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The Trouble with Diversity (Review) 11 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity, Religion, Reviews.

[This post has been getting a lot of traffic this week, so I’ve bumped it back to the top of the blog for people looking for it.]

Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

A young Mexican-American couple live on the ground floor of my building with their baby boy, in a studio apartment. Neither speak English well enough to have a conversation with, although I try to be friendly and helpful when I can (last week I helped them move a couch out of their apartment, which was lots of fun accompanied by the broad grins and hand gestures of people working together who do not share a language). But ultimately, how much does it help this struggling couple for me to be friendly to them, to “respect” their differences as immigrants from Mexico? When I go into my apartment, they are still poor and struggling, whether I was ethnocentric or kind. What is the real disparity between me and them? What is the real inequality? And how exactly do we deal with it? Is multiculturalism enough?

When I started teaching a required undergraduate course on inequality in the United States, I came up against some kinds of resistance I hadn’t expected, not in my students, but in myself. I’d been educated in race and ethnic relationships, in cultural diversity and multiculturalism even as an undergraduate. In fact, these are pretty much the dominant culture of America today. But I kept feeling like something was missing or had gone terribly awry in the way we do multiculturalism. I have spoken at length about this here on my blog already, so I won’t go into details again.

Briefly, I find the multicultural obsession with difference to lead to some odd results: We tend to think of ethnic identities as being cohesive, consistent things that are easily identifiable and knowable; and we tend to create out of that notions of authenticity, that is, that there is such a thing as a real latino or a real black person. I object to this on two levels. First, it’s not empirically true. Ethnicities are social constructs that are inherently fluid and contradictory and change over time and from person to person. They are observable effects of social interaction, but they aren’t material or genetic or even heritable in any easy way. In short, there can be no ‘authentic’ qualities or aspects of an ethnicity, empirically; so to treat ethnicities as if they were real in that way is to enter into a world of make believe. Second, as a cultural sociologist, I’m inclined to want to describe who people actually live, what they actually do, and what they actually believe. Real people mix and match cultures (at least they do in pluralist societies) and move freely around and among them, and end up fully hybrid peoples. At the same time, they tend to, in our current way of doing multiculturalism, see themselves as being or having an ethnicity. Indeed, it’s more than a question of perception: it’s a deeply felt and experienced thing, down in the bones. Tell an individual who thinks of himself as “irish” that empirically, he lives like every other American middle class person, and you’ll have an empassioned battle on your hands.

Surely, in a democracy people must have the right to create the kinds of identities they want to; and in an immigrant nation, our culture is always-already hybrid and blended, and new generations of immigrants will have new relations to the cultures of their parents’ sending nations. Surely, in a democracy, we must tolerate those kinds of differences.

One of the fundamental tenets of multiculturalism is the inherent equality among cultures, that is, that no culture is better or worse than another. This kind of equality seems like a no brainer to me, ethically, in terms of creating a democratic society where people of multiple cultural origins and blended cultural configurations can blend and work together and participate in the society. Benn Michaels sees the problem (and I agree) here: that if all cultures are equal in value, then none should be privileged over the other.

For me, the logical conclusion of a multicultural ethical structure is that there is then nothing wrong with people abandoning their culture or creating new cultures to fit their experiences or of blending, mixing and matching as they see fit. But problems arise when the diversity becomes an end in itself; or to say it another way, if maintaining the diversity becomes the purpose of the democracy, then you may have a problem. First, you have to decide what counts as the ‘culture’ you are trying to protect, and then you have to have rules about which people, practices, objects, and beliefs count. And then you end up drawing lines around cultures, which empirically cannot work. Human beings’ cultural interactions are far more complex than that. And so your left with the question of what the relationship to a democracy should be to the culturally plural lives of its citizens.

So I agree with Benn Michaels that seeing diversity as an end in itself creates major problems for the democracy, but I would criticize him for giving such short shrift to the ethical purposes of multiculturalism in the first place, which is as a mechanism for teaching tolerance. Where he and I agree, however, is that tolerance and respect do not mean the same thing in a democracy, and shouldn’t. Indeed, all cultures aren’t equal, and there are cultural beliefs and practices that are repugnant in a democracy working toward freedom and equality.

But Benn Michaels goes further than I have in my critiques of multiculturalism. Whereas I have seen the empirical contradictions of multiculturalism and the problematics within a democratic pluralism, Benn Michaels sees the effects of multiculturalism systematically as being the cultural mechanism whereby we let ourselves off the hook for the suffering around us.

In a nutshell, Benn Michaels argues that multiculturalism has done two problematic things: 1) it has located and reduced all social problems to questions of respect, so that 2) we think all that is necessary to fix social problems is to learn to respect people who are different from us. The problem here is that the real suffering in American culture today arises out of economic inequality, out of that great hiss and byword of American culture, class, not in our racial and ethnic difference. (I would say that Benn Michaels needed to more carefully connect the racism of the past with his argument, because race and class have been so intricately linked in American history and because there still are inequalities based on racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc.).

In America, he argues, we pretend like there are no real differences between being rich and being poor; we excuse ourselves from seeing the real differences by thinking of them as cultural differences that we must respect. In one of the most mordant passages in the book, Benn Michaels asks how exactly it helps a poor person to respect their culture, as if poverty were just another among many equal cultures. Says he, “I love what you’ve done with your shack!” In reality, our focus and obsession with diversity and difference has benefited the right wing (we no longer talk about economic inequality) and the left (who are off the hook for fixing it). In other words, multiculturalism in its effect serves to allow the right wing to ignore real inequality and suffering by covering themselves with their ‘inclusiveness’ or their ‘respect for diversity.’ (Think of all the companies who have diversity programs, for example.) And it serves to salve the conscience of a nation living with 45 million poor people, the highest infant mortality rate in the industrialized world (not to mention poverty, access to health care, homelessness, etc.).

Finally, Benn Michaels makes a vitally necessary plea to resist the urge to think of religions as analagous to ethnicities. He argues that religions are beliefs, not cultures, and that religions by their very nature are making truth claims. Truth claims by their very nature, in a democratic society, are to be debated and vetted publicly. So Benn Michaels argues not that we should exclude or preclude religious discourse from public dialogue, but rather that it must be stricken from our notions of ‘respect’ and that it must be engaged as any other faulty truth claim in debate in the public sphere.

If it’s not obvious by now, Benn Michaels was preaching to the choir in me as a reader. But with his wry humor and good logic, he got me over my objections (mainly, I wanted a lot more substantive evidence for his positions, but that’s just me being a sociologist) to go along with his general thesis, which frankly, is so obvious I don’t know why i hadn’t seen it before, especially someone like me who is still a subconscious marxist. I will probably adopt this book next semester in my inequalities class and see how my very diverse bunch of Bay Area students will react to his arguments.



1. wry catcher - 2 November 2006

Is it wrong that “I love what you’ve done with your shack!” made me LOL…then also summed up and drove home very pithily the heart of the issue? So here’s a question that’s in my face at work all the time – does the notion of “inclusion” get us any further along than does the notion of “diversity” in terms of moving beyond “respect” into “divvying up the fucking pie more equally”?

Nice review – your writing is soooooooooo good.

2. Todd - 2 November 2006

Ah, on the question of “inclusion”, I would turn to the book I’m currently reading by Kenji Yoshino, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. In a nutshell, he argues that “inclusion” almost always comes with a price: conformity to a dominant culture that requires people to bracket or hide their differences to be included. I’m still not clear on his argument about rights, but I’ll be doing a review of it when I’m done. Benn Michaels also talks about ‘inclusion’ in corporate settings as a sort of ridiculous farce, a kind of marketing ploy to say to the world that they are ‘inclusive’ by showing their brown and gay employees to the world. He does not criticize the efforts to diversify per se, just that in practice and in effect they aren’t actually an equal inclusion and that they serve to excuse us from seeing the real inequalities around us. There’s also a brilliant chapter on gender in the work place, where he points out the silliness of that stock broker who won a huge gender discrimination suit against Morgan Stanley, and then she and the company touted her 12 million dollar suit as a victory for women everywhere, which does nothing in reality to fix the actual gender inequities systemwide and in fact allows us to pretend that women really are equal, despite their significantly higher rates of poverty.

I’m kinda babbling now, but you just got me thinking again.

3. chloe - 12 November 2006

and I just wanted to add how much of that same ‘salving’, (is that a verb?) goes on when it is the US and the rest. Now imagine how that family for whom you helped move the couch in relation to THEIR family that still live in the ‘developing world’.
When I discuss similar topics here to those who still have the ‘direct’ link to poverty in other countries less ecomically flush than the US, it begins to make ‘respect’ and multiculturalism a true mind “f—“.

When I am teaching similar material to yours in Colombia it boggles the mind how to deal with ‘respect’. The students ask me to respect such differences that they have a “culture” of domestic service and that of course their underpaid, poorly treated, no collective bargaining or rights employees (maids) are “one of the family”, that member who will not inherit nor sit at the table and eat with them instead of serve.

4. Todd - 12 November 2006

hooray! it’s chloë! I can’t wait to hear more insights on stuff from your experience in Colombia. I’m sure that the particular dynamics are different in each society, as each society has its own mode of stratification. And although I think ‘respect’ is a vital ethical position, it is quite simply insufficient to address the structures of inequality anywhere, because it is always a cover for the privileged.

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