diversity

The Diversity Paradox

During this past Independence Day, the Ad Council posted a video featuring John Cena about “true” patriotism.  During the three and a half minute spot, John Cena gives a seemingly stirring speech about what makes America great.

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I’m particularly amazed at how cameramen can walk backwards while filiming like that.

While obviously not the intention, this video accurately summarizes one of the more misunderstood concepts in modern American culture: diversity.  Diversity is pushed hard in virtually every avenue of life, and diversity is extolled around every turn.  This video is a perfect example of that.  We push diversity so much that it is essentially viewed as a virtue.  However, is diversity really a virtue?  Is it something we should strive for or want for its own sake?  Where is its true value?

A.) DIVERSITY IS MERELY A STATE OF BEING

John Cena, in that short three minutes or so, utters two sentences that perfectly show the confusion surrounding diversity:

“We know that labels don’t devalue us, they help define us.”

“Love has no labels.”

There is an incongruity between those statements.  On the one hand, labels are fantastic and keep us “dialed in” to who we are.  That’s a good thing, right?  Yet, on the other hand, labels are something that should be absolutely ignored or overlooked when it comes to love and acceptance.  How can a label be simultaneously important and forgotten about?  How are they a positive on one hand and a negative on the other?  How can we call attention to our differences as defining principles but then complain when we notice them?

“Diverse” is simply a descriptive adjective.  By saying that something is diverse, you are simply saying that there are many differences present.  It describes something much like noting color, size, or location by pointing out that there are, in fact, many colors, sizes, and locations present.  These descriptive adjectives are all effectively means to an end for us to get a grasp on the substance of a person, place, or concept.  Diverse is, at its core, a label that tells you that there are many labels, so diversity is merely a state of being where there are many differences in your midst.

B.) A MISUNDERSTANDING OF DIVERSITY’S PURPOSE

We have, somehow, gotten to a point where merely being in a state of diversity is something we strive for.  However, just being in such a state does nothing on its own.

By extolling the virtues of diversity as a thing to be desired as a state of being, it creates an atmosphere where it is considered good to be different for its own sake.  It creates an environment where, to maintain the good, we have to remain in a state of division.  If being different is good, then isn’t being the same bad?  If diversity is good, then is lacking diversity, by definition, bad and something to be avoided?  This constant desire to maintain diversity for its own sake has led to two things: segregation and division.  We group ourselves and bar entry to outsiders.  We constantly point out differences and place labels, while simultaneously lamenting the tribalism that it (naturally) creates.

The ironic thing about diversity for its own sake is that it creates social enclaves and pockets of conformity.  It attempts to paradoxically prove inclusiveness by showing the maximum amount of exclusive compartmentalization possible.  We all stand in our own circles surrounded by people that share the same label, creating an echo chamber around ourselves.  We can’t ever let our circles intersect, because finding common ground means that you are eliminating difference, and the less difference there is then the less diversity there is.  Likewise, finding common ground is one less label you can use to differentiate yourself from others.  Diversity for its own sake seeks to keep things apart.

It should be no surprise, then, that there is animosity amongst our fellow countrymen in this kind of state.  Unfortunately, that makes people easy prey.  Anger has a tendency to be the strongest glue in a crowd and the easiest emotion to exploit, so keeping people focused on their separation is a never ending source of grievances that can be smothered in promises by the powers that be.  It inevitably leads to groupthink, where group identity trumps rational thought and analysis.  In terms of influence, collective thought allows one to address a multitude of people in the same time it would take to reach just a single person of independent thought.  It is, of course, on its fullest display in America’s two party system, where we are consistently presented this false dichotomy of a never-ending state of red/blue difference every time we vote.

So, if desiring diversity for its own sake is not the way to go about it, what should we make of diversity?

C.) DIVERSITY AS A MEANS

The confusion comes from desiring diversity as an end and not a means.  It’s actually an easy mistake to make, because using diversity as a means creates a counterintuitive result when used properly.  What we should be using diversity for, and where its place is in terms of our culture, is precisely in finding the common ground or arriving at a common answer.  In essence, we need to use diversity with an eye towards how it unifies.

In Latin, the root word for diverse is divertere, “to turn in opposite directions.”  It’s the same root word for divert, which is very apt for this discussion.  It’s easy to visualize this as a fork in the road, with each new path going someplace different.  Celebrating diversity as an end praises the fork in the road itself rather than recognizing where you came from or where you are going.  If you stood at a fork in the road, looking at the paths ahead, and did an about face, you would recognize that the diverging roads actually both stem from a common point.  The reality is that divergence and convergence simply depends on which direction you are looking.  Diversity is a useful tool, then, when looking for a convergence from multiple angles.  A diversity of thought and backgrounds provides an array of perspectives into a possible problem with an eye towards finding a common answer.

By means of analogy, diversity as a tool is like a room full of people that have each brought a different puzzle piece with them.  Individually, the puzzle piece is unique to them in terms of size, shape, color, and a variety of other reasons.  If we left it at that, and celebrated that state of being, nothing would get accomplished.  Everyone would hold onto their own puzzle piece and compare it to others.  Some would feel their piece is inadequate, others that their piece is better than the rest.  However, if everyone used their unique piece to build the puzzle together, everyone would be able to partake not only in the final product, but their own unique contribution to it.  Each person could then see how their own portion fits into the bigger picture and then, oddly enough, they would be sitting in a room where there is one large idea in common rather than a bunch of small ones that are different.

People aren’t the best problem solvers when everything fits the same role.  No football team has eleven quarterbacks on the field at once, a person cannot be healthy by eating bread alone, and a worker cannot fix a wide variety of issues with hammers only.  Indeed, when looking at diversity, we should strive to build the biggest toolbox possible and recognize that the problem to be solved is a shared one.

D.) UNITY IN OUR DIVERSITY

So, we are still left with a paradox: unity through difference.  This concept, however, isn’t new.  It has a perfect representation in Christian thought through its depiction of the body of Christ.  1 Corinthians 12:12-27 presents this paradox poetically in how we stand with one another:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Despite a continuing confusion about how diversity should be treated and celebrated, and despite our current divisions, America provides great potential to act as one body through our diversity.  It is precisely the liberty America was founded upon that not only binds us together with common purpose, but also allows us the freedom to flourish in our differences.  So, in pursuing diversity, we should seek to emulate the example of the body of Christ.  We should not merely celebrate our differences or focus on them as an end, but rather recognize them as a means to see the bigger picture.  And, most importantly, we need to recognize that we’re all in this together, whether hand, foot, ear, or eye.

In the end, contrary to Mr. Cena’s take on things, love doesn’t necessarily ignore labels.  It does, however, recognize the importance of how our differences are necessary to the whole by seeing a body with parts, yet no divisions.