Living with Our Differences   /   Spring 2001   /    Articles

Diversity: Catchword and Reality

Dennis H. Wrong

Staff and students of the Center for Information Dominance Corry Station participate in morning colors during the command's fourth annual Cultural Diversity Day (2008). Navy Visual News Service Photo by Gary Nichols.

“Diversity” is one of those ordinary words that on passing into public discourse becomes freighted with meanings and overtones, conflating the descriptive and the normative. Not more than a decade or two old as a catchword, it has become, in the United States at least, “a semantic beacon of our time,” a phrase Nathan Glazer used to refer to the term “alienation” way back in the late 1940s, when its use was still confined to intellectuals (although over a decade later it became a negative rallying cry for the rebellious youth of the 1960s). Unlike “alienation,” “diversity” is represented as a desirable social condition to be encouraged to the extent of promoting policies extending it throughout American society. “Cultural pluralism” and, more ambiguously and uncertainly, “cultural relativism,” both of them ideas with a long history of favorable connotations in the intellectual world, have been invoked to justify diversity. In this respect “diversity” resembles other words that have been diffused from academic and intellectual parlance to the wider public. This process occurs regularly enough to deserve intensive study in its own right: it is one manifestation of the “reflexivity” that sociological theorists have seen as peculiarly characteristic of modernity, or at least of “late modernity” as Anthony Giddens has described the present era.11xAnthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990) 36–45. Each special instance of it, however, requires examination in its own particular social and historical context.

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