language, other topics, politics

Diversity is Good, Unless It Isn’t


Two articles on the topic of “diversity” appeared in The New York Times over the weekend, and the fact that they occurred in close succession needs some explanation. The first was an op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks (of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, on Saturday, October 31. The second, by Anna Holmes, appeared the next day in The New York Times Magazine,. Both were critical of current uses of the word “diversity.” While I want to concentrate here on the Brooks op-ed, both are worth reading, and the fact that close examination of a single word occurred in two articles in the Times so close together makes it clear that “diversity,” and diversity, are on people’s minds.


The Holmes article asks why “diversity” – meaning “human diversity” — has been bled of so much of its meaning. “It has become,” she says, “both euphemism and cliché, a convenient shorthand that gestures at inclusivity and representation without actually taking them seriously.” She suggests that we congratulate ourselves on our diversity when we have hired (or befriended) one or two examples of “them,” so we don’t have to worry about racism (sexism, classism, homophobia, …) any more. But we, that is, “we,” the unmarked people, continue to hold on to our prejudices against “them,” and to see them as sharply distinct from “us.”


Brooks’ op-ed takes a different perspective. You might rejoice, at first glance, to see a conservative writer (the American Enterprise Institute is staunchly conservative) celebrating “diversity” and urging more of it upon us. As Holmes points out, conservatives have been dubious about attempts to achieve human diversity. Affirmative action is not a conservative position, nor are “rights” for those who haven’t had them, and conservatives are always the first to sniff out and criticize appointments that seem to have been made at least partly in the interests of diversity. Yet here is Arthur C. Brooks arguing that “human diversity is a blessing,” and that it is therefore unfortunate that “academia has itself stopped short in both the understanding and practice of true diversity” – seemingly an argument shared with Holmes, and the very antithesis of what most liberals think conservatives would espouse.


But it quickly becomes clear that Brooks’ “diversity” has little to do with Holmes’, although both seem to be arguing for the same thing. Brooks is concentrating on the lack of diversity in universities – but not in terms of faculty hiring or student population disparities (topics Holmes is concerned with). The diversity that Brooks finds a “blessing” is the “diversity of ideas” in academia, and his point, no novelty in conservative discourse, is that universities suppress that diversity: specifically by not having enough conservative faculty members, and as a result in not teaching or writing about conservative theories. He suggests, somewhat indirectly and certainly anecdotally, that this suppression of conservative thinking among the intelligentsia results in an epidemic of “ideologically motivated fraud” – the (relatively few) instances that have emerged over many years of researchers producing intentionally falsified data. The one anecdotal example he gives happens to concern an experimenter in the Netherlands who published a study claiming that eating meat made people selfish. If this is the best anecdotal evidence Brooks can produce, he’s in trouble: the researcher is in the Netherlands, not the U.S., in the first place, and I’m not sure that a correlation between carnivorousness and selfishness (dumb as it might be) is a “liberal” position. Plenty of liberals eat meat.


Brooks cites a seemingly more troubling survey purporting to show that “82% of social psychologists admitted they would be less likely to support hiring a conservative colleague than a liberal scholar with equivalent qualifications.”


That certainly sounds damning, right? Further, “for every politically conservative social psychologist in academia there are about 14 liberal social psychologists.” This can’t be fair.


But there might be reasons for the discrepancy that do not involve fairness.


First of all, it has always seemed to me that the prevalent world-view in academia is deeply unsympathetic to conservatives. Academics, by nature, are wafflers. We like to go, “on the one hand…on the other hand…on the third hand….” We see the world as continuum rather than dichotomy; we find dividing anything into black vs. white deceptive and simplistic – in our reality, everything is a shade of gray. We may long for certitude and clarity, but we strongly if reluctantly feel that these represent false versions of reality. We live with the probability that there are multiple explanations for everything.


Conservatives, on the other hand, see reality as either/or: black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. Everything can be assigned to one side of a dichotomy or the other. Certitude exists and is discoverable, and only fuzzy-thinking liberals would suggest otherwise. People who think this way are not drawn to academia and would find themselves unhappy and unsuccessful if they worked in scholarly environments. So it is not liberal faculties who deliberately exclude conservative thinkers from the ivy tower. Rather, conservatives exclude themselves because the rationale of such places is antithetical to their mindset.


There is an even stronger reason that conservative theories do not find a friendly reception at universities, especially eminent ones. They do not work. Academics like theories that offer at least a partial match with observed facts. Conservative theories, in the social sciences at any rate, have either been superseded and proven wrong, or were wrong from the get-go.


Should phlogiston theory be taught in a modern chemistry department? The theory of the humors in a medical school? Phrenology in psychology? Tagmemics as current in linguistics? Most of us would consider these possibilities outrageous. Once, long ago, these theories had serious proponents and it was possible to sustain lively and rational arguments about their correctness. Today…not so much. And a lot of conservative dogma is simply the detritus of yesteryear, abandoned by serious scholarship because it no longer provides satisfactory explanations for observed facts.


Some conservative dogma has never been taken seriously by the great majority of the respected scientific community. There are good reasons why climatology departments do not have courses arguing against the reality of climate change, and why biologists have no interest in the “fairness” of teaching intelligent design alongside Darwinian evolution. They are not ignored because they are conservative, but because they do not explain observed reality.


Brooks, unlike Holmes, uses “diversity” in a slippery way. If readers of the Times, those virtuous liberal souls, agree that diversity is good demographically (and we pretty much do), then (says Brooks) any kind of diversity is equally good. But this is a semantic problem, a category slippage: Brooks is conflating two diverse senses of “diverse.” Just because we may agree that “diversity” in one context is something to strive for, that doesn’t mean the same word describes a virtue in every context in which it can occur.


In some areas, it is easy to agree that diversity is a virtue: in human groups, obviously. To try to diversify institutions is something we should do not only for fairness, because everyone deserves an equal chance at the goodies our society has to offer (though fairness is certainly important); but also because diverse kinds of people have had different experiences in life and consequently have different outlooks on life and therefore different ways to approach and solve problems. When a group consists only of those who think similarly because their lives have been similar, it is very likely that sooner or later that group will find themselves gridlocked– unable to resolve a dilemma because everyone has the same, unhelpful point of view. For instance, take a look at the Republican members of Congress.


Diversity is of value in other places, for instance in agriculture. We have become aware of the dangers of the monocrop. It is valuable in gastronomy: it’s wonderful to have choices of things to eat.


But it is less useful in other areas. A big problem in buying clothing online is that sizes turn out to be remarkably diverse: they “run large” or “run small,” so you may order, say, a pair of pants in size 12, the size you usually wear, and when they arrive you discover that they are closer to an 8 or a 14.. A single standard would be helpful here. (On the other hand, diversity in clothing style is a good thing: who would want to live in Puritan New England or Mao’s China, where everyone dressed alike?)


Diversity is a particular hindrance to progress in science. A science hums along happily when its practitioners are in general theoretical agreement. When a field is mired in struggle between two or more theoretical positions, the acquisition of knowledge becomes impossible. Contrary to Brooks’ observations, that is probably the condition most likely to lead to cheating: scientists become obsessed with the necessity to prove that their theory is right, and are tempted to ignore the evidence they have uncovered in order to beat the other side. But when everyone shares the same set of beliefs, people feel they are all working together toward a common goal, there is cooperation and camaraderie and, more often than not, honesty. So diversity is of little value in the case Brooks cites, that of scientific theories – quite independently of their political affiliations. To force the adoption of new perspectives, especially those that have no rationale, into scholarly research would be strongly counterproductive. To conflate diverse diversities, as Brooks does, represents sloppy thinking at best, and perhaps deliberate deceptiveness.