Dr Green's Dictionary

Dr Green’s Dictionary: Diversity

Diversity is our strength? Or has history shown us otherwise?

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

“Diversity is our strength,” we firmly believe, though we know history shows otherwise. The diversity quota originates in JFK’s executive order on affirmative action in the workplace (1961). Consultants who conduct diversity audits and advise companies on diversity hires are accused of being diversity pimps. On television and radio, it is imperative that every group gets a slice of the diversity cake — except conservatives, who complain about a lack of viewpoint diversity.

History also shows that while diversity’s meaning has remained constant since the Normans diversified the English monarchy, the word has until recently expressed divers or diverse values, all of which we disapprove.

From the Latin diversus via the Old French divers, the Middle English divers denoted differences of character and quality. If quality was involved, it was usually negative: “Differing from what is right, good or profitable,” the OED says, “perverse, cruel; adverse, unfavourable.” In The Tempest, Prospero’s guests endure a “diversity of sounds, all horrible” at night.

Prospero diverted the maritime traffic to his island. A diversion, as any medieval driver obliged to turn down a diverticulum (a by-way) knew, was not always a good thing. The Renaissance courtier had, however, time for diverting into a distracting entertainment, as in Spenser’s “diverse coloured flower” (1595). But no one enjoys diverticulitis of the intestine, or being accused of diversionism (sabotage) by communists.

Diversity’s moral implications shrank in the seventeenth century to a harmless divertissement. But in the mid-nineteenth century diversity attached itself to race and regained its negative qualities. If you believed in racial diversity in Darwin’s day, you believed that our species does not have what he called “common descent”. You believed in original diversity: that we descend from a diversity of different species, as shown by the diversiform skulls and abilities of the modern races. As a polygenist, you believed in what the Confederate propagandist Henry Hoetze called “moral and intellectual diversity”. You might even have joined the Anthropological Society of London, who advertised their rejection of racial equality by calling themselves the Cannibal Club.

It was Walt Whitman who first gave positive value to diversity. “I resist any thing better than my own diversity,” Whitman wrote in “The Song of Myself” (1856), providing Oscar Wilde with the template for a joke about temptation. A later pickup artist confirmed that Whitman’s take on E pluribus unum had become a legal doctrine. “My fellow Americans, we must never, ever believe that our diversity is a weakness. It is our greatest strength,” said Bill Clinton in 1997.

A year later, Toronto’s city council picked “Diversity Our Strength” as their city’s new motto. Other suggestions included “Stronger in Unity” and “Resistance is Futile”.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover