As chief medical officer for the DeWitt Health Care Network in 2009, I interviewed all physicians assigned to our hospital who were planning to leave the Army. During a conversation with a young pediatrician, I inquired about her reasons for going. She was born in America of Indian parents in New York and was a practicing Hindu, and she had been unhappy in her recent assignment in Fort Polk, Louisiana. When I asked why, she said “I just want to go to a place with more diversity.” I was puzzled, because while she may not have considered Fort Polk adequately diverse, the assignment she was completing was in Northern Virginia, one of the most diverse places in the country. I said “we have hundreds of people groups, varied restaurants and cultural facilities, and unending opportunities here. What are you looking for?” She replied “I want to be around Indians and Indian culture. I noted “the Durga Hindu temple is not far from here, and there are Indian restaurants, Indian culture, and a large Indian population nearby. Are you involved with those? Wouldn’t that be enough to make you want to stay in uniform?” She replied, “I like the Army, but I just want to be with my people. I want to go home.”
It was a fascinating conversation. This young officer was successful and politically correct; an embodiment of the empowered, single, non-white woman that our society spends time, energy and resources, through affirmative action programs in business and education, trying to create. She used all of the “right words” about diversity, but diversity was never really the issue. This young lady was responding to a need far deeper than political correctness, despite her vocabulary. She wanted to be with people who were like her, and she wanted to go home.
Webster’s online defines diversity as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety; especially: the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” In the following paragraphs we will discuss diversity, promises kept and promises broken.
Diversity is clearly a good thing, and we need no further proof of this than the fact that our Creator made a diverse world. Whether in people, in languages, in foods, in dress, and in other areas of culture, the human experience is tremendously diverse. The natural world is diverse also; encompassing thousands of different species of flora and fauna, of rocks and minerals, and of more heterogeneity than any of us can imagine. Were a human to create the world, we would not see such diversity. We’d probably select a few hundred types of food and clothing and be done. On the contrary, divine creativity is manifest in the incredible variety we encounter in every area of life.
Diversity allows for exciting new experiences; whether in food, in dress, in language, or in other areas. It provides for a lifetime of dazzling variety; enough to hold the interest of all but the most jaded people for decades. Diversity in thought should be a goal for any organization because it promotes imaginative new ideas to solve vexing problems. Diversity in race and culture can benefit an organization because it allows a broad cross section of stakeholders to better identify with it. If police officers are all white, it can be hard for blacks or Hispanics to think that the police have their best interest at heart. If teachers are all women, boys may wonder what their words mean to them. Groups throughout America shout the message of diversity from the mountaintops, and every schoolchild in the land can recite reasons that diversity is good. In my daughter’s former high school, the administration trumpeted the schools diversity instead of trumpeting student test scores.
Diversity, however, is not the deliverance of mankind; it is not a panacea. While the promise of diversity has kept many of the promises of its promoters, it has also broken many. President Barack Obama, appealing for unity in a divided Congress, and a divided country, proclaimed “let our differences bring us together.” As progressive and enlightened as that statement sounds, it is actually illogical and inconsistent with human nature.
Imagine two business associates, barely acquainted but mildly interested in each other, who find themselves together at the end of a long day at a conference. Neither wants to dine alone, so the man says “Let’s get dinner. I know a great sushi place just around the corner.” The woman has never had sushi but thinks that it might be exciting to try. The excitement of a new shared experience, eating sushi together, and the desire not to eat alone, draws them together for an evening. After the dinner, will they be closer together or farther apart? If they both like sushi, sharing it will draw them together in the future. If one does not, though they may come together for other reasons, sushi will not be one of them. Differences may draw people together, but only as long as they remain exciting to both. Eventually people need to find more similarities than differences for their relationships to endure.
A savvy reader may object that sushi is trite example. Let us then consider something more important and more controversial; politics. Republican consultant Mary Matalin and Democratic consultant James Carville were married in 1993 and their relationship has been successful. Some may consider this an example of political diversity drawing people together, even for the long term. However, Matalin and Carville have both stated publicly that they do not talk politics at home. While a common interest in politics may have helped them meet and understand each other, their diverse opinions are a risk for division, not unity. While each has undoubtedly been influenced by the other’s views, and to the good of both, their marriage is held together by something other than, and stronger than, politics.
Missionaries and other cross cultural workers have known this for centuries. When a person first encounters a new culture, perhaps as a tourist, everything is new and exciting. The food is exotic, the language charming and the people endearing. The bright spots of the new culture overshine the dark areas. At this stage, the tourist wonder if she wants to stay in this new, exciting place. This stage usually lasts up to a few weeks. Soon, however, the excitement wears off and the differences, or even weaknesses, of the new culture take center stage. The tourist has gone home before this happens and so rarely sees it. The food ceases to satisfy; the language is now baffling, and the people bothersome. The diversity which once drew the expatriate towards this new land now drives him away. The expatriate has three courses of action. He can give up on the new culture and go home, he can fully adopt the new culture and reject his former culture, or he can attempt to embrace parts of each. The differences excite him at first, but later drive him away. Only those differences that he chooses to appreciate, that he shares with the people of the new culture, will bring them together.
Diversity, not division; Unity, not uniformity
Clearly the key issue surrounding diversity is not diversity at all but rather unity. If people are united on the most important issues, diversity becomes a blessing. Differences in food, dress, language, and other areas of culture can be exciting and enlightening; far better than a clone-like uniformity. If people are divided on the most important issues, diversity leads to division and becomes a curse. As a house divided against itself cannot stand, neither can a business or a nation. The Balkans, the Ukraine, Thailand, and many other places on earth provide powerful evidence. Division causes paralysis from an inability to cooperate at best and civil war at worst.
I was at a conference for senior military medical leaders in March of 2011 and we were discussing diversity. Rejecting the historic metaphor of America being a melting pot of immigrants from throughout the world, my group members argued forcefully for a metaphor of stew, with each part maintaining its individuality. As good as the metaphor was, the “stew” advocates never discussed the fact that each element of a stew contributes in a unified way to fulfilling its mission; tasting good and being healthy. If the individual elements of a stew do not combine to make a tasty and healthy meal, no matter how good the individual parts may be, the stew is fit only for the garbage.
The same is true for families, organizations, and nations. If individuals are united in accomplishing the mission of their group, diversity will make the group even better. If not, the individuals need to find a goal they can agree on, or move to a group where they can agree. Diversity without unity is destruction.
The drums of diversity nearly stupefy with their relentless beat. The pounding deadens our hearing and dulls our senses, making it hard to think clearly. In reality diversity is a terrific thing, as our Creator intended, as long as we are united in the things that really matter.