Doubts about Celebrating Diversity
By Kenneth R. Stunkel
We like to believe that colleges and universities are unique sanctuaries for critical inquiry and mostly logical thinking and that academics resist unexamined, foolish beliefs as a professional responsibility. As an example of how shaky these assumptions have become in an atmosphere charged with political correctness, I cite my own university. A statement from the president's office has put faculty and students on notice that all beliefs are to be acknowledged and respected, and that "socially constructed" differences are to be acknowledged and celebrated. Well-meant as all this may sound, apparently, no one thought out the implications of these injunctions, had doubts about their wisdom, or raised objections. This essay attempts to do all three by focusing on an irrational, unhealthy phenomenon in higher education that has become insistent and pervasive. American pluralism and egalitarianism have merged with identity mania, the self-esteem movement, and postmodern indeterminacy to produce a seemingly fine, idealistic notion—a celebration of differences between peoples and cultures. Diversity as a celebration must not be confused with diversity as a redress of historic inequities through just representation of women and minorities in the public life of opportunity, work, and study. Nor is it about enjoying a harmless variety of taste, style, demeanor, or aesthetic experience, as when people unlike one another in small ways (as most people are) assemble to hear an African poet or to sample cuisines at an international food festival. And on the most trivial level, the issue is not fashion anomalies like students wearing rings in their noses, eyebrows, and tongues.
The Cult of Differences
At issue is a sometimes overt but more commonly hidden assumption that differences are better and more fundamental than similarities. The idea is not new. The first theorist and champion of incommensurable cultural diversity was Johann Gottlieb Herder, who flourished near the close of the eighteenth century and argued for cultural nationalism and the accepting of differences based on a common heritage of language and custom. In the Middle Ages, nominalists and realists debated whether individual things are more real than any similarities they may share. The tension between differences and similarities is my theme as well, but what I have in mind is an inflated status for ethnicity, not physical differences of race or gender, which are unavoidable and given. Ethnicity implies traditions, beliefs, and practices rather than the anthropology of physical appearance or differences of reproductive anatomy. Academic paeans to ethnicity claim that cultural differences between groups merit spontaneous admiration. The questionable premise is that traditions, beliefs, and practices in all their ethnic and historical profusion self-authenticate their claims to truth, beauty, and goodness. Not only must all the "voices" be heard, whatever they come up with must be treated with respect, since no voice has less or more significance than any other. From this hyper-tolerant perspective, it is not good enough in a pluralistic society to cultivate forbearance or to be content with provisional civility extended to differences of belief, experience, and cultural background. Open-ended diversity is thrust upon us as a positive object of obligatory good feeling. Acceptance of differing outlooks, behavior, habits, customs, and values must be enthusiastic to ward off intolerance and confirm difference as virtue.
For converts to this doctrine of good feeling about differences, the more differences the better and all differences are equal in a spirit of radical democracy. Without an abundance of diversity, sanctified by parity, there would be no cause for revelry. A dictionary (Merriam-Webster's) defines the word celebrate along a continuum from the sacred ("to perform a sacrament") to the secular ("to hold up or play up for public notice"). A generic slant on celebration suggests a receptive attitude in which all sense of discomfort about differences is sponged away. Doubt about the value of diversity is tantamount to outright intolerance, hateful perversity, or lamentable backwardness. If any fragment of difference should provoke indifference, dislike, outrage, skepticism, or resistance, the suspicious party may face quarantine for sensitivity therapy or slip into disrepute as a reactionary. Despite these risks of dissent, I invite some reflection on the pitfalls and limitations of celebrating diversity.
The Price of Ethnicity
However one may react to various cultural practices and beliefs, it is not self-evident that diversity is either good or bad, which holds for similarity as well. Good judgment about what is desirable or not requires historical and social context and invites cautious reflection about consequences. Non-Western traditions have viewed social and cultural differences as little more than blunt facts of life, inviting exclusion, repression, or degrees of accommodation. Celebration has never been an issue. In many countries with an ethnic mix, plain, old toleration ("live and let live") is something of a miracle. Consciousness of kind, however minor the criteria for better or worse, is the mortar that binds people into cohesive groups, until education or wider perspectives crack the mold. Such bonds have the functional purpose of promoting social harmony. Should ethnic differences intervene with consciousness of kind, the outcome might be harmless enough, but it can also be disastrous. Who can argue credibly that diversity has been good for Hutu and Tutsi, Albanian and Serbian, Israeli and Palestinian? At the right historical moment, relatively unimpressive differences of tradition, perception, and interest have triggered mutual persecution and slaughter, with no sense of a common humanity that ought to take precedence over narrow tribal or ethnic identities. The historical reality is that differences have seldom been acknowledged and tolerated, much less celebrated.
The contemporary prevalence of ethnic and tribal conflict suggests it is unrealistic, irrational, and dangerous to embrace difference as an absolute good. Unqualified diversity can be as oppressive as unqualified uniformity. A decision about where to draw the line normally occurs in practice rather than theory. Nevertheless, some obvious antinomies come to mind. A patriarchal status system in which rights are gender specific, for example, is incompatible with a gender-neutral system of equality before the law. Where a gulf between competing values is less dramatic and more bridgeable, to want celebration on top of judicious, humane accommodation invites caution. Sharing the same country and history does not prevent nasty conflicts between secular and orthodox Jews in Israel. Irish Protestants and Catholics present the same spectacle of minor differences adding up to serious conflict. Across the globe, there are peoples sharing the same land and history who are eager to kill one another, like Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, or Muslims and Muslims in Iraq.
Cultural differences can proliferate with no thought whatever of common interests. A spectacular example at hand is in Indonesia, where one tiny island out of some 17,000 (called Alor) has 140,000 people divided into fifty tribes, speaking nearly as many tongues in seven language groups. Agreement on anything touching the common good is understandably difficult. Imagine a school system in Alor trying to be "ethnically sensitive" while also laboring to impart a shared foundation of knowledge, goals, and commitments. The sensible option in modern pluralistic societies is to ask how much and what kinds of difference to accommodate before consensus becomes impossible and the social order devolves into an incoherent sheet of sand. Much the same can be said for multicultural curricula in schools and colleges, which have overwhelmed any sense of standards and coherence in many places. Eagerness to promote and vindicate diversity is usually indifferent to the social unity needed to keep a school system or a curriculum afloat.
Celebration of diversity in general makes it difficult to stand for anything in particular. Postmodernists, who claim that truth, meaning, and reality fluctuate with the rise and fall of individual and group perspectives and interests, exploit messy historical facts of irreconcilable or warring differences. Allegedly, no impartial viewpoint is available (a caveat that logically must include postmodern doctrines) to judge the adequacy of "stories" or "narratives" by which minds and bodies are connected to the world. A consequence of unlimited pluralism as a higher good is the demolition of shared purpose in a common world that nullifies any plausible idea of universal human rights. When a bill of particulars is requested, inclusive diversity clashes with familiar notions of impartial justice, fairness, compassion, and rationality. An appeal to human rights assumes the existence of needs and interests embedded in a human identity that takes precedence over lesser identities defined by narrow categories of race, class, gender, and ethnicity.
The world is and always has been a playground for incompatible, mutually hostile value systems. Mormons would be practicing polygamy openly as part of their religion if they had not emerged as a minority in a monogamous society. The Taliban in Afghanistan was persuaded by religious conviction to dispatch adulterous women by stoning them to death. In Morocco and Iran, a Muslim who converts to another faith is severely punished. There are still societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa that accept and practice human bondage, the favorite commodities being women and children. How are such cultural practices to be evaluated simultaneously from the perspective of human rights and the blanket imperatives of diversity?
Should an ethnic attachment to astrology be included as a legitimate discipline in college curricula because politicians and bureaucrats in India submit decisions bearing on public issues to readings of the stars? Should tribal shamans be licensed to practice "alternative" medicine? In postmodern jargon, is not one scientific or medical "narrative" as good as another? Japanese identity is still defined markedly by a code of duty and obligation to a group, and the Japanese are notably ethnocentric, acutely aware that someone is a foreigner (gaijin). The Western preference, traceable to the eighteenth century's Enlightenment, is for liberty and expression of the individual in a spirit of tolerant cosmopolitanism. Are both options to be celebrated equally without a murmur of skepticism? Lewis Mumford argued that all cultures and civilizations can be judged by a simple criterion—to what extent are autonomy and unimpeded development of the person respected and nurtured? In other words, do beliefs and practices of a culture enhance possibilities of human life or diminish them? If such a standard resonates, where does that leave Islam with regard to the status of women?
Learning about the "Other"
Ideological pluralists assume that education is the royal path to happy as well as peaceful diversity. Let us better understand other peoples and cultures, goes the argument, so that non-Western "voices" are heard impartially and all identities surface to stand as equals. In secondary and higher education, this belief has been codified as doctrine, but is loaded with impediments. Any teacher wanting a curriculum to mirror diversity faces an insuperable and value-laden problem of selection. Some five thousand ethnic groups are scattered across some two hundred nations, and America hosts around ninety ethnic enclaves. In educational venues, which are to be represented or left out, since no one has time or knowledge to include all of them? If differences are equal, what is the principle of choice? Is not choosing one over the other arbitrary bias and discrimination? And where in a course of study does one find relief from ethnic exposition and celebration to address priorities like reading and writing, geography and mathematics, history and science?
The root fallacy is to think that mere exposure to unfamiliar cultural traditions will promote sympathy and understanding. It may or may not, depending on depth of exposure, a recipient's aptitude, and what ends up being understood and assimilated. Toleration in the ethnic domain is not an inevitable result of understanding. Really knowing the ways and thoughts of non-Western cultures, as opposed to brushing against sanitized versions of them, may have the opposite effect and stimulate dislike. Whatever an individual takes away from cursory reading, group confessionals, show-and-tell sessions, or field trips is likely to be shallow, ephemeral, and misleading. Even if a modicum of interest results from selective exposure, it does not follow that understanding has been achieved.
Every cultural tradition has a grim, murky side that discourages celebration. Censorship of the bad stuff to avoid offending someone invites deficient understanding and later disillusionment. The more some of us understand the social basis for the widespread African practice of vaginal mutilation of young girls to protect their virtue, the more we dislike and oppose it. The Muslim practice of secluding and controlling women is hard to tolerate much less celebrate. Some teachers indirectly praise Aztec culture because it was "victimized" by predatory Europeans, but conveniently ignore brutal Aztec imperialism in old Mexico. An appreciation of Aztec temple architecture is shallow without an understanding that thousands of people had their hearts cut out at the top in religious ceremonies that culminated with bodies tumbling down the steep steps. Full understanding of what the structures were used for makes appreciation more difficult and ambiguous. Indeed, a full understanding that Aztec practices centered on propitiation of bloody, improbable deities might well induce disgust and alienation.
There is a price for understanding other cultural traditions: investment of time and effort, an immersion in chores of hard study that contemporary students resent and evade. Submission to historical settings and absorption in difficult texts are unavoidable conditions for real understanding. The imperfect but attainable attitude of suspended judgment supported by deep knowledge is sine qua non. Alien terms must be mastered. Islam cannot be understood without the Qur'an or Hinduism without the Vedas, nor can words like Sharia, jihad, Shi'ite, karma, Shaivite, and puja be ignored. Convictions and teachings in either case are not grapes plucked effortlessly from a vine, and complications abound. Quite apart from barriers to understanding ways of thinking associated with Confucian China or Buddhist Thailand, life and ideas in the West can be as mystifying in some historical periods as anything gleaned from the anthropologist's notebook. Medieval scholasticism and Renaissance kabbalism, at least in my experience, mystify and befuddle students as much as Hindu Vedanta or the Daoist yin and yang.
Humanity versus Ethnicity
If the idea of universal human rights is taken seriously, then an excess of conflicting social and cultural differences become impediments to their realization. The sociologist Karl Mannheim observed long ago that no society could expect a shared system of coherent values without a process for their creation, dissemination, reconciliation, and assimilation. Such a process in American institutional life, particularly higher education, has been notably weak; it has also been rejected outright by an assortment of ideologues in the past quarter century. The task for American democracy is to secure and sustain an accommodation between diversity and the shared beliefs and commitments that define a society and a nation. If a tradition of universal human rights transcends local ethnic traditions, ethnic diversity without limits or interference will have to yield.
A plausible aim of enlightened education is to lift people above their parochial roots to a larger view of the world, to help them transcend limitations of birth and upbringing, to hasten their liberation from shuttered windows of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. Diversity ideology supplies instead a melancholy determination of schools, scholarship, and public rhetoric to herd people more deeply into a cul-de-sac of glorified particularity. Another aim of good education is critical thinking, which was once a distinguishing mark of the academy. The fate of that ideal is ironic and bizarre. On the one hand, criticism has become a form of intellectual suicide in which "theories" like deconstruction and social construction set out to level everything in sight and end with self-immolation on their own dead-end premises. On the other hand, academic multiculturalists insist that questioning beliefs, values, and practices of the "other," whatever they may be, much less rejecting them, is "insensitive" and "intrusive." Criticism is tantamount to intolerance.
A rare spirit of criticism was codified in the Enlightenment, which flourished only once before in the Greek world, from the sixth to the fourth centuries b.c.e. Its goals were to expose errors and make way for unexpected truths. In our postmodern euphoria, radical pluralists deny the existence of truths that make us free (while, of course, claiming or implying that a truth has been enunciated). Truth is rejected as a form of bondage, because it implies whatever may be true is true for all. The present surrogate for truth is diversity. It is sad that a quintessentially European ideal like diversity is in conflict with the ideal of criticism, which requires argument and evidence to support any belief. On Enlightenment premises, all views and ways of life cannot be admitted as equals. No belief or practice, however sacred or wedded to group or individual self-esteem, is immune from examination. It is intellectual and moral cowardice to refrain from responsible criticism on the ground that offense may be taken. The discomfort of being offended is a consequence of living in a complex world while holding questionable or unsupportable beliefs. It is also a risk associated with getting a decent education and growing up (no more Tooth Fairy). It is an inevitable consequence of encountering points of view and ways of life that cannot or do not want to be reconciled. Indiscriminate "celebration" is incompatible with critical thinking.
No matter how one cuts it, tension and conflict will surface when incompatible value systems confront issues of belief and action in public life. The best hope lies in selective accommodation of differences guided by modest expectations anchored to a core of shared convictions sheltered by common sense and open to criticism. These realities about diversity are widely evaded and denied in higher education, where a dreary scene of identity seeking is being played out in exclusive, solipsistic groups, each claiming a unique version of meaning, truth, and reality, each contributing to an impenetrable social babble, all of it stoutly defended by uncritically idealistic academics—but also by campus zealots and block wardens on the lookout for heresy.
An uninformed, unsuspecting student body, awash in diversity rhetoric and pedagogy, maneuvered by solemn, earnest action plans shaped by diversity ideologues, might be led to think that ethnic violence and hatred, alive and readily visible around the world, has nothing to do with ethnicity and its inherent premise of exclusiveness.
Kenneth Stunkel is a professor of history at Monmouth University in New Jersey.
Tolerance And Diversity: Trouble?
Here is an essay (from the Council for Secular Humanism) about some pitfalls one encounters in the "diversity/tolerance" pedagogy. I agree with most of it, though some of you may find it a bit too critical. In my classroom I have seen how exposure does not necessarily impart good feeling about others. My take on diversity is like my take on most things; you must be smart enough to see the forest for the trees.