Joanna Williams reviews:
On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era by Russell Jacoby
4th February 2022
In his latest book, Russell Jacoby critiques our obsession with diversity. He argues that when diversity is pitched against individuality, democracy suffers. Here, Joanna Williams welcomes Jacoby’s criticisms of diversity initiatives but finds him far too pessimistic about democracy.
Diversity is the buzzword of our age. It is everywhere: celebrated in corporate mission statements; taught in staff training days and to school and university students; on display in advertisements, art galleries and theatres; and promoted in books and articles. Indeed, as Russell Jacoby argues in his latest book, ‘In recent decades the cult of diversity has swept the land.’ ‘We are all diverse all the time,’ he claims, or at least, he continues, ‘this is the message we hear incessantly.’
More than merely our lived reality, diversity is rhetoric: a prayer to be intoned in the name of moral purity and protection. It is not hard to understand why. ‘Diversity spells decency and openness,’ Jacoby explains, while at the same time: ‘To criticize diversity is to invite ostracism; you might as well climb on a desk and yell, “I am a racist and a fanatic!”’ Kudos, then, to Jacoby. In On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era he challenges this secular orthodoxy.
A vacuous concept
Jacoby strikes his first blow by exposing the vacuousness at the heart of our diversity obsession. The more the word is bandied around, he points out, the less it actually means, until ‘everything and anything signifies diversity.’ The ubiquity of the word shows that, ‘Our understanding of diversity is shallow. Literally skin deep.’ His point is clear: the diversity hucksters see little beyond skin colour and, perhaps, gender. They ‘want diversity on the cheap’ which means that ‘diversity talk today is group talk.’
This brings us to Jacoby’s second blow: the ballooning of the rhetoric parallels a decline in real diversity. The monolithic focus on a tiny number of group characteristics comes at the expense of valuing other attributes that differentiate us. Why, he asks, do the diversity obsessives have so little interest in languages? Or, for that matter, wealth? Poverty is rarely deemed worthy of inclusion in checklists: it ‘does not spell diversity, but exclusion.’ The bottom line, Jacoby concludes, is that, ‘a world of people who are different from us looks a lot more appealing than a world of people who are poorer than us.’ The diversity game really is that shallow.
As Jacoby notes, before diversity there was class and the working class, ‘represented not inequality or poverty, but a different political system.’ ‘I do not raise this in the name of lost causes,’ he points out, ‘but simply to get a sense of the narrow political diversity of the world we now live in.’ Indeed, as Jacoby’s title suggests, his focus is not the fate of the working class at all, but the fate of the individual. His concern is that the more diversity has come to be understood as group representation, the less we celebrate – or even have – difference between individuals. Groups and diversity are now conflated, Jacoby explains, ‘it is assumed that if you have the first, you have the second.’ Worse, it is assumed that once you ‘tabulate the group and the frame’, you ‘know everything worth knowing about a person’. Taxonomy is reborn as intersectionality.
The end of individuality
His emphasis on the individual makes clear that Jacoby’s criticisms are levelled at today’s diversity rhetoric, not the concept of diversity itself. He is right to point out that beyond the modern day mantras and rituals, diversity is just a fact of life: opposing diversity would be like objecting to oxygen. Instead, Jacoby criticises diversity jargon – and the ideology to which the fashionable phrases allude. Jacoby wants better diversity: more reality and less ideology, more focus on individuals and less emphasis on group membership. He sees diversity as a project in need of realisation, not one to be abandoned.
Jacoby sees evidence for the shrinking of diversity everywhere. His overarching concern is that, divided into ever fewer groups, ‘individuals are becoming not less, but more alike’. ‘The real trend today,’ Jacoby claims, is not diversity but globalization, ‘even American-style homogenization.’ Despite acknowledging that diversity is a reality, when Jacoby sees people he confronts an undifferentiated mass who ‘increasingly act, think, and consume like everyone else’. He cites the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig who worries that the distinctive traits of different nationalities are vanishing: ‘The characteristic habits of individual peoples are being worn away, native dress giving way to uniforms, customs becoming international.’
Concern that individuality is being eroded and people are becoming more homogenous has a long history. Jacoby points to 19th-century thinkers, including Constant, Tocqueville and Mill, who ‘were neither conservatives nor socialists’ but who ‘moved in the same direction’: ‘the weakening of diversity and individuality struck them.’ They worried that ‘uniformity had become the watchword of the age.’ But if, for two hundred years, people have morphed into gradual uniformity – then surely this project must have neared completion by now? The fact that individuals – and individuality – still exist suggests concern about the homogenisation of the human race might represent a perennial moral panic. Yet like many intellectuals who came before him, Jacoby finds ample evidence to support his fear of the emergence of mass man.
Jacoby finds evidence for our growing lack of individuality in our wardrobes. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor are more likely to wear similar clothes than in the past. Jeans, trainers, t-shirts and hoodies provide a uniform for us all, regardless of age, sex or nationality. As Jacoby notes, ‘the homogeneity of fashion masks the heterogeneity of lives.’ But what are we to make of this? Jacoby nods to Erving Goffman’s notion that how we present ourselves reflects our choices and desires. We are meant to conclude that our dressing the same represents the growing uniformity of our common choices and desires.
But, as Jacoby acknowledges, things are not so straightforward. He points to photos of Gandhi from the early 20th century; in the first, ‘Gandhi is wearing Western dress with a dark suit, collared shirt, and shoes. In the latter he is wearing a white, loose, draped khadi.’ Political progress meant, for Gandhi, rejecting, not adopting, western clothing. More recently, as well as jeans and hoodies having crossed borders, so too has an ‘ethnic chic’ that, having been rejected by the poor, has been adopted by the wealthy. Costume may no longer be a reliable guide to nationality but it can still serve as a subtle marker of wealth. And while the poor aspire to signifiers of prosperity, the wealthy desire markers of authenticity. Perhaps all we can conclude is that even when we try hard to be different, we find we are different in the same way as everyone else.
A desire for comfort and convenience in both the manufacturing and wearing of clothes may have produced an international uniform promoted through global media empires. But so what? There is something positive in wanting to erode visual markers of class and race. And, just as Mark Zuckerberg allegedly carves out more time to run Facebook by avoiding the tyranny of having to choose what to wear each day, it may be the case that the homogeneity of fashion masks the true individuality of our minds. In any case, despite limited shops and shared cultural influences, what’s remarkable is how rarely we encounter two people dressed identically. But Jacoby argues that our focus on small differences only emphasises our essential similarity.
Jacoby points to the decline in the number of languages spoken as further evidence of the decline of diversity and the end of individuality. But, just as with clothes, trends are surely more complex. Aspirant families might push children to speak English rather than local dialects but a state-funded professional class channels money into the preservation of minority languages. Homogenization between countries and regions may spell an increase, rather than a decline, in individuality.
The death of childhood
If languages and clothes illustrate our growing homogeneity, they do not explain it. For this, Jacoby looks to childhood. ‘The universe of childhood is where diversity gets exercise,’ he tells us before concluding sadly: ‘childhood is under siege’. He argues that it is during independent play that children learn tolerance and, without it, they lose the ability to negotiate disagreements, ‘an aptitude indispensable for civil interchanges.’ The upshot is that, ‘a “coarsening” of everyday life takes place.’ Just as with his discussion of clothes, there is truth in Jacoby’s comments. He points out that, ‘play in the outdoors dwindles as children hurry home to computers or organized activities,’ a trend identified and confirmed by sociologists. But the idea of ruddy-cheeked children playing outside from dawn to dusk was perhaps only ever an historical blip – and a middle class, western blip at that. Many children are not herded from one activity to another and grown-ups are often surprised to discover that lots of today’s most popular computer games are played in (virtual) teams and require considerable co-operation and negotiation.
Jacoby’s concern is with the impact of entertainment designed by adults on the imagination of the young. He might be falling prey to yet another perennial moral panic but his real worry is that the decline of unstructured play and the homogenisation of childhood experiences leads to the erosion of individuality. ‘Individual diversity necessitates living diversity,’ he argues, and, ‘with no variety, the free development of individuals suffers.’ Here, Jacoby makes an important point that is lost on far too many of today’s diversity bureaucrats: freedom and diversity are not contradictory but complement one another.
The problem with homogenisation
Jacoby spies in today’s promotion of diversity and simultaneous erosion of individuality a reflection of the past. He points to enlightenment thinkers who promoted uniformity and standardisation in money, weights, measurements and even time and languages. Uniformity, Jacoby tells us, ‘became not simply a program, but a cause’ with ‘commitments to human equality, longitudinal precision, and linguistic standardization’ often overlapping. The result was mass man and a dangerous mass politics that, Jacoby suggests, led the world into war. He points to the sociologist Emil Lederer who, in 1915, situated World War One within a context of ‘depersonalization and mechanization’ that meant that ‘national differences of social and economic structure have become irrelevant,’ leading to an ‘historical mass homogenization of people.’ In other words, the eclipse of individuality opened the way for a dangerous mass politics.
As John Carey notes in The Intellectuals and the Masses, in the decades either side of 1900 it was common for the cultural elite to look upon ‘the masses’ as vulgar, stupid and indistinguishable. Their revulsion and sense of superiority over mass man led to interest in eugenics and, ultimately, for some, fascism. The shock of World War Two made such sentiments unsayable. But fear of the masses, of the indistinguishable mob, was never truly vanquished.
Jacoby’s concern that individuality is being eroded – albeit in the name of woke diversity initiatives – risks tapping into this prejudice against the public. His argument that when individuality is diminished, people lose the capacity to think for themselves leaving democracy imperiled, has reverberated since the 2016 vote for Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US. ‘In no way am I drawing a direct line between a decline of diversity and a rise of populism or the re-emergence of the masses,’ Jacoby is at pains to point out, but what he is indicating is ‘a subterranean relationship.’ ‘Uniformity weakens the individual, which in turn weakens democracy. If individuals lose their singularity, they form a susceptible electorate,’ he explains, no doubt leaving some readers struggling to distinguish a ‘direct line’ from a ‘subterranean relationship’. And when Jacoby tells us that ‘today – again – we see the fragility of democracy, the ease with which it could slide into authoritarian populism,’ I begin to see direct lines everywhere.
Jacoby’s argument is that despite the ubiquity of diversity rhetoric today, we are experiencing the eclipse of the individual and this is bad for democracy. He aligns himself with the 19th-century critics of diversity who ‘recognized that the forces of uniformity threatened the individual and democracy’ and sympathises with Tocqueville and Mill’s questioning of the capacity of individuals to stand up against the majority. Jacoby’s fear is of the tyranny of the majority; he cites approvingly Tocqueville’s assertion that, ‘It is impossible to believe that a liberal, energetic, and wise government can ever emerge from the ballots of a nation of servants.’
This fear of ‘a nation of servants’, created under the aegis of diversity initiatives, is misplaced. The pressure on individuals to look, dress and even speak in-line with prescribed views does threaten the capacity for critical thought – the true hallmark of individuality. But this pressure does not derive from ‘the masses’. It is not a ‘bottom up’ demand but a ‘top down’ elite project begun, as Jacoby recognises, within academia. The working class are not running diversity projects out of universities, casting advertisements or compiling corporate mission statements. It is those au fait with the language of cultural appropriation, hate speech, inclusivity, gender fluidity and white privilege who instil group think. All this Jacoby gets. But when he sees democracy as having exposed the tyrannical prejudices of the easily manipulated and uncritical masses, Jacoby reveals his misunderstanding of populism. Rather than servile voters acting as a homogenised mass, many individuals make rational calculations about what would be in their own best interests and the best interests of their families, community, class and nation. Jacoby risks confusing solidarity with homogenisation.
Jacoby’s political prejudices mean his excellent critique of diversity and defence of the individual end up becoming an attack on the people. He laments the fact that the left wing now ‘compounds its worldwide defeats with self-delusion. Splintered, it promotes diversity as subversion, narcissism as rebellion.’ He’d prefer a strong and credible left – voted for by strong individuals – who all just happen to agree with him. He fails to see that populist votes may be a way for working class people to push back against an overarching cultural elite and a system that offers them few opportunities – in the only way available to them: the ballot box. Rather than seeing voters determined to have their voices heard, Jacoby sees a manipulated, undifferentiated mass. He blames the elite -and the left – for creating this situation but this is little consolation to those rubbished as homogenous.
If individuality is to mean more than just small differences in how we dress and speak but substantial differences in how we think then it is not a tyranny of the majority we need to worry about but a tyranny of the cultural elite who control academia, the media, the civil service and politics. In order to challenge the rule of this powerful minority, we need to defend – not attack – the majority.
Joanna Williams is director of Cieo. Her forthcoming book, How Woke Won, can be pre-ordered here.
On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era by Russell Jacoby can be purchased here.