The problems with ‘diversity’

Since this blog began it has covered in many ways the idea of ‘diversity’ because it is a buzzword that has gained a very negative resonance with the right-wing press, whilst at the same time it is a word that anyone in the workplace is familiar with as organisations draw up diversity policies and so forth. However, it seems to me that not many people have really tried to explain what it is that we mean by diversity and why it is important enough to warrant policies and such anger from the right-wing press – with Littlejohn frequently referring to ‘diversity Nazis’ as if people interested in diversity policy are fundamentally evil.

It is also necessary to look at what diversity means to people who actually encounter it in terms of an event either in work, in education or in the wider world. Although Littlejohn’s oxymoronic description of those working in the field of diversity is silly, he is for once actually referring to a phenomenon that actually exists: people do organise events to try to aid diversity in some way. This post will examine the logic behind such events and will discuss whether in truth such events are counter-intuitive and counterproductive when analysed rationally.

I’ll start but looking at what is essentially meant by diversity.

Essentially diversity is a term that is best understood by looking at how it is used in a wider context. Bio-diversity, for example, is a term used to describe a complex system in which many different species of animal, plant, soil, insect, bacteria and so on interact in relative harmony. It is commonly understood that human impact which has reduced bio-diversity reduces this harmony and can lead to species extinction as well as broader micro (and wider) climate changes.

For example, intensive farming destroys bio-diversity by replacing mixed plantlife with regularly tilled soil and set crops. Such land sees a dramatic drop in the diversity of wildlife and the removal of surrounding plant life can lead to dramatic soil erosion as top soil is stripped of natural elements and the protection of year-round plant coverage (indeed the planet’s capacity to produce food is rapidly decreasing due to unsustainable top soil damage – I referred to the very real phenomenon of ‘peak soil’ the other day).

Diversity when applied to humans therefore describes the interaction of many varied people in a complex system (society). Diversity as a buzzword is an attempt to recognise that differences exist between people but that this is not a bad thing and is underpinned by the belief that an increased awareness of diversity is an aid to social harmony. Diversity events therefore focus not on the commonality of humanity, but rather the obvious cultural differences.

However, when rationally assessed this approach seems counter-intuitive. For example, if a diversity event focuses on the differences between two cultures does it not just serve to reinforce the idea that any two given groups are fundamentally different from one another? Take as an example some Indian dancers booked to perform in an FE college. Such a narrow representation of the Indian culture through the demonstration of a very specific activity in which a limited amount of Indians participate in might easily be viewed as a rather shallow, stereotypical way of approaching diversity.

Anyone attending such an event might just leave with an increased sense that people from India are just as exotic (a very loaded term used to describe anything vaguely different to Western norms in travel brochures) and different as lazy stereotypes would lead them to believe.

Would it be a fair reflection of British society if a British dance troupe performed ballroom dancing or Morris dancing in foreign climes? The danger with diversity events that attempt quick introductions to different countries or cultures is that they have to rely on national stereotypes to a large extent. So, the Scottish stand would have some Haggis, a kilt, some bagpipes and perhaps some shortbread and whisky. You can probably complete the stands of most of the other countries in Europe with a few items in the same way.

It seems to me to be impossible to condense diverse cultures into anything other than a few stereotypes when planning a diversity event and this is inherently dangerous. Diversity as a term is now loaded with negative connotations thanks to a concerted effort by the British media to create the narrative that diversity is an attempt by ‘politically correct’ politicians to ‘promote’ other cultures at the expense of British sub-cultures (English, Welsh, Scottish etc). Furthermore, diversity is often accompanied by that other much-maligned buzzword: equality, which adds another layer of tabloid outrage. The idea that diversity promotes ‘foreign’ cultures above British cultures therefore also encourages the view that ‘equality’ is actually guilty of making some cultures more equal than others.

So, a diversity event is put on to explore a different culture, the event fits nicely into the media narrative because it is seen as promoting other cultures whilst often ignoring our own. The real problem the tabloid press has is that they rely on division and fear to sell newspapers. If their readership understood that actually, all Muslims are not evil terrorists intent on ‘destroying our way of life’ then they might no longer sheepishly swallow the media narrative that this is so. The constant lies about Muslims printed in the media might then be met with a different sort of outrage.

The real question is: are diversity events – in their current form – actually effective at increasing social harmony?

The problem is our minds are naturally inclined to perceive ingroups positively and outgroups negatively. Repeated experiments across cultures show that when human beings are put into groups – even in the most arbitrary way, such as at the toss of a coin – they will always display ingroup bias and a desire to maintain distinctiveness from other groups. This means that we inherently see difference even when it is minimal or completely arbitrary.

Social psychologists have suggested that in order to reduce prejudice between groups (and this can apply to any of the varied social groups that exist) the groups require ‘equal status contact’. In a sense a lot of us lead very isolated lives when we consider how many people we actually interact with in a more than superficial way (see also my post on the Monkeysphere) and we therefore only ‘know’ different cultural groups through information we gain from secondary sources (the media, parents – who likewise are probably regurgitating the media and so forth). The theory is that any notions a person might have about a group of people cannot really be challenged without them actually interacting with said groups. This interaction needs to take place for any individual to ‘reality test’ the information they are given by secondary sources.

Some of the most pervasive myths currently believed by the general population involve immigrants. The common belief is that immigrants receive priority when it comes to housing and benefits, that they accept lower wages (subsequently lowering average wages for all workers) and that they ‘steal’ jobs from British-born workers. All of these notions have no evidential basis – indeed, they are all provably false as detailed research demonstrates – but they are powerful nonetheless. The BNP therefore at the last election had an active policy of targeting constituencies that had a large ethnic population, believing that because of these drivers they would be successful in attracting votes.

What actually happened with voting patterns seems to support the contact hypothesis because those living in areas of high immigration were less likely to vote for the BNP. Indeed, the lower the percentage of ethnic minorities, the higher the votes for the BNP. It seems that those people living alongside migrants had access to the reality of what an immigrant is: a fellow human being with the same problems, desires and needs as the rest of us. When we have the opportunity to humanise individuals within a group we can see that the media narratives or general stereotypes are not applicable. We learn to see the same variety in out-groups as we instinctively recognise within our own groups.

And this is, I feel, the crucial point about any successful ‘diversity’ activity or event: rather than focusing on how others are different to us, we should instead focus on the similarities that we all share. Each human being is 99.9% genetically identical to every other human being in existence; if you have a gene that is 1,000 bases long, only 1 of those bases will be different from each of the other 6.92 billion people currently occupying the planet.

I’m reminded of Bill Bryson who attempted to put this into context:

Every living thing is an elaboration of a single original plan. As humans we are mere increments – each of us a musty archive of adjustments, adaptations, modifications and providential tinkerings stretching back to 3,8 billion years. Remarkably we are even quite closely related to fruit and vegetables. About half the chemical functions that take place in a banana are fundamentally the same as the chemical functions that place in you. It cannot be said too often: all life is one. That is, and I suspect will ever prove to be, the most profound true statement there is.”
– Bill Bryson in “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (2003)

After having delivered an Equality and Diversity workshop for a couple of years now to a huge variety of students it was impossible to ignore an underlying theme of students being badly mislead by media narratives and negative stereotyping – which is one of the drivers behind this blog. Because tackling prejudice head-on is so difficult (you cannot just inform people of the facts and expect them to change deeply held beliefs – which is why tabloid newspapers still thrive) I instead developed the idea that if only students could learn some very interesting things about how their brains are naturally inclined to rely on stereotypes and form strong ingroup / outgroup bias I would be able to subtly unpick the causes of prejudice rather than seeming as if I am merely describing them as prejudiced and lecturing them as to why they are wrong.

Prejudice is a mental construct and should be tackled in a way that acknowledges this.In general we spend very little time analysing the fact that we are actually very irrational creatures and that all that really separates us from other animals is our ability to recognise that we are irrational. However, this recognition is not often automatic when it comes to how we deal with ingroups / outgroups and how and why we form stereotypes. Education needs to recognise the importance of teaching people about the importance of active thinking. It staggers me that we expect students to educate themselves year-after-year without explaining to them how their minds actually work – and how their own thought patterns and natural cognitive processes can hinder them. We can all change our patterns of thinking and be more successful if only we were taught how to recognise when our natural cognitive miserliness lets us down.

Likewise, if people understood how prejudice is aided by such cognitive processes they might just look at the world in a different way (thinking actively, rather than passively – which should surely be a fundamental learning objective within education). Rather than being fearful of a world that appears fundamentally different and difficult to understand, they might instead realise that the world is actually wonderfully and inconsequentially different – with such differences quite literally being only skin deep.

In short, diversity events as currently delivered are actually in danger of reinforcing isolation by unnecessarily concentrating on inconsequential differences. If an individual – with a vague grasp of a difficult and wide-reaching term (diversity) – attends an event and is merely shown how much difference exists (whether dance, food, religion, lifestyles etc) they will merely be completing a negative mental cycle:

Diversity diagram

Thus the event attempts to function as a ‘contact’ situation in which groups mix and stereotypes / fear are broken down as a consequence. However, such events often fail to recognise the importance of such contact being ‘equal status contact’. For example, the group of Indian dancers given above are not making contact with students in an equal way; the dancers are there to perform for the students, the status of the contact is therefore the very unequal relationship between audience and entertainers. This is likely to reinforce ingroup / outgroup perceptions rather than lower them (indeed, a post-colonial analysis of such an event would be very interesting indeed). Contact without equal status has little impact on group harmony, hence why the landed gentry could happily order servants around for hundreds of years: they had plenty of social contact, but with interactions limited to very unequal contact only it was easy for the dehumanisation of the lower classes to remain (they existed to serve you, nothing more).

This isn’t to denigrate such events per se, it is merely to point out that real social interaction can only really take place in a natural way that diversity events just cannot recreate. This is where Littlejohn’s notion of the ‘diversity Nazi’ stems from: diversity events force us into unnatural situations with people / cultures that are alien to us. The ‘Nazi’ idea stems from the fact that such events are often mandatory within education or the workplace. Obviously, this is not a defence of Littlejohn’s utterly moronic label – indeed, it actually demonstrates that Littlejohn is so xenophobic and socially isolated that he sees being forced to acknowledge anyone different to himself as such an evil act that is must be committed by the byword for evil: the Nazis.

With regards to the notion of ‘celebrating difference’ (something else the tabloids hate) I think this is a worthy idea, but should be secondary to focusing on similarities and shared goals (which also links into the reality that the whole of humanity currently stands on a precipice in which the only way back is for global cooperation) which help to reduce prejudice. After all, enjoying different aspects of a culture is not a indication that prejudice does not exist. Hence why xenophobes and racists will happily order an Indian or Chinese takeaway and take holidays abroad whilst simultaneously wishing to have nothing to do with such groups (or Littlejohn hating foreigners whilst living in a foreign country).

Diversity is, then, a word that has been picked up by both those with good intentions and those whose only desire is to continue the division of humanity. Whilst the tabloid newspapers may talk about ‘integration’ when they refer to immigrants this is actually the last thing that they want. They rely on fearful division to sell newspapers and social disharmony is crucial in maintaining the social status quo. If true harmony existed between the bulk of the populace we might start casting our eyes upwards a little and realising who our real enemies our. Instead newspapers ensure we always target the disenfranchised groups within society and essentially we squabble amongst ourselves in a way that is very much against our own self-interest.

Those who – with the best of intentions – are currently driving diversity policy are mistaken when they focus on celebrating difference or arranging events in which we have unequal status contact with outgroups. Such an approach is doomed only to maintain the notion of fundamental difference between groups and provide the tabloid press with easy fodder for their media narratives about what diversity and equality is in their eyes: the promotion of other cultures / religions at the expense of our own. Thus, when a council tries to celebrate other cultural events the press try to create narratives in which these events are actually taking the place of ‘our’ cultural events – hence the importance of the Winterval myth.

We need to take a step back from diversity and assess a better way of increasing social harmony. This is not going to be achieved with the current ideas of what a diversity event should be because the thinking behind how such events function is fundamentally flawed. Instead we should be focusing on our similarities because we are one human race and addressing the fact that the problems we perceive as being ‘not our concern’ (foreign aid) or not worth pursuing because others might not follow (climate change) are problems facing the whole of humanity and can only be tackled if we do all work together in pursuit of these common goals.

The continued existence of the human race always seems to be worth fighting for in Hollywood movies where nations seem to be able to come together when the crunch time arrives. Well, the crunch time is here, so how about we replicate what happens in Hollywood and set aside inconsequential differences to ensure our survival. In terms of having a valid common goal I think this can be considered one. Then we might naturally celebrate difference because we won’t view difference as merely being another word for fear.

8 thoughts on “The problems with ‘diversity’”

  1. Great article. Thank you.

    Personally,I love cultural differences. My admittedly trivia-obsessed brain finds them an endless source of fascination.

    That’s the thing though — one has to perceive them as (at least relatively) trivial before one can see them as non-threatening.

  2. Excellent post. However, I am unable to avoid nitpicking:

    Would it be a fair reflection of British society if a British dance troupe performed ballroom dancing or Morris dancing in foreign climbs?

    It’s foreign climes.

  3. In an educational context, I always see students learning more about other cultures when placed with people from different backgrounds on group assignments. Then discussion is easier as the differences come out as more incidental, rather than “…and this is what they do”.

  4. Excellent post. I was very aware of these issues when I lived in central Bolton, an area where you would expect the BNP to do well.I fact the cross cutting cleavages of class far outweighed the religious and racial differences.
    Now I live in the very white countryside of course I end up challenging racist assumptions on a near daily basis!

  5. “…if a diversity event focuses on the differences between two cultures does it not just serve to reinforce the idea that any two given groups are fundamentally different from one another?”

    This was exactly my experience of attending a “race awareness” course as an employee of The London Borough of Brent some years ago. The focus was on the differences between black and white employees, and unquestionable claims by the trainers included the ‘fact’ that all white people are essentially racist. Those challenging this assumption (I am not exaggerating) were threatened with disciplinary action, as were those who tried to ‘sabotage’ the event by discussing issues such as anti-semitism or, heaven forbid, class.

    However, if I had boycotted the event, or condemned it out of hand, I would have put myself firmly in the Littlejohn camp, and I was aware that the right wing media was a greater enemy than managers in a ‘left-wing’ council. I had to tread a fine line, professing the need to combat racism but questioning the ‘race awwareness’ approach (often outside of the formal sessions).

    To my mind, the ‘training’ represented the ideological interests of the senior management – both black and white – fearful of a united workforce and paranoid about any mention of class. The same can be said of present-day ‘diversity’ policies.

Comments are closed.