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“Diversity:” A Modern Tyrant?

by Peter Wood
May 01, 2004

Several months ago, my publisher told me that my book on diversity was about to be translated into Korean. I was baffled. Of what possible interest could a book on a cultural and political fad in the United States be to highly homogenous South Koreans? (I was, of course, assuming that the request did not come from Kim Jong Il, although that would probably guarantee robust sales in Pyongyang.) When I pressed, the publishing house in Seoul said opaquely that Koreans are now very much interested in diversity and my book is the only broad treatment of the topic.

As an anthropologist I could not help but wonder what strange trick of cultural mistranslation was afoot. In fact, I did know that the word “diversity” had been blown by the trade winds around the world. I knew that several international corporations had adopted it in their personnel policies, on the misguided assumption that this new form of cultural sensitivity would win good will in local labor markets. I had corresponded with radical anti-globalists around the world and with neopagans who invoked diversity as a kind of ultimate value. And I had read about the alacrity with which some Asian countries had adopted diversity as a counterweight to Western criticisms of their human rights records. Knowing that diversity is invoked in all 24 time zones, however, is not the same as discovering that you have become part of the invocation. How did that happen?

I came to write “Diversity: The Invention of a Concept” out of what started as a petty irritation. One day about five years ago, I received a letter from an official in the dean of students’ office at my university in which he asked me to contribute a statement to a publicity brochure. The theme: “Why do you love diversity?”At the time I had not given much thought to diversity at all and hence—inadvertently—had failed to fall in love with her (or it.) I disliked the subtle pressure, the insinuation that I should love diversity, or at least say that I did. And then I wrote back to the effect that in the university the only diversity worth striving for was the diversity of good ideas. I added that the other meaning of diversity—searching for some perfect balance of people by race, ethnicity, national origin, or sex—was at best a distraction from this search for a wholesome intellectual diversity.

My statement, curiously, was omitted from the pamphlet, but I had been alerted to the new shibboleth and then began to wonder that I had not noticed it sooner. It seemed everywhere on campus and off. I could not attend a faculty meeting without hearing it or grade a student paper without reading it; it seemed in every section of the daily newspaper from the front page through the adverts to the obituaries. I heard it from businessmen, shopkeepers, clergy and layabouts. It soon became clear that diversity was a kind of encompassing cultural preoccupation in the United States. I could not find any significant social context where diversity was not being loved.

But it was a peculiar sort of love. If I gave a lover of diversity a little nudge, by asking, for example, “Why do you think diversity is so important?” I often encountered not a list of the beloved’s wonderful qualities, but hard words for those supposed others—bigots, the narrow-minded, racists—who hate diversity.

This seems very confining to me. I don’t hate diversity. I went into the field of anthropology 25 years ago because, like a lot of anthropologists, I am fascinated with humanity’s breadth. Encounters with cultural differences enliven my life almost every day. That seemed to me the ordinary condition of life for most people I know who aren’t anthropologists. People in the Western world enjoy lives textured by a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Most of us also root ourselves in particular places, communities, and traditions but we do so in a manner that doesn’t shut out the rest of humanity.

This ordinary equipoise of being rooted somewhere while welcoming the stranger is, however, spurned by the folks I have taken to calling “diversiphiles.” The more radical among them attack the accommodating attitude of Western culture, characterizing it as a false front. “Sure, you tolerate minorities, but only on your terms.” “You’ll grant minorities equal rights, but only when they give up their culture and become just like you.” There is a grain of truth to these views. Most of us do not think the spirit of tolerance requires that we jettison our own moral standards or abandon our sense of what should count as universal values.

If that were all there were to the diversity movement, I would leave it alone as a self-marginalizing brand of naïve relativism. But radical diversiphiles are only the extreme of a much more general movement. Diversity has become mainstream politics in many nations, and is also becoming mainstream social policy, economics, and, above all, education. The radical diversiphile message, tamped down into more civilized language and sweetened with kinder rhetoric, has become one of the key cultural positions of our time.

Pluralism, multiculturalism, affirmative action and diversity are parts of the same ideological history. Taken together, they are part of a half-century of arguments against cultural assimilation, especially by Western societies. At their friendliest, the proponents of these views have counseled Western nations to allow minority groups the freedom to maintain their own traditions. At their least friendly, the anti-assimilationists become advocates of deep social division.

The diversi-dogma manages a clever suspension between the friendly counsel and the very unfriendly demand for separate group rights. The friendly side of diversity, talked up by politicians and relentlessly pushed by schools, presents cultural differences as enchanting. It emphasizes that differences between ethnic groups are always benign and that tensions are due to misunderstanding or to a history of injustices committed by the West. And it offers images of an encompassing unity: If we respect differences, we can all enjoy a wonderful society together. But as their soothing message unfolds, diversiphiles are also busy advancing another agenda: allocating public goods according to ethnic identity, and quotas, preferences and set-asides for members of minority groups.     

In Western nations diversity seems to act like an acid that slowly dissolves cultural unity. The diversiphiles welcome that dissolution as the end to oppressive conformity, but they offer little to replace it except a vague hope that after we have done away with the common community we will all have a fine time “celebrating diversity.” From what I’ve seen of the diversity doctrine, however, it is likely to be a grumpy celebration.

That’s because diversity deep down is anti-egalitarian and brusquely opposed to the individual pursuit of happiness. Diversity in the ideological sense thwarts the practical accommodations by which people get along with and even enjoy real diversity. It promises tolerance, but delivers a cascade of resentments and insecurity. It promises “inclusiveness,” but delivers division and separation.

When I started out as a graduate student in anthropology in the 1970s, I was interested in how the moral sense of large-scale communities, including nations, evolves. In studying diversity, I’ve found a different way in which a new moral conception can gain a footing in nations. Diversity is an un-parented idea. It is impossible to trace it to any great thinker. There is no classic text of diversity—no Rousseau, no Adam Smith, no Karl Marx.

Diversity was spread first by higher education, second by schools, and third by politicians. Its political appeal, which is mainly on the left, is that it offers a way of advocating centralized control and social redistribution without having to draw from the empty well of Marxism or the clichés of class struggle.

   But diversity, as we have seen it in action, too often misrepresents the past as little more than Western civilization victimizing everyone else. It misrepresents the present by denying our capacity to shape our lives for ourselves and instead locks us into its scheme of social divisions. And it misrepresents the future by offering multicultural utopia, even as it prepares the way for a perpetual scrimmage over group rights.  

This article first appeared in Evidence, a quarterly journal published by the Maxim Institute in New Zealand. It is reprinted with permission from the Maxim Institute. Peter Wood is an Assoc. Professor of Anthropology at Boston University. He is the author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.


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