A Wanton Abuse Of Diversity

We’ve noticed a growing number of calls for diversity in the news of late. At first glance this appears to be a positive trend. However, upon closer examination, there is some cause for concern about the new direction that the diversity debate is taking.

The biggest story on diversity so far this year has been the selection of nominees for the Oscar Awards. For the second year running, only white actors have been nominated . Consequently, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has been trending on social media for weeks, and several celebrities have threatened to boycott the event.

Although this latest issue is about race, our understanding and definition of diversity has evolved considerably in recent years. Today, we’re more aware of inequality related to gender, sexual orientation, physical stature, ethnicity, and other various points of difference. In the words of Idris Elba, an actor who many thought was snubbed by this year’s Oscar nominations, “diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour. It’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation social background, and — most important of all, as far as I’m concerned — diversity of thought”.

Ostensibly, this idea of a broadened definition of diversity is appealing. However, it also makes the cause of diversity more susceptible to being hijacked by groups or individuals. Take for example recording artist Kanye West who was seemingly dissatisfied when the online music publication Pitchfork gave his album a score of 9/10. West responded by suggesting that Pitchfork should not “comment on black music anymore”, instantly turning the critique into an issue about race. In another recent example, well-respected US weatherman Al Roker was attacked for having an ‘insensitive’ smile after he tweeted a photo of himself with the owners of a car that had gotten stuck in a hole during a flood . Never mind that the owners were smiling too, possibly relishing their brief brush with fame. Is a benign smile in a photo really something worth taking offence over?

Everyday in the news we see many similar examples of frivolous offence being taken in the name of equality. Comedians are censured for their jokes, off-hand comments are dissected on social media, and meaningless apologies are issued thick and fast.

To be fair, some (and perhaps even the majority) of these comments are indeed ill-conceived and deserving of some criticism. But disproportionate responses to minor transgressions not only overshadow the real and substantive issues that need to be dealt with, they have also spawned three new problems for us to deal with. Firstly, we as a society are starting to becomeneurotic with incessant demands for apologies at every turn. Secondly, the fear of causing offence is leading us towards greater levels of censorship, which compromises our freedom of speech and the breadth and quality of our discourse. And thirdly, self-interest is often allowed to take centre-stage in the name of diversity. For example, Snoop Dogg claimed that he was ‘racially profiled’ when Swedish authorities arrested him on suspicion of having drugs in his possession. Given that Norwegian customs had previously found the artist in possession of illicit drugs, that he owns and markets his own brand of marijuana products, and that he cultivates a drug-indulgent public persona, his claim of racial persecution seems not only untenable, but entirely unhelpful to those who actually do get profiled.

Then there is the bigger problem of finding ways to eradicate inequality. Returning once more to the issue of racial diversity in American cinema, several individuals have noted just how complicated this problem actually is. The Coen Brothers, responsible for some of Hollywood’s biggest hits, have sensibly argued that diversity can’t be achieved simply by saying “I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews and a dog.” Leading American television actress Viola Davis concurred that boycotting the Oscars would achieve very little, because the diversity question in Hollywood requires year-round consideration. And minorities are underrepresented in Hollywood not only on-screen but also among directors and producers. This is at least partially due to a disproportionately small number of people from minorities opting to pursue careers in media to begin with. Clearly the Oscars are not a silver-bullet solution to the problem.

Any scheme designed to increase diversity needs to also be carefully implemented to ensure that it doesn’t do more harm than good. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Australia, for example, is planning to fast-track the hiring process for female firefighters in order to boost the number of women in the industry. But women who are training to be firefighters have spoken out against the plan because they ‘don’t want to be treated differently to the men’. Not only could the proposed plan lead to possible resentment over preferential treatment, one might also argue that in fields like emergency services human safety and effectiveness should not be be superseded by diversity goals. Everyone hired, man or woman, should be subjected to the same rigours of selection and training and a subset of candidates should not be fast-tracked for the sake of diversity.

Many of today’s diversity problems have been decades or even centuries in the making. Correcting them will be neither quick nor easy. As former US secretary of state and UN ambassador Madeleine Albright has said, “the Cold War was a piece of cake” in comparison to addressing inequality.

The concern now is that even though real progress is being made on levelling the playing field, the growing influence of personal biases and over-sensitivity in our discussions on diversity may lead to an increase in apathy or even antipathy towards the very groups that have been historically disadvantaged and need support.

Moya Zhang is a freelance journalist and Inkl contributor.

This article is one of a series of Narratives produced by inkl to create greater awareness of some of the less visible themes, trends and directions that are shaping our society and our world.

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