Plumb Lines

February 9, 2009

Meritocracy and Differences That Matter

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:46 pm

While reading this otherwise excellent article by Heather Macdonald, I was struck by the blithe use of the phrase “performance indicators” in this paragraph:

[The philanthropic sector’s] spokesmen have embraced the two false premises of the diversity movement: that the skin color and sexual profile of foundation and nonprofit personnel are meaningful performance indicators, and that philanthropic enterprises can be pigeonholed as benefiting this or that particular “diverse” group.

The idea that only “merit” should matter in selective processes must seem obviously true to conservative opponents of affirmative action: whoever will turn in the best performance at a job should get the job, regardless of race, class, gender, religion, etc.  For some jobs, however — being a board member is surely among them — diversity is a constitutive good, not merely a way of redressing racism or sexism. I don’t know much about corporate boards, but I can imagine that a corporation might want to create a board with a wide range of interests and views. If so, it will not hire board members because they have the biggest stack of board member skills.

Of course, race is not necessarily a good proxy for having a different point of view, and when it comes to real diversity of cultural perspective and opinion, many proponents of diversity falter. Patrick Deneen is surely right when he suggests that focusing narrowly on race and gender (and, lately, sexual orientation), in fact advances the work of whitewashing difference:

…[Georgetown] remains ardently committed to hiring of groups which are demarcated by biology. Any departure from this current understanding of legitimate group considerations would constitute a departure from “academic excellence,” which rests extensively on deep assumptions provided by liberalism.

Biological difference is one of the great scandals of Liberalism, and so institutional measures to eradicate it are necessary, while differences that are in some sense chosen — religion or class, eg — should be suppressed in the name of “performance.” This question leads us into the thicket of assessing other peoples’ motivations. Do outspoken calls for diversity represent a healthily illiberal love for difference as such? Or is the real aim of diversity to show that the cultural, linguistic barriers that divide us are illusory, and that “merit” is indeed all that  should really matter? (Both aims would be broadly Christian, of course — Christianity both affirms difference as good in itself and claims that all human beings are the children of G-d — but I take it that under Liberalism we are more inclined to ignore and deprecate difference in favor of the one-human-family than the reverse.)

David Schaengold

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1 Comment »

  1. […] the assumptions of liberalism (broadly construed) that my initial reaction to David’s post on meritocracy was shock: How could anything but performance matter? Truth to tell, I’m an ornery right-wing […]

    Pingback by Thinking Diversity « Plumb Lines — February 18, 2009 @ 8:18 am


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