20 September 2010

Redefining Diversity

(What follows is an incomplete idea which I’ve developed while reading F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit. My goal is to show the value of shifting the connotation of “diversity” or what makes up a “diverse group” from its current form to something more substantive. Comments, points of discussion, and disagreements are appreciated.)

If one were to ask for a working definition of the word “diversity,” one might reliably hear a mix of phrases involving sex, ethnicity, skin color, religious belief, and income level. Thus, a “diverse group” of people would consist of various combinations of the preceding individual characteristics. As a matter of practice, we are told that groups which achieve a certain, arbitrary level of “diversity” – as much of a mix of ethnicities, colors, etc. – are indeed more valid than less “diverse” groups.

Interestingly, several of the factors which go toward making up what passes for a “diverse” are not indicative or predictive of what an individual brings to a group.

A person’s color does not determine his behavior, his values, or his abilities; to think it does reduces the individual to a stereotype and is essentially negatively prejudicial. A person’s ethnicity is not determinative of his behavior, values, or abilities, either. While some cultures and ethnicities carry differing values and mores, these are not constant across an entire ethnic population. Thus, while understanding a person’s cultural background may be beneficial for initial interpersonal understanding – or at least the reduction of misunderstanding – it does not predict an individual’s character.

Just as cultural background may give a broad-brush feel for a person’s general character, but not his specific character, so too can religion. To hear that a person belongs to a particular religion may provide an initial basis for interpersonal understanding, but is not the final word.

Income level, I think, is the least predictive of individual behaviors. Some may assume that because a person is poor, he will act in a certain way or that he has some special needs that others do not. Similarly, some may assume that an affluent person maintains attitudes about those less economically well off or that, because of his economic status, he necessarily “avoids” certain difficulties in life. None of these makes sense outside of stereotyping and assuming. Indeed, assumptions of these kinds may well lead to interpersonal misunderstanding and alienation.

As an alternative to the above mentioned criteria, it might well be better to call a “diverse” group one which brings a number of different, discrete abilities to a group.

This kind of diversity can easily been observed in team sports. One look at the starters on a professional (American) football team shows quite a range of simple physical diversity. Along with the differences in physique come different individual capabilities and limitations. There are, to be sure, diverse intellectual attitudes toward the game as well, the various positions requiring somewhat different attitudes and facilities. But what is more important is that these abilities and limitations, these attitudes and facilities, have found their niche in the team structure as dictated by the game itself. Given this working explanation of diversity, teams which most completely engender it have the greatest chance of success (though certainly not a guarantee – there are no guarantees in sports or, for that matter, in life).

Thus, it seems paradoxical that basing diversity off of what might be characterized as “natural” factors which one might use to judge diversity actually result in a synthetic, superficial kind of diversity. Conversely, what might be characterized “developed” factors tend to create meaningful diversity. The difficulty, it seems to me, lies in the reluctance to make judgments about individual character. It is far easier to set an arbitrary benchmark for “diversity” based on bubble-filled personal characteristics: race, ethnicity, religion, sex, income level, etc. It is far more difficult in today’s world to build a group based on “developed” factors – abilities, limitations, attitudes, facilities, values, etc. – without being accused of some sort of negative prejudice, the accusation usually coming in an ad hominem attack. However, changing our view of what makes a group diverse would do much to relieve our culture of much “victimhood” and would move us closer to realizing Martin Luther King Junior’s ideal of judging each other not based on the color of skin – or any other “natural” differentiating factor – but by the content of character.

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