Living with Our Differences   /   Spring 2001   /    Reviews

Debunking Diversity’s Discontents

Joshua J. Yates

Cafeteria Dining. Photo by Bill Branson (1988).

In an essay entitled “The Uses of Diversity,” Clifford Geertz commented that “Like nostalgia, diversity isn’t what it used to be.” Referring to the once conventional view and general experience of the world as discrete, integral societies in distant communication, Geertz acknowledged that such a simple view was no longer possible. In a time of increasing global interconnectedness between cultures and greater differentiation within them, he reasoned, we have inevitably begun to think about diversity rather differently. “Confronting landscapes and still-lifes is one thing,” he pointed out, “panoramas and collages quite another.”11xClifford Geertz, “The Uses of Diversity,” Michigan Quarterly Review 25.1 (1986): 114.

The ensuing fifteen years since Geertz made his remarks have only served to corroborate them; we do indeed think of diversity differently today. Where once questions of difference had been exclusively framed in assimilationist terms, debates are now almost entirely cast in the idiom of cultural pluralism. This new formulation finds its roots in the early twentieth-century thought of Horace Kallen, who compared the diversity of life in America to that of a symphony orchestra with its numerous instrument groups each distinct but able to play in unison when properly orchestrated. There is, though, an important difference between Kallen’s formulation of cultural pluralism and its most recent dispensation as multiculturalism. Kallen and other early proponents were mainly promoting their version of cultural pluralism against a conformist theme represented by the “melting pot.” As one commentator has remarked,

the vision of America as a political canopy providing protection for a variety of descent-defined groups was the dialectical product of a distinctive historical moment: a moment at which unprecedented ethno-racial diversity collided with an Anglo-conformist movement made more aggressive by WWI.22xDavid A. Hollinger, PostEthnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York: Basic, 1995) 93.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the idiom of cultural pluralism became a positive program in its own right. Less concerned with how various ethnic groups, economic classes, religious affiliations, or even racial distinctions are to be “melted down” into the single quintessential American citizen, the thrust of public debate has moved toward consideration of how such diverse groups might retain their various cultural (and other essential) identities and still be quintessentially American. Many Americans have, in fact, become highly suspicious of how we once thought about diversity. Hence, the popular change of metaphor from “melting-pot” to “mosaic” remains apt.

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