be? In many different contexts, from ecosystems to financial portfolios, greater diversity leads to greater robustness and sustainability. But one response to growing diversity has been the rise of an accompanying ‘diversity ideology’ antithetical to much of what helps modern societies flourish.

Many of these societies freely acknowledge and justly celebrate their ethnic and religious diversity. But ideologies come with ideologues, the most visible of which in this case are diversity consultants in business, people with titles such as Vice-President for Diversity or professors of various ethnic and religious studies in academia, and political pressure groups. Such people tend to assume a list of cultures (subject to change through political pressure) and argue that these are intrinsically different, and that preserving these differences is not just important but vital. They understand cultures as fragile museum pieces in need of constant nurture and barriers to protect them from the intrusion of other cultures. In other words, diversity is yet another thing to be managed, rather than something continuously evolving and best left alone.

The goals espoused by the diversity ideology’s adherents are laudable – to encourage tolerance and a respectful understanding of the different perspectives each community offers. Historically, cultures everywhere have improved by borrowing liberally from one another through commerce, colonialism, and mere curiosity. But although the diversity ideology is promulgated most aggressively by self-identified ‘progressives,’  it is in fact a reactionary dogma which insists cultures need to be defended from pressures to evolve and from the influence of alternative modes of thought and behavior. Instead, any permissible contact with people in other cultures must be mediated by a credentialed expert, usually a member of the culture to be protected.

Most recently, this attempt to promote cultural autarky has metastasized into a stern and inflexible opposition to ‘cultural appropriation,’ the belief that cultures are owned by specific people, and that that no one in another cultural silo even has the right to enjoy the practices of other cultures unguided, still less alter them. Combined with the credentialing of community spokespersons, this injunction deprives individuals of the right to explore other cultures freely, and deprives members of those cultures of different ways of thinking about their own traditions and mores. This is particularly disturbing because it implicitly strips the latter of their dignity as individuals fit to reason, and privileges a cultural community’s most retrogressive voices.

Cultural protectionism is harmful because successful societies are always in motion. Over the last several centuries, the most accomplished cultures (in particular, those most accommodating of the unfamiliar) have tolerated and even celebrated (though, perhaps, sometimes in hindsight) cultural change. Consequently, with the passage of time, religious beliefs and practices have evolved. Judaism, for example, branched into the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, with each continuing even now to change some of their beliefs. Political philosophy has progressed from dividing people into peasants and slaves on the one hand and divinely ordained kings and aristocrats on the other, to viewing each individual as a citizen in possession of inalienable rights. The circle of those defined as equal citizens takes time to universalize, and the circle’s incremental expansion to include more races and religions and, recently, sexual orientations is always contentious. But with each passing generation, liberal democratic inclusion overcomes resistance. In the realm of science and technology, the progress from the sharing of knowledge is most obvious.

So, while freely accepted cultural exchange promotes positive-sum progress, the cultural apartheid enforced by diversity ideologues increases the likelihood of conflict by encouraging each culture to defend its own turf. Minority cultures are urged to fear excessive engagement with other cultures and the cultural change that may follow. This results in less comparison of and cooperation between disparate cultures, and less experimentation within them. The inevitable consequence is stagnation. With the exception of a few beliefs fundamentally inconsistent with modern, liberal societies, what diverse liberal democracies require is not wholesale assimilation, but merely respect for free choice and spontaneous, undirected change.

It is interesting to consider the development of the category of ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic’ culture. This made-in-America identity dates back to a U.S. government committee decision in the 1970s to unite people with Spanish or Portuguese last names for the sake of government analysis, even if they shared little culturally. The sense of being Latino is now also important in Canada and, increasingly, even in the United Kingdom. But self-identifying as ‘Latino’ hardly exists in daily life south of the Rio Grande. Dominican immigrants who came from the east side of Hispaniola are counted as Latinos, but Haitian immigrants from the west side are not. But the very idea of being Latino and self-identifying as such has spread despite these incongruities.

It should be admitted that the diversity ideology has noble roots. The anthropologist Franz Boas is sometimes credited with developing the idea that people are not competent to judge a culture of which they are not a member. But he did so in the early 20th century, when influential scientists, intellectuals, and politicians in the U. S. and Europe were arguing that some races, ethnicities, and cultures were eternally superior to others (a position that betrayed their own rigid understanding of culture), and used this assumption to advocate immigration restrictions, limits on the ability of minorities to compete economically, and even ethnic-based policies of eugenics. Subsequent generations have largely succeeded in defeating the legacy of these ideas. But, in doing so, they have over-corrected and transformed Boas’s ideas into an ideological warrant for segregation.

Cultural mixing and change is an old story. Literature, painting, music, and so on all improve when artists are free to borrow from other cultures. People intermarry in multiethnic societies all the time, and societies across the world have encountered other cultures and then adopted or merely adapted the religious beliefs, legal structures, attitudes about social equality, and even such pedestrian things as cuisine and language they found there. As mentioned, the rapid dissemination of scientific knowledge and technological progress is the most obvious example of this process. The idea that there must be a unique Japanese or Episcopalian natural science is absurd on its face. Instead, science is open to improvement from anyone who adheres to the scientific method. So it is with cultural heritage, which is also ultimately human knowledge, teaching us how to live better but subject to refinement.

Two qualifying remarks should be made. First, there are circumstances in which it may be reasonable to assume that people from certain groups have cultural capital useful for a particular task. For instance, producers of music, literature, news and other kinds of information may decide that they wish to reach specific communities, and hire accordingly. Similarly, in educational settings, teaching students about another culture justifies the employment of those with the relevant expertise. But in neither of these cases is it necessary that the employee be a member of the culture in question — merely that he be expert in its relevant aspects.

Second, it should go without saying that an individual’s cultural identity has no bearing on his legal rights, nor does it weaken the moral imperative to respect him until he gives you a good reason not to. Cultural identity cannot diminish one’s rights under law, nor should it intrinsically decrease a person’s level of respect in society.

But no one should be encouraged or incentivized by strangers to remain ‘loyal’ to his culture. When we travel, our understanding of the world changes, especially when our journeys take us across cultural frontiers. People should be generally free to combine and recombine cultural beliefs as they think best and to create new cultural institutions that modify or even replace existing ones without fear of sanction from their own culture, society at large, and government in particular. Diversity is beneficial precisely because it allows fresh perspectives to be brought to our shared project of building a better society. Reflexively and indiscriminately sentimentalizing cultural traditions and artificially preserving cultural boundaries is not helpful to this task. Instead, we should embrace cultural pluralism and the kind of cross-pollination that discards bad ideas and absorbs good ones to the enrichment of all. A better future depends on it.

Featured pic: “Monument to Multiculturalism” by Francesco Perilli in Toronto, Canada

 

Evan Osborne teaches economics at Wright State University. Most recently, he is the author of Self- Regulation and Human Progress: How Society Gains When We Govern Less (Stanford University Press, 2018).

11 Comments

  1. Bubblecar says

    Western liberal democracies are already the most inherently diverse cultures, equipped as we are with the concept of individual freedom to live how we wish and believe what we like.

    This inherent diversity has of course weathered assault from both right and left, but in hard political terms the ongoing “culture war” of the conservative right has arguably been more of a threat than the efforts of dogmatic multiculturalists and “diversity ideologues”.

    Nonetheless, it’s true that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is usually quite absurd. Why should it be offensive for a Westerner to wear a kimono, when most Japanese people wear Western clothes, and no Westerner regards that remotely as an affront?

    And when people of all nations are happy to use Western inventions like modern transport, computers, television, the internet and much more Western-developed technology that is indispensable to all but the few remaining hunter-gatherers.

    There are some examples of cultural appropriation in which the complaints are understandable. For example, here in Australia there have been examples of non-indigenous artists adopting indigenous painting styles for commercial gain, without making it clear that they are not in fact indigenous artists.

    Given that indigenous art is highly collectable and provides a much-needed source of income for various indigenous communities, this can be seen as an example of reprehensible “appropriation”.

  2. Ginger Hayes says

    I appreciate your article, especially the discussion of racial-cultural silos. My first encounter with this was in the Seattle music scene in the 90s when I first heard criticism of different bands, made up of white members, who had co-opted black music. As a musician myself, I found the idea strange– I had learned many songs never thinking about the race of the composer, and the thought that I shouldn’t perform these songs, or compose any songs that sounded like them, because I was white, seemed absurd. It was self-evident to me that music, as a cultural expression, is owned by those that ‘get it’, not by any other selected group.

    The notes about the origin of “Latino” I also found intriguing. After traveling in Chile and Columbia and getting to know friends and family members in those countries (their own countries), I began to be aware of what a strange label ‘Latino’ is, referring to a huge set of countries whose members certainly don’t feel a special solidarity. It also opened my mind to what a strange decision it must be for someone from Latin America to choose between the frequently offered options on applications and surveys, “Hispanic” or “Non-White Hispanic.” At least in Chile, a person’s identification with Spanish colonial versus indigenous is a loaded question and certainly not a binary. A Columbian would wonder which of Columbia’s several racial groups of immigrants, and what percentage of those highly mixed groups, to which ‘non-white’ might refer. I also began to be suspicious of headlines about US demographics that cite statistics including the category “Hispanics,” frequently lumped together with African Americans and declaring socio-economic disparities of races. I have found that in the reporting of statistical studies, “Hispanics” and “non-white Hispanics” are included or not included without any justification. I assume this is used to ‘juke the stats’ and create more shocking numbers.

    More recently I have made many Chinese immigrant friends, and we often joke about how they are typically not included in any statistics or discussions of racial minorities–though Chinese Americans clearly share a race and minority status. We assume it is because including them in many headlines of statistical disparities would water down the shock value of the headlined numbers.

  3. ccscientist says

    The desire to keep ethnic identities “pure” extends to berating those who marry across ethnic lines, so that now the racial purists come from the Left. Although it is true that it may be hard to be a good cook of ethnic food (e.g., Chinese food in my experience) unless you are from that culture, the desire to ban people from trying is simply evil.
    We also get absurdities such as berating people from celebrating Cinco de Mayo, a rather made-up holiday not celebrated in Mexico. Lumping all persons south of Texas as Latinos is likewise absurd and is in fact racist (all them brown people look alike, apparently).

  4. ‘Latino’ is a bizarre ethnicity because, unlike Italian American, Irish American or African American, it doesn’t denote where your family originated, but where they stopped off before coming to America.

    People don’t speak of ‘Spanish Americans’. It’s as if Latinos represent an oppressed culture indigenous to the Americas instead of a victorious colonial one.

  5. stephen buhner says

    Thanks for this and your depth of thought. I have thought on aspects of this difficulty for over 40 years having encountered its nascent beginnings in the late 60s in California among ideologues within my liberal community. Over time, much contemplation, and massive and very diverse reading (some 20,000 books and many thousands of journal articles and even more nonfictional pieces in diverse publications, i have come to the conclusion that the underlying problem, no matter whether it is racism or sexism or politics or, well, anything i can think of around which there is divisive polarity, is tribalism. So, speaking of patriarchy, to use one incredibly vague term, is not useful. Its replacement with a matriarchy (as some feminists would have it) would only substitute one tribal formation for another. (And i strongly agree that the solution is outlined in your article.) One of the most pervasive of problems is that of universalizing. As an example: There are 562 federally recognized native tribal groups in the US (229 of them in Alaska as well as a number of other tribes that have been politically demanding inclusion). There are 326 federally designated reservations for these tribes in the US. Many of the tribal groups are, as Wikipedia says it, “ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse.” In fact, the distrust and divisions among some of the tribes are centuries old, the feelings quite intense on both sides. So, when a single native tribal member is quoted in the newspaper saying something like, “Native peoples believe the earth is alive, our mother, and should be protected,” that person is universalizing to all native peoples in the US. Correspondingly, when a black activist says, “the black experience is something that no white person can understand,” they are, also, universalizing. This is not only a logical fallacy, it is deeply dangerous to democracy. No one person can speak for every person in their self-identified group. At its most basic, those spokespeople do not know every person in their self-identified group. Even a superficial look at the members of sub-groups in the US reveals a large diversity in their beliefs about the world and their own group. Such universalizing fails to take into account the real diversity that exists between humans no matter their group orientation. Any decisions taken that are based on universalizing in this way ultimately result in unexpected outcomes simply because the underlying assumption is incorrect. Taking on that kind of universalizing flattens human experience while at the same time increasing tribalist tendencies. It also immediately creates tribalist responses in others, strengthening their own allegiance to what they now perceive as their differences. There are many problems we, as a species, face. One of the most dangerous is tribalism, for it always leads to a drive for purification of the tribe itself — one of the major reasons for the religious wars of the late middle ages. It engenders the removal of humanity from other groups, enhances the tendency for violence, and undermines democracy every time it emerges as a cultural phenomenon. Our tendency to need a tribe within which to belong, one that holds within it an affirmation of our core identity, I believe, will not end. All of us have a foundational need to belong. But to utilize it as the core of identity, in opposition to all other groups, is one of the most dangerous choices any person, or group, can make.

    • Dave J says

      I agree. I particularly like this:
      “Taking on that kind of universalizing flattens human experience while at the same time increasing tribalist tendencies.”

      On a trivial, but perhaps fascinating point: did you really mean you’ve read 20,000 books? That would mean that you would be, for example, over eighty-years-old, had starting reading the second you were born and were racing your way through about 250 books a year. Or almost five each week. Every week. For eighty years. Perhaps Quillette should do a feature on you. It’s quite an achievement…

      • stephen buhner says

        i read three books day before yesterday and two yesterday. When i am researching i often read 5. Many people who fall in love with the word, often writers themselves as i am, do read this many books. In these days of the internet and iphones, etc, many people rarely read books, but i am old school; i love the printed word.

        • Dave J says

          @stephen buhner

          I too love the printed word. I read books and I’ve read a lot.

          It’s simply not possible to read five books in a day. Reading requires thought and comprehension and there simply is not enough time in a day to read five books and take in what they’re saying even if a very fast reader.

          • stephen buhner says

            there are books and there are books, a very good book, of which there are few, i tend to linger over (most recently Fredrick Backman’s work, a genius with language and plot construction). most genre fiction i eat like candy. highly technical books i tend to read very fast when i am researching and which i then synthesize into my own books and writing, which are themselves highly technical though designed for both a popular audience and more technical readers. I suppose the number of books i can get through and still remain conscious is because i have done it for so long. When i was young i would usually read one book a day, generally every day. Some people find music to save their lives, some find books. Most writers find books at an early age and are usually found at parties in the quiet corner reading, then report they had a marvelous time. I am working on a book on COPD now and in the next few months will go through 3000-5000 highly technical medical journal articles as well as reading at least a book a day. It’s just part of the fabric of life after nearly 50 years of living this way. it doesn’t make sense to most people but my brain just seemed to be wired that way from the beginning.

  6. Dave J says

    Diversity dogmatists are uncomfortable with too much cultural change and mixing because it threatens the integrity and identity of groups they deem victims. They rarely have a genuine interest in the values of such groups and the individuals of which they consist. They value them only for their usefulness in a narrative pitting oppressors against the oppressed.

  7. Roy Coleman says

    Greater cultural tolerance is admirable Evan, but your contention that more ‘diverse’ societies are ‘stronger’ is unsupported by the extant literature. National GDPs correlate quite strongly and negatively with ethnolinguistic fractionalization, regardless of political order.

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