The Value of Variety: Human Identities

Let's attempt to write a super tame article about the value of things like race and gender, because that's such an easy topic, right?

Hi all!

Issue #29 of Light Gray Matters, of which you are reading the first sentence, is yet again about variety in all its diversity, or diversity in all its variety, as the case may be. But today, because I’m apparently a risk taker, I’m going to explore the most dangerous part of it: identity.

That is, the (mostly) immutable characteristics of human beings that we use to define who we are. That is, in practice, things like race, gender and sexuality, age, disability status, etc.1

I don’t really want to write about things like race and gender. These topics are minefields. One’s identity is such a central part of one’s self that one is likely to be really sensitive about it. If you say something even slightly wrong, or perhaps completely right but interpreted as wrong, you risk whipping up a controversy and suffering all sorts of bad consequences. For better or for worse, identities have become political.

So I don’t really want to write about this, but I can’t really avoid it — if only because the word “diversity” today refers to identity almost by default.

When a CEO says their company is striving to become “more diverse” with no additional qualifying word, they don’t mean “more diverse in the products we sell” or “more diverse in our political opinions” or “more diverse in the ways we work.” They mean “more diverse in the identities of our staff.”

This usage of the word diversity is now so widespread that the dictionaries have adapted. Consider the Wiktionary’s definition (emphasis in bold by me):

Noun

diversity (countable and uncountableplural diversities)

  1. The quality of being diverse or differentdifference or unlikeness.

  2. varietydiverse types or examples. 

  3. (chiefly businessequal-opportunity inclusion

Or Merriam-Webster:

Definition of diversity

1: the condition of having or being composed of differing elements VARIETY

especially: the inclusion of of people of different races (see RACE entry 1 sense 1a), cultures, etc. in a group or organization // programs intended to promote diversity in schools

2: an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities an instance of being diverse // a diversity of opinion

Most dictionaries are like this. There’s always the specific sub-meaning of people with different identities in a group. This reflects the huge importance we’ve given, at least in the Western world, to this particular type of diversity.

Why do we care so much?

Is it the economic argument?

Is having a racially or sexually diverse organization somehow good for the organization’s purpose?

It can be. Having people from different backgrounds, with different life experiences, may bring more and better ideas to the table. There’s also the case of helping the organization fulfill its mission towards a particular clientele. It’s very probably good to have women in your team if you’re going to sell some product to women. Or to have some black people in your government if you’re going to enact laws affecting black people.

But if you dig a little bit, the diversity we need for those economic advantages is actually last week’s topic: cultural diversity. Or its cousin, diversity of thought. There’s some sense in which cultural differences exist between groups — women vs. men, straights vs. gays, blacks vs. whites vs. Asians etc., boomers vs. millennials, or abled vs. disabled people — but those differences may in fact be pretty minor. People who are superficially diverse can turn out to be similar along some dimension you care about, like how they view the world.

In other words, race and gender and age and disability status are at best a proxy for diversity of thought. They’re not necessarily a bad proxy. Finding true diversity of thought isn’t straightforward. But there are better ways to optimize for that, if you really want new, different ideas. So I don’t think this argument gives a complete answer.

More abstractly, some components of identity diversity have instrumental value because they provide more baggage for evolution to play with. This applies to the types that are genetically or memetically heritable, like race, sex, sexual orientation, and culture. Genetically diverse systems can be more resilient to disturbances, for instance. That’s not really a concern for organizations setting up diversity and inclusion programs, though.

Is it the aesthetic argument?

Is diversity in human identities good for its own sake?

To answer this, we need to untangle the various subkinds.

Diversity in disability status doesn’t sound very good for its own sake. I’m not sure that magically removing all disabilities in the world, if we could do that, would be desirable — my understanding is that some (many? most?) disabled people make their condition a central part of their identity and don’t actually want it to be gone. But take the converse thought experiment — if no one was disabled in the first place, should we seek to increase diversity along that axis? Probably not.

Diversity of age and diversity of sex are baked into our species’s biology to such an extent that they make the question almost nonsensical, at least at the global scale. There’s a fairly constant proportion of males, females, and people of every age. At a smaller scale, yes, there’s some intrinsic value in mixed groups, I think. A co-ed school may be a more interesting place than a boys-only or girls-only school. Or not — we also quite like to hang out with people of our own sex or age. I don’t think that there’s a strong insight to be found here, and regardless, it’s kind of a moot point considering how our species works.

Diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation is a trickier one. At least, as a member of the minority,2 I can speak a bit more confidently. This is an area where there is not very much diversity in the world to begin with — the vast majority of people are straight and cisgender. Any given human group, unless specifically intended for LGBT folks, will likely have very few of them. Also, the differences from the majority are not always visible. As a result, whatever contribution we add to the beauty of the world or of a group will be limited. I do think the existence of us LGBT people makes the world more interesting by expanding the number of ways there are to live a human life, and it’s good that there are events like Pride to celebrate that.

Neurodiversity, which I know very little about as a neurotypical person, seems to be a similar deal. Neurodiverse people make the world (and smaller groups) more interesting, but their contribution can’t be very large.

Last but certainly not least, racial diversity. Race is perhaps the most visible way in which humans can be diverse, and in fact probably what you think of when you read the word “diverse.” And more so than the other types above, I think the case is strong that racial diversity greatly contribute to the beauty of the world. It is interesting and wonderful (and even, sometimes, sexually attractive!) that so many ethnicities exist, that the color of our skin and hair and eyes, or the shape of our eyelids and noses and bodies, vary from person to person, from ethnic group to ethnic group. It would be a sadder world if everyone belonged to a single identical race.

Overall there is some aesthetic value to diversity in identities. But that value seems more obvious at the scale of the world. It’s good that there exist people of various ethnic backgrounds and sexual identities and so on out there, but are smaller groups really that better when they’re more diverse in this way?

Or is the importance of identity diversity due to a third argument?

The representation argument

The real reason we want companies and ads and governments to be racially, sexually, etceterally diverse is because humanity is diverse in the first place. We want organizations to reflect the diversity that exists. We want to be represented.

As pro-diversity arguments go, this one is a special, limited edition argument. It only works with people — nobody cares that sharks and beetles are proportionally represented anywhere. It only works with attributes we use to construct our identities3 and are immutable — there’d be no point in representing people who wear jeans, since wearing jeans isn’t a fixed characteristic of human beings. And it only works at scales smaller than the world, since everyone is automatically represented in the exactly correct proportion when we consider all of humanity.

But for the cases where representation applies, it tends to matter a lot. We love to be properly represented. It makes us feel valid. It makes us feel included. So much so that it has become problematic, in many cultures, to misrepresent minority groups.

In my exploration of the abstract idea of diversity, I’m not that interested in this argument. It’s too limited in scope — I prefer looking at the cosmic scale if I can. And besides, since so many people care so much, others have written about the representation of diversity much better than I ever could.

But diversity in the components of human identity certainly is an important topic, and it did deserve the essay you just read.

With that, I’m off to several days of not writing as my laptop’s spacebar gets repaired, and until I see you next week, I remain

Yours in hoping I have treaded carefully enough along the minefield,

Étienne

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1

The diversities we saw last week, culture and language, are also part of identity. But they’re somewhat more mutable, they’re less tightly coupled with the individual, and regardless, I already covered them, so let’s not bother for now.

2

I am a gay cisgender white man, if you must know.

3

That can include cultural or linguistic diversity as well, but there are obstacles to those. Language diversity makes it harder to communicate, for instance, so most groups will not actively seek it. There are exceptions, like the governments of officially bilingual or multilingual places, such as Canada or Belgium.