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"Diversity" has become an obsession in certain quarters, with mere mention of it producing a reflexive nodding of heads and outpouring of virtue signaling.

The problem is that diversity in the abstract is largely lacking in meaning, neither inherently good nor bad; rather, its value is entirely contingent upon circumstances.

In a recent essay questioning the unquestioning worship of diversity, Jonah Goldberg noted that "diverse stock portfolios are more resilient. Diverse diets are healthier. But that doesn't mean picking bad stocks will make you richer, or that eating spoiled foods is good for you."

In other words, and as with so much else in life, it depends.

The greatest experiment in human liberty, the American founding, benefited from shared cultural and political values, and thus minimal diversity, among the founders, while the worst cases of ethnic/sectarian conflict in recent decades, in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Iraq, can be attributed to too much diversity.

The original invocation of "diversity" in academe came with the Supreme Court's Bakke decision in 1978; more specifically, Justice Lewis Powell's opinion proclaiming diversity in the classroom a "compelling state interest" permitting affirmative action in admissions.

Granted that rather dubious imprimatur of constitutionality, the cause was given further impetus by two exemplars of the academic administrative elite, former Princeton president William G. Bowen and former Harvard president Derek Bok, in their influential 1998 book The Shape of the River, wherein the original idea of using racial preferences to compensate for past discrimination against blacks shifted toward the notion that white students would benefit from having non-white students in their classrooms and dormitories.

Being around people who looked and talked differently was assumed to enrich everyone's educational experience, especially that of "privileged" white suburban kids.

Using discrimination based on race in the present to compensate for discrimination based on race in the past was always a hard sell for Americans who had bought into the logic of the civil rights movement (as well as a violation of the 14th Amendment's "equal protection of the laws" clause), but the practice was saved when the diversity concept came riding to the rescue.

"Diversity" was, in short, a less divisive justification for preferences--who, after all, can quarrel with the idea that our lives are enhanced by exposure to people from difference cultures and races, especially in a multicultural society like America?

Still, when you move beyond that initial proposition, with which so many can so easily agree, you run into an array of contradictions and logical cul-de-sacs relating to the various meanings of diversity and their implementation. For instance, if diversity is interpreted merely in terms of race and ethnicity, how do we achieve it without relying on systems of preferences and the kind of morally odious bean count found in quotas?

Problems also emerge when plopping people into crude racial and ethnic categories, with the implicit assumption that everyone in those categories thinks the same way and has the same values (thereby bringing their alleged "group" identity with them to the educational experience). There is, after all, something profoundly disturbing, even racist, in attributing attitudes and values to people purely on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

Going further, a reasonable person might be forgiven for asking whether superficial differences of pigmentation and gender are necessarily more important than differences in religion, region, class, and, especially, ideas.

Great irony is found in the fact that, in precisely the years that diversity has become such an obsession on our college campuses, the form most crucial for a proper education--political and ideological diversity--has declined precipitously in the same places.

Indeed, those most enamored of crude forms of diversity tend to also be those most intolerant of the ideological diversity consistent with the marketplace of ideas and the broader purpose of education, which is, lest we forget, not to divide but bring us together in our shared humanity.

Those who embrace diversity in a racial or ethnic sense are afraid of ideological diversity because they correctly sense that with such diversity comes criticism of the uses of diversity to support racial preferences; indeed, diversity of ideas is the last thing most of our campus commissars of political correctness want.

Racial and ethnic diversity, and the reliance upon racial and ethnic preferences to achieve it, thus exist in tension with, and require the suppression of, the diversity of ideas.

Going beyond all these conundrums is also the bizarre manner in which diversity makes a fetish out of something that inheres in life itself--we are all "unique" creatures, by definition unlike any others that have walked this earth. Diversity is thus logically impossible to avoid because it's inherent in human individuality. It doesn't have to be pursued or manipulated, it simply is. To worship it is therefore as meaningless and banal as to worship oxygen or the oceans.

Thus, a useful rule of thumb: Those who prattle on the most about diversity are generally those most hostile to the genuine article.

As Thomas Sowell once acidly put it, "The next time some academics tell you how important diversity is, ask how many Republicans there are in their sociology department."


Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 02/12/2018

Print Headline: What is diversity?

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