(c) Grace Gardner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This essay, on the row between Lionel Shriver and Penguin Random House and on what we mean by ‘diversity’, was my Observer column this week.  It was published in the Observer, 17 June 2018, under the headline ‘We’re now confusing diversity and equality. Which is our priority?’

What do we mean by diversity? And why is it good – or not?

For all the myriad debates about diversity today, such questions are rarely addressed in any depth. The latest hoo-ha was generated by a Lionel Shriver column in the Spectator, which questioned publisher Penguin Random House’s pledge to make the company more diverse. ‘We want both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025’, PRH announces on its website.

‘Drunk on virtue,’ Shriver wrote, ‘Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books.’ She went on: ‘Literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes.’ From now on, ‘a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter… will be published’ even if it is ‘incoherent, tedious, meandering’.

It was a bog-standard anti-diversity rant wrapped up in Shriveresque language, mixing valid criticisms with over-the-top assertions. The line about the ‘gay transgender Caribbean’ is a tired cliche, clearly satirical, but also clearly intended to provoke a response. And provoke it did.

‘Does she truly believe that diverse writers are incapable of penning good books?’ asked an open letter from Penguin’s mentoring programme WriteNow. Probably not, as Shriver did not suggest that. Mslexia, a magazine for women’s writing, dropped her as a judge for its annual short story competition. Although it welcomed ‘open debate’, Shriver’s comments were ‘not consistent with Mslexia’s ethos and mission’. So, an open debate, but only with the right views, the importance of diversity but not of a diversity of views.

The episode raises deeper questions about what diversity means, questions that the ‘let me provoke’, ‘let me be outraged’ dance provides little opportunity to explore. For both sides, ‘diversity’ has become less an issue to debate than a symbol, of virtue for the one, of vice for the other.

Penguin Random House aims to make the company as diverse as Britain with respect to ‘ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability’. (I assume ‘social mobility’ is a euphemism for ‘class’ – it’s obviously a category that no longer speaks its name.)

But Britain is diverse in many other ways too – by religion, age, occupation, regional affiliation, political viewpoint and so on. It’s unlikely that any institution would ever be representative in all these categories (especially political viewpoint). Here ‘diversity’ means being representative in a few chosen categories, and only in those categories.

PRH’s categories represent some of the groups that, historically, have faced discrimination, and been excluded from positions of power and privilege. From this perspective, the drive for greater diversity is a push for greater equality, and an attempt to dismantle barriers of exclusion.

But equality and diversity are not synonymous. There are many reasons for a workforce or institution not to be representative of society. Consider the recent debate about admissions to Oxford University. Black people make up around 3% of the UK population, but only 1.9% of Oxford’s intake. This led Labour’s David Lammy to damn the university as a ‘bastion of entrenched wealthy, upper-class, white, southern privilege’.

But, as Channel 4’s Fact Check pointed out, black students both disproportionately apply for the most competitive courses and are more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades. Taking this into account, Oxford, according to Fact Check, ‘was very slightly more likely to offer a place to black candidates’.

Oxford is unquestionably a ‘bastion of entrenched privilege’. But the disproportionately low number of black students at the university is not necessarily the result of a racist admissions policy.

Forty years ago, few campaigners talked of diversity as a goal. The objective was equality. As overt bigotry and discrimination diminished, so the goal of equality became redefined as a drive for greater diversity. The focus shifted from addressing the needs of working-class people from minority communities to providing better opportunities for middle-class professionals.

Most of those who advocate diversity policies do so because they abhor inequality. Yet, in the shift from ‘equality’ to ‘diversity’, the most marginalised have often been forgotten. The promotion of diversity, as the African-American academic and activist Adolph Reed has sardonically observed, can lead to the perspective that ‘a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people’. Diversity policies, in other words, do not necessarily challenge inequality, but simply make it ‘fairer’.

The argument against diversity is usually seen as a conservative project. But as figures such as Reed (or, in a British context, the late A Sivanandan) demonstrate, there is also a radical tradition that is sceptical of the diversity approach because it comes to stand in place of a meaningful struggle for equality.

Nataraja 1993 by Bridget Riley born 1931

If the argument in favour of diversity is not as straightforward as it seems, neither is the critique. Shriver insists she is opposed not to diversity but to quotas. But PRH is not demanding quotas; to suggest that it is, is to misrepresent Penguin as much as Shriver’s critics misrepresent her.

At the root of the conservative argument against diversity is a particular view of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’, an approach revealed particularly in debates around immigration. Diversity, many argue, is bad for society because it undermines a sense of commonality. Immigration makes one ‘feel a foreigner in one’s own country’, as Shriver herself has put it.

In a review of novels about immigration, Shriver makes the valid, and necessary, point that most stories about migration are written from the viewpoint of immigrants, rarely from that of ‘host communities’. She goes on, however, to talk about immigration as a form of inappropriate cultural invasion. Mass immigration can begin to ‘duplicate the experience of military occupation – your nation is no longer your home’, and leads to ‘understandably primal reactions to the compromise of one’s home’.

This is the reactionary face of the critique of diversity, in which too much diversity defiles one’s home, and exclusion becomes a necessary means of protection. It’s a world away from the kind of critique that Reed or Sivanandan might propose.

Diversity is, of itself, neither good nor bad. The real issue is about how we engage with it. But that means engaging with all the issues for which ‘diversity’ has become a proxy: equality, identity, class, immigration, racism, ideas of belonging and home. In this context, neither unthinkingly celebrating diversity, nor reflexively rejecting it, makes much sense.


The images are Grace Gardner’s ‘Black is the colour of my true love’s heart’ (Falmouth Art Gallery) and Bridget Riley’s ‘Nataraja’ (Tate Gallery)


  1. damon

    On the last paragraph – in my opinion we don’t engage with it. Not fully.
    You hear fleeting discussion about it all the time, but go too far and you’ll quickly be dismissed as being bigoted or cranky. Look what happens for example when David Lammy and David Goodhart are in the same studio discussing diversity. It becomes fractious and personal.
    You have people on the left who won’t engage with anyone who talks about the kind of things they want to ignore.
    Like Goodhart’s idea of people who feel attached to “somewhere” and those who can feel at home “anywhere”.
    The book he wrote on the subject got sniffy reviews from liberals and cosmopolitans I think.

    When I think of diversity, I think of London’s most diverse boroughs. Even Kensington and Chelsea with its rich and poor divide. But more, about places like Newham, Haringey and Brent. And Croydon where I (and Stormzy) come from. Places where the traditional local accents have even been lost to the new “urban” street accent and where half the black schoolboys wear the black hoodie “street uniform” on their way to and from school.
    I don’t think I’ve ever heard that mentioned anywhere btw. But surely it’s an aspect of the diversity divide. That kind of separation from regular society. The police certainly notice it, and is one of the main causes of poor relations between the police and black youths.

    There are certainly many good and fine aspects to living in a diverse society, but until we can also analyse what’s going on in this YouTube – which is part of a series of videos from around London titled “Better Place” – then I will remain quite pessimistic about the future. The YouTube shows a totally dystopian image of living in modern diverse London. Some of it is juvenile and just projecting fantasy I’m sure, but it’s grounded in a reality a lot of us don’t see also I think.

    • harlan leyside

      ‘Diversity’ as ideology – notably ‘multiculturalism’ – has increased divisions; which is detrimental. A diversity of sub-cultures, within a wider, cohesive, national – ideally global – mega-culture, seems a better goal to strive for

  2. TJR

    Part of the difficulty with the word “diversity” is that it is rarely defined, so everybody interprets it in their own way. A diversity of interpretations, you might say. Hence it is incredibly easy to end up arguing at cross-purposes.

    I use it to mean “everybody is different and is allowed to be different” but many people seem to use it as a euphemism for “visible differences” or “visible differences among middle class people”.

    • harlan leyside

      It basically means ‘a range of different things’ or ‘a great deal of variety; very different’.

      “everybody is different and is allowed to be different” seems like a great aspiration, but in practice, it too often comes assumes that everyone within subjectively, selectively differentiated groups – e.g. ‘black’, Asian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Jewish’, ‘LGBT’, etc. are similar

  3. Nicola

    Am very grateful to receive your blog – you seem to be able to hold on to the ‘real’ questions. I am not a writer, so cannot express properly. But I’m glad you’re writing.

  4. Picador

    I haven’t read Shriver’s piece in the FT (it’s pay-walled), but from the passage you’ve quoted, it sounds like she’s making some troubling claims there.
    That being said, I think you’re being unfair to her Spectator argument with this sentence: “But PRH is not demanding quotas; to suggest that it is, is to misrepresent Penguin as much as Shriver’s critics misrepresent her.”
    Here is PRH’s language, verbatim, from the link in your post:
    “That’s why we want both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025. This means we want our new authors and colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.”
    What could that possibly mean other than quotas? If PRH’s goal is for the distribution of “ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability” among its staff and its authors to “reflect the UK population”, what does this mean other than a goal of making sure that each group is represented within the company in the same proportion as it is in the UK population? And how could one possibly achieve such a goal without setting clear hiring quotas? Someone within the organization must periodically compare their current staff representation of each group with the current UK-wide representation of that group and instruct HR to increase or decrease hiring of that group accordingly. That is literally the only way an organization could work toward achieving the stated goal, and it is a paradigmatic quota system. PRH is demanding quotas. Regardless of what she may say elsewhere, Shriver is right when she says that PRH is demanding quotas.

    • harlan leyside

      They may need to introduce quotas at some point, to achieve their ambition. But for now at least, it seems they’re hoping that ‘removing the need for a university degree from all our jobs, introducing paid work experience, and finding and nurturing new writers through our WriteNow programme’ will level the playing field to a point where diversity will subsequently result.

      They’ve also ‘banned personal referrals and introduced random selection to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to apply’, they ‘pay all our interns the London Living Wage’, put colleagues through ‘unconscious bias workshops.. to find talented candidates based solely on their ideas and potential.’

      • Picador

        Hey, getting rid of personal referrals sounds like a pretty good idea for a clubby industry like publishing. I’m less sanguine about “unconscious bias workshops”, which appear to be completely ineffective. But this really wasn’t what Penguin said in their earlier press release.

        To be fair, I suppose their earlier statement was a bit vague. But to say that an organization “wants” something (“we want … to reflect UK society by 2025”) strongly implies that you’re putting in place an actual policy to achieve that goal. Furthermore, to “reflect” something (“to reflect UK society”; “to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability”) implies an exact mirroring, i.e. if UK society is 4% African, the organization “wants” to be 4% African. So if they have fewer Africans on staff then 4%, they “want” to hire some Africans, and if they’re currently over 4%, they don’t “want” to hire any more Africans. I think this kind of talk would get called out for what it is if it were an engineering firm stating that they want to cut back on the number of Asians on staff to better reflect the UK population, or a nursing program stating that they want to prioritize admitting men to better reflect the UK population.

  5. harlan leyside

    ‘A drive for greater diversity’, by definition, is ‘a push’ against equality; and ‘greater equality’ defies definition (‘equality’ is an absolute). On such incoherence has identity politics been built. Hence, it’s compulsive impulse to stifle speech; to complain about criticism. It’s got plenty of conceptual contradictions to cover up.

    Diversity or equality; which is it to be?

  6. damon

    This is an unfortunate side of having a diverse society.
    Alan Sugar made a crass joke on twitter yesterday about the football team from Senegal at the World Cup, reminding him of the African hawkers on Spanish beaches.
    They’re into their second hour of discussing it now on BBC Radio London’s Vanessa Feltz show, with 90% of the callers finding it outrageous and deeply offensive etc. And the few people who have said they found it funny or that too much is being made of it, are being condemned by others.

    MP Dawn Butler has called for him to be sacked from the BBC.
    She says: “His tweet shows that racism is open and rife in our society. As a BBC star and a peer, he must face an investigation”.

    These are the downsides of living in a diverse society. It gets rather tedious.

    • harlan leyside

      Or rather, a downside of living in a conformist society that decries diverse comments 🙂

  7. You claim local accents have transformed and hoodies are abound and from your perspective this is all wrong and emblematic of a diversity divide but why is that.

    Accents change, traditions are not stagnant. People can wear whatever they please. Why are you projecting your personal discomfort onto the discussion

  8. damon

    I mention the street accent because I’m alienated by it and find it rather horrible. It signifies that the person using it is part of the problematic street culture. There’s a great analysis of that in a book by an American professor, titled “Code of the street”.

    Hoodies are just antisocial. Not everyone who wears them is up to no good as it’s a fashion too, but people committing violent crimes on the street, wear hoodies to hide their identity. So even wearing your hood up like that is like signaling your “otherness” to everyone else around you.
    I know it’s just a youth thing, but I just don’t like the look. At its worst, it ends up like in that first video I linked too, where it looks like parts of London are trying to be like The Bronx in the 1980s.

    I’m don’t know where you are from, but the new accent is sometimes known as Multicultural London English.
    A great example of it was the recorded voice of the killer/executioner in Syria who became known as Jihadi John.
    Young people who can only speak like that will find their opportunities become limited as they will find that many people in regular society will not find them trustworthy enough to employ them etc. It’s one of the reasons why black young men have such high unemployment rates. And also why they come into so much contact with the police.
    The American professor in that video goes into a lot of detail as to what’s going on and the differences between street culture and “respectable” culture. Whether one agrees or disagrees, you shouldn’t brush aside all the nuances of such a study.

    • harlan leyside

      Young people down the decades have spoken and dressed differently – especially in ways that offend ‘respectable’ society – partly because they already see little opportunity and feel mistrust.

      • damon

        This isn’t really a forum meant for back and forth comments from us readers, but remember that our diverse society in Britain is one that has been built up since the war and is still continuing to diversify.
        It wasn’t like this once – and is something that has been created both through by political will (or design) and just events and people’s will to come here any way they can. Legal or otherwise.
        It’s never been something there has been any national consensus over. And polls would suggest a majority has always been wary of the increasing diversity.

        In Britain we chose to create some of the same kinds of (race) issues that they had in the USA for decades previously. And they are some of the most difficult issues we face. The police have tried and failed to gain the trust of a large part of the black minority communities. Accusations of institutional racism are still made today and as a society, we are very poor at even discussing what is wrong and what we could fix.
        You can hear that whenever the problems thrown up by having a diverse society are discussed in the media. We really don’t know where to start.
        Blaming the police and white racist society ….. or looking at other aspects like integration and people taking control of their own lives etc.
        And with millions of potential refugees and would-be migrants knocking on the doors of western countries, it’s something that is just going to go on forever.

        • harlan leyside

          I’ve had my posts wiped out and been signed out too many times on this mismanaged site. Bye

        • Harlan, I’m not sure what it is that has caused you problems. Can you be more specific? Or email me?

          Damon, I’m quite happy for people to debate to and fro if they wish. The only reason I get involved far less now is that I have less time these days to do so. But I’m happy for readers to.

        • harlan leyside

          I keep getting signed out, or I’m told that there’s a problem which prevents me posting. I use a Google+ account

  9. damon

    That’s good to know Kenan. I wasn’t sure how you viewed posts that took a different view to your tightly crafted narratives. I want to go along with much of what you say about increasing diversity, but I see negatives too.
    I was in central London yesterday and saw both marches about Brexit. The big one, by mostly genteel looking liberal middle class white people, and I then managed to get through the police cordon (as they had surrounded it with barriers and police vans) and walked through the couple of hundred Brexit and Tommy Robinson supporters who made up the other march on Millbank. It’s two different universes. The people are incompatible and like different species.
    Even though I don’t like some of their views, I felt more affinity with the latter group (for cultural reasons).
    They really don’t like large scale diversity and immigration. Even though there were a few black people amongst them.
    I think a reason they don’t like extreme diversity, is that it makes them feel a loss of hegemony.
    In many of the traditional areas they came from, people like them have become a minority.
    They don’t want their children being an ethnic minority at school and talking that urban street accent.
    I even saw an aging skinhead girl there yesterday. With the hair and everything. I felt a bit sorry for them.

    As minority populations grow, the “urban poverty culture” moves out into the suburbs and into nearby towns, like Reading for example. I heard someone make this point on the radio just yesterday, who said that London gang members who ended up in places like Reading, started up with their bad ways in their new town.

    Even in London, I’m always amazed by the difference between the diverse urban environments, with other places out towards the edges of London that are still predominantly white. In the outer London high streets, you still see loads of elderly white people going around the shops, using the cafes and packing out the M&S food hall.
    And back into London, just a few miles away in Peckham or Tottenham, those kinds of white people are conspicuous for not being there. Even if they are still living locally. They just stay home more, or drive to other places.
    The American professor in that video I linked to, has written about the reasons for this happening.
    Neighbourhoods are sometimes actually more diverse than you would guess from looking around in public.
    Something as simple as not feeling the shops had much appeal to them, or not caring to spend time in a public place that had some social problems. And nothing scares away the elderly neighbourhood shoppers like an influx of hoodie “corner boys” and loiterers.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: