Diversity matters

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn, October 1, 2016.


The recent public debate about how to best manage the growing diversity in our society, communities and organisations has been an exciting, although challenging experience for everyone involved - sometimes burdensome, when the perfect answer seems to escape us at every try - at other times stimulating, when solutions seem to be at the top of one's fingers.

In this article, I intend to briefly present the case of each of the four mainstream views on how to deal with the diversity issue, both in communities and in corporate life - after which I will humbly suggest a refreshing, and I believe indefinitely stronger argument.


Strap your boots.

The diversity issue as commonly represented by theorists, politicians, managers, and probably you and me, rests entirely on a given twin of axioms, which together exemplify its necessity and its urgency. (1) Diversity, it is believed, is on the rise - in fact society has never been as diverse as today - and (2) Diversity is bad. It is the (unwanted, negative) by-product of (post-modern) globalism, and as such it is a problem to be solved.

It is easy to see how these twin axioms give rise to policies and management propositions aimed at the reduction of diversity. Evangelists of these policies are those claiming that building walls, closing borders, withholding passports & travel rights, and returning to the "values and norms" of "us, the nation" will suffice to solve the problems attributed to diversity. So here is the plan: Get your broom and sweep - and with things brought back to "normal", and this means: non-diverse, the society, community or organisation can return to its core mission of being (or becoming) prosperous.

Although seemingly to-the-point and becoming more popular every day, the above programme so far has failed to produce significant results. Walls and closed borders have created more management problems than they have solved, "values and norms" are subject of endless debates, and "nations" are (re)circumscribed on the basis of fancifully created myhts and randomly chosen "golden ages" - while all the time diversity appears to keep growing and we seem to be going ever further away from "normal", driving people to opt for ever more radical proponents of ever more simplistically cut theories.

Observing politicians struggling to promise their electorate more of the same, of these so-called pragmatic solutions, might have been fun a few years ago, but today it has become truly difficult to keep oneself from feeling pity for those who got so much overtaken by events and yet keep singing the same tune.

Why doesn't it work? - The problem is with the axioms. Note how diversity is nowhere properly defined, or, it is opportunistically narrowed down, to difference in religion or in cultural, sometimes "national"values, to which allegiance is due - neither of which concepts has proved to be able to withstand critical scrutiny in the first place. Being undefined, the word diversity has become utterly meaningless, and saying that it is on the rise thus becomes an expression just about as valuable as stating that whopperdeeboops have gained value in the course of the last seventeen breenths.


Thank you for the music.

A quite different tune is heard at the very other end of the spectre. Here, diversity is not so much a problem to be solved, but a tool, which in itself provides solutions to current issues in society, communities and organisations. It goes without saying that this approach is so utterly opposed to the one briefly described above, that reconciliation between (proponents of) the two have proved to be nearly impossible.

If diversity indeed powers process efficiency, solutions and results, it wouldn't be hard to imagine a world in which influencers, leaders, policy makers and managers compete in acquiring teams of people as diverse as one can get, and countries would deploy special programs, including the opening of borders, the tearing down of walls and even the banning of a Pledge of Allegiance (unhoaxed) - all to attract the most colourful blend of as many immigrants as are willing to come.

Thus taken as a business tool, diversity is most commonly represented in the so-called diversity conjecture, a power engine which ultimately leads to better performance, higher output, and better results. Clearly this is music in the ears of the manager struggling with a reality in which diversity in the workplace rather seems to be doing the opposite.

However, the positivist do-re-mi on diversity is a well documented and much defended one - even if its starting point is and remains a conjecture, in other words: an educated guess. For sure, says Scott E Page in The Difference, his landmark study (2007) on the subject, the diversity conjecture admittedly suffers from vagueness and imprecision, and most obviously it fails to hold universally.

I would say this is softspeak. For a business model to be valid, precision of the terms is key, while vagueness and imprecision are lethal.

Whence the weakness of the case? - Again, not only does the notorious conjecture fail to define what diversity really is, or what it is supposed to be - it also neglects to identify the kind of processes, enterprises or tasks for which it is claimed to have a beneficial effect on the output.

In very much the same manner, while the conjecture is meant to represent a positive stand, propagate a positivist outlook and win the hearts and actions of a business-like and purpose-driven audience, it does exactly the opposite, forever hypothesising the business community's belief and trust in diversity evangelists now stereotyped as weak-spirited leftist dreamers, magic mushroom salesmen and John-and-Yoko-type Hair Peace groupies.



The Cambridge Dictionary explains inclusion as the idea that everyone should be able to use the same facilities, take part in the same activities, and enjoy the same experiences - including people who have a disability or other disadvantage.

Fair enough.

By the look of it, this third conventional approach to dealing with diversity can either be seen as the natural plan of action for the conjecturalists (see under #2), or as a moral guideline for you and you and you and me and all the good-hearted, aiming at in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

In the first case, where inclusion-generated diversity is promised to deliver better overall performance, the practice of inclusion is mostly or entirely driven by self-interest. In the second case, it is the price we pay for being human. Because affirmative practice of loving kindness is the epitome of human civilisation.

In the world of diversity management, diversity consultants and workplace diversity trainings, inclusion is really big. And, as it happens, big business it is as well. In inclusion programmes, nearly always the load is being laid on us, the non-disabled and non-disadvantaged - and it is our assignment, for the common good, either economically or morally speaking, to do the necessary to understand and cater for the needs of the others, the differently abled and the disadvantaged.

Since it is construed on the very idea that society consists of a mixture of normal, non-disadvantaged people and a number of special cases, called dis-advantaged on account of their apparent un-fittingness in the fold of those who fit in well, it is not so very difficult to understand that inclusionism thrives on groups of people wishing for, or creating, or nurturing, identities of unfittingness - if only they could be or remain object of the special care which is the keystone of the inclusionist's value proposition.

In the world of Inclusionista, being disadvantaged becomes a commodity.

In the world of Inclusionista, communities take the road to the capital to demand the right to be called backward - and a PM vaguely hints at being an OBC (Other Backward Castes) in order to tap into a bigger vote bank.



Where inclusion puts the load on the fitting, integration is meant to be the recommended course of action for the unfitting. Integrationists are open to diversity, they say, oh yes, they might even be fans - as long as the diverse, the non-us, the non-advantaged, take it upon themselves to deny or erase their otherness, their them-ness, their unfittingness.

How to erase your being different? - Unless you are differently abled in the physical sphere, the list of available self-annihilation tools is long and varied. The list of solutions, pun intended, is diverse. Languages can be (un)learned, gender-based behaviour can be set "right", religions can be (un)followed, even fuzzy concepts like "national identity" can be up- or overturned. Honestly, there is no point in being and remaining the unfitting you. Be a fitting me and all will be fine.

With integrationists, to adapt and to respect are key verbs. The other is expected to adapt (to normalcy), and doing this is seen as a proof of respect. However - where adaptation is seen as in no case requiring reciprocity ("It is the other's duty, it is my weakness") - reciprocal respect can be earned.

How? - With self-annihilation, one earns respecticoins.

Look around you - and you will see the inherent weakness of the integration approach. Wherever integration is the hallmark of diversity management, the unfitting are left derobed of their identity, while their essays at adaptation are rarely considered sufficient to have earned them the bits of respect and the affirmative action of inclusion they were promised was their due. Instead, they are less fit than ever, forever struggling and searching, endlessly trying and looking for a handhold.

It is in the world of integration that you will hear how policy makers seek popular support with the statement that the multicultural society has failed - deceitfully veiling the reality that not the multicultural society but the integrationist approach has proved to be the root cause of society's diversity misfortunes.

Then what to do?

Diversity is a reality of nature. Diversity is not a problem, and neither is it a godsend. Diversity is what is - and inclusion nor integration have ever substantially lessened the burden of the unfitting.

Walk through the corridors of history. Every attempt, of whatever "nation", of whatever "power", to annihilate otherness or disengage the other from her identity, self-image, and self-respect, has led to discontent, discord, dissent, disruption, (armed) conflict and (lately, very much) terror. No empire has ever successfully forced people to become someone else.

What to do? - The answer is obvious.

We have to start by assigning every individual the right to be individually different, and, in being different, the right to be herself. Being individually different is the true meaning of diversity.
The right to be yourself entails the right to be taken for and to be approached as an individual - a person with an endless list of features (such as physical ability, mental capacity, gender, age, colour, geographical predilection, religious affinity, beliefs, values, you-name-it), all of which contribute to, but do not define the essence of your individual differentness.
One's right to be individually different further entails the right to not be defined as a mere member, or representative, of a group. The (unconscious) bias that we all have in relation to the other thrives on observable features which are automatically (and stereotyically) ascribed to a group or category. But belonging to a group (of believers, of ethnical descendency, of whatever like-yourselfs) is an attribute of who you are - it is not who you are.
One's right to be an individual rather than a member of a group brings along one's right to pledge allegiance to the values, beliefs, geographical predilections, religions or whatevers of your own choice. Political borders are what they are: political borders - and not borders per se. All attempts to force coincidence of political borders with one's personal and individual identity are in vain. Forcing or expecting individuals to pledge allegiance to a temporal political construct, conveniently masked as a "nation", is an insult to humanity - just as much as it is a basic act of cruelty to deny the other the right to be individually different, merely based on the fact that the other happens to have been born "at the other side" of "the border".
The right to be yourself cannot be disconnected from the right to express yourself and the right to give expression to who you are and what you stand for. Says Timothy Garton Ash (in: Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, 2016): Free speech helps us to live with the new intimacy of diversity. Only by peacefully expressing our human differences can we understand what matters to the ever more diverse women and men next to whom we are now likely to find ourselves living, as physical and virtual neighbours. And more: If we can learn how to articulate openly all kinds of human difference, real or imagined, without coming to blows, we will be on the way to living as good neighbours in this world-as-city.
With all this in mind, everybody is diverse, everybody is special. Managing diversity turns out to be nothing more than respecting people's individual differences, unconditionally.

Are you a policy maker? A manager? A headmaster? A teacher? A parent? - Imagine a world, city, society, company, school, class or family where everybody respects the other - without question and without condition. Can you see the benefits?

Because in a world where everybody is diverse, nobody is. Because in a world where everybody is special, nobody is. And when nobody is, all of us are.