Tucker Carlson attracted controversy recently when, on an episode of his show, he challenged the idea that “diversity” is a good thing. On his “Answer Me This” segment, he asked:
How precisely is diversity our strength? Since you’ve made this our new national motto, please be specific as you explain it. Can you think, for example, of other institutions, such as, I don’t know, marriage or military units, in which the less people have in common the more cohesive they are? Do you get along better with your neighbors or your co-workers if you can’t understand each other or share no common values?
Many people were disgusted by Carlson’s monologue, because it reiterated a set of notions commonly voiced by white nationalists: If you don’t see any value in having people who are different from you, and think cultural “cohesion” is crucial, you’ve laid the intellectual groundwork for ethnically-based immigration policies that explicitly prioritize people based on their similarity to, well, Tucker Carlson. (Indeed, a contributor to the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer has said that “Tucker Carlson is basically ‘Daily Stormer: The Show.’ Other than the language used, he is covering all of our talking points.”)
But I want to assume Tucker Carlson isn’t actually a conscious white nationalist. I will assume that he’s a genuinely clueless person, who is asking in good faith, wearing that constant puzzled expression of his. Perhaps his question isn’t merely a rhetorical way of saying that diversity is purposeless, but a sincere effort to get the left to “answer me this.”
Fortunately, the question is incredibly easily answered.
Why is diversity a “strength”? Let me give an example. I live in New Orleans. It’s the only city I can ever see myself living in. It’s a unique place, and the factors that make it unique arise from the city’s multiculturalism, its mixture of African American, French, Spanish, Italian, Cuban, and Vietnamese influences. Its rich cultural diversity, its absorption of so many different kinds of people, has created a special and beloved place. Today’s Mardi Gras, for instance, draws from French Catholic sources, Old English sources, and African sources. The result is like nothing seen anywhere else in the world. It’s no accident that jazz, the most original and perhaps most important American contribution to world music, was developed in New Orleans. Here’s Jelly Roll Morton talking about the influence of Cuban “seasoning” that was necessary to perfect the jazz “recipe”:
Then we had Spanish people there. I heard a lot of Spanish tunes. I tried to play them in correct tempo, but I personally didn’t believe they were perfected in the tempos. Now take the habanera “La Paloma”, which I transformed in New Orleans style. You leave the left hand just the same. The difference comes in the right hand — in the syncopation, which gives it an entirely different color that really changes the color from red to blue. Now in one of my earliest tunes, “New Orleans Blues”, you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.
We have Mardi Gras Indians, an African American tradition inspired by Native Americans. We have Louis Prima, who mixed Italian folk with hot jazz, James Booker who combined classical European music with R&B, and Professor Longhair who threw rumba, mambo, and calypso into his singular musical stew. All of this was only possible because there were so many different types of people who lived here, because it was a multicultural city. And while it’s true that New Orleans has become more “cohesive” over time, with its own identity that transcends the differences, if people who came here had just shed their differences as soon as they arrived there wouldn’t have been the same opportunity to learn and borrow from different strong traditions. If they’d just assimilated into what was already there, nothing would ever have been added. (By the way, I am not suggesting that New Orleans was a kumbaya-singing ethnically harmonious paradise: It was a slave port, and many of its most beautiful cultural creations have arisen from tragedy and oppression. Nor is this over.)
Here we have a genuine example of what multiculturalism can actually do: It can make life better and more interesting by combining the results of many different cultural experiments in spectacular ways. Diversity is good in part because it makes everything less bland. I have never understood people who complain about those who “refuse to speak English” but live in the United States. I think it’s cool to have people who don’t speak English! Other languages are fascinating and I’d hate to live in a place where there were no meaningful variations in how people spoke. Culturally speaking, diversity is an obvious strength: Mexican culture, which is amazing, is a hybrid of indigenous and Spanish, Tex-Mex is a hybrid of Mexican and American. If you want homogeneity and are uncomfortable around different types of people, then diversity is bad. If you are excited when you meet different types of people, then the more diversity the better. Perhaps Tucker Carlson looks at the graphic of all the little different people holding hands around the world and thinks it would be nice if they were identical. I do not. Perhaps he listens to Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” and retches in disgust. I do not. Every time I hear a white nationalist like Richard Spencer talking about his desire for a “white ethnostate,” I can’t help but think about just how awful such a place sounds.
Okay, so multiculturalism is good for culture, because it gave us zydeco and Chicano art. But what about Carlson’s questions? First, are there other examples where people are more cohesive the less they have in common? And two, do you get along better with your coworkers if you “can’t understand each other or share no common values”?
My colleague Briahna Gray pointed out, rather amusingly, that Carlson’s belief about marriages being improved by the similarity of partners provides a rather strong argument that all marriages should be same-sex marriages. More seriously, though, it may be true that the more similar you are to your coworkers in demographic characteristics, the easier it will be to avoid friction and misunderstanding. But I don’t think that’s a very good argument for not wanting people to be culturally different. The easiest world might be one in which everyone is as close to identical to me as possible, but that’s not a world I want to live in. Perhaps this is Tucker Carlson’s utopia….
… but to me it’s an obvious nightmare. Yes, if one of my colleagues is from South Korea, it may be more difficult for us to find common reference points than if all of my colleagues are from my hometown of Sarasota. But it’s also exciting, because I know a lot about Sarasota already and I don’t know much about South Korea! I get to meet a person from a different place. How thrilling! (I am sorry that because this is so basic, I sound like I am explaining it to a child. But, well…)
I think “can’t understand each other or share no common values” is an insidious way of putting things, because it reinforces the idea that people can’t understand, say, Muslim immigrants and share no common values with them. That’s just false. “Won’t understand” and “can’t understand” are not the same thing, and often those who talk about the supposedly unbridgeable communication gap between different groups seem to spend little time listening to and trying to understand the people they’re talking about.
Witness this travelogue in the Wall Street Journal by a man who went deep into the dark heart of Muslim Britain to find out what it was really like. He describes a terrifying world of “failed multiculturalism” in which “nobody made eye contact”:
Within minutes, we walked by three other mosques, which were vibrant and filled with young men coming and going. We passed a church, which was closed and decrepit, with a window that had been vandalized with eggs. We squeezed by hundreds of residents busy preparing for the Eid al-Adha holiday. Girls in hijabs gathered around tables to paint henna designs on their hands. All the businesses had a religious flair: The eateries were halal, the fitness center was sex-segregated, and the boutiques displayed “modest” outfits on mannequins. Pakistani flags flew high and proud. I never saw a Union Jack.
Painting henna designs on their hands! Eating the foods of their culture! Going to mosques instead of the church! Celebrating their holidays! Dressing modestly! What has happened to the England of yore? Ironically enough, the American writer attributes qualities to “Muslim” Britain that are actually just universal British qualities, like stand-offishness and “not flying the Union Jack.” He even wrote that in the Muslim neighborhoods, he saw signs that said “alcohol-restricted zone,” implying a creeping sharia regime. This necessitated a correction from the paper when it turned out that these are just a British thing:
An earlier version mistakenly identified the public context of a sign that declared “Alcohol-restricted zone.” Such signs refer to a prohibition on public drinking and appear in many English neighborhoods, irrespective of Muslim population.
More importantly than any of this, though, the writer doesn’t seem to have had a single substantive conversation with anyone in the neighborhood. (He did ask an imam for some leaflets.) This always happens with these guys: They suggest that cultural differences make it impossible to understand one another, without putting the slightest bit of effort into understanding other people’s perspectives.
Interestingly, that’s actually one of the reasons that diversity takes on such importance. Because people like Carlson aren’t going to actually try to understand others, making sure there’s some integration is a way of helping them see that those different to themselves are human. White people who live only with other white people develop totally insane and incorrect understandings of what it’s like to be black, Mexican, or Muslim. They just have no idea, because they’ve never actually hung out in an ethnic neighborhood. The less contact people have, the less they really get to know each other, the more their differences can be a source of fear and suspicion.
Ah, but isn’t that also an argument for conservatives’ favorite form of diversity, “viewpoint diversity”? What about the fact that colleges are dominated by liberals and leftists? Doesn’t that make them misunderstand conservatives? Well, yes, and I’ve always advocated that liberals consume conservative thought and try to understand how the right thinks. But because conservatism is ultimately a very obvious and accessible set of ideas, while differing life experiences are impossible to understand without empathetic encounters, I don’t see the intellectual loss of uniformity as being quite so substantial. I do think there’s a loss that comes from, say, not having any Mormon or Southern students, because it allows nasty stereotypes about Mormons and Southerners to proliferate unchecked. I think many elite colleges would benefit from having more veterans, older people, and working-class people. But I’m far more interested in that kind of diversity than, say, having all wealthy white people but making sure that some of them defend Trump’s border policies. And I also think there’s good reason why “marginalized” perspectives are given special attention: because they’re marginal, and without these perspectives we will be blind and ignorant.
That’s actually a final benefit of diversity: If you’re not exposed to it, you’re going to be dumb. If you never speak to any Vietnamese people, you won’t understand the Vietnam War from Vietnamese perspectives, which means you won’t understand the Vietnam War. If you don’t talk to Muslims, then you’re not going to know why Islamophobic bigotry is so pernicious and painful. You need to be around different people, because the world is full of different people, and you don’t talk to them, your knowledge of the world will be cramped and biased.
Part of me also wants to reject the idea that diversity even needs to make a case for itself. The benefits of diversity were often touted as a way to justify affirmative action programs, and there are major benefits. But generally my support for a multicultural society is not for the selfish reason that it creates a better society for me, even though it does. It’s because I don’t think it should matter whether people are different. We have an obligation to treat people fairly and try to get along with everyone, and that would be true even if multiculturalism did actually create problems in proportion to its many benefits.
The fear here, of course, is that we don’t share enough “universal common understandings” to be sufficiently “cohesive.” I think that fear is generally overblown, because I tend to think that people are pretty similar to one another. Ironically, the Wall Street Journal’s “visit to Islamic Britain” confirms this: People were just being people. They were eating food, going to work, having fun, worshiping. They were entirely doing people-things. I know it’s a cliche, but when you get to know people, you often find that they’re not much different to yourself! (Oh God, if I got to know Tucker Carlson, would I discover the same thing?) We can achieve common understanding and social cohesion even across cultures because we’re all human and so we share so many problems and experiences in common. The main barrier to progress on this is people like Carlson who find the idea of being around different people disturbing and strange.
The all-Carlson world I showed you above is horrifying, I’m sure you’ll agree. I don’t want to live in it, even though I somewhat look like him. Here, instead, is a vision of a better world, one with both rich difference and shared humanity:
How can you say that diversity isn’t a strength? Our differences are what make us interesting. They distinguish us from ants and rocks. (Actually, rocks are very diverse.) We don’t have to all be the same in order to get along.
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