Plumb Lines

February 18, 2009

Thinking Diversity

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 8:18 am

It shows how much I’ve internalized 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 culture warrior–a cataract of snide comments floods my mind at the very mention of “diversity.”

This will not do, so here is my first tentative attempt at productively engaging with the idea.

Diversity among humans is, generally speaking, a good thing. It adds interest and challenge to life to communicate and cooperate with people whose habits, skills, and opinions differ from yours. Indeed, we should give proportionate consideration even to the innocent, childlike pleasure of contemplating variety in mannerism, size, shape, and hue.

Of course uniformity also has its value. There are important things that we should be able to take for granted about most people we interact with, commonalities that facilitate communication and cooperation. Human beings, I think, can only flourish when moving easily in a particular culture. As John Finnis has repeatedly observed, morality may give us wide latitude in establishing some norms (speed limits; ways of expressing romantic interest, respect, or contempt; the relation between particular sounds and particular meanings, etc.) but healthy social order depends on these being fixed, and fixed with some certainty.  The simplest way of putting it is that it matters less where you draw the line than that you draw it somewhere. If you prefer technical language, however, you can follow Finnis and Aquinas and say that we need determinationes. Insofar as they are morally neutral, cultures and subcultures are basically large package deals of determinationes that make communities out of assemblages, enabling their members to flourish.

A measure of uniformity is also necessary for groups to achieve certain important goals. For instance, a corps of commandos will want to keep the number of quadriplegics to an absolute minimum.

A political theorist will recognize a place for both diversity and uniformity, rightly understood. He will oppose radical threats to either, but also be on his guard against the silly or destructive invocation of either. He will see that practically nothing can be decided in the abstract–the value of diversity or uniformity depends on the nature and purpose of the group in question. He will also see that practically nothing can be decided categorically–most groups have a highly complex nature and purpose.

Still, examining the status quo it’s not too hard to come to some general conclusions.

Our time is famously plagued by the obsessive attempt to create diversity in inappropriate contexts and (much worse) of inappropriate kinds. The very idea of “diversity” has become contemptible to many i) in part because some feel the rules of some sphere of life have been suddenly and unjustly changed to their disadvantage (or shame–I’m convinced far more minorities resent the apparent condescension of affirmative action than will say so out loud) ii)in part because many of its partisans insist on superficial, false proxies for forms of diversity that actually might benefit communities. It will take a lot more than an infusion of blackness to make Yale Law properly “diverse.”

(I should also mention briefly the often–not necessarily–superficial diversity of capitalist metropolises. In such places, diversity of hue and nominal creed may just be gaudy ornament masking a dull uniformity of lust and greed. Orgies can well afford to be diverse because they evade the challenges of community.)

As bad as these abuses of diversity are, however, they are often motivated by a wholly justified dislike of some aspects of life in liberal society. Most prominently, there is the ever-expanding reach of the industrial mentality. This mentality assigns people worth based only on their functional contribution to some clearly defined goal, that is, based on their productivity in their little corner of  capitalist society.  This mentality might be safe if it were severely restricted. With families, clubs, and thick ethnic and religious communities to give persons their most basic self-understanding, a few “cutthroat” arenas might do more good than harm.

But, under liberalism, economic function  (and here I mean ‘economic’ broadly speaking, inclusive of the activities of the managerial elite and those who educate them) takes up more and more of our time and becomes more and more fundamental to our identities. Consider the fanaticism with which people pursue admittance to Ivy League schools.  As James Kalb has rightly said, Ivy League degrees are like patents of nobility because they grant us access to the economic and social goods considered categorically most worthwhile in liberal society.

This analogy to nobility is reinforced by the observation that only among graduates from such institutions can you find something like real class complacency. Unquestionably, most Ivy League grads keep seeking money or prestige in order to validate themselves long after graduation. But when faced with the prospect or fact of failure (I know from personal experience) the consoling thought comes unbidden: “But still, I graduated from X.”  This means, of course, that I will have more second chances than most, but it also means that, whatever my fortunes, there are chic bourgeois homes and parties to which I am always invited. I always have certain social rights that others must recognize. A poor noble remains a noble.

But things are in some ways much worse than feudal, because there is no notion of the Great Chain of Being by which the “peasants” can reconcile themselves to, and even take pride in, their position. “CEO” and “clerk” (I’m again borrowing Kalb’s examples) express a man’s ranking on a scale more than his place in a hierarchy. I  can easily see why people who are horrified by the  status quo would want to debase the currency of my Ivy League degree by changing the criteria of admittance, or at least seek to spread the privileges around as much as possible.

What to do about all this? I have no plan of action at the moment, but I’m sure part of the answer is to promote communities that weaken commitment to money and prestige and therefore weaken the grip of the industrial mentality. (As so many former-yuppie women know, children suddenly give you a new set of priorities and new criteria of success. This is reason #400067 that the prolife fight deserves all the strength we can muster.) Make more space for robust community and, I’m willing to bet, you’ll hear a good deal less about the need for diversity.

-Keith Staples


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