President-elect Biden promises “the single most diverse cabinet, based on race, color, based on gender, that has ever existed in the United States of America.” Diversity, and its brother-in-law Inclusivity, is at the center of progressive politics and of woke culture. But what is its true value?
Diversity is a serious plank in the platform for equality generally: equality, be it noted, not of opportunity but of result. Diversity—in universities, corporations, government, TV commercials—is in part a deliberate attempt to make amends for past injustices. The intention is to bring minority groups out from their positions of marginality into the center of institutions, politics and culture generally.
Universities employ deans and associate provosts whose entire task is to foster diversity. One such person was recently hired “to realize an ideal Northwestern University where community members are challenged to engage differences as strengths in an environment that ensures equality of access, opportunity, participation and representation.” When I spoke to a friend who teaches at Northwestern about what seemed to me the emptiness and unnecessary expense of such a job, he corrected me, at least partly, by pointing out that without such an administrator for diversity the school might be denied federal funds for scientific and other projects.
There’s nothing wrong with the idealistic yearning for equality unless it gets in the way of other important goals or goods. The ideal of promised equality under communism, for example, annihilated the ideal of personal liberty. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin often wrote about the conflict that arises when two good qualities compete. Great goods, Berlin thought, sometimes cannot live together: “We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” Is diversity, in higher education and in politics, always the right choice?
In contemporary higher education, diversity competes with intellectual authority, based on scholarly and scientific accomplishment. These days, diversity is all but victorious and intellectual authority well in retreat. This leaves no one in a position to set or determine educational standards. University presidents, once educational leaders, now focus on fundraising and public relations. The heads of academic departments tend to accept their jobs not out of a desire for intellectual leadership but to reduce their teaching loads. Because of this want of intellectual authority, universities have now been on the slide for many years.
In government, the value of diversity is often in conflict with the value of true merit, or of the real abilities of the people chosen to perform their jobs. Under identity politics, so much favored by the Democratic Party, diversity is the sine qua non. In choices for cabinet and subcabinet posts, under identity politics the desire for—some might say the tyranny of—diversity generally trumps past performance. Under the banner of diversity, the political version of affirmative action rules. To have, in Mr. Biden’s words, “the single most diverse cabinet . . . that has ever existed in the United States” is considered meritorious, something grand in itself.
In the conflict between goods, it is always worth asking who is favored and who loses because of the good chosen. In higher education we have witnessed Harvard, in its desire for diversity, turn away large numbers of highly qualified Asian-American applicants for admission. In contests for awards and prizes, diversity, too, is often the primary factor. A friend recently told me that his grandson won a Marshall Scholarship, all the more remarkable, he noted, since the kid is a white male.
America has always been and remains a diverse country, composed of waves of immigrants seeking opportunities available nowhere else. If some groups have had to struggle to secure these opportunities, they have for the most part successfully done so. Those who oppose them are now rightly regarded as retrograde. Left to their own devices, and once freed of the harness of victim status that many of their leaders wish to bind them in, they are likely to go from strength to strength. Attempts to rig the system in their favor through the artificial arrangements that imposed diversity requires cannot ultimately help them attain the genuine equality that only true accomplishment can bring.
The best way to celebrate diversity, perhaps, is to begin by celebrating diversity of thought.
Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.”
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