Every era seems to have its sacred cow, and ours is certainly no different, though with the accelerated pace of modern cultural change, it seems that the in thing is changing with increasing frequency.
One such preferred cultural principle is expressed in the catch-phrases cultural diversity, ethnic diversity, political diversity, etc., the keyword in all such phrases being of course the noun diversity.
What is diversity, and how is it used in contemporary political, aesthetic and social arenas? Everyone probably thinks he/she knows what is meant by the term, but it has different associations for different people, and probably has become as lively an instigator of argument as any common word in the vulgar tongue.
I think I first began to hear the word back in the 1980's, though it didn't gain steam and traction until the '90's. In the humanities, particularly, the breakdown of the old system of knowledge, the central canon of literature and the arts, was spearheaded by concepts intended--like viral phages--to pierce the host, injecting their parasitic DNA into the host cell nuclei, and causing genetic mutations, killing the victim in the process of propagating copies of itself (the paradigm of infection). Multi-cultural diversity, textual relativity, excluded castes, deprived outsiders--these concepts were wielded as weapons to discredit and undermine the foundation of Western European and North American systems of knowledge. It's an old story by now, the battle's been waged and the winner declared, at least in the academies.
Please note how the use of the word in the context of the paragraph above confronts the word, as if the word itself stood for the meanings of those who had appropriated it for their special purposes. 40 years ago, a use of the word diversity would not have had anything like its present power and suggestiveness--inviolability. It has acquired a facility across a whole spectrum of disciplines and endeavors, including politics, biology, art & literature, sociology, philosophy, genetics, ethnography, anthropology, entertainment, sports, economics, media & communication, advertising, education, demographics, medicine, risk management, city planning, law enforcement, even diversity in meteorology (!), and so forth. It's plain that the word has been appropriated as a charged principle within vastly differing contexts and conditions. Readers and listeners have become accustomed to these applications as part of a grand cliché about presumptions of taste and function throughout our culture. Diversity has become so broad in its implications and applications, that it rivals the strongest, most long-lived buzz-words in history.
Language is many things, but it is also and simultaneously a battleground--of ideas, of striving and contention for dominance. To speak, to write, are political acts, whether in private or in public. Words, phrases, tracts can become grounds for dispute and contention. Meaning itself is never fixed, but its power, attached to or inhering in specific words, has always been a scene of argument. Historically, the rise of philology and dictionaries contributed to the objectification and the illusion of permanence of individual words and phrases, just as writing, the text and the book supported the material significance of specific meanings--the power of the word to evoke and control and channel meaning towards specific general applicability. But the battle over what words will mean, and how language (words) is interpreted, is never settled.
When individual words become too broadly applied, they may lose some of their specificity--certainly their original definitions can become compromised through elaborations and suspect appropriation. Despite this, a proliferation of shaded variational meanings (definitions) may actually increase the potential of a word (concept). And this is exactly what has occurred with diversity. What occurred when the concept of diversity was invented?
One could trace the progress of this augmented defined set of meanings through time, but that isn't what I'm concerned to do here. Since our culture moves at a faster and faster rate these days, my take on it is that we're already, in effect, in a "post-diversity" period, one in which the commonly accepted version of the word has outlived its usefulness in discourse, not because its underlying sentiment is bankrupt, or suspect--which it may well be--but that we're weary of its fuzziness vagueness, its indeterminacy.
Think about the word globalism, or globalization. These words were probably first coined to describe a trans-national relation, but they were quickly appropriated in the political and economic spheres by those wishing to promote international entrepreneurial exploitation. During the first years of the NAFTA debate, globalism was used in a determinedly positive way to convince people that open, "free" trade demanded that we encourage and facilitate unrestricted exchange, and that the benefits of this openness would far outweigh the disadvantages. When the costs of this openness began to be understood, globalism lost its luster, and began to be employed as a negative charge against its original advocates.
But diversity seems to have acquired an inviolability which trumps even negative associations and outcomes. Events and contexts described as "diverse" which fail every test of favorable outcome, seem to have no effect on the valuation of the term. People from differing backgrounds or persuasions can be at each others' throats, be killing and maiming each other, may even be practicing "ethnic cleansing," and yet we can still hold ethnic diversity or racial diversity or religious diversity as positive descriptives in the common discourse of the public arena. Clearly, there is an ideal (ethical) conception of diversity which may not be applicable analytically to actual event(s).
It's a testament to the multiplicity of its applications, that diversity has survived this long. Does genetic diversity have the same meaning as diet diversity? Does ethnic diversity have the same meaning as sexual diversity? Does diversity in aesthetics signify the same thing as diversity in biology? Are all of the applications of diversity throughout the culture necessarily constructive and favorable, or are some of them plainly problematic? Is it possible to advocate genetic and racial diversity in the same breath, or is this simply sloppy thinking (and bad science)? Is the consolidation inherent in a shrinking world, and a shrinking diversity of the gene pool actually a way to foster real diversity, or will genetic diversity actually decline in proportion to the degree of genetic consolidation?
The cognate of diversity, difference, functions in much the same way. Difference has a somewhat less precise sense, but it's become subject to the same kind of misappropriation as diversity has. To be different, for instance, in the social sciences, or in psychology, suggested a minority or excluded status. In political discussions, ethnic, racial and sexual difference were treated as kinds of exclusion. The use of diversity as a strategic admonition was obviously intended to remedy the problems of difference. Difference itself was thus re-defined as a privileged identity, to compensate for previous kinds of exclusions. Being different became special. Mixtures and hybrids thus become examples of the value and purpose of diversity. A person of mixed blood parentage is thus the personification of diversity, the mixing of genetic material--diversity as its very realization.
As an example of political correctness, diversity is probably as powerful a word as there is in our language. Diversity is beautiful. Diversity is stimulating. Diversity is the antidote to world conflict. Diversity will inoculate against disease. Diversity will allow people to live in harmony. Diversity will sell more cars. Diversity is democratic. Diversity will preserve the varied ecology of the earth. Diversity is God's plenty. Diversity is the universal buzz-word.
When a word begins to be used on this scale, it's clearly escaped its value. Advertisers will say that as a word begins to decay, its use or value as a trigger for comfort and enthusiastic agreement is dying, or has died. Diversity won the day, swept the field, but it's outlived its time, and is rapidly passing into oblivion--and not a moment too soon!
As a matter of course, I almost never use the word diversity, and certainly never in a positive sense, since its associations are so numerous--vague, negative and pointless. Diversity as a word, or as a concept, is dying, or has already died. People can talk about it the same way they talk about any obsolete artifact of the consumer culture. As something which was desirable or necessary or required. As another dead concept. Then the writers of dictionaries can bury that definition as outmoded and extinct, and we can move on to the next iteration. One thing seems clear: Our notions of ideal social harmony will have to find new handles, new definitions, new justifications. The old ones were powerful, but their time has passed.