Diversity for What?

The political and experiential limits of a liberal shibboleth

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How should we approach diversity as an ideology? To begin with, we can examine the gap between its status as rhetoric and as lived reality. But today’s relentless celebration of diversity overwhelms any skeptics. To posit a decline of diversity seems obviously false. Yet evidence of this fall is everywhere. That it is not more noticed bespeaks both the allure of the diversity ideology and the damage of the wider intellectual division of labor that governs the discussion of this vital issue. The appeal of the ideology taps into a venerable liberal ethos of fraternity captured, for instance, by the wildly successful 1955 “The Family of Man” photographic exhibition—and book based on it. Culling photographs from across the globe, the exhibition accented the unity in the diversity of peoples—the sense we are all different but all together. It commemorated a liberal spirit that continues to touch a deep chord. If anything, “the family of man” ethos resonates today more widely than ever. In the absence of a distinct program, liberals and leftists redouble their commitment to variegated fraternity. It is their sole calling card.

The damage caused by intellectual fragmentation is tricky to appraise; and, indeed, part of my project here is to retrieve a story that is known, but has not registered with the diversity exponents. The decline of diversity is well established in several domains; it is a raison d’etre for numerous scholars and associations. For instance, specialists, conferences, and entire fields have taken up the cause of declining biodiversity. This means a reduction of environmental diversity and with it the demise of many species. “I cannot imagine,” writes Edward O. Wilson in The Diversity of Life, a problem of greater urgency for humanity than “the ongoing loss of biological diversity.” “Biodiversity loss” has accelerated “massively” in recent decades, observe some experts. “Up to 30 percent of all mammal, bird and amphibian species will be threatened with extinction this century,” they declare. “The loss of biodiversity” leads to greater risks of diseases and disturbances as individual species decline. Other scholars draw a direct line between the decline of biodiversity and the general health of humanity. “The global loss of biodiversity may lead—directly or indirectly, in the short or long term—to massive loss of health for humankind,” state two specialists. They continue, “The alarm bells are ringing throughout the world among ecologists and also among eco-epidemiologists.”

Yet the bells that ring to alert us to the threat to biodiversity also ring to celebrate human diversity. Is it possible that humans diversify as the environment homogenizes? That even as the oceans become polluted, the land paved, forests razed, and species eliminated human variety enlarges? That industrial monoculture stimulates human polyculture? To be sure, one might argue no relationship exists between biodiversity and human diversity; and even as the former wanes the latter waxes. To make this point, one could suggest a category error is at work. “Diversity” in the environment and “diversity” in human culture refer to two distinct realms. That suggests a dwindling environmental variety has no impact on human diversity. However, this seems unlikely. The categories might be separate, but they overlap. After all, the whole point of ecology—and eco-everything—is the interrelationship of the human and natural domains.

Childhood’s End

Diversity is a reality: that is obvious. The first sentences of the first chapter of Darwin’s Origin of Species marvels at “the vast diversity of the plants and animals” across the ages and regions. But diversity is also an ideology; and like any ideology it can mislead and distort. The ideology can blind us to a reality that countermands diversity. To understand this process more clearly, we might examine any number of spheres in which rhetorical diversity tends to crowd out the experiential kind, but here I’ll confine myself to the shifting character of childhood. The experiential platform of diversity is childhood. How we play and imagine informs about ability to experience the world as adults. What if the unplanned elements of childhood diminish? What if the activities of our children become more and more alike?

Diversity is not simply a political or ethnic category. The way we experience the world depends on our orientation to it; diversity is subjective as well as objective. It relies on an experiential openness. What constitutes this openness? It resides largely in a mixture of spontaneity and creativity. Travel, for instance, hardly leads to new experience if the traveler cannot culturally leave home. This is not exactly a new notion.

Without openness to experience, diversity is a dead letter.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who did a fair amount of traveling, criticized it as a “fool’s paradise.” “I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe” for art or study, he wrote. But he wondered if travel led to individual growth. “I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples; and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.” A lighter, updated version of this idea can be found in a >New Yorker cartoon in which one woman recounts her travels—not Naples this time, but Tuscany. “Florence was fabulous!” she is saying to an acquaintance. “Wi-Fi to die for!”

Experiential openness is more than an individual quality or virtue; it depends on who we are, how we were raised, what constituted our childhood; and this changes over time for society. I broach we are witnessing the closing of experiential diversity, itself based on the eclipse of childhood. To get at this, I turn to Weimar critic Walter Benjamin, who was much interested in childhood, and wrote the autobiographical Berlin Childhood around 1900. Benjamin elsewhere introduced the notion of the “impoverishment of experience.” He wondered whether the dimensions of experience—he was writing in the 1930s—were flattening out. He wondered if we are losing the ability to experience and to recount our experience. The two conjoin. In an essay called “The Storyteller,” Benjamin asked if storytelling declined because we lacked a certain patience or tranquility. “The art of storytelling is coming to an end.” Fewer and fewer people can tell a story or want to hear one.

The storyteller for Benjamin belonged to a pre-industrial age. Rapid shifts subverted the storyteller and what might be called first-person experience. “Experience has fallen in value,” Benjamin glumly noted. Newspapers and information overwhelm the narrator with his quiet tale and its moral. People lived one way before World War I and lived another after. Automobiles, radios, telephones and film entered everyday life. Society had been overturned. The individual cannot keep up and turns silent: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds.”

The Play’s the Thing

To put it in terms I’m using here, the faculty to experience diversity atrophies. Continuous assault on the individual, which begins in childhood, leads not to volubility, but the reverse. The individual contracts or withdraws. If this seems arcane, consider: Forty-four years after Benjamin’s essay, near the juncture of Texas State Highway 79 and Texas State Highway 25, and some five thousand miles from the café where “The Storyteller” was commissioned, another writer contemplated the fate of the storyteller. The circumstances of Benjamin, a German-Jewish refugee subsisting in Paris as war threatened Europe, and Larry McMurtry, a successful American novelist and screen-writer residing in a North Texas town—population under 2000—in which he was born, could not be more different.

Worlds apart, this American man of letters asked the same question and witnessed the same phenomenon. In 1980, McMurtry sat down at his local Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas, and revisited Benjamin’s essay. In his autobiographical reflections, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry came to conclusions close to Benjamin’s. The day of the storyteller was over, he granted—and that meant that something about how we experience and how we recount it has altered. “It was startling to sit in that Dairy Queen, reading the words of a cosmopolitan European, a man of Berlin, Moscow, Paris, and realize that what he was describing with a clear sad eye was more or less exactly what had happened in my own small dusty county in my lifetime.”

The point is: without openness to experience diversity is a dead letter. This openness, the opposite of “the impoverishment of experience,” rests on imagination and spontaneity that are themselves grounded in childhood—its rhythms, contours, and play. The universe of childhood is where diversity gets exercise, where it flexes its psychic muscles. Putting aside all the usual qualifications—not everywhere, not all kids—childhood is under siege. The structure of childhood has been dramatically shifting in the last decades. The space, the place, the typical activities of children have been transformed. Impulsive play in the outdoors dwindles as children hurry home to computers or to organized activities. Playgrounds seem to be emptying out. Play is changing.

Kids in Captivity

“I live in a neighborhood of several hundred families,” writes Joe L. Frost in his essential 2009 book, A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments. “It is close to a lovely park with a playground and a clear flowing stream,” but he finds that children do not go there except on special occasions accompanied by adults. “In fact, they do not play outside. When they exit the school bus in mid-afternoon, they go directly into the house.” He notes that in the dozen years he lived there “I have seen as many as three children playing in the yards or streets only one time, and I have never seen an unattended child in the beautifully wooded neighborhood park.”

The consequences of these depopulated playscapes are apparent everywhere: in measurably declining children’s health, for one thing—but also in the ability to imagine and experience diversity. What happens when video entertainment that is designed by adults occupies the time and minds of the young? When the unorganized dimension of childhood fades? What are the implications of the hollowing out of the psychic and physical space of childhood?

To be sure, the issue of threats to childhood is not new. Elegies for lost childhood mark the modern period. Perhaps the classic of the post–World War II years remains Robert Paul Smith’s 1957 Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing, which for the United States captured the moment when unstructured childhood devolved into activities organized by parents. Smith compared his own childhood of the 1920s with that of his offspring of the suburban 1950s, and was stunned to realize that his kids and their friends no longer could play by themselves. We kicked cans, he recalls of his childhood; we skipped and hopped and tied ropes. “We sat in boxes; we sat under porches; we sat on roofs; we sat on limbs of trees.” In short “we did a lot of nothing.” Those days were ending, as Smith saw it. Children no longer played by themselves or with each other.

Social thinkers joined in. Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood dates from 1982, but that the issue has been raised before hardly invalidates it. The refashioning of childhood pastimes, and indeed adult activities, might be accelerating. The warp and woof of experience does not stand outside of history; and as this experience shifts so does the capacity to experience diversity.

The daily rhythms are altering, not just of infants, but toddlers, children, pre-teens—and everyone else. People are plugged in—and left out. My students text in my classes when I’m ten feet away and staring them in the face. To gauge how experiential openness has contracted across time, choreograph two typically nervous gestures of adults: the once familiar reaching for a pack of cigarettes, pulling out one, lighting, inhaling and looking up and around; and the now familiar reaching for a cell phone, tapping a code, reading messages, sending messages, reading messages—with head down.

The latter marks progress in health, in the decline of lung cancer, but perhaps regression in openness toward the world. And even the progress of health could be qualified—or, at least, the uptick in pedestrian deaths reveals how people are increasingly encased in themselves and closed off to the world. They walk into cars as they check their messages—or are run over as drivers check theirs. I sometimes greet people with a comment when taking a walk or bicycling. More and more I am met with blank looks. They hear nothing since they are plugged into earphones. The graininess of daily life constitutes the bedrock for the experiential diversity. If we close it out, we are left, as Emerson put it, with the unrelenting, identical “sad self.”

Commissars of Constraint

To argue that the jargon of diversity masks its decline hardly means we live in a world without differences. Nor do I want my criticism of diversity to be misunderstood in a period of political regression. All individuals merit respect. All groups deserve representation. Ending discrimination in any domain is exemplary. But to halt discrimination under the guise of diversity muddies the waters. The demand for equality or justice does not need cultural enhancements. Yet if the choice is between the KKK’s white supremacy and Bank of America’s diversity, I stand with the Bank of America. I see no gain, however, in stuffing black Americans into the box of diversity, where they become just another group. In any event, the choice is not between a virulent racism and an anodyne diversity; and even if it were, criticism of the latter should not cease. To abridge thinking in the name of the emergencies that today are permanent reduces it to slogans, perpetual cheerleading or nay-saying. The notion that liberals cannot criticize liberalism or leftists cannot criticize leftism partakes of a bankrupt tradition. My object in any event is not to criticize the cult of diversity for something worse, but for something better. To understand what renders diversity ideological is to understand what devitalizes it—an endeavor that seeks to realize, not junk it.

On the campuses, shadow-boxing has become a new sport for the politically challenged. Befogged leftist dons, who learned from their mentors that everything is text, can no longer distinguish a truncheon from a pencil or a rock from an insult. It’s all the same. “Words can be like rape—they can destroy you,” declares a retired Berkeley professor. The logic of this position is clear; first speech, then teaching and writing fall under suspicion. In a strange transmogrification, campus leftists, who once championed free speech, now oppose it. They seek to cancel speakers and censor articles they find upsetting. Out-of-work commissars cheer up as they anticipate openings in the new All-Campus Politburo of Intelligence.

“We support robust debate,” declare these nabobs without conviction as they called for the university to stop a speech by a right-wing provocateur. “But we cannot abide by harassment, slander, defamation and hate speech.” The university had to remind its distressed faculty of something called the First Amendment—to no avail. The First Amendment no longer cuts it. “The Supreme Court is behind the times,” opines Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an ahead-of-the-times Berkeley professor. “The First Amendment deserves to be re-looked at.” Why? Because hate speech “can harm the central nervous system.”

Real politics shrinks to arguments as to whether the welfare state should be bigger or smaller.

The incontrovertible evidence for this assertion can be found in the publications of Professor Scheper-Hughes and her colleagues, which sadly civil libertarians have not read. “The First Amendment,” declaims this cutting-edge prof, “is ignorant of the vast research on these topics by medical anthropologists, clinical psychologists, and neurological scientists.” In Professor Scheper-Hughes’s stomping ground, the First Amendment has metamorphosed into a person, a rube disdainful of campus research, and words into daggers. Don’t fret, though: Highly trained specialists tap vast research to rehone the First Amendment for the twenty-first century. The First Amendment 2.0 allows free speech as calibrated by its effect on the central nervous system. The newly hired commissars can’t wait to begin—in fact they are already at work.

Unpassionate Intensity

Elsewhere, real politics shrinks to arguments as to whether the welfare state should be bigger or smaller. Within this framework, passionate and critical differences arise—about health care, environment, education, jobs. These are decisive issues, but all unfold within the structure of the state and economy that everyone accepts. In this sense, fortunately or otherwise, the best political thinkers got it right—a fulfilled prophecy for which they have been roundly criticized. Over an arc of thirty years—from Daniel Bell in The End of Ideology to Francis Fukuyama in The End of History—they announced that liberal capitalism had triumphed with no alternatives in sight.

“The old passions are spent,” announced Bell at the end of the 1950s in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which chastened the last Soviet apologists. “The old politico-economic radicalism . . . has lost its meaning.” The only possibilities are limited social reforms. Sweeping changes are off the agenda. “Politics offers little excitement,” declared Bell. At the end of the 1980s in the wake of the dissolution of Soviet Union and its allied regimes, Fukuyama reaffirmed the message. The end of the Soviet regimes signified the “death” of Marxism “as a living ideology of world historical significance.” And like Bell, he lamented the loss. Now we can only tinker with the welfare state. Politics has become boring. “The worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism” is over.

Of course, this is not exactly true. Islamic radicalism has reawakened an ideological struggle. Yet Islamic fundamentalism has not offered any alternative to modernization, except to dismantle it. No matter its numerical strength, radical Islam appeals only to Islamic zealots. The name of the West African radical Islamists, “Boko Haram” or, as it is usually translated, “Western Education is Forbidden” requires little commentary. Is there any future without Western science or knowledge? The ability of Islamic regimes such as Iran or Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, Turkey, to balance religious traditions and Western modernity is still unclear; or, at least, the story is ongoing.

The Monoculture of Want

Meanwhile another quite crucial type of difference increases, but can hardly be apprehended by the idiom of diversity. Economic inequality and its consequences intensify, but here the vocabulary of diversity illuminates little. The half-fictional exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway addresses the subject and cannot be bettered. To Fitzgerald’s remark that “The rich are different from you and me,” Hemingway supposedly responded, “Yes, they have more money.” This gets it exactly—and can be inversed. “The poor differ from you and me.” “Yes, they have less money.”

Poverty does not spell diversity, but exclusion. The unemployed, the badly employed, and the unemployable suffer from a lack of money—and everything that goes with it, good housing, health, and education. A venerable belief posits outsiders as fundamentally different—and often superior. But outsiders may just be insiders without credit cards and nice cars. The poor differ by a shortage of resources.

Of late the accelerating economic inequalities across the world garner much attention—for good reason. But the usual categories of poverty, income and wealth are revealing. They suggest ameliorating the system, not transforming it. For instance, Thomas Piketty’s surprise best-seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century forcefully takes up economic inequality under rubrics such as “The Capital/Income Ratio” or “Inequality and Concentration.” But for him the old working or laboring class hardly exists; the talk is of economic inequalities, not classes. The entry in Piketty’s index for “Labor” reads “See Capital-labor split.” This makes sense because economic inequalities interest him, to the exclusion of all other categories of experience. The solutions follow from the approach. To alleviate inequalities, Piketty proposes new tax schemes.

Diversity is not simply a political or ethnic category.

His concerns generally reflect those today indignant at the obscene disparities of wealth: they want to flatten out the polarities. The goal is enviable, but diversity is not pertinent. The egalitarians seek to enlarge the mainstream. They ask, how we can get more people to escape poverty and join a decent middle class? There is nothing wrong with this scheme, but let us be clear-eyed on what it means. The object is to incorporate more people into the establishment.

To the degree the impoverished outsiders are upset, they feel denied what is available to others. But this does not turn them into agents of history, as Japanese organizational theorist Kenichi Ohmae supposes. He blasts Fukuyama in his own The End of the Nation State. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he declares of Fukuyama’s “the end of history.” Ohmae highlights peoples across the globe who aggressively want to “participate in history” to gain “a decent life for themselves and a better life for their children.” A generation ago they were “voiceless and invisible.” Now they have “entered history with a vengeance.”

Yes, but under what banner or cause? No one doubts that the globe cries out with unhappy peoples—refugees, the impoverished, the dispossessed. The numbers are daunting. But they have no goal except, understandably, to escape and improve their lives. Do the desperate who flee Africa or the Middle East have even a limited political program? Evidently not; even if numerous, they act as individuals, not as subjects of history with a subversive—or any—intent. They do not enter history “with a vengeance.” They seek to slip into history without notice. They do not want to overturn, but to get a turn.

The Stifling Consensus

One need not be a follower of Hegel to concur that history is a “slaughter bench” in which the happiness of states and individuals has been sacrificed, as he stated in his Philosophy of History. “Without rhetorical exaggeration, a simple, truthful account of the miseries” that nations and people suffer, he declared, gives rise to “the most hopeless sadness.” Nor must one be a Hegelian to second the question he poses. “To what principle, to what final purpose, have these monstrous sacrifices been offered?” But here we can diverge from the Berlin sage, who believed he glimpsed reason in history’s machinations. He may have been looking in the mirror, not through the window. It is less reason and more its absence that is visible in history today.

The point here is simple. Once upon a time a specter haunted the world, “the working class,” which represented not inequality or poverty, but a different political system. I do not raise this in the name of lost causes, but simply to get a sense of the narrow political diversity of the world we now live in. Marx was hardly interested in inequality or poverty and indeed frequently lampooned the demand for equality. The working class was not poorer than the peasants: that was never the crux. It was a class with “radical chains” that would refashion the world. The working class may have always been more than a little mythological, yet in principle it sought not a place at the table, but a new setting.

Today the specter is a specter of itself, and political diversity turns ghostly. Evidently political differences exist, but the register has narrowed. The hope that a Third World would be an alternative to advanced capitalism and Soviet communism has long since died. Marxism has retreated to graduate seminars where professors serve gluten-free gibberish to aspiring professors. The best academic Marxists no longer even pretend to believe in an alternative; they study the vocabulary of state power. Outside the campuses a feeble liberalism confronts a rising authoritarianism, right-wing populism, and religious fanaticism. Meanwhile the diversity cheerleaders schedule another celebration. “Don’t wait to be hunted to hide,” counseled Samuel Beckett. Herbert Marcuse cited these words more than fifty years ago in his dark conclusion to One Dimensional Man. The advice still rings true.

Russell Jacoby is the author of several books, including The Last Intellectuals and Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present. He teaches in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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