Notes on Diversity

Given the turmoil in the credit markets, it would seem that we have issues and events more important to think about than diversity. Who needs the distraction?

And yet, with a rigged presidential nominating process setting longtime Democrats against new (or “New”) Democrats, and with tension and disagreements about the rising financial panic now encouraging longtime Democrats to turn on one another, is it possible that diversity, and respect for diversity, might actually be important issues for us to be discussing right now?

But do we even understand what we’re talking about when we talk about diversity?

If we do, then why do we behave so badly?

And if we don’t, then how can we possibly hope to embody what we claim as our shared ideal of diversity?

***

Those of us who locate ourselves anywhere along the leftist end of the political spectrum are inclined to believe that we own the conversation when it comes to talking about diversity. And when we use the word “diversity” among ourselves, we tend to assume that we’re all talking about the same thing—that we’re talking about what the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2004) says diversity is:

1. the condition of being diverse: VARIETY; especially the inclusion of diverse people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization (e.g., programs intended to promote diversity in schools) 2. an instance of being diverse (e.g., diversity of opinion)

Now consider the definitions of “diversity” found in the unabridged second edition of the Random House Dictionary of the American Language (1987):

1. the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness. 2. variety; multiformity. 3. a point of difference

The Random House tome also gives four synonyms for definition 2: “change,” “difference,” “variation,” and “dissimilarity.” (For the record, I have nothing but scorn for writers who resort to citing definitions from the dictionary, a practice that any writer should abandon after the age of nine. And I’ve compared entries from two dictionaries instead of a dozen because I’m feeble and lazy and just groped for the two that were closest to my desk.)

The contrast between these two sets of definitions, examples, and emphases reflects a shift that took place, over a period of a decade and a half, in the words Americans use when we talk about diversity. Indeed, that very shift—from supposedly neutral talk about abstract change, difference, variation, and dissimilarity to a more engagé discourse about individuals of different races or cultures, not to mention about programs created to promote their inclusion in groups or organizations—is what people on the Right spend so much of everyone’s time complaining about.

Not that I blame them, or anyway not entirely.

I do take issue with their frequent assertion that the words they use are necessarily transparent and value-free, whereas ours are uniquely freighted with a political agenda (usually characterized as socialist, though deep in the heart of wingnut darkness it’s not unheard of for the word “communist” to be hissed).

And I might be willing to challenge the rightist conviction that it’s seldom or never a good idea to consider the heavy ideological baggage attached to our words before we start throwing them around.

But, good idea or bad, and notwithstanding any measure of noble intent, sensitivity-oriented reforms that burden our lexicon with specific remedial cargo can have an uglifying effect:

Ask the chairperson.

Everyone laid claim to his or her personal pronoun, just as s/he was entitled to do.

Some of my best friends are persons of color.

These interventions have even been known to reward and reinforce ignorance and anti-intellectualism by driving perfectly good words out of our vocabulary. The notorious reductio ad absurdum of such vigilance was reached nearly a decade ago, when a public official’s accurate if unthinking use of an uncommon adjective was misconstrued as an egregious racist insult in a setting where the right to take umbrage overrode any impulse to look the offending word up and discover its actual meaning.

As for the specific uglifications just cited, what to do? The first two are actually pretty easy to deal with.

Instead of “chairperson,” my solution would be to settle for “chair,” by analogy with our metonymic use of “the crown” or “the White House” when we mean the British monarch or the executive branch of the U.S. government.

And rather than resurrect our official fiction that the male personal pronouns actually stand for people (not “persons”) of any gender (note that I did not say “either” gender—diversity!), I propose that we begin right now to use the personal pronouns “she,” “her,” and “hers” to represent the being and possessions of any indefinite human who needs such representation, and that we continue this practice for the next thousand years and then take stock.

But “persons of color”—oh my. There is so much that is so very wrong with this phrase, and not just because one increasingly encounters malaprop innovations like “persons of disability” (oddly damning, by subliminal association with M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie or Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”) and euphemisms like “person of size.” (In the latter connection, it’s impossible not to recall a 1977 episode of the Barbara Walters Special that featured Elizabeth Taylor. At one point, Walters “delicately,” as in slowly peeling the wings off a fly and then poking at the creature with a toothpick, asked Taylor what she made of certain intimations that the star might be, well, you know, um, fat, just possibly. Taylor cut right through the sadistic smarm. “I am fat,” she said.)

Anyway, to condense a great many urgent questions into a single long one, how does “person of color” do anything at all—and anything more than “Negro” (“sometimes offensive,” per Webster’s) or “black” (“Black”) or “Asian” (an all-purpose term of Western invention, used to describe “persons” living in regions as disparate as Brunei and Los Angeles), and especially anything more than “colored person”—to disrupt what even a Failed Post-Lacanian Literary Theorists® can recognize as the social production of racially marked subjects?

I ask. I do not know. But I can cite Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity, a fine book by Samira Kawash (Stanford University Press, 1997; emphasis added):

T]he color line cannot simply be dismissed as an error. . . . The color line continually both produces and maintains social order and hierarchy. . . . Contemporary claims for the value of multiculturalism as a pedagogical program often seem to suggest that by recognizing and valuing cultural diversity we will move “beyond race” or “beyond racism.” In effect, such claims propose that after we recognize the fallacy of racial essentialism and racism, we are prepared to emerge into the true light of diversity. . . . [But] where the boundary has served as the mark of exclusion, of an irreconcilable and absolute difference across which position and privilege are determined, . . . its effects are not challenged by effacing the boundary (“beyond race, beyond racism”—on the further side of, outside the limits of).

Shorter Kawash, by way of Judge Judy: Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining. In other words, what you’re doing is bad enough; don’t make it worse by lying about it, too. And when our discourse becomes ugly in this particular way, whether it’s made to lie through euphemisms, or clotted with prolix constructions like “he or she” and “his or her” and with neologisms like “s/he,” that uglification is the signature of an attempt to conceal or disguise and thus perpetuate a greater, preexisting ugliness. It amounts to an evidence-tampering operation.

Evidence of what? Of all manner of injustice, to begin with. Let’s not actually do anything about misogyny, for example, or about the patriarchal structure and bias of our institutions. Instead, let’s insist on gender equity in our use of personal pronouns, and let’s especially badger other people to follow our lead, particularly when those others have less power than we do. Women will love it, and then what will they really have to complain about? It’ll be every woman or man for her- or himself, and more power to her or him!

Euphemisms, though, open a special window onto the workings of this sort of evidence tampering. Metaphorically speaking, a euphemism may be nothing more or less than bright new paint inscribing KEEP OUT on a rotting old fence. Or it may just be a laughably transparent dodge. Either way, its principal function, by definition, is to sound good. When a euphemism is on the case, the evidence being tampered with is the speaker’s conflicted emotional state. No word or phrase has to be caused to sound “good” (that is, better than the word or phrase it has supplanted) unless the reality it points to—the black man or the disabled woman or the hugely obese couple—is something that the speaker involuntarily experiences as discomfiting or repellent or otherwise “bad” in itself, and unless the suppressed word or phrase retains the power to arouse the speaker’s anxiety about that very “badness” as well as about her fear, disgust, and other unacceptable feelings.

Of course, euphemisms are common currency across the political spectrum. In ordinary conversation, we hear “passed away” for “died.” In talk about U.S. society and economic life, we commonly hear “middle class” for “working poor.” And in full-throated political discourse, we hear “pro-choice” from those who favor legal abortion and “pro-life” from those who oppose it. But with respect to racial diversity (as the term and the concept it denotes are generally understood by self-styled progressives; see the first definition from Webster’s, above), the Left has a virtual monopoly on the relevant euphemisms. That’s because white people who are unconflicted about their racism, and who don’t have to worry about losing the good opinion of their fellows because of it, have no need of euphemisms and can make free use of degrading racial epithets.

It’s important to note in passing, however, that misogyny is another matter.

There has never been any reason for people on the Left to assume that virulent woman-hating is confined to the pan-geographical precincts of the extra-chromosome Right and to that bloc of culturally conservative Democrats lately demonized, by more affluent Democrats, with the value-neutral adjective “Appalachian.” Entire posts have been and will be written about this common assumption; suffice it to say here that it was destroyed for all time by the behavior of innumerable visitors to the A-list Left blogs during the Democratic primaries, when “progressives” who would never say and who indeed may never in their lives have uttered the word “nigger” had no qualms whatsoever about making, well, liberal use of the word “cunt” in their online posts and comments.

It’s likely that the relative anonymity of online discourse played a role, and that the online misogynists take care in real-life settings to disguise the true state of their psyches, at least to the extent that they spend time with people who might challenge them. It’s also possible that the self-restraint demanded in real life contributed to the vehemence of these individuals’ online expressions of hatred toward women as a class, embodied in the person of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now more than ever, though, there is no reason to exclude people on the Left from that group of individuals who are unconflicted about their misogyny, who don’t have to worry that it will cost them the good opinion of their fellows (masked by screen names of their own), and who make free use of misogynist epithets.

As for exactly why these people don’t have to worry about losing the good opinion of their fellows, that’s a question that will continue for some time to preoccupy concerned people on the Left, especially women, just as it did forty years ago, when the obnoxious but more conventionally sexist behavior of men in the antiwar movement led to the so-called second wave of U.S. feminism.

***

But where was I? I was making three general points:

…..1. I have some sympathy with right-wing commentators who worry that well-intentioned people of leftist sympathies have attempted and sometimes managed to falsify and impoverish our common language in the interest of making it conform to the aims of what those on the Right sneeringly call “political correctness.”

…..2. I disagree with right-wing ideologues who hold that only leftist-oriented language is ideologically freighted.

…..3. I think it is a good idea to educate ourselves and receptive others about the ideological and historical sources of the words we use so we can avoid inflicting gratuitous pain on our fellow citizens and perhaps, in that small way, disrupt the semiautonomous social manufacture of invidious differences.

And to those three points I will add one more:

…..4. The difference between the right-wing commentators I’ve been discussing and myself, as I understand their impulses and my own, is that they seek to deny the full reality of social injustice, whereas I want to assert its persistence. Their tool, one among many, is opportunistic condemnation of clumsy and sometimes deleterious efforts by liberals to address social injustice at the level of language. Mine is analysis and exposure of the role that flawed liberal notions about diversity play in the perpetuation of social injustice.

* * *

I began this meditation on diversity by citing two dictionaries and noting the difference that seventeen years had made in how the term “diversity” has come to be defined. Then, almost immediately, I fell into a lengthy discussion of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “identity politics.” (And, no, I would not be a Failed Post-Lacanian Literary Theorist® in good standing if I also failed to notice that I have, as they say, “enacted” the very thesis “inscribed” in this page full of pixels.)

But isn’t that always the way it goes for those of us on the Left when we try to talk about what we call “diversity”?

Maybe, like a preliterate tribe, we confuse the word with the thing, entranced by our own version of the Merseburg Incantations and invoking the magic powers charged with ordering our world in exactly the ways we and we alone know it should be arranged.

Then again, maybe we just talk too damn much.

Excerpted and adapted from a longer post in progress, which eventually may appear at Palomino’s Paddock, about how leftist erasures impair the capacity to perceive and promote varieties of diversity that don’t fit leftist models of reality, and about how that failure contributes to the coarsening of our politics and of our collective life in general. If you would like to see that longer post completed, please be sure to let the author know.

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2 comments on “Notes on Diversity

  1. Anna Belle says:

    I love this essay, Pal. I think you make some sense here. I have similar thoughts about other aspects of so-called progression that I intend to relate here this weekend.

    I’m sure this took a lot of work. Thank you for posting it here.

  2. nwbblu says:

    Palomino,

    My apologies for commenting so late. This is a huge issue, and an important one. I take forever to set my ducks in a row and then edit, edit, edit.

    For many of us, lauding diversity seems natural. But as it turns out, neither liberal nor conservative views reflect reality in regard to diversity. Faulty assumptions on both sides, and our belief in them, are responsible for some of the troubles we are now experiencing. An excellent study–and good read–on diversity in the US, by Robert D. Putnam, can be downloaded at: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118510920/abstract. Sadly, he concludes his paper with a quote from B. Obama. Nonetheless, the precise method, very substantial fact-gathering, and results of his study are enlightening. In addition to the larger focus of the paper, which is to test the strains produced in ethnically diverse communities, Putnam raises important questions in respect of the “two different forms of diversity in America today”, meaning recent immigrants and African-Americans. Are they analogous? He suggests that different historical origins may require different social responses.

    Also, as reflected in the dictionary citations that you mention, after about 1970, “diversity” began to be used in official parlance to replace the assimilationist view that had been pushed earlier in the century. Via the new voice of multiculturalism, the patchwork quilt trope replaced the melting pot in our national talk. Both assimilation and diversity as cultural memes have their origins in national politics; our concepts of diversity do indeed change over time as minorities evolve into political power brokers.

    Generally I dislike anecdotal evidence, but here is an experience I had in the 1980’s – 90’s. I was a Girl Scout leader then. When I resisted giving information about our scouts, re ethnic categories, because it seemed predatory to me, I was told that the organization received financial support based on ethnicity: “diversity”, with its basis in congressional lobbies, was a money maker for the Scouts. The concept of diversity has, in certain respects, as much to do with bureaucratic convenience as it does with seeking advantage, getting our issues into the public view, and how we construct personal identities.

    Commoditization is useful as a marker for the salience of an idea. Think of all the items in the marketplace that incorporate diversity as a marketable ideal. Such items are successful to the degree that they reflect images of our public lives, but in addition, their success depends upon the implication that our public lives are common lives as well. Commoditization is a summarizing event. The implications are false because experience within an ethnos is never homogeneous.

    If I keep going this will cease to be a comment and begin to be something else. So, anyway thanks for bringing an intriguing and complicated topic to the table. Much appreciated.

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