Diversity can rightly be called a value-free term. All it does, ordinarily, is identify a condition of unlikeness between or among things. It reports this difference as a fact and by itself indicates nothing of the goodness or badness of that fact. Rather, the happenstance of goodness or badness depends on factors other than the diversity itself. The population, for example, is marked by diverse conditions of physical and mental well-being among its members. Some are healthy, others are sick. Better if all were healthy and there were no diversity on this score. Diversity here happens to be linked to a deviation from the normative conditions of health and well-being. It’s bad. The presence of physical suffering and mental anguish does not ground the “celebration of diversity” recommended by bumper stickers and university administrators.
But then of course universities use the term not as the morally neutral term it is. Rather they transform it into a buzzword to identify an ideal of university education. And that ideal, like all objects of human aspiration, presupposes a comprehensive view of mankind—one according to which human beings are poised to become, merely through their own efforts, psychologically and spiritually complete. Recognizing the pathological consequences of this false conception of diversity is crucial. But even more important is coming to understand the truth that it actively (though perhaps unconsciously) seeks to obscure—namely, the truth about human diversity and its implications for our hopes for wholeness.
Universities must have standards; they stand or fall by them. Standardized tests, admission requirements, grades, hiring procedures, peer evaluations, tenure reviews, accreditation processes—all are necessary to any university, since the institution itself is part of a political and social order whose ideals and standards it should uphold. The university can even be defined as an institution for the preservation and transmission of standards for many kinds of human excellence: excellence in wisdom, prudence, art, science, skills, even athletics.
The university, as a product of the tradition of the West, has occupied itself since its beginnings with the definitive standards of the West. Only very recently, however, has diversity been used as a term to designate a standard for a distinctive and significant area of excellence to be fostered by the university.
Does the emphasis on diversity indicate the discovery of a new human excellence?
Surely there is something new here, but it is hard to see what it is. For the new use of the term “diversity” obscures what its usage aims to effect. The fact is that the “celebration of diversity” means to represent a kind of liberation from standards themselves, standards understood to produce homogeneity by systematically excluding and oppressing whatever is “different.”
Now the plain truth of the matter is that standards discriminate. Standards are precisely those measures by which preferences are determined and choices are made. Teaching students to discriminate well—to discern and judge between the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the worthy and the base, the just and the unjust—is central to the work of a university. It is in fact essential to the pursuit of truth itself, because to discriminate is to mark differences, to discern the texture and quality of the diversity of the world.
At the same time, to discriminate well and wisely is to note that while some acts of discrimination serve justice by setting each thing in its proper place, others can serve injustice by systematically excluding some from the place that is properly theirs. The racial background of a student or teacher or administrator, for example, has no intrinsic bearing on the capacity of that person to measure up to the standards of a well-constituted university. Racial discrimination should play no part in academic discrimination, and the imposition of racial standards onto the judgment made about who should or should not participate in the life of the university makes no sense and is a plain violation of right order and justice.
Still, someone might make the following argument. The university must preserve and transmit the definitive standards of the West. One such standard is justice. In a racially diverse society, justice requires the elimination of racial discrimination from the academy, and justice in this instance will yield racial diversity. Racial diversity, then, is in itself a form of the idea of justice that it is the university’s function to preserve and transmit. Diversity therefore becomes a legitimate goal and standard of academic life.
Now it is true that in a multiracial political body like the United States justice requires that the university have a multiracial composition. If the conditions of life in the U.S. were truly just, and if the university did not practice racial discrimination, the university would be quite spontaneously diverse in racial make-up. But this of course would not be the case in a racially homogeneous society such as Japan or Saudi Arabia. Racial diversity, then, is only in particular instances a standard for justice; it is not just in itself. Moreover, although the university ought to examine, preserve, and transmit universal standards of justice in the West while also practicing them internally, it is the task of governments to legislate and enforce justice as expressed in laws written to fit the particular and changing conditions of society.
The fact is that the conditions that make for racial imbalance in the American university have not in recent years been caused by the university’s practice of racial discrimination against minorities. The conditions that produce those imbalances are rather the consequences of injustices at work within the political body as a whole and over a long period of time. In the case of blacks especially, the long-festering consequences of slavery—consequences left too much without adequate remedy—have produced generation after generation of blacks who are not by and large prepared for the demands of university education. There is a great injustice here, about which the university in its own proper way should be concerned. But the university, and specifically its offices for recruitment, admissions, and hiring, is not in itself the agent to remedy this injustice.
Government is the chief agent of such remedies. Government might call on the university to direct its attention to the problem of racial injustice, and it may very properly forbid the university to practice racial injustice. But it is a foolish and superficial governmental policy to demand that the university abandon the standards that are its raison d’etre and admit the unprepared so that the university might present a racially diverse appearance. And likewise it is a silly and grandiose university policy that would act as if the university were an arm of the government itself and aim to eliminate racial injustice in America by twisting and stretching otherwise sound policies of recruitment, admissions, and hiring. Such pseudo-remedies, while they weaken and disrupt the life of the university, can have no remedial effect on the problem supposedly addressed by them. The admission of the unprepared to the university will not make of them well-educated citizens. Without proper preparation, their education will be a charade whose consequences can only be demoralizing to everyone involved.
To this point, the argument for diversity is superficial and wrongheaded, but it is more generous and good-hearted than perverse. The argument can arise from places deeper still, however—obscure, subterranean, and angry places. It might pour itself out like this: black slavery was an enormous crime; it produced profound, abiding habits of vicious racial hatred and culpable injustice. The racial exclusiveness of the university is itself a product of those perverse habits of heart and mind. University claims about the importance of academic standards are themselves hypocritical instruments of an enduring racist mentality. When the preservation of “academic standards” resists and delays the swift achievement of racial diversity, racial diversity should trump those standards. It is thus not black students who need preparation; it is the university that must be deconstructed and built on new foundations.
At this point, diversity emerges not as a fledgling and friendly standard to be nestled among the older standards that have traditionally defined the university but rather as a proclamation of a transvaluation of all values, an attack on the very heart of the university and on the whole constellation of principles that constitute its life. Here diversity breaks free of questions of racial justice and calls into question the standards of justice themselves as they have historically been represented by the university. The righteous anger roused in the face of black slavery surges forward as a driving force clearing the path for an assault on all authoritative institutions taken to be implicated in such crimes. The anger directed against slavery serves in fact as the spearhead of another anger, one originating at a far deeper level of the soul of Western man and concerned with a host of things that have less to do with racism, American history, or slavery (or, for that matter, the war in Vietnam, “the military-industrial complex,” “the Establishment,” or “globalization”) than they have to do with the constitution of the West itself.
That there is a significant reservoir of anger against the West among members of the university elite became breathtakingly apparent in their reflexive response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. When self-described enemies of the West, blind to their own criminality and fanatically convinced rather of their heroic holiness, slaughtered thousands of innocent citizens, the first reaction of many university elites was in effect to side with the perpetrators and accuse the West of having merited the harm it suffered. Their question, heard again and again, was, “What have we, the West, done wrong that has so angered them?” There was an automatic presumption of the justice of the anti-Western terrorists and of the culpable malfeasance of the West. The murder of our own innocents did not elicit from the university elites acknowledgment of the fact that Islamic fundamentalism has for a long time now been violently expressing its “anger” in all parts of the world—West, East, North, South, and, not least, in the Islamic world itself. Rather, a different anger, one ordinarily hidden under the cover of academic prestige and decorum, showed itself clearly for what it is: a longstanding animus against the West.
While it is reasonable and necessary to ask what rouses anger in the Muslim world, the question for us to consider here is different: What rouses such anger among Western university elites against the West in general and against the university in particular?
The anti-Western animus of the advocates of diversity comes into clearest sight once the issue of diversity moves beyond the good-hearted but wrongheaded efforts to rectify the specific historical injustices produced by American slavery and begins to be applied to the “celebration” of all cultures. Abandoning a reasonable and properly central concern with the tradition of the West—the source, matrix, and first home of the university—the advocates of diversity insist on an indiscriminate approval of and concern with all cultures, treating the West as, at best, one among many other equals. In the name of a kind of universal cultural equality—that is, in the name of an oddly distorted version of the Western vision of all human beings as created equally in the image and likeness of God—it is asserted that all cultures are to be treated as equal, that the choice of various cultural standards is a matter of mere accident or preference—a matter, that is, of pure indifference.
Any claim that the West might make for the truth of its founding principles, even the principle of equality misappropriated here, is rendered illegitimate. There can be no claim to truth in these matters, only to indifferent preferences. And as a terrible consequence, the West’s attachment to the search for truth itself as central to its life and identity is rendered void. There is no truth. The truth as the defining aim of the university, the truth as the one (unus) goal towards which all turn (vertor), the soul of the uni-versity, is cut out. The insistence on radical diversity radically undoes the university, diverts it from its center, and leaves its parts reeling out of orbit.
The plain disingenuousness of asserting the equality of all cultures, as if it were made righteously in the defense of non-Western cultures against the predations of Western cultural hegemony, becomes perfectly apparent when one considers the judgment made by those other cultures about the idea that all cultures are equal. Most cultures regard themselves as not at all equal, but rather as having rank and worthiness. The demotion of Western culture in the name of the equal value of all cultures has the unintended consequence of an effective devaluation of all cultures. The supposed respect brought by the advocates of diversity to non-Western cultures is, for those cultures, a singular form of disrespect, arising (as it must seem to them) out of the West itself. The advocates of diversity set themselves up as the judges of all the cultures of the earth, finding all of those cultures pleasing and failing to notice the arrogance of their claims.
It is not the serious and thoughtful love of all the other cultures that drives the advocates of diversity into such foolishness. It is not love of the other but the angry rejection of one’s own that is at work. Which brings us to the heart of the matter—the point at which the false and destructive notion of diversity that prevails in today’s university runs up against the reality of humanity’s genuine diversity and its far-reaching consequences.
Consider the direct assault made by the advocates of diversity on what we might call the genetic base of the Western tradition, the most primary locus of its preservation and transmission, the family. For included among those standards that the principle of diversity would delegitimize is the vast and highly nuanced complex of standards concerning sex, gender, and the family that has been crucial for the West. In the name of the ancient Western principles of freedom and equality—principles traceable in the deepest and most important respect to the teaching of Genesis that man is made “in the image and likeness of God”—radical diversity denies the essential correlate to that teaching: “Male and female He created them.” In the rejection of that teaching, gender is reduced to the rank of a cultural construct, and as with the other constructs of culture construed by radical diversity, such differences all become a matter of accident, preference, and indifference. The celebration of diversity, in its reach for exclusive dominance, brushes aside the diversity that is sexual duality and sets out in its place a meaningless, polymorphous, and radically individualized eroticism.
At this point we see that the ideology of radical diversity stands in opposition not only to the West, but to all the cultures of the world, none of which make the radical break with nature that we see expressed here. For gender, the sexual difference, is a duality written into nature itself. The complementary duality of the sexes is the structure of most living things, all but the lowest life forms—though even in them the genetic code is preserved and transmitted in the dual spiraling strands of the DNA molecule. To speak of sexual difference is to speak of two: male and female. The difference here is as fundamental to nature and human nature as the principle of noncontradiction is to logic and thought. Gender differences generate living reality and are so embedded in it that they find expression in the structures of human speech itself, and not merely in the specific vocabulary sometimes labeled as “sexist.” The silliness of rewriting the Bible in a “nonsexist” or “inclusive” manner, by finding ways to skirt masculine pronouns, is an easy project, but gender pervades the entire grammatical structure of languages—nouns, adjectives, and in some languages (the Bible’s own Hebrew) even some verb forms.
The difference between the sexes is no accident or matter of indifference. It is fundamental to the workings of human nature. It determines the structure of the body. It impresses itself on the operations of the mind. It expresses itself in the way lives are lived. It is the active antecedent to all cultures. And perhaps most significant for the purposes of this essay, it sets limits to what is, and to what belongs to, the individual as such—because what is at stake here is nothing less than how we are to regard the human individual in the most fundamental and decisive way.
In the engendered duality of human life, every single individual is marked by a fundamental incompleteness, by the absence of any fully realizable self-sufficiency. Plato’s Aristophanes was right—every one is us is not fully one but is rather only half, partial. One’s individual life is received from another, from one’s mother in one way and from one’s father in another. The span of that life is limited, bounded by one’s mortality and, in the most common case, defined by the activities involved in getting offspring to replace one’s mortal passing self. Only in relation to and dependence upon the sexual other can one achieve the quasi-immortality of offspring. A person is dependent on the duality of his parents’ sex to receive his life, and dependent on the duality of the sex of himself and his mate to continue his life through his children.
The individual is fundamentally incomplete and thus drawn into relations beyond himself. Because of the lack of self-sufficiency built into the fact of sexual duality, the individual is impelled to take part in a host of external relationships; in this way he becomes something superior to any supposedly self-sufficient version of human being that one might try to imagine. The sexual duality quite literally produces the entire human world and draws into that world the participation of every individual. Sexual incompletness means that life is not static, contained merely by the one, and so sterile; instead, it is fluid, dynamic, and fertile. It flows. Sexual incompletness means that each is not locked within himself alone and always the same, but that one is thrust into a great river of relationships and of differences. Both the beginning and the end of that totality are not within one’s sight or grasp. Life in its splendor and diversity is, in short, a mystery. It is no blank force to be interrupted, “vexed,” manipulated, controlled. It cannot be contained or possessed. It can only be received as a gift, shared with others, and finally given away.
It is this living diversity that the university seeks to contemplate, understand, and serve.
When the ideology of diversity attacks the sexual duality of human nature, it postulates an individual radically self-sufficient, self-creative, and self-possessed, autonomous, monadic, undefined by the order of nature, utterly alone, out of all relationship and without responsibility. He owes nothing to the past and nothing to the future. He needs no parents, no spouse, no children. His judgment on things needs no teacher. It is beholden to no tradition, is adequate unto itself merely because it is his own—every thought that might enter his head is “true for him” merely because he thinks it so. His passions, his feelings, are their own complete and final arbiter, justified merely because they are there. His soul can range between limp indifference and wild fanaticism, but locked within itself alone it is sterile. He might think himself entitled to rule over everything, but he will come of sheer necessity to be ruled by real forces outside his deluded self, forces that exist and are real whatever he may think or not think about them.
As the university becomes increasingly populated by such spiritually sexless beings, and as such habits of mind are congratulated and flattered in the “celebration of diversity,” the university in fact begins to die a shameful and sorry sort of death, abandoning its mission whole. As the cheerful, silly patina of diversity wears off, and only the gray, lame excuse of “Whatever!” remains, we will have brought our students to stand for nothing. The West stands for something, not for just anything, and that something matters dearly. Even in its most simpleminded and generous form, the ideology of diversity misses this crucial and now most urgent point.
But it is precisely this something that the radical ideologues of diversity hate. The object of their anger is not the striking (and deeply ambiguous) recent cultural products of the West. As much as they may attack technology in the name of environmentalism, or capitalism in the name of some obscure “social justice,” university elites are primary movers, shakers, and beneficiaries of technology and the capitalist economy. Neither in any serious way is the “military-industrial complex” or “globalism” their bugbear. They live more or less comfortably with all these things and can no more do without them than can the rest of us. The driving anger is far deeper and both more visceral and more principled. Its object is not the later products of the West but rather its sources, less the surfeit of things that it spreads out around us and much more the weight of demands that the West presses on us from within.
Sexual incompleteness expresses itself in part by the pervasive restlessness and unease of erotic longing. That longing establishes within each of us a tension vis-à-vis the other. As it is treated in the classic sources of the West, in texts such as the Bible or Plato’s dialogues on love, that tension is somehow in part constitutive of the soul’s highest well-being, and is itself an aspect of a tension that runs deeper still. The tension might well be called metaphysical, perhaps, or spiritual. It stretches us out between the here and now, and the far-off hidden beginning and the far-off hidden end, to the source and goal that we cannot currently see or possess. The West offers no resolution to this tension, no Nirvana, no rush to Paradise in a martyr’s self-immolation, no return to the animal’s peace of soul. Rather, as the West has classically understood it, the human truth stands in the living out of the tension itself, the acceptance of a kind of uneasy suspension and suspense. The highest hope is for an object that is beyond our grasp. Each of us is called to place his own life, meaning, and final identity on hold and into the hands of Another.
There is here a kind of self-denial and demand for trust which a man might very well hate and resent. There is a standard here that expresses itself in a terrible complex of dispositions and demands which weigh on a man, confront him relentlessly, and can come to provoke in him the deepest anger of all. If the West has shown itself to be boundlessly fertile in political inventiveness and profuse artistic production (the more recent explosion of economic and technological powers might fall into another category here), its greatest treasure is interior, a matter of the mind. It is precisely that terrible complex of dispositions of the heart and mind, weighing so on a man, that is that treasure.
The greatness of the Western mind is at the same time its willingness, out of the love for truth, to submit to that truth and acknowledge its own limitations. The greatness of the West consists in the readiness of people to be small as they are truly small. This is its virtue. The intellectual virtues as presented by, say, Aristotle—wisdom, practical judgment, productive skill, etc.—virtues that appeal to a person’s pride, receive a kind of chastisement from the Socratic understanding that came earlier still, where wisdom is always first a matter of the recognition of one’s own ignorance. Under the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition as it enters the heart of the West, intellectual claims are tempered in yet a deeper way when they submit themselves to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. The soul-shaking experience of Abraham becomes a central element in the mind of the West: “The terror of a great darkness fell upon Abraham” (Genesis 15:12). Abraham becomes fertile only after he has endured this darkness.
The awestruck and reverent silence of Abraham before the majesty of God stands at the farthest possible remove from the self-satisfied indifference of our contemporary “easy-going nihilists.” After his encounter with the darkness, Abraham does not shrug his shoulders, slouch in his seat, and dismiss it all with a cynical “Whatever!” Instead he fathers the nation that stands at the deepest root of the traditions of the Western world.
The university, to keep alive the memory of the Socratic humility and the awe of Abraham, hands on a constellation of difficult moral and intellectual virtues. One’s own passion is to be pruned, restrained, and trained in submission to reason and its attunement to what is greater than the individual alone. Political virtue, the virtue of citizens, is based not on tribe or on loyalties to what is merely one’s own, but on submission to law as a work of reason applied to the common good of all. The pursuit of understanding cannot be reduced to any self-assured dogmatism because it demands an unyielding intellectual probity and necessarily entails a kind of relentless restlessness, unease, and incertitude. It includes the lived awareness that complete happiness cannot be obtained within the limits of the human condition, that a man is what and who he is, and that one cannot escape himself. It means the acceptance of an ineluctable personal responsibility, the burden of self-doubt, and the guilt that falls to men who believe they are to live “in the image and likeness of God.”
These virtues produce tension, they demand endurance, self-denial, and the acceptance of ambiguity. They raise one up to a kind of unblinking and deeply humble realism. They do not regard an individual as self-sufficient and cannot allow him to settle into technocratic arrogance, fanatical self-assurance, indifferent lassitude. These virtues are a deep affront, therefore, to the childish pretensions and illusions of the supposedly self-creative, self-sufficient, and self-satisfied individual.
The wildest and most terrible political movements of the last century sought nothing less than totalitarian change, a world other than the world that is, in a kind of final solution to all life’s injustices and sufferings. The “New Man” or the “Aryan Race” would emerge and at last all would be well. Only destroy the real world and a brave new world of justice, peace, and contentment will emerge. The self-sufficient man is certain it can be accomplished.
In the final analysis, the ideology of radical diversity surreptitiously promotes a political program of the same kind. It delegitimizes the standards of the West and proposes standards that belong to none of the cultures it “celebrates.” In the name of diversity it reduces all cultures to an indifferent sameness, removing from each of them any serious, and therefore dangerous, claim it might make to truth. It deprives them of their vital form and reduces them to mere matter, passive stuff for a new reworking. In effect it would impose a politics of absolute compassion that removes all suffering. All tension can be relaxed, all ambiguity resolved, all responsibility lifted, all guilt absolved, and every last scrap of life’s meaning flicked away in a multicultural celebration of feeling good about ourselves, groundlessly. Whatever and whatever. Amen.
If a university wants to champion the cause of diversity, especially if a Christian university aims to do this, it had better think twice, and maybe three times. It must choose between the sensible pursuit of a rich variety of well-prepared students and faculty for the serious and sober mission of university education—and an amicable and unnoticed capitulation to ideological forces directly opposed to everything the university should stand for. And as of now, it is to signal just that capitulation that the rainbow banner of diversity waves.
is a member of the Augustinians of the Assumption, founders of Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches in the theology department.