The Problem with Diversity™ Three
Diversity™ as a Fig Leaf
One of the other arguments for Diversity™ is that the more diverse authors and creators you have – the more you artworks you will have that speak to and about diverse experiences.
This sounds cool right? I mean – I’m a big fan of artwork that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible and opening things up to bring in new diverse experiences sounds cool. Sign me up. I’m not even being sarcastic. In fact I think way back when – when the idea of Diversity™ first arrived on the scene I would say that I was a pretty big fan of it. I would say that most books and most films and most music isn’t really that good (this is something we’ll come back to in a bit) and so the idea of there being a whole host of authors and creators just round the corner being kept out by the evils of the gatekeepers of white supremacy and the patriarchy etc was sub-optimal. You know – if there’s negative discrimination then we should expel it and do our best to create a system that’s fair for all. That seems obvious and I doubt that many people would disagree to this. (I might be wrong tho).
But the part of it I would question is the link between having more diverse authors and creators on the one hand and the idea that if you have this then you will have more artworks that speak to and about diverse experiences.
Now I understand that this may seem strange – surely the best way to get artworks that speak to and about diverse experiences is by having the people who’ve experienced that stuff to create artworks that reflect it – right?
Except. Well. This point of view rests on two assumptions that I don’t really agree with and I think could do with some thinking about – namely: everyone is everyone is equally proficient at creating artworks and to understand something you have to have experienced it.
Let’s have a look at these one by one:
Assumption 1. Everyone is equally proficient at creating artworks
It’s possible that I may be accused of elitism for saying this – but my considered position is that making art is a skill like every other and (unfortunately) not everyone is able to make art that is – for a lack of a better world – good.
I realise that maybe this a slightly controversial stance to take. I mean how do you decide if a work of art is good or not in the first place? And if we think back to The Argument for Diversity™ Point 2: Straight White Men have had all the advantages it’s obvious and incontestable that for a very long time anyone who didn’t fit the metrics laid down by the gatekeepers of white supremacy and the patriarchy etc was excluded but I don’t think that this therefore means that all artworks are equally good.
You of course may disagree with this. Maybe you have the point of view that artwork is an expression of the self and no one can be wrong or bad when it comes to expressing themselves.
I would say tho that there can be a lot more to art than just the idea of expression. In terms of a non-exhaustive list just off the top of my head: There’s the skill it’s created with. The ideas it expresses. The way it uses the material. The depth of character. How it handles theme. How realistic or unrealistic it manages to be. How original it is. The emotions it manages to generate in it’s audience. etc etc etc
I mean to use a maybe much too easy example – does anyone remember The Cloverfield Paradox?
Probably one of the most diverse casts of recent times (seriously it was like every nationality in the world in that movie) based on a story by Uziel and Doug Jung and directed by Julius Onah (who’s a Nigerian-American filmmaker) and yeah it was probably one of the worst films I saw last year and I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s a total stinker.
Not all artworks are good. It sucks I know.
Assumption 2. To understand something you have to have experienced it
If you don’t know her name – Sue Townsend is probably one of the finest comedic writers of all time. She wrote a series of books about a character called Adrian Mole who starts out as a teenage body obsessed with becoming an intellectual and then gets older but not really any wiser with every successive book. Seriously – if you haven’t read them you really should check them out. They’re pretty actually fantastic.
Point being: as far as I know Sue Townsend never had any experience being an adolescent teenage boy but that didn’t stop her writing one of the best and most well observed books of adolescent teenage boyhood of all time.
At the risk of blowing everyone’s minds: that’s basically one of the magical things about art – it can put us into the viewpoint of people who are nothing like us. Not only for the people who are reading it but for the people who are making it too (providing they have the right combination of skill and creativity and luck etc).
And yeah I mean I know there are lots of examples of people trying to write outside their personal experiences and doing a bad job of it (I saw a thing a few months ago where people were sharing examples of men writing as women and making a complete and total mess of things – whoops) but just because some people are bad at something I don’t think that means that the whole thing should abandoned. Like: just because the England Football Team haven’t won the World Cup in over 50 years doesn’t mean that people should stop playing football you know? (Ha. I don’t normally make sports analogies – how did I do?).
Of course I understand that maybe I’m focusing too much on the outliers here and maybe instead we should go for a weaker claim. Something like: the more diverse authors and creators you have – the more likely you are to get artworks you will have that speak to and about diverse experiences.
I mean this seems true – although a lot depends on how much work “likely” is doing. But there’s also another consideration I’d like to bring up – namely the fact that you can have diverse authors and creators who create artworks that are actually damaging to the causes of diverse people.
On the face of it maybe this sounds a little crazy. How could anyone who’s a member of a particular group do anything that would cause harm to that group? That’s impossible.
Ok. I get that you feel that way but let me offer a simple counter-example:
Please don’t make me post up a picture of Theresa May too.
Now ok. You might think that Margaret Thatcher helped to advance the causes of feminism by being a powerful woman in a male-dominated society but I think it’s fair to say that in terms of the material difference she made to the lives of the millions of women living in this country she significantly increased their immiseration. So let’s just say that all things in all she was bad for women. If you can accept that this then the mere fact of someone being a member of a particular group doesn’t mean that they will necessarily do things or act in such a way as to help that group and in fact – may harm it.
Obviously in politics this stuff is way clearer and when it comes to artwork things become a lot more diffuse and complicated. I understand that saying that an artwork “harms” people might be a little much but I think it’s possible to show that you can have examples of diverse authors and creators creating artworks that do nothing to extend the idea of diverse experiences and in fact take a step backwards – covering themselves with the prestige of Diversity™ but in fact simply telling a story and putting forward a worldview that merely perpetuates ruling mainstream ideology aka “Neoliberalism”.
(Hmmmm. Maybe that’s the point?)
Let me try and give you an example.
There’s a book called Exit West that I read for a Book Club I went to this month. If you haven’t heard of it – it’s written by a Pakistani author called Mohsin Hamid and it was nominated for the Booker Prize and so held up as this beautiful thing of – well – the benefits of Diversity™ (Obama included it in a list of 12 books that he says inspired him in 2017 which well yeah – ok).
We’ll get back to Obama in a bit…
My take is that it’s actually a very insidious book with a political agenda that’s not really about promoting the idea of diverse experiences but – on the contrary – is about taking a an economically comfortable and very middle-class point of view painting over it with a veneer of Diversity™ (but then as we’re seeing – maybe that’s all Diversity™ is – a veneer).
The protagonists of Exit West (Saeed and Nadia) are a couple who live in an unnamed exotic foreign city undergoing civil war. They have western jobs (working in advertising and insurance). They listen to western music. They spend all their time on their phones. Nadia is an independent woman who drives a motorcycle and wears a hijab because she doesn’t want to be bothered by men rather than for any religious reason. Both of them go to restaurants and don’t order soft drinks because it’s a little gauche. I mean they meet at a evening class on corporate identity and product branding (!!).
Of course I’m not saying that all foreign people in books must all be incredibly foreign like they’re extras from The Temple of Doom or something (“You don’t believe me? You will, Dr. Jones. You will become a true believer.”) but it’s notable that a book that’s nominally all about migration and refugees decided to make all of it’s main characters so obviously palatable to western audiences (and it obviously worked! Like I said Obama was a big fan).
But everything has consequences and they’re not always the consequences you want. I remember when Trump was making one of his regular comments about refugees and “shithole countries” and stuff and everyone was sharing stories about all good refugees who had come to the west and managed to get really good jobs and pay their taxes and all the rest of it. I mean ok your heart is in the right place but politically I disagree and I think it concedes too much. Basically: we should accept and welcome refugees just because it’s the right thing to do and it should be based upon the idea of common humanity and justice and not because it’s economically beneficial (fuck that noise). Mainly because I don’t think there should be any distinction made between “good deserving refugees” and “all the rest.” Everyone is deserving of help and empathy no matter who they are or where they have come from (yeah radical stuff I know).
But wait – what does this all have to do with ruling mainstream ideology.? Well – amongst other things our ruling mainstream ideology is an ideology that minimizes the state and emphasizes individual responsibility and speaking frankly the whole of Exit West stinks of it.
This basic thing of only being able to think of things in terms of how they affect the main characters and this complete and total disinterest and disregard in any thought of how systems work. I mean yeah sure most stories kinda work like that: we follow the adventures of Jane Eyre or Frankenstein or Stuart Little and we don’t really spend that much time looking at the effects on society but erm well – Exit West is a book about magical doors that suddenly spring up around the world that allow people to simply walk through from one country to the other (yeah well magical realism). I mean surely I’m not alone in thinking that this would have a few notable consequences on society, the notion of states and nationality, the world economy – not to mention the cost of cheap holidays. In fact I’d even go so far to ask that all of humankind would change. But is the book interested in that? No of course not – it’s just how it affects how heroes which yeah – is kinda neoliberalism in a nutshell. I mean yeah it’s a stylistic choice and it’s the story that the author wanted to tell but (sorry) – all choices have consequences. And every time you write a story and decide what you want it to include you also need to note what it excludes at the same time.
And well yeah to go back to the idea of “harm” – I don’t think it’s a stretch too far to say that the ruling mainstream ideology is not one that is constructed to the benefit of marginalised people (you may disagree tho).
This is using Diversity™ as a fig leaf. Because only crazy people who are obviously evil racists would dare to criticise the obvious goodness of Diversity™ it means you can smuggle in lots of insidious ideas that well – may not be for the benefit of everyone.
In fact Adolph Reed puts his finger directly upon the issue in his article The Trouble With Uplift where he says:
Nevertheless, we continue to indulge the politically wrong-headed, counterproductive, and even reactionary features of the “representative black voice” industry in whatever remains of our contemporary public sphere. And we never reckon with the truly disturbing presumption that any black person who can gain access to the public microphone and performs familiar rituals of “blackness” should be recognized as expressing significant racial truths and deserves our attention. This presumption rests on the unexamined premise that blacks share a common, singular mind that is at once radically unknowable to non-blacks and readily downloaded by any random individual setting up shop as a racial voice. And despite what all of our age’s many heroic narratives of individualist race-first triumph may suggest to the casual viewer, that premise is the essence of racism.
Or in other words: maybe it’s possible that Margaret Thatcher is bad for women?
The Problem with Diversity™ Four
Diversity™ teaches people that only Diversity™ is important
The interesting thing about humans is that you can train them how to see things.
One good example of this is the Himba tribe in Northern Namibia who apparently have more words for green than we do and have no word for blue. Obviously the effects how they see the world. They can tell the difference between different types of green that we may struggle to see and – conversely – they can’t easily tell the difference between blue and green while for us it’s easy.
If you train people to look at the world in a certain way then that’s how they will see the world.
It’s interesting to think how this works with the concept of Diversity™. My suspicion is that if you train people to see Diversity™ as being one of the best important values in how they evaluate a work of art then that’s how you’re going to see a work of art which seems to me to be an incredibly limiting way to see the world.
Of course there are benefits to this worldview – one of them is the way that it radically simplifies the complex and nuanced idea of art criticism. As someone who’s had a very active interest in the trying to understand and evaluate all sorts of art stuff from a young age I get that trying to articulate and explain your emotional and intellectual responses to things can often be incredibly difficult. Art is a strange thing that dissolves and shifts in your responses to it. That’s a big part of what makes it so entrancing and so valuable. When it works best it’s a kind of simplified complexity – like someone’s taken a whole world and made it shrink to fit inside a single thing.
With Diversity™ tho there’s really no need to get into the nitty gritty of how a piece of art works and what it says and all the rest of it – instead you just need to check to see what type of person made it and what type of characters are inside it. If it’s all straight white guys then you can count that as a mark against it and vice versa if it’s not. I mean: I get that maybe this sounds like an exaggeration maybe and there’s no one out there that thinks in such simplistic terms but well obviously you haven’t read the things I have or spoken to the people that I’ve spoken to: and if anything it feels like a background assumption baked into the cultural discourse that basically means it’s everywhere.
I think there may have been one or two things that I’ve succumbed to this type of thinking myself because let’s face it – it’s a really easy thing to say and you can get lots of points for it (it’s good to sound good right?).
But if you teach people to think about art in this way (that a work of art made by someone who is Diverse™ is somehow more valuable than a work of art made by someone who isn’t) then you’re basically building a prison around their brain it terms of limiting and constricting that way of seeing the world can be.
To illustrate with an example:
One of the things I’ve heard a lot when people try to explain the benefits of Diversity™ is how it affects people seeing themselves represented in a book. (I’ve been a little bit confused by this because if we’re talking about non-comic book books well – apart from the cover they don’t really have any pictures in them so I don’t really know what it is you’re seeing. But whatever). Let’s say you have a young black kid who needs to be inspired.
The kid has had it tough and they need some inspiration in their lives to show them what they can do / what they can be. This is why we need Diverse™ stories so that they realise they can be a pirate or a superhero or an astronaut or whatever. They need to see themselves being represented.
Now the interesting to note about the idea of representation is that it only works if you assume that the things being represented are the operative parts of who you are. Or in other words: you have to see yourself in a certain way in order for the representation to have any effect.
When I was a kid I used to read a lot of comic books (hell I still read a lot now). And yeah ok I read a lot of Batman comics and I read a lot of Superman comics.
However I don’t think I ever really thought that Batman and Superman really represented me. Yeah ok so they’re both males and they both have white skin and they both like girls (citation needed) but I didn’t really think of those things as being very important. In fact as a kid I used to think that they were very different to me as they were – much older than me, both American and – oh yeah – they were superheroes and had crazy adventures and I didn’t. So if you asked the child version of me if these guys represented me I would have just given you a blank look.
Having said that – thinking back – there were was a character in a book that I read that I would have said did represent me or made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
I distinctly remember reading Matilda when I was a kid and going – oh wow cool. It’s someone who’s just like me. She loved reading books. She had a family that wasn’t very nice to her. She was smart. And she could move objects with her mind (ok so maybe not the last one). And the fact that her gender was different didn’t make any difference. Reading Matilda made me feel like I was represented because there where similarities between the important parts of how I saw myself.
Now I get that maybe at this point you’re saying – ah yes: going to back to The Argument for Diversity™ we can remember
Point 1: Society has and continues to be unequal and Point 2: Straight White Men have had all the advantages.
Therefore it’s my privilege as Straight White Man which means that because society is set up for my benefit (and people like me) I don’t need to see myself as being a Straight White Male and the other parts of my identity can be more important to me – which means I can read a book like Matilda and see aspects of myself inside it.
But things are different for the young black kid needed inspiration…
Society has defined him by the colour of his skin in a negative way and therefore he needs to see the colour of his skin being represented in a positive way. Of course.
But here’s the thing tho – while I understand the emotional force of that argument (and hey it’s that what you believe then that’s what you believe) I would question whether or not it’s a particularly helpful strategy overall.
Ursula K. Le Guin makes this point particularly well in her book The Left Hand of Darkness so I hope you don’t mind if I quote it:
To oppose something is to maintain it. They say here “all roads lead to Mishnory.” To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road… To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus proof is a word not often used among the Handdarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free.
Point being: teaching people that the colour of their skin is an important detail of who they are simply maintains the idea of seeing people in terms of their skin colour. And this applies to every other way of seeing people whether it includes gender, sexuality or whatever.
To steal a line from elsewhere:
Trying to sum up my point with all of this I guess what I’m trying to say is that using Diversity™ to fight the inequalities of society is a little trying fight a fire by adding more fire. If one wants to take a stand against the evil racists (and yes we should all take a stand against the evil racists) then the surely the best place to do so is to dispute the idea that it makes sense to see people in terms of their race. To do this at the same time as encouraging people to be inspired by the idea of seeing other people as the same race as them seems a little… well.
To quote Karen Fields who along with her sister Barbara Fields gets into things a lot deeper than I have here:
Racism being an action: it is acting on a double standard based on ascribed or putative ancestry. Racism, in other words, is neither attitude nor bigotry nor prejudice. It is an act, and it is a repetition of the act of racism that makes race looks like a real entity.
Or if you’re looking for a summation: race is a racist concept. And to use to it to try and fight and undo the effects of racism is like trying to drown a fish. The solution isn’t more water – it’s less.
To say is to say: to be against negative discrimination and to be against positive discrimination too. To reject the simplicity of Diversity™ and instead opt for something – a little more complicated and complex.