On "Diversity"

For this week’s graffito, we are in the men’s room of a Barnes & Noble Booksellers in New Jersey. Given that this is a bookstore bathroom, we might expect that the graffiti are more political, cerebral, literary, or metacritical. That is certainly the case this week, though one cannot help but smile at the author’s decision to place the graffito on the disposable-toilet-seat-cover dispenser above the toilet.

As philosophers of bathroom graffiti, we ought to pay attention to some key characteristics: what is said (word for word), what is not said, spelling, handwriting, surrounding graffiti, placement of graffito in the stall, the medium in which the graffito is written, whether the bathroom is male, female, or unisex, etc.

Discussions of diversity tend to be overly cautious and couched in politically correct terms, which, in many cases, hide meaning rather than elucidate it. So it’s not without a chuckle that we imagine our author thinking about “diversity” while literally covering his own ass.

Martin Heidegger, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, believed that questions revealed more about their author than answers did. The question we have here is no exception. Is the author really even looking for an answer? 

“Why is ‘diversity’ only imposed on white countries?”

The first thing you probably noticed is that “diversity” is in quotes. If you read the rest of the graffito carefully, it becomes obvious why. The author wants to suggest that in America (and in other “white countries”) our concept of diversity is limited. It covers only the most obvious differences—race, gender, and, maybe, religion—and ignores the rest. We might say that our definition of diversity is not itself diverse. Here the author has a point. If we had an American classroom that was half male and half female, and the students identified, racially, as black, white, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian, and Pacific Islander, and, religiously, as Catholic, Christian, Mormon, Hindu, Muslim, and atheist, but each of their families had lived, for two generations before them, in upper-middle-class suburbs, the classroom would be diverse in a very superficial sense. In all likelihood, these students would have similar ideas about sexuality, politics, gender roles, money, and God.

True diversity, diversity without the quotes (the kind that advances knowledge), is harder to measure and easier to overlook. We could imagine, for example, a classroom of white Mormon females. If, however, some of the students were upper, middle, and lower class; some were urban, suburban, and rural; and some were Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, this classroom would be more politically, intellectually, and spiritually diverse. There would be many more disagreements, many more challenges to the status quo. I don’t envy the teacher in charge of that classroom!

Diversity, regardless of the kind, causes us to think in terms of groups. What, then, does it mean to “impose” diversity? Who does the imposing? For the political philosopher George Sher, imposition comes always from above, from a dominant group (though not necessarily a majority); and imposing diversity entails giving “preferential treatment” to certain other groups.

“Impose,” however, is a loaded term. Will Kymlicka, the famous theorist of multiculturalism, argues that for certain minority groups preferential treatment is necessary to protect them from the majority. Because of their minority status, these groups, according to Kymlicka, have “special rights” that other groups do not have. Kymlicka calls these groups cultural groups, “culture” being a broad and inclusive term. Preferential treatment for cultural groups may include language accommodations, religious exemptions…etc. The reoccurring theme in much of Kymlicka’s writing is that the state has an interest in preserving culture for the sake of diversity.

Many philosophers, of course, do not agree with Kymlicka’s formulation of group (that is, cultural) rights. George Sher is one of these people. Sher makes a compelling case for why preferential treatment is doomed to fail. He distinguishes between two kinds of preferential treatment: “forward-looking” and “backward-looking.” Backward looking, he says, is more common but also more fraught with philosophical problems. Backward-looking preference makes “essential reference to the discrimination and injustice that [various groups] have suffered in the past.” It attempts to redress these past injustices by giving preference to current group members. There are many reasons Sher believes backward-looking preference is misguided. I will discuss only one.

The other kind of preference he calls “forward looking.” In theory, it “makes no essential reference to past wrongdoing, but instead defends preferential treatment entirely as a means to some desirable future goal.” The main problem Sher has with forward-looking preference is that, upon closer examination, it proves to be little more than backward-looking preference in disguise.

So what is the problem with backward-looking preference? Sher mentions an empirical, practical problem: how many generations must elapse before equality has been achieved? And who gets to decide that? Can we ever truly make up for the injustices of the past? The theoretical, utilitarian problem, however, is more damaging. “[I]f we are obligated or permitted to discriminate in favor of [minority groups] when doing so would maximize utility,” Sher says, then are we not “similarly obligated or permitted to discriminate against the members of these groups when doing that would maximize utility[?]”   

This appears to be an intractable problem if one is defending diversity on utilitarian grounds. By advancing a forward-looking argument, Will Kymlicka seems to avoid this. For him, preservation of a minority culture is good primarily for members of that culture because it is only within a culture that people can form and revise “a conception of the good.” Sher does not address this argument specifically, but we can use his approach to show that Kymlicka’s forward-looking argument is in fact both backward looking and utilitarian.

Notice that Kymlicka’s reason for why a particular minority culture ought to be preserved is that culture (in general) is necessary for forming and revising a conception of the good. In his essay “The Rights of Minority Cultures,” he uses “a culture” and “their own culture” interchangeably. It’s this conflation that conceals the backward-looking and utilitarian kernel of his argument. Using Sher’s approach, we might ask why a person has a right to her own culture rather than to a culture in general? As long as I have a culture in which to form and revise my conception of the good, why do I need my own culture? Sher would say that the answer has to do with history and with righting the wrongs done to that minority culture either by the majority or by some other group. For this reason, the argument is backward looking and is subject to Sher’s aforementioned critique. As for which cultures we preserve and to what extent, these are questions for the utilitarian to answer and, as such, are also subject to Sher’s critique.


The works I consulted for this post:

Kymlicka, Will. “The Rights of Minority Cultures: A Response to Kukathas.”

Sher, George. “Diversity.”

Taylor, Charles. “Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition.”

Walzer, Michael. “On Toleration.”