Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Diversity: Meaning Change and Fashion

The word diversity has changed, acquiring a related but separate meaning. It is a political, not a scientific or literary meaning. If you don't know that, and insist on using the word as if it has not moved, you will seem to be a bigot. In addition to the previous meaning of "variety, multiplicity, heterogeneity" it now means "showing conscious respect for previously disadvantaged groups, especially African-Americans." You will not find this meaning if you look in dictionaries (though this will be coming soon - modern dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive and don't care what people think a word should mean). Yet if you google "diversity" and look at the autocompletes, you will see that the new meaning is already the more common one in popular culture.

Therefore, when some Ohio senator tweeted that diversity is not a strength, assimilation is the strength, he was assailed from many sides.  His statement, according to the old meaning, is not only true but blindingly obvious. Only a fool could disagree with the first half of that statement.  The second half - well, it's going to depend on what one means by "assimilation," but I'll bet I would agree with him.

However, his critics took him as if he was using their more modern and fashionable meaning, as if he was saying "It's not important to show respect to black people, or gays, or women, or Hispanics, or whatever. Keeping them invisible and powerless is okay." Do those attacking him not understand what he meant? I am tempted to say that they understood him entirely, but they want an excuse to attack him, and to insist that their meaning - their culture, their fashion, their signalling - is the real one. There is a real boot-stepping-on-a-face-endlessly nature to this.  It is Newspeak, where only the special ones understand, and they get to punish those who must be evil because they aren't woke. Liberalism is sustained by fashionableness, after all. I have no doubt whatsoever that this pretending to not understand is a fair accusation against many in The Resistance.

And yet...I am not now coming of age with words as they are currently used.  I am old, and my reading and culture ally me with generations prior even to my own. I don't really know how thirtysomethings hear the word now. They might not be pretending to misunderstand (as one of the nastier critics,  John Podhoretz clearly is) that use of "diversity;" they might actually think there are two meanings, and have leapt to the conclusion that because it's about politics, the political meaning is the true one. Some are dishonest.  Some are indoctrinated. I cannot discern between them.


Additional note. Most of my black friends vote consistently Democrat, but many are not especially political, or are at least not public about it.  Those few who adopt more of an advocacy stance are very liberal, very confrontive.  I notice that they uniformly pronounce the word "die-versity," and absolutely only mean black people, not gays or folks with disabilities or Asians. The nuances of that are going to be clearer to an African-American who keeps up with politics than they are to me.


james said...

They want to apply the positive connotations of the old usage to the new political meaning.

At a collaboration meeting earlier this year a "diversity speaker" cited research that showed that greater diversity on a research team translated to higher journal impact. Afterwards I tracked that reference down through the popularized references to the original article.
It measured diversity among scientists in America using a last-name analyzer to determine ethnicity (Japanese, Vietnamese {presumably because that is easy}, Chinese, Anglo, etc). The effect was quite small and the study did NOT look at diversity in the pop senses: you can't tell the sex from a first initial, and the paper's authors did not attempt to figure out which authors from the database were black.

So, a small effect (dwarfed by the effect of picking a good advisor), applying to non-African ethnicities without regard to sex, was being advertised as valid universally. I don't know if this was "telephone" (nobody bothered to read the paper themselves), or dishonesty. I want to say carelessness, but I'm starting to get terribly cynical about reporting.

RichardJohnson said...

My childhood gave me some perspective on groups and "diversity." Depending on how you looked at it, I could have been classified in either or both of two conflicting groups. With a foot in both camps, thus not exclusively belonging to either, I had both an insider's and an outsider's perspective.

My conclusion was that the US is comprised of conflicting, shifting groups. All of us have our own in-group and and out-group classifications, so none of us are free from some sort of prejudice. We all prefer our own groups, but in the interest of social peace, we need to look at people as individuals, not as group members- though we will never be able to completely cast off our group perspectives.

I would point out that many "progressives" who profess their love of "diversity" find that those who disagree with them are "deplorable." So yes, progs do in-groups and out-groups, as do we all.

As AVI points out, my "diversity" is not necessarily your "diversity."

The US has done "diversity" for decades.Every group gets a cut. The Italian congressman, the Irish congressman, the Black congressman. Not to mention the WASP congressman. Recall Bob Dylan's verse, from I Shall be Free:

Now, the man on the stand he wants my vote
He’s a-runnin’ for office on the ballot note
He’s out there preachin’ in front of the steeple
Tellin’ me he loves all kinds-a people
(He’s eatin’ bagels
He’s eatin’ pizza
He’s eatin’ chitlins
He’s eatin’ bullshit!)

Texan99 said...

Diversity used to be a concept I thought I understood. I knew very well the dangers of trying to study or work among a group of people united by a characteristic I didn't share--typically gender. With the best will in the world, they were going to conflate all kinds of extraneous issues about their shared background with assumptions about the qualities actually needed in the activity we shared. Male engineering students would assume that they had a corner on the ability to do math. Some would be capable of looking at actual match ability, but some never would learn now. Male lawyers would assume that they had a corner on the ability to practice law. Some would naturally look at results and adjust their thinking, but some never would. The more people in the mix that didn't fit a strong preconception, the more likely it was that a good handful of them would be able to look at results. In that way, diversity lessened the danger of a lot of tiresome missing of the point. It helped if I didn't have to stand all alone being the only one defying expectations.

As soon as diversity turned into affirmative action or box-checking for optics, all these benefits were lost forever. As I see it now, it's just a heck of a lot more comfortable to coast on preconceived notions than it is to be reality-checking all the time. Reality-checking is exhausting for too many people. They see what they expect to see, and they get angry if they're asked to do anything different. Also, it's a cold hard world if the rewards you reap have to have anything to do with the value you produce, and expecting people to live that way is going to get you called cold and heartless every time.