What do we mean when we say “diversity?” Is the world becoming more diverse, or less, and by what measure? These are the questions Russell Jacoby sets out to answer in his recent book, On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era. Its thesis may be summarized as follows: while diversity is in many respects a good thing, in today’s world the diversity proponent often “celebrates variety in a world that undermines it. Globalization knits the world together into one vast market. We become more alike – and simultaneously proclaim our differences. How can both be true?”
Particular focuses include a global reduction in biodiversity, linguistic diversity, and diversity of dress, as well as a massive reduction in the diversity – and hence the creativity – of children’s play as modern industry has introduced mass-produced toys. There is also the historical context of how diversity has been viewed across the centuries, with the gradual loss of distinctive cultural attributes decried by thinkers such as
Wilhelm von Humboldt and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Jacoby also laments the decline of the traditional storyteller which, he argues, “bespeaks the eclipse of an unhurried life” and “slow and unfocused activity – or non-activity: boredom”, which serve as catalysts for curiosity and thus both the creativity of the storyteller and the attention he or she receives. These, he argues, have been “muffled by 24-hour news feeds” and other such modern distractions. I found this example to be slightly vague, if highly interesting: the causal relationship between this decline and a decrease in children’s “capacity for diversity” does not strike me as clearly stated, and seems to go off on a tangent. Still, it is a worthy topic in itself, and one can infer that the variety of stories is a valuable type of cultural diversity compared to the non-stop sensory input of television, social media, and online games.
Jacoby, who teaches history at
UCLA, has authored nine books, including the one reviewed here. An interesting point of background is his account of the difficulties encountered in seeking publication. In an article on the blog of Heterodox Academy, he surmises that eight university press rejections were at least partly due to a taboo in academia against his thesis; in his assertion that “diversity is more an ideology than a reality”, he cannot avoid criticism of university diversity initiatives and identity politics, the latter resulting in “individuals-as-representatives of groups” as distinct from diversity among individuals. Thus, in a process Jacoby describes as “death by committee”, he recounts one editor’s admonition that “my manuscript would evoke too much criticism. In today’s university, that spells trouble.”
This reaction, Jacoby asserts in the same article, illustrates a more general issue in academia: paying lip service to the right of dissent while attempting to squelch dissent one dislikes (or at least acquiescing in the actions of dissent-squelchers). In recounting the controversy over Bruce Gilley’s 2017 paper ”
The Case for Colonialism“, Jacoby flatly disagrees with Gilley’s thesis while criticizing the successful pressure from academics to have the paper removed from Third World Quarterly, where it first appeared. Jacoby states:
My case is hardly as dramatic [as Gilley’s], and I don’t pretend I am a victim. My point is merely to indicate the limits of dissent about diversity. Almost everyone values controversy – or so they claim. But “controversy” does not float outside of society; it has its own parameters. Controversial to one group is unacceptable to another – and nowadays campus champions of diversity, anti-colonialism, “deconstruction,” etc. find much unacceptable. Boundary crashers by day, they work as border guards by night. They summon the authorities when their own program gets examined.
Of course, whatever the motives, the decision to publish or not is the prerogative of the publisher. I assume Jacoby would agree, and he seems to imply as much. Still, his assertions regarding the cultural milieu of American academia both provide context for his book and pose a question that is central – if not new – to free speech debates past and present: when, if ever, is it right to disallow or suppress speech?
When I first read of Jacoby’s thesis in the above-cited article, I was reminded of a scene from the 1979 comedy film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which the title character (a reluctant revolutionary and messiah in first century Judea played by the late, great Graham Chapman) tries to convince a crowd of devotees not to view him as a guru.
“You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!” insists Brian.
“Yes! We’re all individuals!” chants the crowd in unison.
“You’re all different!” shouts Brian.
“Yes! We’re all different!” shouts the crowd as one.
“I’m not,” says one man.
With the caveat that “individuality” and “diversity” are not mutually inclusive, I think this scene encapsulates a major element of Jacoby’s argument: at some point, all of us (this reviewer included) may go through the motions of celebrating differences even as we avoid viewing similarities which contradict such notions (e.g. ,an increasingly ubiquitous mass consumer culture).
“Diversity” is often used hand-in-hand with “inclusion”. Here Jacoby raises another point those committed to the usual picture of diversity may find uncomfortable: is wishing to be treated with respect and dignity the same as wanting inclusion? Are the two inseparable? In this regard, Jacoby points out that one does not “hear complaints from the Amish or Hasidic Jews of underrepresentation. They wish to remain apart, rare exemplars of difference that seek to remain different.” By comparison, the more usual demand made in the name of diversity is quite the opposite: a place within the mainstream. Citing as an example the dearth of film roles for Asian Americans in Hollywood, Jacoby poses no objection to a demand for more, but rejects the idea that it constitutes striving toward diversity. In Jacoby’s words:
To be sure, most people do not want to dispatch their identities – religious, ethnic, sexual, or something else. But these identities devolve into labels and styles that are employed to open doors. The Asian American actors are saying, We are as talented as non-Asian American actors. We want the same roles.
“As praiseworthy as this is,” Jacoby concludes, “diversity here means equality – different-looking people doing the same things as other people.” Which in turn is the result of a globalized monoculture, i.e., not so diverse.
In commenting upon initiatives to preserve endangered cultures in the name of diversity, Jacoby eschews the idea of an unqualified, across-the-board multiculturalism. To quote:
No one sane favors killing off peoples or cultures, but some obvious truths should be remembered. Small is not always beautiful. The losers in history are not superior because they lost. Defeat does not inexorably lead to wisdom. Not all cultures are benign. Not all are worth saving. At least not all cultural practices can be cherished. Some are vicious, racist, and misogynist. Foot binding? Honor killings? Genital mutilation? Segregation? Castes? Cultural diversity, one critic notes, is more than “cuisine and costume.” It is not simply “chomping chorizo in Chula Vista and gagging on lutefisk in Lake Wobegone.” It can also be ugly and suppressive. “I didn’t like my culture,” writes H.E. Baber in her critique of multiculturalism, The Multicultural Mystique. An affable diversity can blanket a caustic reality.
In other words, if you’re going to say that foot binding (for example) was morally wrong, you are making a value judgement about a cultural practice, however committed you may be to cultural diversity as an ideal. It is a sobering point to consider.
While I would assess Jacoby’s perspective as left-leaning, he makes a sincere and honest effort at giving conservative views on diversity-related issues a fair hearing. While agreeing with the common conservative argument that “group heterogeneity does not mean intellectual heterogeneity”, he also argues that conservatives “rarely use the same optic on other parts of society”, and that “infant strollers with iPad holders”, “information from tweets and video snippets”, and the “combined heft of ExxonMobil, Walmart, or Apple” should be more worrying than “Oppression Studies 101 taught by a tenured radical”.
The point is well taken, but I think he’s missing a couple of things. Whether one agrees with them or not, there have in fact been conservative arguments against private sector actors (including corporations) on ideological grounds, the most famous recent example being allegations that tech giants such as Google, YouTube, and Facebook have engaged in censorship and anti-conservative bias, i.e., the argument that a lack of “intellectual heterogeneity” is being encouraged and promoted. So it’s not just a focus on universities, and many conservatives would thus agree with Jacoby that “information from tweets and video snippets” doesn’t bode well.
As for what conservatives claim is radical indoctrination on campus: it is at the universities – particularly the elite universities – where the leaders of tomorrow are trained (or indoctrinated, if you see it that way). Will not many of the students graduate to take significant positions in such major corporations, and presumably play a role in facilitating the faux diversity cult critiqued in this book? It’s not as if we can posit an unbreachable dividing line between the campus and the company.
Taken as a whole, this is an insightful, thought-provoking book which raises intriguing questions, and I enjoyed reading it. Perhaps the single most fascinating loss of cultural diversity Jacoby explores is the existence – and loss – of hundreds of urban street games, versions of which “reach back centuries”. They are rapidly fading away ,thanks to the influence of the mass-produced playthings of modern industry, most recently computer games. It is perhaps Jacoby’s most telling example of the loss of diversity within a culture, as opposed to only seeing diversity between cultures.
Jacoby offers no solutions to the issues he describes, saying that the “insistence that all criticism should conclude with ten bullet points of recommendations is part of the problem.” Fair enough. And yet, I wonder if someone might try reviving those street games? Just a thought.
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