The Problem with Diversity™ Five
Diversity™ is not the important value
So. Let’s talk about the idea of “Incommensurability.”
Things are commensurable when they’re measurable by the same standard. They’re incommensurable when they’re not.
So. Let us imagine that you have a room that’s full to the brim with loads of different types of toys:
Like: lots and lots and lots of toys. So much that you can’t even see the floor.
Now let’s say that you wanted to sort through the toys and make two different piles of toys:
Pile One = All the toys that are red.
Pile Two = All the toys that are vehicles.
Of course at the start it’ll be pretty easy you can make one pile of red toys on one side and the other half of toys that are vehicles on the other and you don’t have to worry so much – but when you start to get to the red cars and the red helicopters and the red buses and the red trucks then you’re going to start to have a problem…
This is because the values of Pile One and Pile Two are incommensurable. They’re measuring different things.
I mean so far so obvious right?
Now let’s imagine that we have a room that’s full to the brim with loads of different types of artworks:
Now let’s say that you want to make two different piles of artworks.
Pile One = All the artworks that are good.
Pile Two = All the artworks that by Diverse™ authors / about Diverse™ characters.
You see where I’m going with this right?
Some important things to note here: as with the case of the red cars and the red helicopters and the red buses and the red trucks it is possible to make a third pile which combines Pile One and Pile Two. Of course I’m not saying that you can’t have good artworks that do both. But the third pile will be a lot smaller than the other two piles.
But the main point is this: you can value stuff being good or you can value stuff being Diverse™ but you can’t value both at the same time. You have to choose between one or the other.
And the thing that seriously bothers me in typical conversations about Diversity™ is that assumes that the only important / salient / valuable factor in things is race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc of the writers / artists / characters in things.
Now. To be fair – there is a way that you can make this make sense but it all depends on your answer to the following, very important question.
How much Art is Actually Good?
Or in other words: when we make Pile One out of all our artworks lying on the floor – how big is this pile going to end up being?
In terms of where I’m coming from my basic contention is this: I don’t think that most art is good. In fact I would say that in the main the vast majority of art is bad. It’s simplistic. Boring. Unimaginative. And doesn’t really have that much to say about the world or other human beings apart from things which are either trite or obvious or both.
And indeed – I think one of the major fault-lines between people who seem to believe that Diversity™ is sorely needed and those who are more sceptical of the idea can be traced back to different beliefs on how much art is good and worthwhile and valuable. Basically speaking – if you think that all or the vast majority of art is basically good and fit for purpose (so to speak) then there is no real conflict between the two different values of – good art and Diverse™ art. Or to put it in other terms – because you have such a large pile of red toys – it’s very easy to find the ones which are also vehicles.
But for those people who are – let us say – harder to please the pile of red toys is much much smaller which means there aren’t as many red toys which are also vehicles to be selected.
Let’s try to explore this idea a little further and show how actually it may be the case that once again these ideas end up reinforcing themselves. That is to say – if you think that most art is most good you’ll be for the idea of Diversity™ which in turn – will lead you to think that most art is good.
So. Elsewhere on these pages I’ve made a distinction between Art as Medicine and Art as Sweeties which I’ve actually found pretty useful in helping making things clear.
The basic idea is this:
Art as Medicine
Art as medicine is art that teaches you things about the world and help make things make sense that maybe didn’t make sense before and help to give you an insight into other human beings and/or various ideas or whatever. The thing with good art is that it’s never really all that clear or straight to the point but that’s what gives them their power. If you can sum up an artwork in a simple line (“Don’t do drugs kids.”) then – well – to my mind it’s not a very good art. Good art is about complexity. That’s what makes it such good medicine. It makes you think and it makes you see the world and yourself in a different way.
Art as Sweeties
Art as sweeties on the other hand is just something that makes you feel good. You know – it’s just a power fantasy that has nothing more on it’s mind that giving you a sense of affirmation and superiority. These artworks are simplistic because anything vague or subtle would defeat the purpose of it. Art like this are all about that kinda sugar rush and excitement and making you feel good.
I would say that the majority of art can be described as Sweetie Art that doesn’t really have much on it’s mind apart from making people feel good and – well – affirming a positive sense of Diversity™.
Which leads us to:
The Problem with Diversity™ Six
You can have Good Art or you can have Diversity™ but you can’t have both
(Sorry – that title might be overstating things a little but it’s a good summation of where we’re going to go).
And again let’s be clear from the start – what I’m not saying here is that you can not have good artworks made by diverse creators. Lol. That’s silly. It doesn’t really matter who you are – anyone can make good and deep and interesting artworks and I don’t think it’s dependent on how diverse you are – it’s like judging how fast a car is by what colour paint it has. My understanding is that it doesn’t matter.
But that’s not the conflict.
No – instead it’s this idea of how Diversity™ often tends to manifest itself in terms of the artwork that’s made and what meanings it hopes to convey.
Let’s go back to that black kid from before.
We talked about how his life is tough and he needs to be inspired right?
So – obviously what we need to do in order to help further the cause of Diversity™ is construct an artwork that will make this kid feel inspired and represented. To give him the things that society has denied to him due to the fact that he was not lucky enough to be born as a straight, white male.
But I think that there’s a problem here which goes something like this: if your motivation with creating an artwork is to make something inspiring for a certain type of person (no matter who it is) then I’m sorry but I don’t think that your artwork is going to be any good.
Or to use the terms I’ve just described – you’re not going to be making medicine you’re going to be making sweets.
Now I don’t really have any problem with sweets. I eat them from time to time and doing comic book / graphic novel stuff I’ve definitely come across more than my fair share of artworks that are just about that kinda sugar rush and excitement and making you feel good.
But it’s not really good art that’s making you think and it making you see the world and yourself in a different way. Which I think is down to one thing which is this – complexity.
And here’s the rub of it: I think that making something that is inspiring and making something which is complex are kinda like oil and water in that they just don’t really mix.
Of course there might be a few examples out there that I’ve overlooked (answers on a postcard please) but I’m willing to bet that any counterexample you can think of has to make a trade-off on one or the other. It’s complexity means that it’s not as inspiring as it could be or it’s inspiring-ness means it’s not as complex as it could be. Because inspiration (amongst other things) relies upon making things simple – you’re the good guy and there’s nothing wrong with you and everything bad is the fault of the bad guy who has evil in their hearts.
An example might help here – so let’s take Tony Soprano from The Sopranos and compare him to Batman and Superman.
This should be fun.
For those of you who haven’t seen The Sopranos (you should! It’s one of the best things ever!) Tony Soprano is a mob boss who runs a crew in New Jersey and has a family who have all sorts of interesting dysfunctions and dynamics.
To get the obvious out of the way it is true that there are plenty of people out there who would regard Tony Soprano as an inspiring dude. He’s a mob boss. He has sex with lots of women. He kills people. He’s dangerous. He’s macho. He doesn’t take any shit from anyone. He does what he likes.
Of course I understand that it’s pretty iffy and dangerous terrority to say that someone is understanding a work of art “wrong” but I’m pretty comfortable with saying that the people who think that Tony Sopranos is inspiring are watching it wrong. He’s miserable and haunted and doesn’t know what how to be happy – forever taking shortcuts, getting things wrong and missing the point. In fact the big take-away mood for most of The Sopranos is melancholy. There are no easy answers and sometimes doing the right thing will make things worse and vice versa and sometimes it’s a strange mixture of both. Which is what makes it so interesting and so compelling and such a rich deep text. (And yeah I could give an example from an episode or something but to do properly do it justice would take far too long and let’s face it we don’t have all day do we?)
Batman and Superman on the hand are a lot more simplistic. In everyone of their stories you know exactly who the bad guy is and who the good guys are. You know exactly what’s motivating people although normally it’s just something very simple like the bad guy wanting to be bad so they can get some money or some power or both and you know it’s always going to end with Batman or Superman punching out the bad guy and saving the day and the status quo being safe once more. Now yes of course I realise that I’m probably sounding a little dismissive with this description but I would say that the important point here is that if you want to create something inspirational you need these dynamics and clear defined lines in order to make sure that you get the desired effect.
If you have a story that ends with Batman punching the Joker but then it turns out that the Joker was sexually abused as a kid or whatever and that’s why he “turned to evil” then your catharsis is going to take a hit. Making the situation less simple reduces the inspirational effects. And it’s the same the other way around – if you had Tony Soprano fight against some evil Nazis who wanted to destroy the world then you’d make him a more straightforwardly inspirational character – but that would probably be a pretty empty episode of The Sopranos and – dare I say it? – not really giving you much in the way of art (Although I’m sure all the bros would love it).
What I think this shows is that if you main aim of creating a piece of art is to make something that properly “reflects Diversity™” and is both representational and inspirational then there’s going to be a certain threshold of complexity and depth that you’re just not going to be able to overcome.
Or in other words – you’re going to end up with a lot of art where the characters are basically as deep as Batman and Superman and not really anything much more.
Or to put it in other terms – if you all you eat are sweets then the idea of making more art Diverse™ will seem simple and easy. But for those of us who prefer medicine – it’s a lot more difficult to make artwork that reinforces simple ideas.
The Problem with Diversity™ Seven
Diversity™ Obscures Power
Ok last one.
There’s an old Skunk Anansie song that I often like to quote:
Yes it’s fucking political / Everything’s political
But it’s interesting how it plays out in this case: namely the amazing trick of Diversity™ is that it makes things which are not political and pretends that they are political which it could be noted and underlined in red pen: is a political move itself in and of itself.
(Feeling dizzy yet?)
Let’s set out three points and see if we can make that make sense
Point 1: The World is Run By The Powerful
This one seems the most obvious to me but maybe you disagree? Some people have an image of our society being in this kinda harmonious state where everyone is working for the benefit of everyone else. I don’t think that this is true and I tend to view most things are serving the benefits of the powerful. People in power like to be powerful and they like to do more things to keep themselves in power.
(As true today as it ever was).
This leads to something called “Hegemony.” Hegemony is the idea that the worldview of the powerful becomes the universally accepted cultural norm which justifies the social, political and economic status quo as being both natural, inevitable and “common sense”. Hegemony means that we think that the ideas of society are for the benefit of everyone. However in actual fact Hegemony is an artificial social construct that only benefits the people in power.
One great example of Hegemony is The Divine Right of Kings. This is the idea that God was the person that made the King into the King and so if you tried to unseat the King then you were going against the Will of God. This used to be a universally accepted cultural norm and everyone believed in it. If you dared to question this idea then you’d make yourself a social outcast pretty quickly for all the obvious reasons. Hegemony at it’s finest.
Point 2: Politics is About Power
Different people mean different things for the same word. “Politics” is a particularly interesting example of this. Just so we’re clear on what I mean – I think politics is about how society is structured and organised which means that it’s mostly about who has power or not. Power is about the ability to control things and change the world. So for instance – I do not have a lot of power. There’s not much I control in the world. But Boris Johnson has a lot of power. He’s Prime Minister. So he controls lots of things and can do pretty much what he wants.
Furthermore I would say Politics and Power is about things which are material. Mostly this involves around how much money you have. Unfortunately the way our society is constructed means that the more money you have = the more power you have. There’s only so much I can control in the world because I only have so many digits in my bank account. But if the number of digits were to increase by four or five or six I would suddenly be able to do a lot more things and have a lot more control over my life and the lives of other people.
There are some people out there (maybe you’re one of them?) that would say that Politics is also or actually about immaterial or symbolic things.
Here’s a good example:
Some people would say that Barack Obama being elected President was Political because it was an important step for Black People. I would say that it was very nice and very inspiring but thinking about it in those terms isn’t Political because for the vast majority of the America nothing actually changes in the material conditions of their lives. To be very generous ok maybe some kids get inspired to believe that they can do anything and maybe some people change their beliefs about what Black People can do etc. But all of that stuff is immaterial and symbolic.
In comparison to this – it’s estimated that Obama killed somewhere between 384 and 807 people (Jesus) with drone strikes while he was President. That’s Politics because it’s about Power and making a material difference in people’s lives.
And yeah obviously the dividing line between what is material and what is symbolic isn’t as clear cut as all that (killing people is pretty symbolic after all) – but that’s pretty much true for everything right?
The basic point tho is that Politics is the stuff that has a real material effect on things.
Point 3: Art Can Create Political Consciousness
With the above being said you’d be forgiven that I wouldn’t really have much term for Art. After all if the important thing are the material social conditions then what good can Art do? Or in other words: if the dividing line is between the real stuff on one side and the immaterial and symbolic on the other then surely Art is going to be stuff on the side marked “Not Politics.”
This is true. I don’t think that Art is Politics. But I do think that there can be Artworks which talk about / give awareness to Political ideas. About material conditions and the state of the world and how society is structured.
I know that’s it’s kinda an incredibly uncool thing to think – but most of how I see the world politically comes from different types of art stuff I’ve consumed throughout my life. That isn’t to say that I’ve mainly been attracted to political polemics that have wagged their fingers in my face and said “THIS IS HOW THE WORLD IS.” Far from it – in fact most of them have been far more sly and subtle than that and if anything have helped me to see that the is far more full of nuance and complexity then we may be lead to believe… I could be wrong but I don’t think that I’m alone in this. Maybe people talk about seeing a movie or reading a book that changed their life.
Or in other words: growing up and being exposed to certain books, films and music helped to change how I see the world because they made me more politically aware and politically conscious.
You may disagree with the validity of these points – but it’s interesting to see what happens to the idea of Diversity™ if we accept them as being true. I don’t think that it’s to much of a stretch to say that presents another way of thinking about this overwhelming need and push for more Diversity™ in the realm of art. Namely – by focusing attention on to Diversity™ you can shift the conversation from talk of things such as power and politics and replace it with simple and superficial art that leaves the system in place but replaces the face with someone not White, not Straight and not Male. And while yes of course I can see that this might be empowering for lots of people and make them feel better about themselves and their lives I think that a very subtle trick is being played and something very important is being lost.
Namely – if you think that the important thing about the people in charge of society is their sexuality, what colour they are and their gender I think you’re missing something.
To use an example – there was a famous photo a few years ago that saw Trump and his cronies signing stuff that curtailed funding to women’s-health organizations by preventing U.S. aid from funding any non-governmental organizations that provide or advise on abortions.
Here’s the photo:
At the time there was a lot of noise on the internet about how this proved what was wrong with everything. A bunch of straight white men exercising their power and control over women’s bodies.
But my question is does this mean that people would have been less upset if the picture of the people passing the law had looked like this?
Or how about this?
Or. Is it the case that it’s a shitty law no matter what the people who passed it looked like?
My point here is that a fixation on what people look like obscures deeper ways of understanding reality and power.
Of course yeah – I realise that the argument is that if you have people who know what it’s like to experience something then they’re less likely to be against it. Women know what it’s like to have abortions therefore they’re much less likely to pass legislation that makes it more difficult. I understand this of course.
But my point here is that in much the same way as we discussed with the case of Thatcher if you have one thing (A) that you think is linked to creating a thing that you want to bring about (B) then why don’t you just campaign for B instead of campaigning for A especially when it is possible that you might get A and not get B. Or in other words – instead of aiming for more female politicians – why not aim for more politicians who are for more female friendly policies? Or is that a step too far?
Again it’s hard to escape the thought that the real conflict here is not between Diversity™ and Privilege or whatever but between simplicity and complexity.
So. What have we learnt?
I’ve tried to show in a few different ways some of the problems associated with the idea of Diversity™ – it’s superficial, it encourages essentialism, it can be used as a fig leaf, it teaches people that only Diversity™ is important, that Diversity™ is not the important value, you can have Good Art or you can have Diversity™ but you can’t have both and Diversity™ obscures power.
Now I would say that it’s important here to point out here that even tho Diversity™ has these issues it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should abandon it altogether. There may be problems with a car (it’s an ugly colour, the seatbelts don’t work and it pollutes the environment) but it still gets you from A to B quicker than walking so maybe it’s the case that the problems don’t really matter enough. That’s fair enough.
There’s also the question of what Diversity™ should replaced with. I don’t have any real easy answers for that. To be honest tho – I think that there some positives to the idea of Diversity™ and as someone who’s lived in London pretty much his whole life I feel more comfortable with spaces where there’s a mixture of different people from different places with different outlooks. Homogeneity is never really a good look you know? As strange as it may sound I think that maybe one possible way forward would be to favour something like the idea of “Multiculturalism” rather than “Diversity™” – in that (for me at least) the idea of Multiculturalism has much nicer connotations and implies more of a stance that’s loose and open and welcoming rather than Diversity™ which feels more like it’s ticking boxes off on a quota. But that’s a little vague I know.
Another possible thought that I haven’t really got into but which I think is one of the places that Diversity™ points towards if you take it sensibility is the idea that it may be the case that different groups need different artworks.
Earlier on we talked about something I called “The Diversity™ Dilemma” this is the question that asks: Are the differences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality etc between people real and important or not?
The interesting thing here is that if you do want to claim that these differences are real and important then it might also be the case that therefore these different groups will respond in different ways to different artworks and therefore what is needed is one type of artwork for women, one type of artwork for black people, one type of artwork for gay people etc. I would say that this is a strange thought to have – but if we take a look around it seems that maybe the market is already being constructed in this way – how long til we end up seeing this categories on Netflix alongside all the others?
Some people may see this as a positive step forward but I’ll admit that it makes me feel very uneasy. Maybe this is because I’ve brought into the myth that art should be universal. That it doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe – that a good work of art will show you possibilities and ideas of things beyond your identity. In fact that’s what good art is all about.
And yet if we recall The Argument for Diversity™ we can see that it’s been the case that throughout history art has been dominated by straight white males and so therefore maybe it’s always been the case that the universality of art has just been a facade disguising a gross inequality. Maybe all of this “universal” art has really just been an artwork reflecting back a particular straight white male worldview?
This may be the case. But it’s difficult to ascertain for sure as the conclusions you reach will depend on which paradigm you’re coming from. If you think that good art has a universal quality then of course you won’t think that art should be made into separate categories for different groups and if you think that art should be made into separate categories then you won’t be convinced by the idea that good art should be universal.
And just to make things more confusing – I think it’s very possible that the paradigm you subscribe to will no doubt be influenced by the art that you’ve consumed. That if you’ve experienced enough things that teach you that your identity doesn’t matter then you’ll think one way and if you’ve experienced enough things that teach you that your identity doesn’t matter then you’ll think another.
And how exactly do you ascertain which paradigm is better? Especially when of course of course it’s not just the artworks that are telling you that your identity matters – it’s way more your everyday experiences in society which of course is still racist and sexist and homophobic in all sorts of various ways.
I will also say that tho that one of the problems with the idea of that different groups need different artworks is that this stance excuses people getting upset that a certain artwork is not for them. I call this “The Doctor Who Problem.”
Namely: if you think that Jodie Whittaker becoming Doctor Who means that it’s now “for women” then that kinda necessarily includes the thought that means that it’s not for men – which is not something that I would want to agree with. Because well – I kinda want to live in a world where all art is for everyone.
Although of course I realise that’s maybe a little bit too simplistic perhaps.
But we’re all on the same side – right?
The Truth Depends on Where You Stand
Of course I understand that the idea that we’re all on the same side is a contentious one nowadays. Some people might say that it’s a little bit too close to the idea that the differences between us aren’t important. And isn’t it only the racists who say that they don’t see why the colour of someone’s skin should be important? You know the whole thing that people who say “well – I don’t see colour” are the ones that you have to be most careful of?
To run the risk of being flippant this line of thought kinda reminds me of the the debate between the use of the term “graphic novels” and “comic books” which is something that I always come back to when I’m trying to understand the idea that the truth depends on where you stand and how a little bit of context goes a long way.
Basically with in trying to work out if you should call them “graphic novels” or “comic books” there are Five Main Stages.
You’ve never read a graphic novel or a comic before – so you don’t care what they’re called.
You start reading them and quite like it and you don’t know any better – so you call them “comics.”
You get serious about it and you think that “comics” sounds too juvenile and you think they need to be taken more seriously – so you call them “graphic novels.”
You think that “graphic novels” sounds pretentious and it’s actually cooler to reclaim the childish name – so you call them “comics.”
You realise that all of this stuff doesn’t really matter anyway and what they’re called is beside the point – so you don’t care what they’re called.
The important thing to note here is that Stage 1 and Stage 5 are identical in how they sound but Stage 1 is an unconsidered opinion that’s made from ignorance while Stage 5 is hard-won wisdom that can only be reached by going through all the previous stages. Your mileage may vary on this but in my experience a lot of the things that I believe are variations on this – where the deep considered opinion is superficially similar to the ignorant unconsidered position.
Or in other words: the truth depends on where you stand, context is important and it doesn’t pay to assume too much about what someone means especially when similar sounding statements might cover radically different sentiments and points of view.
And I guess that’s the moral stance that I believe in – taking a stance against discrimination of course but for anything apart from that raising my arms in the air and saying that “I don’t care.”
Just give me the good art.
Thanks for reading.