Diversity means cross-pollination, not crop rotation

Paul H-P

We can all agree that diversity is valuable. But can we say why or what the word really means in the context of an intellectual community? The truth is, even our ideas about diversity are homogeneous.

The word most often means the coexistence of people from a variety of races, classes and genders. But this idea, embracing difference for the sake of difference, somewhat misses the point, and even reinforces the prejudices that we are supposedly trying to overcome. “Multiculturalism,” for example, places greater emphasis on skin color, country of origin and other such categorizations than it does on the most important characteristics of an individual: unique patterns of mind, varieties of experience and radical divergence of world views.

The value of diversity for our community is educational: Intellectual diversity opens our minds. This is expressed succinctly by the clever adage “cross-pollination helps grow ideas.” Consider how the idea of cross-pollination is itself the product of mixed disciplines, a carry-over from biology applied to the human world. In fact, diversity is not primarily a social characteristic; biodiversity is the single most important factor determining the health of an ecosystem. Widely varied diets provide the best nutrition; genetic diversity ensures the long-term success of a species, despite disease and environmental strain.

A long trend of neurological research (beginning with Donald Hebb in 1947 and notably furthered by Mark Rosenzweig in 1960) shows a staggeringly robust correlation between rich environmental variance and the complexity and extent of neurological development. In other words, the more various your experiences and surroundings, the grander a mind you’ll grow.

If we consider these other senses of the word, we see that the goal of diversity for a community like Whitman is a kind of intellectual syncretism, whereby each individual is exposed to numerous perspectives and can examine, weigh and integrate them into a broad, new understanding.

Take a prominent example: We insist on the importance of racial diversity, largely as a response to the continuing problem of racial inequality. But we learn from singular individuals, not from “people of color” per se. I don’t care if you’re white, or black or blue, for that matter. It is this very insistence on the importance of racial identity (or ethnic, or sexual or economic) over individual identity which makes it impossible for diversity to actually matter to us, and which leads to continued oppression despite even our best intentions. To overcome racial discrimination, we need to look beyond such differences to the underlying, fundamentally human characteristics that bind us all together. At heart, we are all the same––we are equally unique, equally different.

To value diversity as the coexistence of “cultural others” is to close ourselves off to the possibility presented by radical, new perspectives. To praise the Other is to hold it at arm’s length, to pretend desegregation means integration. It is not because people are black, or Muslim, or bisexual or poor that they deserve our attention and acceptance, but because they are foremost just people. If they have grown up in a world fundamentally different from our own, then they have something to teach us: not what it means to be different, but what it means to be equally human, despite all our outward traits and divergent cultures.

This is all the more plainly true regarding our understanding of gender and sexuality: We understand attraction within the confines of homo- and heterosexual distinctions. Those who do not fit neatly into either category feel pressured to label themselves, hence the acronym LGBT proliferating into QUILTBAG. These diverse identities are showing us not that we need more labels, but that we should simply allow our attractions and impulses to guide how we interact, whether with partners or friends. Not all human tendencies can, or should, be categorized.

The same is true of religious, economic and even age discrepancies. When we emphasize such distinctions, we are only affirming our differences and limiting what we could understand through one another. Only by approaching each other first as equals, all the same in our uniqueness, may we overcome the prejudices that hinder our insights. Only by looking beyond the sheer face of difference may we begin to discover, discuss and develop our most unique and compelling ideas on their own terms. In this way, we establish a community on the basis of mutual growth, rather than mutual difference. That is cross-pollination. That is truly how we learn.