Monday, October 01, 2012

Cosmetic Palette

William Deresiewicz:

No, what I can’t stand is the way that “diversity” has become a badge of moral superiority. Somehow you’re a better person if you happen to live in a place that has a lot of blacks and Latinos—even if that circumstance is no thanks to you, even if you live there for entirely different reasons, even if you don’t actually know any of those people, even if the groups are segregated economically (and even though your presence, ipso facto, reduces the level of that diversity). “I can’t stand Vermont—it’s so white.” Vermont’s white? You’re white, you idiot.

Diversity isn’t equality. It isn’t even integration. It is merely demographics. It has nothing to do, in this context, with the well-being of people of color. It’s not a moral issue; it is, precisely, an issue of lifestyle. White people like it because it enables them to feel good about themselves. When they see a black person in their neighborhood, they give themselves a gold star.

Well, bam! Nothing like a little bracing pugnacity early on a Monday morn. Switching contexts, while still speaking of vague feel-good gestures toward demographics, I saw this shortly thereafter:

Such is the question of why, in many major publications, far more books by men are reviewed than books by women. Probably the best-known set of statistics comes from an organization called VIDA, which has created a feature called "The Count." That feature consists of pie charts that track the number of women and men both doing the reviewing and being reviewed. For instance, in 2011, they found that The New York Review Of Books reviewed 71 female authors and 293 male authors. In The New York Times, it was 273 women and 520 men.

Now, this kind of thing could be happening for lots of reasons, and like a lot of really complicated problems, it likely doesn't involve anything that anybody is doing on purpose, and therefore it doesn't lend itself to easy solutions through simple resolve. How several hundred books make it into a publication in a given year is the result of countless conscious and unconscious choices by readers, by authors, by book publishers, by reviewing publications, by reviewers and editors — it's an incredibly complex and unwieldy problem to try to get your arms around. You don't have to believe anyone is out to get women writers in order to think it's important to ask the question of what the factors are that bring us to that point and to suggest that it's not a great place to be.

No, you don't, but skeptical as I am, I suspect that a loaded question like that arrives with certain presuppositions and unsubtly implies a very narrow range of permissible answers. Having already framed the disparity as a moral problem, anything less than apologies and promises of solutions will be seen as evidence of bias. There's a sort of Freudian aspect to these kinds of arguments that bothers me — when you start suggesting unconscious bias as a motivation, what counts as evidence against it? If the NYRB comes back and says, "Well, we've rigorously examined our book reviewing standards and process, and no, we're sorry, but we don't see any reason to believe we've been unfairly biased with regards to gender," will that be accepted? Again, I'm skeptical. For people inclined to see any ratio, in any context, favoring a privileged group as evidence that someone must be getting oppressed in the process, the conclusion is foregone.

The only way anything like numerical parity would be achieved is for it to become a conscious goal of reviewing publications, at which point book reviewing would subordinate the effort, however flawed, to apply disinterested aesthetic standards, however imperfect or historically contingent they may be, to activism.