Hogan's Alley

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Does Diversity Have Unintended Consequences?

It is a cardinal principle of our modern liberal society that diversity is a good thing. It surely seems to be. Most people have experienced the opportunity to come to know people outside their own ethnic, religious and cultural group and, to their wonder and excitement, discovered that our similarities are more than the sum of our differences. Thus, it makes sense that more diversity will produce even deeper levels of the experience of the oneness of humanity. That is, indeed, a very good thing.

But what if human beings don't always react that way in the real world. How inconvenient.

Erica Goode reports in the Times about the research of Robert Putnam and colleagues. To the researchers' surprise they found that:

“Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation,” Putnam writes in the June issue of the journal Scandinavian Political Studies. “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle.”

In highly diverse cities and towns like Los Angeles, Houston and Yakima, Wash., the survey found, the residents were about half as likely to trust people of other races as in homogenous places like Fremont, Mich., or rural South Dakota, where, Putnam noted, “diversity means inviting a few Norwegians to the annual Swedish picnic.”

It would seem possible then, that humans are wired to some degree to experience anxiety in the face of the "other", however that is defined. The more "others" in the environment, the greater the likelihood that people will scurry into our own isolated burrows.

More significant, they were also half as likely to trust people of their own race. They claimed fewer close friends. They were more apt to agree that “television is my most important form of entertainment.” They had less confidence in local government and less confidence in their own ability to exert political influence. They were more likely to join protest marches but less likely to register to vote. They rated their happiness as generally lower. And this diversity effect continued to show up even when a community’s population density, average income, crime levels, rates of home ownership and a host of other factors were taken into account.
So here we are glued to our TV's, vicariously fanticizing about how "others" should be dealt with via the characters of Jack, Sawyer, Kate, Hurley and the rest in our weekly dose of "Lost". Admit it, it was satisfying to finally have our hero Jack beat the crap out of the manipulative troll, Ben.

This doesn't mean that diversity is not a goal we should persue. Its benefits far outweigh its negatives. But it does mean that we must recognize the nature of the beasts we are seeking to tame here. Human beings, despite all our vaunted claims of high intellectual functioning, are still very much influenced by the instincts, primitive or otherwise, that inhabit our brains and genes. These realities must be recognized and accounted for as we seek to open our society to free social migration. In this, the key is time.

As Goode points out,

Still, in Putnam’s view, the findings are neither cause for despair nor a brief against diversity. If this country’s history is any guide, what people perceive as unfamiliar and disturbing — what they see as “other” — can and does change over time. Seemingly intractable group divisions can give way to a larger, overarching identity. When he was in high school in the 1950s, Putnam notes, he knew the religion of almost every one of the 150 students in his class. At the time, religious intermarriage was uncommon, and knowing whether a potential mate was a Methodist, a Catholic or a Jew was crucial information. Half a century later, for most Americans, the importance of religion as a mating test has dwindled to near irrelevance, “hardly more important than left- or right-handedness to romance.”

The rising marriage rates across racial and ethnic lines in a younger generation, raised in a more diverse world, suggest the current markers of difference can also fade in salience. In some places, they already have: soldiers have more interracial friendships than civilians, Putnam’s research finds, and evangelical churches in the South show high rates of racial integration. “If you’re asking me if, in the long run, I’m optimistic,” Putnam says, “the answer is yes.”

What needs to increase is gentle habituation to our differences, not the forced assertion of moral superiority by those who regard themselves as a superior brand of human with a great tolerance for differences. Let us remember that many of those who proclaim as weak and evil anyone ill at ease among diversity often live in the most diverse places in our society, like New York City.

You can see them any day, walking the streets, iPods firmly in place, eyes firmly glued to the sidewalk, headed for their small apartments, where they will lock and latch three or four safety devices before settling down to a meal of delivered Lebanese food in front of the TV, where they will celebrate their enlightened status.

Labels: ,