By: Etai Shuchatowitz  | 

Defining Diversity

Defining Diversity picA recent New York Times piece about what Justice Scalia would’ve wanted for his successor attempted to find some insight in his recent ruling on same sex marriage. In the piece, a reporter argues that “Justice Scalia was criticizing the lack of diversity of the court he sat on, and he did not exclude himself. He was right as a factual matter: Supreme Court justices these days are by many measures remarkably similar, giving the court the insular quality of a private club or a faculty lounge.”


Here lies the buzzword that everybody loves throwing around nowadays: “diversity.” It’s a sexy word, full of inclusive and exciting connotations. It’s a word that seems to imply the necessity of every single individual. People say we need diversity in the workplace and in education. In fact, in pretty much every facet of life somebody is arguing that diversity is a virtue worth pursuing.


But, the problem I find is that the word doesn’t really mean anything of value whatsoever.


I’m not confused when somebody argues that blacks are underrepresented in Hollywood, or that the LGBT community has been marginalized. These are clear concerns that can elicit a particular response. What I don’t understand is this broad word “diversity”.


Every individual is different by definition. We are all diverse in a literally infinite number of ways. Otherwise, we would all be the same person. Some people are right handed, some are left handed, some are white, some are black, the list of differences goes on and on. But, for some reason, a few of these differences have become worthy of intrinsic inclusion.


In the case of the NY Times reporter’s reading of Justice Scalia, the thing that matters is social upbringing and college education. Not what your dad did for a living, or what music you prefer to listen to when writing a term paper, but where you went to college. The Supreme Court has three women, six men, one black, three Jews, six Catholics, and one Hispanic. Not to speak of their taste in fiction, what attracts them to their partners or what they enjoy to eat for dinner. But, in this instance, none of these criteria define diversity. The thing - the single thing - that defines diversity is where they went to college.


I was recently listening to a podcast called Reply All, in which they were discussing the importance of the diversity in Silicon Valley. The story was about a black man doing his best to achieve racial diversity in the tech world. They spent awhile talking about how underrepresented blacks are in Silicon Valley - and I get that. I understand the issue and what they’re trying to say. The problem came later when they tried to argue that diversity is, not just a point of moral correctness (a point I’ll take issue with later), but when they argued that it makes business sense. One of the points they made was in regards to how your origins define what associations you make in problem solving. They used the example of where one keeps his ketchup.


They quoted an expert who said, “If you’re British or if you’re African American from the South... you’re likely to keep your ketchup in the cupboard. If you’re not British and you’re not African American from the South, you tend to keep your ketchup in the fridge....Suppose you run out of ketchup. If you’re out of ketchup and you’re a ketchup in the fridge might use mayonnaise, you might use mustard because those are things you think of when what’s next to the ketchup. If, alternatively, you’re a ketchup in the cupboard person and you run out ketchup, what’s next to the ketchup in the cupboard? Well, malt vinegar.”


This example completely undermines the entire argument about the need for racial diversity. This is saying that, from a business or problem-solving perspective, anybody who makes different associations should be hired. If making slightly different associations is grounds for hiring then, why is nobody arguing for more British people in Silicon Valley when they too keep their ketchup in the fridge and will therefore make these precious “different associations”? This ridiculously foolish line of thinking has conflated all diversity with racial diversity. This idea that, “This is probably the first time in my life that the profitable thing was also actually morally correct thing” just doesn’t make any sense.


This notion also raises issues of the “moral correctness” of diversity. Why is diversity some intrinsic value laced with moral virtues? It certainly doesn’t feel the same way as “Thou shalt not kill” or some other fairly obvious moral truth. Yet people walk around touting this as a virtue; as something that is inherently worth pursuing. This manifests itself when people hire a more diverse crowd in the hopes of attaining a moral cause.


I need to put forth before moving forward that I am extremely privileged. I don’t really face many hardships because of who I am. I am a white male, born to a middle class family, who attended private school and never questioned whether he would go to college. That being said, I don’t think that prevents me from having opinions about the world.


In order to analyze this idea, let’s take the example of women in STEM. This is one of those places where people argue about this “diversity” claim and a need for more women in STEM. As somebody slightly involved in the STEM world, I fully endorse this claim, but I do think that we need to analyze things a little more closely.


It makes sense to think that trends in micro fields would follow trends of a larger scale. For instance, one would think that the percentage breakdown of men versus women in STEM would follow their corresponding trends in the general population: namely, it should be about a 50-50 breakdown. Similarly, one would assume that the number of black leading roles in Hollywood would follow percentages of blacks in the population. But, it’s not. Neither of these follow their assumptive trends. And that raises the question of why not.


I need to admit that I am assuming that phenomena are either cultural or genetic. I am making an assumption (and I think a pretty safe one) that women are not born genetically predisposed to being bad at STEM. So, that means that any strange statistical anomaly must be cultural. So, there must be something cultural that has predisposed women to not pursuing STEM in the same numbers as men.


It’s tricky. I don’t know exactly what this is and where it lies. And, the fact that I can’t locate it means that it must lay really entrenched in our cultural fibres. So, the way to solve this problem isn’t to just approach women and force them to enter STEM. Nor is the fix to just hire women in order to fulfill some diversity quota. The answer is to try and figure out where and when we went wrong and attempt to rectify that hole. We need to dig deep. We need to really put in hard work and fix the places where we obviously are failing.


But, that’s not what happens. Instead, people attempt to simply put a band-aid on a tumor and just run around screaming diversity. They yell that we need more diversity in this and that area - not realizing that they’re not saying anything. They’re simply advocating that people are different - an extremely trivial claim that ultimately means nothing.


The method people want to implement is a purely role-model based method - one in which we include more diversity, whatever that means, hoping to encourage others to follow suit. It’s certainly possible that including more women in STEM jobs will remove some deeply ingrained stigma and change how the field functions. I don’t believe it’s the case that women look at the field, not seeing anybody who looks like them and therefore don’t go in. If that were true, why would womanhood be the thing that people so define themselves by which they need to encounter in the field? Rather, I think it’s something cultural lying way below the surface. Something that doesn’t go away by just hiring more people.


Furthermore, this is asking business, a realm whose interests remain financial and commerce based, to make a decision based on non-financial interests. This is a little unfair. As I discussed above, I’m unconvinced that this is a moral notion, and therefore, businesses have no imperative to do this other than “It might end up being culturally beneficial. Maybe”.


This gets back to what we should hope for the next justice of the Supreme Court. Not surprisingly, it’s the same thing we should hope for of anybody who gets any job: that he or she is qualified to do so. If you keep your ketchup in the fridge it does not play any role in whether you can program. It doesn’t mean that you can solve a problem. It for sure doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a great fit for that new startup. It means that you’re different. It means you’re a human being.
So, I hope that the next justice is very educated. I hope he or she knows what he or she is talking about. In fact, I don’t care whether they’re Asian or Jewish or Catholic or whether they listen to Tupac or Beethoven, or what hand they write with. I care that they’re able to think critically, willing to express their real opinions despite how unpopular they are, and that they’re willing to stick up for what they believe is right. Most of all, I really don’t care where they keep their ketchup.