Saturday, January 29, 2011

Diversity - the Contemporary Paradigm

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.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


an interesting take on the rise & fall of 'diversity'. But I don't think 'diversity' is going to go away anytime soon. Too much cultural capital's been invested in it. I suspect for you there's so much more at stake than language usage.

Is this a kind of dirge for post-critical theory? If it is, what will take its place: a return to conformity,loyalty, sameness, etc? Under what cultural banners will we march then if we reject the obvious diversity of life its, with the principle of the primacy of differing beliefs, gods, lifestyles that has only relatively recently been recognized as inalienable and true? Or are you espousing a rejection of any type of language tampering that results in the loss of the old established paradigms of life?

I suspect that under the acknowledgment of the forward march of changed meanings is a nostalgia.

Kirby Olson said...

It only won in the academies because anyone who spoke against was exterminated.

Diversity of opinion on diversity was never honored in the academy, so it became a group-think phenomenon. Group-think phenomena always die of their own dead weight, since they are unable to adapt to reality.

Diversity was always a laughable concept, since it always meant the opposite of what it said. It was always already an Orwellian term that meant monolithic hegemony of a new Marxist elite that never had any real cultural standing but was made up of a bunch of self-declared winners like Ron Silliman whom noone will ever think about after he's passed, and he was the best of the lot.

Diversity is a curiously useless term. It's supposed to mean harmony among cultures, but try to be a Christian among that crowd and you're crucified before you can say AMEN.

Real diversity of the kind that Sarah Palin represents just gets reduced to Hitlerism. It's a kind of crunching of any kind of opposition and is now the official culture from the NYT to the gates of Berkeley -- one big mad joke, which also happens to be the last gasp of Maoist cultural revolution but most of those who signed on never knew what it was.

I always knew.

Obama was their one great hope. He came in on the tidal wave of "hope" that diversity represented and was welcomed in that light. When he tried to take over the healthcare industry he lost his ruling command, and now nothing can put his reign back together.

He doesn't know it yet.

He still thinks Scott Brown and this last November was a fluke.

Diversity in fact meant one-party rule, and does in fact mean just that in many universities. Diversity's monopoly though is now pretty much over. The joke that they perpetrated with this word is no longer taken seriously even by themselves.

Ron Silliman may be the last true believer, speaking to himself alone in cyberspace.

J said...
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J said...

Besides, what is your non-diverse....intellectual Foundation, CF? Ancient greeks? Euros? Adam Smith's old reductionist errors? Some toryish drama queens or belle-lettrists? Or merely John Wayne hick-Americana, bapticks, mormons, puritans.

About any Weltanschauung, be it via Hegel-- or even...catholics or a moderate Islam-- seems preferable to puritanical USA. Sarah Palin's not a Beacon of Logos. She's the babylonian hag of zionist-xtian-capital of the moment. :]

Curtis Faville said...


I think the real culprit here is language, not factions.

Anyone can make up words, or give them a particular spin.

But diversity has been so widely and sloppily appropriated, for so many wrong purposes, that I no longer think of it as useful.

Whenever I hear it I cringe!

My politics are not the issue here. Yours aren't the point either. Discourse is improved, and understanding facilitated, when we have better tools.

All language is biased, but at least we can agree about limiting the bias, instead of endlessly extending and elaborating it into infinity.

J said...
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J said...

Oh you're just arguing for the Queens' English. I thought you were like making a normative point regarding Univeralism--Justice, Reason, Beauty, etc., above the various factions of the world, not just saying, or at least suggesting "TS Eliot was Best". (and again, Euro culture comes from Greeks, then latins. Not Family Windsor, or Ronald Reagan. Yet I doubt most UC faculty--say Cal Berkeley lit people-- can read the Republic in original (I try a page a month or so).

Rush Limbaugh & Co need to hear that anyway. Obama, whatever one thinks of him, speaks quite well, at least compared to the usual hick pundits or teabaggers. WF Buckleys are dead and gone, CF.

Curtis Faville said...

Language doesn't belong to kings.

T.S. Eliot was one minor poet and and even more minor playwright.

Language is the key to all philosophy. Straight out of Wittgenstein and the Logical Positivists. Contexts determine the slant, and we have to work ("exercise") our vocabulary to keep it healthy. Words can be abused, misappropriated, and lose value and utility. This is a practical matter.

Invention is something else again. You shouldn't "reinvent" existing words unless you do so responsibly. "Diversity" has become a tool and a weapon. If it can't be scrubbed clean, it should be discarded.

Anonymous said...

y'all's gotten far beyond what of
that I am yet entrenched in

differences and an approach towards
(maybe) non-differentiation?

not at all to capitalize the word
and make it a Political/Religious Dogma

and sell it at the local Toys-R-Us

after all

to every other
I am an other


another word/concept that has lost it UMPH by over-useage is

Democracy which has become Mucho Diverse-it-ty
ad nauseum

J said...

Language is the key to all philosophy. Straight out of Wittgenstein and the Logical Positivists.

I hear you to a degree, Sir F., but per positivism (and at least early LW) and the verification criteria, the literature business would be...out of business (if not humanities, Ahhts, and social science--and religious studies of any kind).

Context also would imply that...some non-verifiable, even...colloquial writings --philosophy and/or literature--might have value, wouldn't it. Per an Ayers, Kerouac & Co along wth "diversity" wd be tossed on the bonfire along with speculative metaphysics, if not the history curriculum.

Where's jh the reductionist-slayer?? I merely allude to like a Locke, and he's reaching for his exorcism-notes, while CF's quoting the....positivist devils. The UC regent-barons, now that gents like Feyerabend are dead, would be pleased to implement some purely positivist criteria and cut funding for like everything except high-powered physics, chemistry, genetics in the name of Efficiency and Measurability, etc.

Kirby Olson said...

There has to be a world outside of language for language to mean anything.

Curtis Faville said...


Yes, but philosophy is about language, wouldn't you agree? Have you ever been able to have a philosophical discussion without language? Isn't everything we know about the world filtered through language? It's certainly possible to have non-verbal thoughts, but how do we communicate these except through language? Through facial expressions?

Trying to say that there's a "world" out there is exactly the riddle that Wittgenstein confronts. Read his Remarks on Color.

J said...

Of course propositional language isn't...literary language. In regard to ...journalism, non-fiction, history, science writing,etc. I would tentatively agree with your remarks: evidentialism demands a certain objectivity, and avoiding any/all types of bias (even...the subtle "it takes a village" type; ie, an appeal to diversity or "PCness" might be a fallacy--ad populus IIRC). At times, jus' the facts. But not all times.

Ed Baker said...


is more DIVERSITY (in poetry)

see paragraph 3


"dig" the very last two paragraph!

they now "teach" something called
"Disability Poetry"

Another New School ....Dispo!

too many students/teachers on too many computers at too many schools' in too many Creative Writing 332 classes with too little to do and not much to say.....
and spending all of their time saying/doing "it"


Curtis Faville said...


I'm probably in agreement with you, but that's more like a sentiment, than a systemic problem.

My argument is with the flippant misuse of language--how otherwise useful terms and concepts can be twisted and misappropriated for purposes which, in effect, render them unusable.

Can you imagine using "diversity" in a sentence without summoning up all the associations it now possesses?

Hasn't the word been "stolen" from us?

J said...

Speaking of....language, and logical positivists and avoiding "anything goes"-- whether of marxist-PC types, or biblethumpers-- check out the recent blog swarm on Kirby O's joker site, with yours truly arguing against the Church of KO & friends (or at least showing Olson's...Falwellian roots. That he's allowed to teach...literature of all things should bother anyone who doesn't attend sunday school regularly).

The opposite of diversity, or plurality would be dogmatism of various sorts. A dogmatic rationalist or positivist might not be so great, but he's nothin compared to dogmatic bible-torah- koran-thumpers.

Late Wittgenstein might be relevant. When you play chess, you agree to certain rules. That's not open to negotiation, via some PC --diversity or relativism. But a religious zealot who just smashes up the table, and says...Chess is Evil! --that's unseemly as f**k, and impermissable as well (or..., instantiate, logic/reason/science is evil, as Olson suggests in nearly Imam-like style)

Kirby Olson said...

Curtis, philosophy uses language but isn't ABOUT language (except if it is linguistic philosophy). There's an enormous world outside of language. The deserts of Arabia, the oceanic biology that Jacques Cousteau explored, the pristine lake below Antarctica (untouched for 15 million years) that the Russians are boring down into with their puncturing drills to have a look-see, allt hese things, as well as the universe are now outside of language. Inside the mind as we attempt to understand society we use language but also use intuition, imagination, constantly attempting to make our language adequate to it (it never is).

Early Wittgenstein went toward the idea of language, but he later dropped this notion, entirely, and argued instead for the numinous world, and said that language in essence was meaningless in its arbitrary distinctions.

When does white paint become pink paint -- asyou add drops of red -- this is one of the questions in Remarks on Colour, but it is not a linguistic question. It's a question of category (which he seems to develop after Frege), but I think he's laughing at the absurdity of categories, but I didn't know what you meant by this.

Diversity within biology is used differently than diversity within racial representation. They have a homological quality which hides their distinction, eliding the difference. Difference in culture leads to differences in work ethic, which leads to differences in class. In nature, difference means variety of species, which is completely different.

Would you agree?

Words and language are a mess, as they are not used truthfully by the left. They are used to obscure, and to bully, and to create opportunities for gangsters like Obama and his homies.

J said...

Kurly Olson shows again how little he understands of Philosophy, traditional or contemporary.

Early LW may have had some interest in language issues, but was a logician primarily. (unlike you). Later, he becomes more interested language. The Philosophical Investigations does NOT suggest that "language was meaningless." The Sprachspiel-- Language Game -- involves a certain fluidity and openness... (meaning as use) but there are still rules, not strictly logical but it's not postmodernism.

Maybe Wiki first, or better, stick to the Jerry Lewis routines, or is it Larry the Cable Guy (tho' you need like another 100 lbs and some 'roids).