The jargon of diversity

Superficial differences are celebrated at a moment when a genuine diversity of thought and deed is imperilled.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

The jargon of diversity has become near universal. Boardrooms echo with its advocacy. Classrooms resound with its celebration. And consultancies’ coffers swell with its widespread adoption.

Yet for all the talk of diversity, for many activists, academics and commentators it remains a stubbornly distant objective. Their refrain is unchanging: ‘More needs to be done.’ ‘Britain’, writes Reni Eddo-Lodge, ‘is still uncomfortable with difference’. These concerns always hit a self-exposed nerve. And so barely a week passes without an institution or business pledging to do more to promote diversity, or in the recent case of ITV, ‘accelerate’ it. Diversity is a cause, a mission, a raison d’etre.

We know what diversity means in this context. It means the inclusion of more members of the officially approved identity categories in those management positions, that TV drama, this police force – all so as to make that company, that show, that state agency, more representative of our ‘diverse’ society.

It is a project ripe for old-style Marxist critique. As Adolph Reed Jr points out, the jargon of diversity ultimately legitimates existing class relations. It renders the ruling class’s position just, ‘provided that roughly 12 per cent of [the ruling class] were black, 12 per cent were Latino, 50 per cent were women’, and so on.

But, as Russell Jacoby’s incisive new book On Diversity reveals, there’s another problem with the jargon of diversity: it mystifies an increasingly uniform reality. ‘We differ in pose’, he says, ‘and resemble each other in fact’. The inclusion of members of this or that identity group in a corporate boardroom gives the appearance of difference. But it’s still ‘different-looking people doing the same things as other people’.

Jacoby’s shot is well-aimed. For all the talk of diversity, in thought and deed we’re converging. Such is the nature of global capitalism and the increasing conformism of cultural and intellectual life. Of course, there are more and more identity groups, more and more state-recognised identity categories. But the individual members of these groups and categories have rarely been more similar.

This is not to suggest there are no longer profound economic differences between people. Class persists. But the economic differences are now conceived in quantitative, not qualitative terms. ‘Tackling Inequality’, not class conflict, is the name of the game. It means that the least well off are not seeking a different world. They’re merely seeking what the richest already have in the existing one. Greater disposable income. Which is entirely understandable, but it is not a mark of diversity.

Just how hollow the jargon rings can be heard in those places in which a more substantial diversity still exists. Think, for example, of the Amish in Pennsylvania, or North London’s Hassidic Jews. These communities want only to be left alone, ‘not let in’, as Jacoby has it. They certainly don’t want to be better represented in soap operas or Gillette commercials.

So is there still something to be said for championing diversity? Not in today’s form.

Its history is, at the very least, politically ambiguous. As Jacoby shows, the idea, drawing deep on aspects of the earlier thought of Rousseau, emerges from a reaction to the universalising, standardising and ‘mathematising’ dreams of the Enlightenment, and their actualisation in the revolutions of the late 18th century.

But what begins as a Romantic defence of the often linguistic uniqueness of a community or people, of their unique way of being themselves, as Johann Gottfried Herder has it, soon takes a darker turn. It’s there in embryo in some aspects of the burgeoning cultural nationalism of the period, especially Johann Fichte’s celebration of the ‘purity’ of the German language in his 1807 Address to the German Nation. But it is when this focus on the particular irreducibility, not to mention superiority of a people’s culture, acquires a biological form, as it does in the racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau and later Houston Stewart Chamberlain, that the problem with diversity as an idea reveals itself. Diversity becomes division – and hierarchy. The purity of a people’s language, becomes the purity of their blood. The uniqueness of their culture becomes synonymous with the superiority of their race. Or as Hans Hanak, the Nazi county leader of Innsbruck, put it in a 1938 attack on what we now know as ‘cultural appropriation’:

‘Culture can’t be acquired by education. Culture is in the blood. The best proof of this today is the Jews, who cannot do more than appropriate our civilisation but never our culture.’ (1)

The idea of diversity has too often underpinned racial thinking for it to be mere coincidence. Here’s Hendrik Verwoerd, prime minster of South Africa between 1958 and 1966, and a principal architect of Apartheid:

‘Our policy is a policy that accepts there are differences between people and you have to recognise these differences. Differences should be celebrated’

Spoken like a 21st-century CEO.

But as Jacoby makes clear, the idea of diversity, though monopolised by the far right then and by the right-on today, does have another sense. It draws, once more, on the tumult of the Enlightenment, and the Romantic response to it. But in the German Romantic idea of self-development or ‘individuality’, Jacoby finds the road to a different idea of diversity. Namely, that championed by John Stuart Mill – and, though Jacoby does not mention them here – by Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde.

As Jacoby rightly notes, individuality is the moral core of On Liberty. Not the limits on state authority, or even the freedom to speak and think as one chooses. They are conditions, not the goal. The goal, as Mill put it, is to allow the individual to flourish, ‘to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing’ (2).

That is the promise of On Liberty. A society in which, if people are given freedom, and a ‘variety of situations’, individuality can flourish, in all its eccentricity, originality, and, yes, diversity. And it is the promise of the Wilde of The Soul of Man Under Socialism, and even, at points, Marx, both of whom envisage a future society that will allow for the ‘full development of the individual’ – a society, that is, in which creative self-expression ceases to be the preserve only of the artist.

This is a vision of diversity entirely at odds with that fostered by the jargon today. The jargon speaks of groups, while denying the diversity of individuals. And it is championed precisely by those, from corporations to ‘tenured radicals’, who inhibit the very conditions that might allow a real diversity – of thought, deed and experience – to emerge.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in the Global Era, by Russell Jacoby, is published by Seven Stories Press. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Quoted in Nations and Nationalism since 1780, by EJ Hobsbawm, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p63

(2) On Liberty, and Other Essays, by JS Mill, Oxford University Press, 1991, p66

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dom torato

12th July 2020 at 7:45 am

Diversity is loved by the globalist corporations. A corporation is focused on the bottom line; they care little for true diversity HERE► Read More

Vivian Darkbloom

10th July 2020 at 8:25 pm

Diversity is loved by the globalist corporations. A corporation is focused on the bottom line; they care little for true diversity – of thought, of culture, of inquiry, of individualism. To them it simply means another branch of control to be seized eagerly. As Adolph Reed says, “the burden of that ideal of social justice is that the society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc. That is the neoliberal gospel of economic justice”.

Diversity to the managerial class means “watch out and get in line you insect and be grateful for what we give you; there are millions of people who could do your job if don’t measure up and knuckle down.” It’s a stick with which to beat working people; a sword of Damocles hanging over the office worker who imagines herself in a job for life or the precariat on ZHC.

Diversity is a signpost on the road to serfdom.

Lyn Keay

10th July 2020 at 6:10 pm

I really hate what passes for book reviewing in spiked these days. This appears to be Tim Black’s opinions with some quotes/references to a book. Is this what the book argues as well? Are the references to the book representative of what it says? What I want to know is what the book is about & what the reviewer thinks of it & I’d like to be able to distinguish the two.

Paul Carlin

10th July 2020 at 12:58 pm

The latest credible figures show that ‘black’ people comprise 3.4% of British society.
3.4%, not 12% or, as every advertiser, the BBC and my bank thinks, 75%.

Mor Vir

10th July 2020 at 1:22 pm

Blacks and Asians were about 19% of the under-25s in UK in the 2011 census. That percentage will have increased over the past decade.

OECD estimates that 28.5% of 15-year olds in UK have some immigrant background (OECD, 2017).

a watson

10th July 2020 at 12:34 pm

Well said. Working class men have been excluded from the Labour Party in the interests of diversity. I assume that my cockney accent and dissenting nature is contrary to their diversity agenda.

Mark Bretherton

10th July 2020 at 12:03 pm

AS a slight aside, today I downloaded the Government’s Coronavirus Resource poster pack as we have started opening the office again, in line with everyone else. Of the 19 different posters featuring a photograph of a person alongside the appropriate message such as ‘wash your hands’, ‘wear a mask’, ‘social distance’ etc, how many feature a white person?


And in one of those three, the white male is sat socially distanced from an asian woman.

George Whale

10th July 2020 at 12:07 pm

University websites are similar, you’d think some of them were populated exclusively by ethnic women. (Just a matter of time, I guess.)

Gordon Te Gopher

10th July 2020 at 11:31 am

Makes me laugh in those Guardian type articles where BAME people say they want to see more politicians and actors who “look like me” or “represent someone who looks like me”.

I wonder if these people honestly think that when Tom Cruise is jumping out of a skyscraper in Mission Impossible that somehow reflect my life simply because we’re both white men?


Marvin Jones

10th July 2020 at 10:57 am

Diversity and equality became necessary when after 30 years of mass migration, often numbering up to a million every year, oh yes they would never admit it because of their inept and incompetence to run a whelk stall on a sunny beach, our cowardly and asinine politicians have brought this on themselves. Eventually when migration became too much to handle, the numbers too vast to afford in the benefits system, they, the established donkeys decided to fill up the NHS with them, then the Home office, check out the demographics, many in charge of immigration would you believe. To enhance this Armageddon type folly, they strengthened these human rights establishments like Amnesty, Liberty etc, and power of the law was so immense, that it became almost impossible to win against them in any form, especially where immigrants and illegal migration was concerned. The proof in on our shore daily, and here to stay. Now who needs equality and protection for their lives and cultures?

Arthur ASCII

10th July 2020 at 1:52 pm

I would certainly believe that BAMEs are over-represented in Border Force, as would anyone arriving at Heathrow airport over the last couple of decades. It is so distorted that it can not be due to anything other than state policy

Barry O’Barmy

10th July 2020 at 10:44 am

What utter nonsense.
Live and let live is all that is required.
Humans are apes and like all apes we are tribal. something that cannot be changed. We may imagine we are thinking, rational beings, but we are actually driven by our hind-brains. Attempts to alter this and be “reasonable” are doomed to failure.
This sort of article is the result of having too much time on one’s hands, comparable to the urge to have cosmetic surgery, a nonsense found only in degenerate societies in which survival is no longer paramount.
We desperately need to “get back to basics” and stop trying to find problems where there aren’t any.

George Whale

10th July 2020 at 12:03 pm

The problem with Marxist solutions is that they require a profound transformation of human nature, for which there is no precedent in all human history.

Mor Vir

10th July 2020 at 10:08 am

Bourgeois ‘diversity’ is essentially aimed at an increased utilisation of labour and at the maintenance of the capitalist state. It is a purely functional approach to ‘diversity’, more workers and more profits.

It may help to draw a parallel with China’s program of ‘core socialist values’ to get a clearer appreciation of what is going on in the West. A quote from Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping at the Eighteenth National Congress says:

“If our 1.3 billion citizens and 82 million Party members as well as overseas Chinese can achieve consensus, we will constitute a powerful force […]  We must realize that people from different localities and social strata who have different backgrounds and occupations think differently. We must therefore consider: where can we find consensus? Where can we allow differences to persist?”

It is basically the same thing going on in the West: how to assimilate different ethnic groups into the economic state; how to promote key capitalist state ‘values’, allegiance and conformity, while allowing some difference of cultural background to persist, at last for a time.

So, promote economic engagement, an allegiance to fake bourgeois democracy, post-imperialist domestic ‘values’ of ‘diversity, tolerance, equality’, patriotic identification &c.; and tolerate the endurance of established cultural differences, such as religion, food culture, dress (outside of some workplaces).

So yes, bourgeois ‘diversity’ is not about the romantic self-development of individuals or any of that, any more than CCP ‘diversity’ is about that. It is about assimilating diverse ethnic populations (in the West, through imm igration) into the economic state to boost GDP and to keep the capitalist economy going.

In China it is more about the incorporation of geographically dispersed ethnic groups into the CCP quasi-empire. In the West, it is a matter of everyone brought together in the same place, so the dynamics are going to be a bit different, but in essence it is the same politico-economic project.

‘Diversity’ is not a primary value or project, it is ordered to the primary objective of state GDP growth in the West and to material development in China, both under the economic state. (The West has no productivity growth now, only GDP growth through increased labour utilisation, hence the different phrasing there.)

The bourgeois state tolerates ‘diversity’ in so far as it can establish the required conformity and allegiance; really it is a project of ‘conformity in essentials’ with a ‘diversity’ gloss in the post-imperialist period of the mass imm igration of workers.

A flourishing of genuine, individual diversity in the West is more likely to be found outside of mainstream society, where ‘being’ is not ordered to the bourgeois state and its continuation, where conformity is neither imposed nor sought.

It is difficult to escape the state and its conformity on such a small island as this in the modern age of interconnectness and centralisation, the state imposes itself.

In Negative

10th July 2020 at 10:02 am

I really enjoyed this. One of Mill’s finest utterances this:

“to allow the individual to flourish, ‘to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing’.”

Which is one reason I’m becoming more and more interested in the idea of a Universal Basic Income over work-based alternatives. I need to do more work on UBI, but my thinking is something around encouraging the individual as a prosumer, free of precarity to pursue what they consider valuable.

Thomas Paine’s original arguments for the UBI remaain just as compelling, if not moreso, as when he presented them; I’ve not managed to dig out his primary source on this yet so I could have this a bit wrong, but my understanding is that he thought as land became more scarce and as capital continued to strip people of their freedom to fend for themselves, capital should give back to the people what it has taken from them. This seems to me to provide a strong philosophical underpinning to free the individual to become a prosumer “to allow the individual to flourish, ‘to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing’.”.

Tom Joad

10th July 2020 at 9:48 am

“Diversity of appearance” discripes it well, and post-modern society too. You can have any appearance you like as long as your opinions will not differ from ours. Freedom of thought replaced by the freedom of appearance.Those sexual pride-protests still look like nationalist protests in a way, they aim to replace patriotic pride with sexual pride. Be proud of yourself, not where and which culture you are from if you are white. Be a proud nomad, we see you as a refugee now. You can feel private pride all day long while not belonging anywhere, not a bad deal is it? We allow you to feel superior if you accept your new nomadic identity and forget that nation-related pride.

Jonathan Palmer

10th July 2020 at 9:16 am

I realised something was amiss with our diversity when I served on an adoption panel. We had 3 social workers supporting us two of differing BAME (and religious backgrounds). But they all said and believed exactly the same things; it was only diversity of appearance.

Christopher Tyson

10th July 2020 at 8:55 am

Someone below the line on another article wrote that they are reminded of the Marlon Brando character in the Wild One when asked ‘what are you rebelling against?’ replies ‘What have you got?’. I’m reminded of another Marlon Brando character, Don Corleone, he’s in a roundtable (today’s jargon) with the heads of the other mob families, someone is brave enough to berate Corleone for having all the judges and politicians and chiefs of police ‘in his pocket’ and not sharing them around. There is a clique of black community leaders or activists who direct the white political establishment in matters of race and diversity. It’s pretty incestuous though, because these people owe their positions and their power to the white political establishment. In the past I’ve compared it to a colonial government or even a Stalinist vanguard, which ever way you look at it is not democratic and not diverse.
I’ve previously written that we should be wary of anything with the pre-fix ‘black’; black community, black culture, black people, black leaders, black activists, black lives matter. I call this the ‘black ideology’ a homogeneous blackness, emptiness, abyss.
The meaning of ‘black’ changes, and as it changes its history is erase, there is a pretence of historical continuity. I remember when ‘coloured’ was a polite term for black people in the UK (possible similarly in the US, but a different meaning in South Africa). At some point we became ‘black’, for most people the term was used pretty loosely but its political connotation can be traced to the black power movement in the US.
We’ve had ‘ethnic minorities’, which changed to ‘minority ethnics’ (a difference important to somebody), to BME and BAME which could be black, Asian and minority ethnic or black and minority ethnic (with the Asians cast aside). I have never been consulted on any of these terms or their usages.
When I was growing up in the UK ‘black’ related mainly to West Indians, later call afro-Caribbeans, today seamlessly and with little comment ‘black’ is increasingly African. This is a significant shift, the African and West Indian experience of race and colonisation is different, but I suspect that the change in meaning of ‘black’ is more generational, for the children of Caribbean immigrants, we heard our parents talk of ‘home’. I wonder if the younger generation of black people are a British creation, they seem to lack any sense of national allegiance, not to the UK but not to anywhere else either, the children of globalisation.
My parents met in the UK, my dad from St Kitts my mum from Guyana, my mother said that when they were about to marry she received a stern letter from my paternal grandmother, instructing her to bring up her children in the Catholic church (my mum is vaguely Protestant, regularly attended a C of E church before the lockdown), so there are religious differences and many other inter-island difference and rivalries in the West Indies.
‘Black’ has become something dogmatic and oppressive while speaking the language of equality, this is an ideology that has been growing in its current form for 20 to 30 years, there is a pretence that this is something new and different, it is simply seizing an opportunity. Criticism of black chauvinism is not new either, there is the classic novel by Black American writer Ralph Ellison, aptly called ‘The Invisible Man’ there are also the words of martin Luther King to which many black activists pay lip service. The British have a way of snuffing out dissent in its embryonic form, this magazine has often discussed the ‘chilling effect’ of censorship.
To paraphrase the great football manager Brian Clough, I may not be the best black political commentator of my generation but I’m in the top one. I say this tongue in cheek only out of respect for others out there who may be ploughing a lonely furrow. In the UK a black writer or thinker challenging the ‘black ideology’ will not be given a platform, may even be declared ‘mad’ or worse ‘mentally ill’, ‘madness’ has some virtue as Salvador Dali said ‘every man is entitled to his own madness’, ‘mental illness’ is dry and technocratic, diagnosed and treated by others. If, for the sake of argument, my reputation was to grow even after death, there is a thick file sitting somewhere in a psychiatric institution that my enemies can unearth and use to destroy my credibility ‘mentally ill’.

George Whale

10th July 2020 at 12:19 pm

It seems that ethnic minorities are under as much pressure to conform as white British are. All are expected to think and act in certain ways, according to ethno-cultural origin. This used to be called stereotyping.

Vivian Darkbloom

10th July 2020 at 7:59 pm

Gleichschaltung: the act, process, or policy of achieving rigid and total coordination and uniformity (as in politics, culture, communication) by forcibly repressing or eliminating independence and freedom of thought, action, or expression: forced reduction to a common level: forced standardization or assimilation. (Source: Merriam-Webster) Originally applied to the NSDAP’s programme of “levelling” or “bringing into line” a complete system of totalitarian control over all aspects of German society beginning in 1933.

Heterodox black commentators and intellectuals are beginning to speak out against this looming totalitarianism: Inaya Folarin Iman; Ayishat Akanabi; Zuby Udezue in the UK. Adolph Reed Jr.; Coleman Hughes; Thomas Chatterton Williams in the USA. Just a few of the better-known names. Courage mes amis! We are many but still inchoate.

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