I will continue to be away from the computer until (I think) this Thursday. So here is a corrected and amplified classic series, which originally ran in December 2010.
The university where I taught this fall is, like nearly every university, terribly fond of “diversity.” Strike that: that should read, “is worshipful of diversity.” Before every meeting held by its leaders, heads are asked to bow, and a prayer goes out to “our commitment to diversity.” At least three separate offices are funded and tasked with insuring compliance with and devotion to “diversity.” This is not unusual; many universities commit considerable resources in this direction. Emails appear regularly advising professors how to “incorporate diversity” into their lectures.
Of course, it is not merely at universities where this idea is paid obeisance. Governments codify diversity affirmatively, and courts and the press routinely send forth troops to count desirable traits among peoples. What’s strange, though, is that “diversity” is never defined. It is always an unspoken idea, a beneficent and mysterious force, certainly, but one which acolytes avoid clarifying.
What could “diversity” mean? And should one seek its maximization? I begin to answer the first question below, but the answer to the second can be given immediately: it is “no.” This answer is obvious, too, which must mean that “diversity” does not mean diversity as defined by the dictionary, but something else. In the latter part of this series, we discover what this something-else is.
Regarding humans, there are only two measurable dimensions of diversity: that of physical characteristic and that of behavior. Circumstance is part of both. One might add that of thought, or of views held. But practically speaking, since it is impossible to know the mind of another exactly, we have to rely on measuring a person’s behavior to infer what they think. (Plus, we can fold views-held into behavior.)
Very well: characteristic and behavior are what we can quantify and “diversity” of these is what we seek to maximize. But we still have to define scope. All humans exist on Earth (and its nearby orbit). Therefore, diversity is already at something like a maximum on the planet (I explain the “something like” later). Evidently, this is not what the politician means when he pines for diversity. Instead, he wants diversity within defined boundaries, like, say, the professoriate, or among firemen within a city, or within board members of a corporation, and so forth. The danger of amorphous borders is high. For example, just when you have the somebody pinned down to these firehouses, he expands his circumference and says, “I obviously meant these too.” But this is a distraction. Insist on exactness of scope in advance and this problem evaporates.
Suppose then that we have agreed upon a locale; for definiteness, imagine it is the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. What would maximizing “diversity” mean here? Consider only physical characteristic. We’d have to staff the team with the short and tall, the fat and skinny, infants and the elderly, the able and disabled…but enough. This is obviously absurd. It is idiocy to insist on diversity of characteristic for any profession in which physical ability is important. And this is most professions: orchestra member, line worker, fireman, physician, sportsmen of any kind, jailer, soldier, and on and on.
We’re done: we have just proved that requiring maximal diversity of physical characteristic for many defined scopes is a bad idea. I hope you realize that this is a proof and not an opinion. The only assumed (as yet unstated) premise is that we wish the members of each of these professions to be “the best” or at least “qualified.” Meaning we want doctors to be the best or qualified doctors, not the best or qualified white doctors weighing over 300 pounds born in Cleveland. We want the best or qualified violinists, not the best or qualified bald violinists. Our proof does not hinge on our imperfect methods of measuring “the best” or “qualified”, either: it is enough that the method of discovering the best or qualified exists and does not itself invoke diversity: part of “the best” and “qualified” includes the idea of minimal competence, suitably defined.
Of course, we’re not truly finished, because there are some definable professions where physical characteristics are not important or are of trivial consequence. An example might be the professoriate at Behemouth University; i.e. those who claim to live lives of the mind. Now, what would maximizing “diversity” mean here? Characteristic first.
The simple proof that requiring maximal diversity of characteristic is misguided is this: we would require that our professors contain members who are brain damaged, who have congenital defects of the brain, who are diagnosed as “learning disabled”, who are senile, who are infantile, and so forth. Notice that none of these are behavioral characteristics; all are physical traits (I discuss behavior later). To maximize diversity means that one must positively discriminate in favor of each possible physical realization. To exclude any is to eschew diversity.
That’s it. We’re finished. Seeking maximal diversity, at least of physical characteristic for any defined scope which does not include diversity as part of its definition—I exclude human zoos, for example—is not desirable. This result assumes “the best” or the “is qualified” premise. But what if we weaken these?
Diversity Is Not Always Desirable Part I