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The Importance of Diversity

My little brother recently wrote about an article which argues that western culture has gone too far in accepting and promoting diversity, and the acceptance of other cultures.

On the one hand, I am forced to agree with this guy on some points: not all worldviews have equal merit, and some are simply better than others. On the other hand, I believe that one trait which increases a culture’s merit is exactly the xenophilia that this guy decries.

Why is it important to celebrate diversity? Because people have a hard time with subtlety, and so any culture which does not intentionally take joy in difference will inevitably find itself drifting toward prejudice, and toward injustice. If people believe subconsciously that the barbarians elsewhere aren’t really human, they’ll never be able to treat them consciously as equals.

The questionable premise is that traditions, beliefs, and practices in all their ethnic and historical profusion self-authenticate their claims to truth, beauty, and goodness. Not only must all the ‘voices’ be heard, whatever they come up with must be treated with respect … Open-ended diversity is thrust upon us as a positive object of obligatory good feeling.

Here is the problem: accepting, and even taking joy in learning about foreign cultures and lifestyles does not imply that one approves of them or would want to include every feature in one’s own daily life. Look at the atrocities against women that the Taliban committed in Afghanistan: it is important to learn about what went on there, even if only as a cautionary example of the problems associated with a fundamentalist government. Respecting that culture boils down to taking individuals from that culture on their own merits and refraining from intervention*.

It is important to remember that the case of the Taliban approaches the worst case possible. For most other cultures and civilizations, there are plenty of lessons to be learned. Look at Europe to discover the benefits and penalties associated with a more socialistic stance. Look at Japan to see what happens in a liberal democracy when society still places huge pressure on people to value their duty to others above themselves. Look at most places in the world, and one can see both benefits and penalties associated with the choices that society made in contrast with our own. However, one can only objectively look at those cultures if one first accepts that they have an inherent right to exist, and that acceptance can only come if one’s own culture celebrates diversity.

Should an ethnic attachment to astrology be included as a legitimate discipline in college curricula because politicians and bureaucrats in India submit decisions bearing on public issues to readings of the stars? Should tribal shamans be licensed to practice “alternative” medicine? In postmodern jargon, is not one scientific or medical “narrative” as good as another?

There is absolutely no reason why An Introduction to Indian Astrology could not be a perfectly legitimate college course. For a student of Indian culture and folklore, such a course might be essential. Accepting other cultures does not at all imply that we must attempt to import every feature of every culture that we come in contact with; such an approach would obviously be both chaotic and futile. However, it is perfectly feasible to take other cultures seriously on their own merits.

As for alternative medicine, one must first realize what a license to practice medicine is: it is official certification that the doctor in question uses techniques and tools which have been proven, statistically and rigorously, to work. Any “alternative” technique which can offer proof–the double-blind, statistical kind–that it works, is inherently an acceptable tool for a licensed doctor. Alternative medicine is comprised of remedies which cannot offer that proof; as such, there is no reason to license its practitioners. Neither is there any reason to prevent them from setting up alternative clinics, so long as they do not masquerade as a licensed doctor. Either one believes in the practitioner as well as the remedy, or one does not.

An uninformed, unsuspecting student body, awash in diversity rhetoric and pedagogy, maneuvered by solemn, earnest action plans shaped by diversity ideologues, might be led to think that ethnic violence and hatred, alive and readily visible around the world, has nothing to do with ethnicity and its inherent premise of exclusiveness.

The author of the article in question has taken great pains to utterly demolish a straw man. There is no great pressure to accept other cultures in a completely valueless, utterly morally relativistic setting. That would be nearly impossible, if it is possible at all. Every person has some deeply ingrained set of criteria for judging other cultures, in whole or in part. Mine is simple: cultures are ranked in order of their ability to maximize liberty per capita. Other people might value personal safety as more important, or conformity to some religious text. Regardless of which criteria one uses, they can only be applied objectively if one first accepts that other cultures have an intrinsic right to exist. This is the celebration of diversity that needs to be, and generally is, applied in the educational system of our culture.

* I am convinced that overt intervention, one culture attempting to forcibly modify another, is generally a bad idea. It is a risky, expensive, and dangerous proposition. In the absolute best case–the US occupation of Japan after WWII–it took the unconditional surrender and subsequent complete cooperation of the populace, as well as years of armed occupation, the establishment of a permanent military presence, and millions of dollars. In the likely case–the current US occupation of Iraq–it is stupidly expensive, glacially slow, perpetually at the verge of utter failure, and filled with well-intentioned people on the side of “good” committing atrocities “because nothing else gets through to these people.” The worst case is hardly worth mentioning; it is every genocide ever attempted.

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Comment by Rourke Mac OS X Mozilla Firefox 3.0.1 Subscribed to comments via email
2008-08-18 15:37:03

I’m not really sure if this is a complete response to either what you wrote or what he wrote… again, I’d say “good point”. I’ve often felt conflicted on this kind of question; currently I’m veering somewhere between the author of the article and your position. I mean, I agree with you that celebrating diversity at least to some degree is a very, very good thing (I’ve felt that way for years). On the other hand, I do think the guy makes some salient points about overemphasizing differences rather than universals. In short, I agree with you that people should fundamentally accept that other cultures have the right to exist and be educated to some degree about other cultures. But in discussing other cultures, I feel like we all (in the broadest sense, “we” being people in general) should stress things cultures have in common — benevolent ideas like shared conceptions of pacifism, for instance — and stress that rights and ethics apply equally to everyone. So in other words, I think people should be taught about other cultures — up to and including their dark sides — with a humanistic caveat.

Comment by coriolinus Windows XP Mozilla Firefox 3.0.1
2008-08-18 16:13:40

It’s fine to stress common ground, particularly in introductory courses and material for the young. The key thing to remember is that the most useful information comes when you examine the differences, and that students will eventually have to look at the bad as much as the good. By the time a person gets to college, the material should be presenting foreign cultures as they exist–and reinforcing the fact that even in the case of the evil ones, we as a culture have no business trying to force them to be nice.

Note that I’ve never said anything against individuals getting involved in regime change. If people want to band together privately to improve the world around them, I’m all for it. However, it has to be something that people as individuals choose to get into, and can drop out of if their minds ever change or their will to get involved flags.

“But what about WWII and Germany? Didn’t we have a humanitarian obligation to intervene?”

We got into WWII because of mutual defense treaties and trade partnerships. Nobody knew about the Holocaust until the war was nearly over. We did the right thing, fighting that war, but that was more because of Germany’s expansionism than its proclivity for murder.

“What about the Civil War? Wasn’t slavery a big part of Southern culture?”

Nations have to choose their own national culture. If the Confederacy had won, the Union would have had no business starting further wars on the behalf of the slaves. As it happened, it was determined by battle that the culture of the United States would allow neither slavery nor secession.

“How do you distinguish ‘individuals working towards regime change’ from terrorism?”

By their methods. Terrorists target the innocent.

Comment by Rourke Mac OS X Mozilla Firefox 3.0.1 Subscribed to comments via email
2008-08-18 16:34:35

“By the time a person gets to college, the material should be presenting foreign cultures as they exist–and reinforcing the fact that even in the case of the evil ones, we as a culture have no business trying to force them to be nice.” Cultures should most definitely be presented as they exist. In the case of the evil ones, I disagree that we have no business trying to force them to be nice — though I completely understand the problems with interventionism (Iraq, Mogadishu…) In other words, I get that it doesn’t always work. I don’t really have an answer yet to solve this personal dillema, but I know that I do think there is an ethical obligation to at least criticize those cultures and subcultures that go against basic human rights.

Your examples are problematic, but again, I’m not sure if I have an acceptable response. I’m more concerned with your comment about the Civil War than WWII. What do you mean, if the Confederacy had won we’d have no business fighting on behalf of the slaves? Slavery is an atrocity because it goes against people’s most basic rights, and I know the actual reasons for fighting it had more to do with anti-secessionism than abolitiionism per se, but still… My point is, even though they didn’t see it that way at the time, wars like our nation’s Civil War are morally justifiable in the end.

Hmm… I think your last point is a really good one. I don’t think many rebel groups these days are actualy aiming to establish democratic regime change (witness the story in Africa over and over again) but if they did, I think they would then be justified in their fighting. But I’m not sure.

Comment by coriolinus Windows XP Mozilla Firefox 3.0.1
2008-08-18 17:06:19

I absolutely agree that people should take action against the evil they perceive in the world. It’s just that this should be at an individual or organizational level; it shouldn’t involve their entire nation or culture.

If the Confederacy had won, they’d have just proven that the Union could not impose their will militarily. If the Union started another war, they’d just be wasting lives. If they tried to meddle with their internal affairs through covert means–supporting politicians who opposed slavery, say–then I’d agree, personally, that they were doing good, but there is no way to prove that. This is where the moral relativism really starts to hurt, and it’s why you have to draw a line between the actions of individuals and the actions of nations. Individuals don’t have to be able to prove that they are doing the right thing. Nations should.

You could make the argument that by eliminating slavery, the Union was enormously improving the lives of many people, which good far outweighed the penalty to the slaveowners whose lives were worsened by being forced to pay their employees. However, a Confederate would argue that the slaves were not, in fact people. Unfortunately, when the two societies disagree about definitions like this, there is no way to prove which one is correct.

Comment by coriolinus Windows XP Mozilla Firefox 3.0.1
2008-08-18 17:41:04

Look, don’t worry about it too much. Consider the flaw in my argument: what is the difference between a society, a nation, and a very large collection of individuals?

At some point, in a democracy at least, if enough people believe that an action is good, people stop caring if they can prove that it is good. They just go ahead and do it. It shouldn’t be difficult to find a quorum of people who think that it is worth doing whatever is necessary to end slavery.

Things get murky where politics and ethics start mixing. What if I think it’s right for my nation to occasionally take actions that agree with my personal ethical framework, even if it is impossible to prove them right–who doesn’t? Once you accept that line of reasoning, you accept all the rest of the genocide and slavery and systematic mutilation and oppression in the world. Nobody acts in a way they believe to be truly evil.

I haven’t resolved that one either. All I can say is that it’s best, in most cases, for a nation to refrain from involving itself in another nation’s political affairs until it can’t be avoided.

Comment by Rourke Mac OS X Mozilla Firefox 3.0.1 Subscribed to comments via email
2008-08-18 19:08:24

“Things get murky where politics and ethics start mixing. What if I think it’s right for my nation to occasionally take actions that agree with my personal ethical framework, even if it is impossible to prove them right–who doesn’t?” I guess I think it’s OK — and very, very important — for governments to at least try following an ethical standard. Political systems that don’t tend to be either a) outright dictatorships and/or b) preemptively aggressive in international affairs, e.g. Russia, China, N. Korea, even nominal democracies like Singapore. (Our poltiical system has long adhered to the ideal of liberty, which is a normative value, so it too can be said to have a standard by which to judge itself and other nations.) I think Bush took this way too far — Bush rules on gut instinct, and yes, it’s dangerous for leaders to do that and launch preemptive wars at a moment’s notice. But I think it’s definitely moral for governments to adhere to some human rights standards, and at least verbally attack other nations with lower human rights standards than they do. In other words, I’m ambivalent about outright interventionism all the time, but I support governments taking some sort of normative ethical stance.

I see that you take the cultural/ethical relativist position here — the Confederacy said slavery was right, the Union said it as wrong. “Unfortunately, when the two societies disagree about definitions like this, there is no way to prove which one is correct.” I disagree, and I think modern society has a much better tool to decide such questions than people before did. I can condemn past regimes (e.g. the Confederacy) based on present standards based on the premise that human rights are truly universal, and thus apply to past actions as well as present. Things like the UNCHR may not be (completely) legally binding, but they are a good start to make basic ethical jugments in politics. If a regime very strongly denies the existence of such rights, or prohibits them, or whatever, it’s not a mere cultural difference — I believe that I can legitimately say, “This country is doing wrong.” Thus the UN’s “strongly worded statements” — admittedly, they don’t do much. But at least the UN (and thus its Member Nations)acknowledge by implication that there exist ethical standards that nations should follow.

Getting back to diversity — it’s very much acceptable and very much warranted for one culture to at least verbally criticize each other. Calling genital mutilation in Africa or modern-day slavery in Mauritania cruel isn’t cultural imperialism nor am I forced to say “I can’t decide whether this is right or wrong because I can’t judge them by Western values” because human rights are not Western, they are universal. Whether military intervention is warranted, I’m still not clear on — but I’m inclined to agree with you that it’s not necessarily the best case.


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