Should We Celebrate “Diversity”?

Should we celebrate diversity? To ask the question in the current political climate in the Anglosphere is to answer it: to respond with anything less than an enthusiastic “Of course we should!” is to risk upsetting all the lovely people in the picture above and worse, to invite the wrath of the Cancel Culture squads upon your head with consequent likely damage to your personal reputation and career prospects. But if the “right” response is, as I have suggested, so self-evident, is it clear what the question actually means?

It is important to be aware here that, rather than referencing the original dictionary definition of the term “diversity” which indicates the degree of variation within a given population with respect to a specified characteristic (or characteristics) of its members, what is implicitly referenced in this context is one of the more recently acquired meanings of the term as it relates to human social relationships, such as

a. the spectrum of individual differences and the corresponding group memberships and identities that human beings have in society;

b. the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation, etc.

Notice, however, that even between these two related characterisations, there is an important difference in nuance insofar as the first is merely descriptive while the second has a programme implicitly attached, namely the furtherance of “inclusion.” Although the celebration of diversity could naively be construed as an injunction to delight in the heterogeneity of human societies, what is invariably being proposed by use of this epithet is quite a different thing, namely the suggestion that there is a problem in parts of society that some groups are not sufficiently included or represented. This is seen in the fact that we confront the idea of diversity most commonly these days as an adjective attached to processes: diversity policy, diversity monitoring, diversity target, etc., an observation we will return to.

Similarly, when we are invited to “celebrate” diversity, what is intended? Normal use of the word implies an active engagement. But is it obvious that the differences between people (and their values and cultures) are something which should give us all cause to engage in a celebratory act? This is arguably a somewhat perverse position to take, since an equal or even better argument could be and frequently has been made for celebrating our common humanity, which binds us all together with familial ties, while differences by their nature foster division rather than unity.

But the idea of celebrating differences is problematic also in another way. Intrinsically the things we celebrate are the things we value and hold to be of importance in our own lives. The essence of diversity is that different social groups and identities arise precisely because people with different identities value, prioritise and devote their time to different things. So if we are asked to celebrate diversity in and of itself, this is effectively a request to value things we wouldn’t otherwise value on the basis that they are valued by other people. It is not obvious that people in general should be expected to happily comply with such a request; or even that compliance is feasible without an element of hypocrisy.

The further question arises as to what form this celebration should take. Traditionally this would be a relatively spontaneous expression of joy or admiration in relation to something recognised by the celebrants to be of value. However, the celebration of diversity tends to be portrayed more as a form of civic duty: it is something that is expected of us irrespective of our feelings on the matter. It is also not so much a performative act as it is a profession of support or affinity in relation to a certain goal or ideal.

Which brings us back to our observation above that our engagement with “diversity” is usually in the context of some extrinsic process. This gives rise to further questions:

  • On whose authority are these processes initiated and to what end?
  • Is our engagement and/or compliance optional?

The answers here are rather less self-evident: there is typically an indeterminate “they” behind any policy or prescription, and insofar as one is able to identify an individual author of such, justification is usually offered by them in terms of some pressure to conform coming from elsewhere: regulators require it or soon will; to do otherwise risks reputational damage or missing out on the best talent in recruitment drives; a commitment has been made to publish diversity statistics, so we need to ensure they cast a favourable light on the organisation, etc.

It might be assumed that the purpose of a diversity policy is the attainment of diversity. Alas, the situation is not so straightforward here either. It is almost axiomatic that the degree of diversity which is the goal of any policy cannot arise from one’s understanding of the concept of diversity but has to be defined as an intrinsic part of the process. As such it is a moving target: if diversity is intrinsically a good thing, is not more diversity always better? And if the intention of a diversity policy is to make the members of “under-represented” groups feel more represented, a clearly subjective measure, does this not mean that the feelings of the minority, not of the majority, determine how much diversity is “enough”. Apart from the clearly undemocratic nature of such an approach, this means there can be no defined end-state towards which any diversity process is headed. Likewise it is open-ended which minority groups are considered and unclear who speaks for them: by no means are all members of “minority” groups happy with being patronised in this way, or comfortable with the hostility which can easily be engendered from those who are inevitably deprioritised in order that minorities can be prioritised.

On the question of compliance, the waters tend to be even muddier. If one were to ask within an organisation what specific duties were conferred on which individuals, one is unlikely to obtain any clear answer. On the other hand, accountability for any failure to comply is increasingly laid at the door of senior managers as part of their annual “performance goals,” to which remuneration is linked, usually in terms of the representation of one or other racial, ethnic or gender identity. Pressure is then likely to be placed on their subordinates to help ensure the goals are met, despite specific actions or duties not being transparently detailed.

There remains one further issue which should be touched on before we conclude our discussion: whether diversity is indeed a moral category, that is, can be considered a good in itself? The injunction to celebrate diversity appears to be premised on the idea that it is a self-evident good. But in practise it is invariably justified by its proponents as a means to some other moral end.

  • It aims to bring about fairer representation, a greater sense of inclusion, and to provide role models where these may be in short supply.
  • It promotes social cohesion and results in a fairer society.
  • It allows previously overlooked talent to be found in recruitment efforts, better-performing teams to be formed and productivity to be increased.

But arguably if these are the moral ends which are being served, surely these are the things we should be encouraged to celebrate? And we should be asking of any diversity policy (like any other political strategy) whether it is actually serving those ends and to what degree, and what are the possible costs engendered along the way? And whether a better means might be found of pursuing those ends than a prescribed diversity policy?

So I think you will agree with me that the attempt to make sense of the idea of celebrating diversity gives rise to rather more questions than it does answers. If so, I have succeeded in my goal and I hope that next time you hear the phrase you will be reminded of those unanswered questions and maintain a suitably sceptical perspective rather than, as most probably do, acquiescing without considering too carefully what it is we are being asked to acquiesce to.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

One comment

  1. Excellent post, Colin. Yes, far more questions than answers to feed this diversity ‘beast’. I heard there are 10K NHS posts associated with this title, some with six figure salaries. At a £200b per year cost to the taxpayer, it could start with trimming this sort of fat and many other areas of wastage, in order to self-fund the pay demands of its front-line services. Large corporations have in-house equality and diversity departments to help tick all the boxes. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) struggle to keep up with the bureaucracy involved, as well as the litigation involved when hiring people of diverse backgrounds, should things go wrong. Large corporations make strange bedfellows with the Left in embracing progressive extremism, with one of the reasons being it’s good for business and market share, and thus harder for SMEs to compete with them.

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