Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ancestor Worship

Some choice bits from Peter Wood's book Diversity:

• The new perspective of diversity is not just about emphasizing groups at the expense of the whole; it is also about treating groups as having saved up a right to special privileges in proportion to how much their purported ancestors were victimized in the past. This quid-pro-quo view has become a quasi principle that aims to encompass American life. It is invoked by its advocates, for example, as a reason why the federal government should set aside a certain percentage of federal contracts for minority-owned businesses, and why the federal courts should not apply the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions.

But is it more than a matter of government mandates. The diversity principle is also a belief that the portion of our individual identities that derives from our ancestry is the most important part, and a feeling that group identity is somehow more substantial and powerful than either our individuality or our common humanity.

• Diversity, in effect, enshrines certain kinds of factionalism as a universal good, just like liberty and equality. Well, no, not just like liberty and equality — better. Diversity raised to the level of counterconstitutional principle promises to free people from the pseudo-liberty of individualism and to restore to them the primacy of their group identities; and diversity raised to the summit of "critical thinking" insists that traditional notions of equality are a sham. Real equality, according to diversicrats, consists of parity among groups, and to achieve it, social goods must be measured out in ethnic quotas, purveyed by group preferences, or otherwise filtered according to the will of social factions.

• Once we allocate political rights by group identity, the assignment of group identity becomes the crucial determinant of everything else for the individual; the group gains a strong interest in ensuring the conformity of its members; the individual faces powerful pressure to conform; and the resentments only multiply.

And one section dealing with a common theme around these parts:

Diversity makes us think that, deep down, all religions say the same thing. But all religions don't say the same thing, and Islam especially dissents from the idea that its Truth is merely a local variant of the generic truth available in other flavors at other stores. To the extent that it blinds us to the kind of intellectual inquiry we need to understand these matters, diversity is not just folly; it is dangerous folly.

Religious toleration is, of course, nothing new, and if we are to understand the religion of diversity, we have to distinguish between several kinds of toleration. One form, which might be called Jeffersonian tolerance, regards all religions as more or less the same sort of mistake, and therefore equally due condescension. Tolerance of this nature may be based on deism, agnosticism, atheism, or mere indifference. It proceeds by a principle of prudence, to the effect that, as people believe many and conflicting things, the common good is best served by not making an issue out of anyone's faith.


Noel asks: Also, are you criticizing "Jeffersonian tolerance"?

No. I'm all in favor of it. I just found it amusing the way Wood openly stated what is usually the implied subtext, namely, that Jeffersonian tolerance is predicated upon treating religions as "more or less the same sort of mistake." Of course, being too open about that disdainful indifference would undermine the sort of cultural unity it was designed to promote. If anything, I would only like for more spiritual-not-religious types to appreciate the weighty significance of Jefferson's razor.

So, then, to clarify the rest of my interest in these excerpts:

I was struck by the succinct way Wood described the three lenses, if you will, through which we make sense of our identity — individuality, group identity, and common humanity. Now, as an (Isaiah) Berliner, I'm naturally predisposed to see these three perspectives as basically irreducible, and prone to being in conflict with each other. That is, none of the three can ever be the One True Perspective. Each one makes sense in the right context, or the right proportions.

Human beings being human beings, though, we tend toward Procrusteanism. When we find a concept or perspective we think is accurate, we tend to want it to be true at all times, in all situations, and so we stretch or chop the facts as needed. As an example of people who cling too tightly to individualism as an organizing concept, think of rigid, dogmatic libertarians, and the lengths to which they go to avoid acknowledging anything like a common humanity based on levels of obligation.

Likewise, diversity can be turned into an unquestionable moral virtue in and of itself and pushed to absurd lengths in contexts where it doesn't belong. Take the arts, for an obvious example.

• Stephin Merritt apparently failed to evince a properly proportional interest in music created by ethnic artists and was publicly trashed as a racist cracker.

• Lena Dunham is likewise accused of being racist for not including any ethnic characters in her TV show. (Terry Sawyer, the author of the linked article, does a good job limning the incoherent, contradictory demands even within the diversiphile camp.)

• Pitchfork magazine's readers vote for their favorite 200 albums of the last fifteen years, and diversiphiles complain that there aren't enough women on the list. This leads the intellectual featherweights at the Atlantic Wire to pop their thumbs out of their mouths long enough to muse about just how misogynist Pitchfork's readers might be.

• It is a popular cause online to talk about the VIDA count, and whine about how women aren't proportionally represented as either reviewers or reviewees in the major literary outlets, as if the right to a good shot at a successful literary career is on a par with the right to higher education. Some diversiphile writers, like Roxane Gay, even go so far as to call for quotas as a solution to this "problem". Now, one can argue, and I certainly have, that making literary criticism into yet another zero-sum battle between "white men" vs. "everyone else" is an insanely reductive and misguided obsession, that the purpose of literature and criticism is not to advance trendy social justice-y causes, and that the content of the art is what matters for the purpose of criticism, not the race and gender of the author, protagonist, or audience, but in doing so, one has to argue uphill against the facile assumption that "more diversity" is such an obvious plus that only bigots would oppose it.

This is what I mean when I say that diversity means different things in different contexts. Not every situation requires balanced ratios of gender or race. Not every disparity is a problem indicating oppression and requiring a solution. The world isn't going to be "fixed" when we get the ratios all correctly sorted.

Not only that, but there isn't even any consensus among diversiphiles as to what the ultimate goal of all this diversity is. Some think that by being exposed to people of all different races, religions and ways of life, the rough edges of our tribal natures will be sanded off, and we will better appreciate our common humanity. Others, especially SJWs, are fixated on preventing what they call "cultural appropriation", by which they mean greedy white people "stealing" ethnic cultural motifs. This amounts to rigidly defining and strictly policing the borders of what they consider to be different cultures. The fact that their rhetoric and logic is the mirror image of white separatism doesn't trouble their little pea-brains in the slightest. One Slymepitter whose opinions I generally like, a self-described right-wing black woman from New Zealand, once summed it up in a way that I actually saved for reference:

The idea of appropriation/cultural intellectual property is another one that creeps me out. People learn and adopt and remix cultural emblems and traditions because that’s the nature of how we interact and assimilate/create new paradigms. If you cut off a culture from the ability to be remixed by those outside it, then you are killing it. There is no difference from that to putting it in a museum or locking it away an a sanctuary somewhere. Cultures that you cannot adopt or enter into are endangered.

If you wanted to kill a minority culture than the best way to do so is to tell people they cannot be part of it, and it will ensure that the only culture that can be used/adopted by anyone is the majority one, which can be replicated and reused and entered-into without fear of repercussions.

They’re a movement of cultural exterminators.

And finally, I think certain conservatives do have a valid point when they scoff at the progressive fixation on diversity as being cosmetically diverse but ideologically conformist. That is, it's not too hard to find smug progressives who pride themselves on their magnanimous ability to tolerate the presence of people who look and speak differently from them while breaking out into hives upon encountering someone who substantively disagrees with them.