Diversity has no plot. Or rather, it has half a plot, or one-fourth or one-fifth. I mean this in a literary sense. The elements of a diversity drama are bare and simple. In the beginning was the man, the white man, the straight white man, the Christian straight white man. And then there were many—women, blacks, browns, Hindus, Haitians, gays . . . it’s a storyline that is applied to our country, colleges, movies, and corporations, whether they fail or succeed in diversity.
That’s it, the story is set. Once we go from mono- to multi-, vanilla to thirty-nine flavors, nothing else follows or needs to follow. Diversity is an end in itself. Old plays had their opening, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement, but the diversity plot is a one-two, before and after. Our progressive leaders in business, media, education, and politics envision it in precisely this way.
But of course, this is too abstract and unimaginative to serve as a satisfying plot. A novel needs more than that, and so does a national story, personal biography, social mores. Plot is the abstract arrangement of incidents, Aristotle said, but we need a little more individual flesh and blood than this demographic change admits. The struggle to get home, to pass through treacherous lands and return to family and possessions, as Odysseus does—that’s a plot. The discovery of a dead body and the steady detection of the killer, the escape from bondage in Exodus and Huckleberry Finn, the course of the Confederacy from the seizure of Fort Sumter to the surrender at Appomattox, boy-gets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-back . . . those are plots.
They have a compelling termination: freedom, home, love, defeat, truth. Aristotle also said that good plots are teleological. They drive toward meaningful conclusions; they have an “air of design.” Someone is murdered? We want to know whodunit. And not only that, we want a reason. A bank robbery that goes wrong and leaves a customer dead is abominable and horrible, but it isn’t literarily interesting unless, for instance, it comes out that the victim knew the culprits. Now we may have a mystery; there is more to learn.
But the diversity plot ends with . . . diversity. When progressive educators talk about a more diverse campus and classroom, they mean just that, more non-white faces. When HR departments in Silicon Valley call for more diversity, they generally mean more women. When politicians and business leaders proclaim, “Diversity is our strength!,” the plan ends right there. Nobody has in mind anything specific that the accomplished diversity will subsequently bring about.
It is no wonder that whatever intellectual content “diversity” once had—back when Justice Powell in the Bakke case cited it as a legal rationale that would rescue affirmative action after quotas were outlawed—has dissipated. The result of diversity was always going to be disappointing. It was anti-climactic. It wouldn’t make a good movie. When Barack Obama was elected president, the nation celebrated the diversification of the White House. But a few months later, as he turned to the nuts and bolts of governing, the president’s skin color counted for less and less. Diversity gave way to judgments of ideology and competence, pro and con. Obama’s electoral triumph would make a good plot, but it would have to end with his inauguration. The only people extending the diversity story past that day were some of Obama’s progressive defenders, who cast his critics as bigots who couldn’t handle the diversity he represented.
This is the only way diversity evokes excitement: by its absence, by resistance to it. That’s what gets (some) people motivated. A story can be crafted from that situation, with villains (privileged individuals who suppress historically-disadvantaged groups) and heroes (leaders of the oppressed). The action features deeds of discrimination, then the victims fighting back, and finally the toppling of the ancien régime.
But this isn’t really a tale of diversity. It’s older and more universal, bad guys in power overcome by underdogs. If it were a diversity plot, it would continue after the fall of the kings and dramatize a now multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-national setting. We would have a happy rainbow of groups and peoples and customs—and the audience would fall asleep.
This is why diversity survives only as a bureaucratic initiative. It has no more revolutionary thrust; the thrill is gone. It resides in the mouth of the VP of Communications, not in the heart of the disenfranchised. It suits corporate America better than the barrio and the ghetto. When you hear it, a dulling effect sets in.
In other words, when diversity emerges, interest in it slackens. Women’s Liberation in the 1960s sought to open academia and the professions to females. Their entry into the workplace made for a good plot (That Girl!, 9 to 5, Working Girl)—until women achieved parity with men. Then it got pedestrian. Females earn a whole lot more undergraduate and graduate degrees than men do, and have for many years. Medical schools are half men and half women, and so are law schools. But the parity doesn’t call out for drama. We have gender diversity in those spaces, and nobody seems to care.
Diversity is dull. It needs to fabricate an antagonist, an enemy, but the fabrications grow more strained every day. It can’t build a drama out of its own success, only its failure. In the old-fashioned domestic novel, resolution often came from marriage, which readers knew would lead to children and middle-age domesticity. There was a joyous result that readers imagined well beyond the last pages. (“Reader, I married him.”)
But diversity has no such projection. In twenty years, I hope that we will see the word and the concept as something like an old coin that has passed through too many fingers, its stamp so flattened and obscured that it is unrecognizable and has no value at all.
Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.