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.
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.