Is diversity all it’s cracked up to be?

After about four decades of hearing people declare diversity to be our greatest strength, I have to ask how that works out. What are the dynamics of a diverse situation that creates something good?

While diverse remains to be defined for this discussion, creates is the operative word. That is what comes out of diversity. But how does it happen?

The statement “our diversity is our greatest strength” is applied to nations, schools, teams, companies and corporations, armies, ad agencies, food……….. Ah! There is the issue. Up until ‘food’ you no doubt thought diversity referred to something like racial or ethnic diversity. Often that is what is meant as mangers, CEOs, superintendents, generals, coaches and so on try to put a good face on “changing demographics,” by which is usually meant more Blacks and Mexicans. (my regional bias is showing: Arizona)

Is there any truth in the statement? Or can a school district count on White flight, racial tensions, police bias in actions involving minorities, lots of hurt feelings and law suits? It depends.

In the first instance of diversity, at least on a large scale, empires come to mind. They usually encompass disparate ethnic and linguistic and religious groups engendering a lot of sectarianism. Yet overall empires produced great art, commerce, soldiers, and innovators. When I think of empires, I tend to think of oppression, genocide, wars and expansionism. But that is because the victims of an empire’s power often write emotionally powerful indictments of their overlords. In fact, empires drew strength from……. you guessed it: diversity. It seems what we are experiencing now as a nation is what all heterogeneous nations go through, balancing the needs of all its people without trampling on the rights of others. Few nations have done a better job than the U.S., but we had the huge advantage of Western expansion and a rich land and lots of free labor.

Lest anyone think America’s heterogeneity aka diversity is problematic, we can look to the Japanese as a model for homogeneity on steroids. But that did not prevent the Japanese from embarking on their own imperial adventures and bringing on a disastrous war. The Japanese do benefit from their homogeneity but suffer from a degree of rigidity they try to overcome.

Other countries are cited as too diverse: Switzerland, many African countries, India, and others as too homogeneous, Russia, China, and others. They all manage to survive but all undergo stresses and imbalances. Notice I mentioned no American countries. A few are somewhat homogeneous, like Argentina, but even those have histories of diversity and are all pretty young, 400 to 500 years old.

What is the mechanism then that makes diversity such a benefit? The action and interchange among all sorts of people produce a more open mind, thus innovation. Having read a number of books on how various cultures handle innovation, it is clear that anything that threatens the status quo will be resisted. Only the assault by cadres of those uncommitted to set ways of doing things can break up that resistance. A sad example of the refusal to change our ways is the story of the foreigner who opened a cement plant in Nigeria. He hired people, paid taxes and benefited the town in many ways. But the old habits could not be broken and before long the police chief, then the judge, then the regional administrator, then the government inspector and so on all came by for their cut, their taste. He gave up and went home.

Change does have its pitfalls. I recall a friend, very conservative and from Pakistan, listened to my tale of triumph about farming women in India getting cell phones so they could by-pass the gouging middle-man. My friend’s response was, “Oh god, now the woman will become even more independent!” Indeed they would and might even insist on fewer beatings.

Another very personal example of a positive change, at least in my view. My wife recently told me that her mother told her that it was me who introduced the family to hugging. My wife said they did not hug. The parents loved their kids and the siblings all stuck up for each other, but physical affection was not part of that. My family was very touchy, so I did it automatically and it caught on. Her mom was proud that they had introduced that into the family. (Perhaps no need but to make sense to someone reading only this, I am White from a working class family and my wife is Black from a working class family and all this happened back in the 60s)

So many books talk about the effects of diversity and its lack that I cannot recommend anything in particular. Right now I’m reading Plutocrats and Blowout and What’s Wrong With Economics and Good Economics For Hard Times and so on. It requires study to understand how diversity enriches the society. Many point to jazz as an outstanding example of diverse streams running together to create a mighty river and so forth. But what were the mechanisms of that? The Power of Black Music is another book I’m reading now that gets into the details of how that came about.

Spinning out of control could be a problem with too much diversity, if citizens cannot communicate well with each other. The glue is language, thus the importance of a standard, national tongue in societies, especially ones that are linguistically diverse. In Flash of the Spirit, Robert Farris Thompson describes the way the bards, the griots or jalis of Mali, kept the Mande culture and language together via gatherings every few years to renew their commitment to and knowledge of their craft. They then disperse not only to spread the culture and language but also to reinforce it where it was already found. So what is the analogue in U.S. culture? Supposedly the university, from which newly-minted scholars go out into the schools of the country to pass on the knowledge.

What is that knowledge? Right now I would say the principles we were founded on, our history and our economic system. None of this should be ideologically based. My experience is that many teachers like to preach their favorite doctrine. That is not wrong, IMHO; it allows students to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints unless, as in my last school, the whole of one department (social studies) is of one somewhat extreme view of America.


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