There are all kinds of ways that people talk about identity and diversity these days. I’ve been trying to organize them into approaches. Here’s my first crack. My goal here is to be descriptive, not judgmental. I don’t think these approaches are necessarily mutually exclusive, but I do think some people within each of these approaches are fiercely committed to their own paradigms in a way that dismisses others.
Would love feedback on what resonates, what I’m missing and what I got wrong.
The Elementary School Diversity Approach
This is the “Let’s sing ‘Ebony and Ivory,’ put up ‘Diversity Is Our Strength’ bumper stickers and share the games we play during our different religious holidays” approach.
The Social Justice Approach
Everything is about race, gender and sexuality. Everything is plotted along a power, privilege and oppression chart. Major scholars/intellectuals of this approach include Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldua. More recent writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi would probably fit best here, too. This is the approach that is especially prevalent in higher ed and intellectual circles.
The Bridged Social Capital Approach
This approach is mostly associated with academics like Robert Putnam and Ashutosh Varshney. They highlight that identity communities create social capital. Lutherans might create a church that has a physical building, a bank account and 1,000 members. Jews, Muslims and Buddhists might do the same. So might various ethnic groups. The challenge for a diverse civil society is to make sure that the social capital associated with identity communities is both bonded and bridged -- nurturing its own natural constituents and also in a positive relationship with other identity communities, ideally in a way that serves the broader society. A church, a mosque and a synagogue doing a food drive together is a good example of this.
The Political Philosophy Approach
This approach is most closely associated with political philosophers (or religious studies professors who moonlight as political philosophers) like John Courtney Murray, Martin Marty, Diana Eck, Michael Walzer, John Inazu and Danielle Allen. They recognize that most societies across history have been organized around ethnic, racial and religious homogeneity, and therefore the American project of bringing diversity together within a democracy is remarkable from the outset. While fully cognizant of how many sins and mistakes were made with regard to women and various ethnic, racial and religious minorities along the way, they generally believe that we Americans can, in the immortal words of James Baldwin, “achieve our country … and change the history of the world.” These writers seek to untangle the huge challenge of, to paraphrase John Courtney Murray, having a strong enough underlying unity to hold together the diverse groups and divergent views that American society contains.
The Cognitive Diversity Leads to Better Teams Approach
This approach is most closely associated with Scott Page and his books The Diversity Bonus and The Difference. For Page and the many companies and organizations he consults with, the principal challenge is building teams -- be they of Navy SEALs or Google engineers -- who can solve problems. If everybody on your team has a "cognitive repertoire" that includes tools and associations A, B, C and D, they might not be able to solve a problem that requires tools E, F and G. There’s a great chapter in The Diversity Bonus that unpacks how identity diversity and cognitive diversity are related but not the same thing. The quick summary: it’s not because there is anything essential about being black or female that people from different identities bring different cognitive repertoires to the table, it’s because people from different identities often have different social groups, experiences, reference points, etc., that they are more likely to also have different cognitive repertoires.
The Intellectual/Ideological Diversity Approach
Intellectual/ideological diversity is most associated these days with Jonathan Haidt and Heterodox Academy. It highlights that there are different explanatory frameworks and that public discourse should bring multiple and diverse frameworks together to engage with big questions, like, “What causes poverty?” and “Why are some nations democracies while others are dictatorships?” Higher education should especially prioritize intellectual diversity, as its highest purpose is to get to the most accurate answer. Here’s a good article on this.
The Cultural Intelligence Approach
This approach emphasizes making sense of and successfully navigating different cultural contexts. It’s the “When in Rome, pay attention to how Romans think about the world and do your best to fit in because it will be better for your business” approach. Like the cognitive diversity paradigm, it has particular salience in the world of corporate multinationals and other international organizations. It is often framed as the step after emotional intelligence. Leaders like Maria Dixon Hall at Southern Methodist University are bringing this work more into higher education.
There are, of course, the intellectual approaches that underlay all of this: namely, where does identity come from in the first place. Those are inquiries posed by neuroscientists, theologians, philosophers, evolutionary biologists, social psychologists and others. The answers/explanations range from “This is how God made us” to “This is how our brains are wired” to “This is a product of how we adapted (genetically or culturally or both) to different environments” to “This is how environments like schools or summer camps shape our behavior.”
The sentence that keeps ringing in my head about all of this is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s observation from his game-changing book, The Lies That Bind: “much of our contemporary thinking about identity is shaped by pictures that are in various ways unhelpful or just plain wrong.”
So, which of the “pictures” offered by the various paradigms above are wrong? Which are right? Which, combined, can be closer to right than wrong?