Diversity is Not a Cult—But What is It?

Diversity Graphic

A couple of months ago I was savaged on my campus on account of a title supplied by one of my editors: “My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult.” I don’t know that Providence College has succumbed, but the next day somebody had written on the blackboard of my class, “Diversity is not a cult!”

Well, of course it isn’t. The sentence “diversity is a cult” makes no sense. It is like saying that “sweetness is a cult” or “studying French is a cult.” There is nothing wrong with sweetness or studying French, or with weight-lifting, watching baseball, breeding dogs, or a thousand other things that people do. Anything good, however, can become the object of a cult-like devotion. So some men and women devote their whole lives to picking heavy things up and putting them down. Sexual intercourse is a good thing, or else God would not have commanded Adam and Eve in the beginning to be fruitful and multiply; but it is also probably the single thing that has, all the world over and from prehistoric times to our own day, most commonly been made the heart of a cult.

We might call man homo religiosus, so fertile and febrile is that factory of idols, his imagination. Chesterton had it right: the man who ceases to believe in God does not then believe in nothing. He will believe in anything, and shower upon that object the devotion that is due only to the divine. That includes his obedience. The man who will not obey the God whose commands will set him free does not then go his own way. He can be found straightaway bowing and scraping slave-like before a false god—a tricked-up political thug like Mao, a moronic and inhuman ideology like Nazism, Mother Earth the womb and tomb of all, anything; and will with a clear conscience offer up other people to placate the deity.

But before I say, “Some people run the danger of turning diversity into a false god,” I would like to know what we mean by the term. Replace it with synonyms. I cannot imagine people crying out, “We want variety!” Or, “We want in a certain human group an appreciable variance from the norm in some particular respect!” Put it in those ways and you take all the emotion out of it; nobody is inspired to tears by variety, or by an appreciable variance from the norm.

You are standing on a corner, waiting for the bus, when a haggard man with the goggle-eyes and the gruff voice of Christopher Lloyd accosts you. “Variety!” he says. “Divergence! Deviation from the mean, in all things, at all times, in all places! Only divergence will save us!” You nod politely, and take out your cell phone.

There is nothing either good or bad about “variety,” “divergence,” or “deviation from the mean” per se, because without a subject the terms have no meaning. If you are building a championship baseball team, you need players who possess a visible diversity of skills and body-types; you cannot win with nine shortstops. But “gender diversity”? Not if you want to win. It is healthy for a man to have a variety of friends. It is not healthy for him to have a variety of wives.

It is a harmless and perfectly human thing for people who share the same interests or the same accidents of birth or life to enjoy getting together: people who play cribbage, or who were born in Duluth, or who speak Welsh. We would not expect the Welsh Language Club to open its doors to people who do not speak the language and do not want to learn it. That linguistic “diversity” would end by undoing the Club itself. It is not a harmless and perfectly human thing, however, for people in an intellectual discipline to cordon themselves off from others who are trained in that discipline but who approach its questions from a point of view that diverges from theirs.

You see, it all depends upon what we are talking about. There is a name for a Catholic priest who diversifies the objects of his devotion by including the elephant-god Ganesha or the Aztec man-eater Quetzalcoatl. He is called a heretic or an infidel. There is a name for a married man who diversifies the objects of his devotion by including his neighbor’s wife. He is called an adulterer. By contrast, there is a name for a social scientist who cries up diversity while keeping his department intellectually monotone, excluding, let us say, someone who discusses political questions via the old-fashioned conservatism of Burke. His name is Legion.

In the ensuing controversy, one professor suggested in public that I obviously did not like to teach people who were “not like” me. Again I do not know what the sentence is supposed to mean. Perhaps there is somewhere a hidden city, emerging to the light only once in a century, like Brigadoon, where everybody is a Catholic, reads ten languages, doodles math problems and baseball statistics, teaches and writes poetry, likes to hang around working-class people but not fellow academics, is notoriously absent-minded, pores over maps, lives in the summer in another country among people whose first language is not English, and is a fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals. Teach people who are not like me? I have been doing that all my life. So too my colleague has been teaching people who are not like him. In what respect are people to be held like or not like one another? I have been teaching poetry to people who want to become accountants. Is that what he means? He has been teaching art to people who want to become doctors. Is that what he means?

What is to be valued as diverse from what, and for what purpose? Is it religious faith? I sometimes boast that I enjoy Most Favored Catholic Status among protestant and evangelical groups everywhere, and my family and I are avowed admirers of observant Jews, our elder brothers in the faith, as Pope Benedict has called them. My massive Hebrew-English lexicon is three feet away from me as I write these words. Now, as a Catholic colleague of mine once said, the most underrepresented people on our campus are born-again evangelical Christians, of whatever race or ethnicity. Some of them are poor, too, and plenty of them have been taught at home with curricula that would incline them toward our program in the Development of Western Civilization. They generally do not come from New England. Do they or do they not diverge from the normal population of Providence College, if we are to think in such terms? But they have no cheerleaders at our school.

What is left, then? No single human being can be called “diverse.” That makes no sense. Diversity, like unity, amity, enmity, and so forth, can logically be predicated only of a group. Is “diversity” to be conceived only in ethnic and racial terms, with an added nod toward people who are inclined toward violating in a currently celebrated way the sexual part of the moral law? Is that it?

With regard to sexual morality, I have asked what the principle of selection is supposed to be. A Catholic cannot celebrate mere fornication after the pattern of our animal nature; and if that is grave matter, then so must sodomy be, a fortiori. If John and Mary are not permitted to couple, forget about John and Martin. Change the field from sex to the ownership of property. Imagine the proponent of “gender diversity” arguing with his auto mechanic over the charges for his new transmission, and imagine that the mechanic proposes “transactional diversity.”

“I have not cheated you,” says the mechanic. “It’s just that I have a more flexible view—a view more tolerant of philosophical differences as they apply in the never fully determined conditions of our human interchanges—of what it means to abide by the terms of a contract. Surely,” says he, tilting his head and smiling indulgently, like a professor of Biblical exegesis speaking to someone who believes in Christ, “you do not expect me to take those words literally.

Is it culture, then? Do they long for cultural diversity in our program of study? But it cannot be that, since our great treasure-trove of cultural diversity is the past, not the homogenizing present, and since my opponents, who mainly focus on the present, have offered no rejoinder to my observation that, in the very program they despise, we study quite a broad array of cultures, vastly different from one another and from ours, supposing that we still have a culture at all.

That leaves race and ethnicity, and I have said, till I am weary of saying it, that a man who believes that every human being is made in the image and likeness of the eternal God cannot be expected to put much stake in the color of someone’s skin. I wonder whether people who do so really consider how beautiful the human face is, how expressive of a unique instantiation of the divine likeness. Ten people in one room—that is already as much diversity as any person can bear if he is paying close attention, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what shade of peach or olive or wheat or coffee their flesh glows withal. Racialism, for a Catholic, is like phrenology, the attempt to characterize people according to the bumps on their heads. We have more important things to concern ourselves with, like truth, goodness, and beauty, and how to bring those to young people, all of them, without distinction or exception.

But perhaps, after all, diversity refers to a certain political project, adhered to with an intensity that reminds one of crowds singing hymns at a revival. If so, regardless of whether the project in question is just, my colleagues should admit it, if for nothing else than to let us know what they are talking about, and why they are so eager to take up an inquisition against someone who declines to join.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared March 11, 2017 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.

Anthony Esolen

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Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

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