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The Dilemma of Diversity: 1993 NDSTA Keynote Address

Dr. Winifred Stump DeLong, Professor Emerita, Dickinson State University

Volume 7, 1993. 

I think there is no honor that is equal to the honor of being asked by your peers to speak to them. It presumes that you are possessed of some great knowledge and are willing to share it, or that you know the mystic questions and are willing to partake with your friends in the search for answers. To be asked to speak implies that you have great powers to spellbind or to persuade, and it deduces an ability which surpasses that of ordinary mortals. I assure you that none of these characteristics is mine. The honor of being asked to speak to you came to me because we are all searchers, and I've probably been a searcher longer than anyone in here. And as a seeker, I thank all those who believed that my thoughts were worthy of being articulated and asked me to be with you today. I welcome all who have come to share in the seeking and the learning and the camaraderie which characterizes those who are skilled in oral communication. I tell you very honestly, I am touched by the caring you demonstrate, for students, for each other, for our art. Thank you for asking me to be with you, and thank you for the honor you have bestowed upon me.

When Joanne first told me that the theme of this year's NDSTA convention was "Nurturing Diversity," I thought that the articulation of the motif "Speaking With Different Voices" probably said all there was to say about diversity. After all, no one in this assembly would stand up here and say that diversity was bad, and once you've said that diversity is good, what more is there to say?

But I was glad that I had adequate time to think about this theme, for I discovered, as I thought about what I ought say to you today, that truly there is a lot to say about diversity. I found myself vacillating, believing one day that diversity was the blessing of our society, and believing the next day that it was the bane. It became quite apparent early on that bulls weren't the only ones with horns--the dilemma I faced was also horned.

Every time I left our house in Mesa, AZ, and went shopping or to the library, or to the museum where I do volunteer work, I was confronted with the most obvious kind of diversity--that of identifiable races mingling in the kaleidoscope of our American society. I saw a people who were Mexican-Americans, or Afro-Americans, or Native-Americans, or Japanese- or Chinese- or Vietnamese- or Thai-Americans--a truly diverse population. And I constantly drive by churches which celebrate our diversity--the Lutheran and Baptist and Roman Catholic and Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah's Witnesses and Buddhist temples and Jewish synagogues and even an Islamic Mosque--paths to the inner serenity sought by the members of these congregations. I shop in grocery stores that glorify our diversity, and I can fill my cart with Mexican delights, or Chinese flavors, or French seasonings. I can choose a restaurant which will titillate my tongue with Thai sauces, or Italian pasta, or German sausages. I can select wine from California, or France, or Germany--even Hungary. I ride in Toyotas, and eat Dijon mustard, and drink Lowenbrau beer, and use Lancome makeup. And my experiences are not singular--each of us in here is a product of diversity, and aren't we glad? Our lives are enriched, our work is more productive, and our play is more pleasant because of the diversity in our environment. 

But products and churches are not the only evidence of our diversity. Concepts and ideas flourish and provide provocative perspectives from which we view our world. 

For example, twenty years ago, "flower children" were the stereotypes that provided a colorful} marker of our diversity. I'm thinking about the "hep" and the "hip," beatniks and hippies, people who were artistic, unconventional, and nonconformist, people who didn't want to fit into "straight society," and who didn't care a fig for what the "squares" thought.

Such people played a useful role in American life. They forced the rest of us to view the world from different perspectives. And they boldly tested new ideas, or at least ideas that hadn't been tested very recently. 

Not surprisingly, most of these experiments failed. LSD doesn't really expand your consciousness. Communes didn't turn out to be a more harmonious form of social organization. Flower power wasn't very potent. Free love was expensive. And granola isn't very healthy.

But somebody had to find out whether these propositions were as appealing as they seemed. And while blazing not trails, but dead ends, America's diversifiers produced some pretty fine poetry (Alan Ginsberg's Howl, for example), some interesting art (Andy Warhol's soup cans) and some pleasant music. 

But what has happened to these members of the counterculture who reveled in the opportunity for diversity?

My guess is that these celebrants of diversity have left behind their adversarial relationship with the Establishment. They left a vacuum, and since nature abhors a vacuum, from it grew the other horn of the dilemma of diversity.

Shrill denunciations, absolutist language and extremist assertions have become a commonplace in debates about those things which proclaim our diversity--politics, race, abortion, sexism--anything you choose. Our "flower children" joined the Establishment, and forced it to heed them. They created an atmosphere in which "political correctness" became the sine qua non of the 90s. And political correctness has become as absurd as the hippies of an earlier time were.

Let me tell you about a real situation which took a politically correct path to absurdity. This had its origins in a battle between ice cream companies in Norway and Sweden. A Swedish ice cream maker decided to expand into the Norwegian market. This is a big market, because Norwegians really like ice cream. The invasion of the Swedish ice cream makers was not appreciated by the Norwegian ice cream makers who believe Norwegians should eat Norwegian ice cream as Thor intended. Or maybe it was Odin--always get them mixed up. 

So a Norwegian ice cream company made a TV commercial that, even by American standards, might be considered strange. It showed several Swedish men trying to figure out what "secret ingredient" makes Norwegian ice cream so good. They bring in a cow and one of the Swedes tries to milk it. But he does so by pumping the cow's tail. As he does this, voices in the background are heard saying "I'm not sick, I'm just Swedish." The obvious message is that Swedes are too dumb to know how to extract milk from a cow. 

The Swedish ice cream makers were not amused. Nor were ordinary Swedes who heard about the case and were indignant because they take pride in knowing that you get milk from a cow by squeezing its nose. So the Swedish ice cream company went to the Norwegian courts and accused the Norwegian ice cream company of inciting racial hatred. However, the judge came in with a ruling that didn't settle anything, but not because it encouraged Norwegians to dislike Swedes, which many would do anyway, no matter what some judge said. 

He found a technicality, something to do with failure to be specific about the contents of the Norwegian ice cream. But, according to the newspaper The European, which reports on such weighty matters, both sides claimed victory. 

The Norwegian company said, "The decision clearly states that we can continue to fight for Norwegian jobs and Norwegian products." And the Swedish company said, "Now we should get more respect. Our sales people have been bullied and called Swedish rogues." 

I detailed this case because it shows how lucky we are to be Americans. It's hard to imagine someone being hauled into an American courtroom and accused of a racial hate crime for accusing some ethnic or racial group of not knowing how to milk a cow. Nor are we as limited as the Norwegians and the Swedes, who have only each other to mock, which must get dull after a while. I mean, how many herring jokes are there? There are times when we forget how lucky we are to be Americans, with our multiplicity of diversions. 

Here in America, Dr. Leonard Jeffries preaches the superiority of blacks (or "sun people," as he calls them) while David Duke has declared "There's only one country anymore that's all white, and that's Iceland, and that's not enough." Feminists blast men for sexism, while members of the men's movement blame women for making them victims. Traditionalists assail multiculturists as "Kubla Khan in Tweed," while radical reformers complain about the philosophy of DWEM's (that is, dead white European males). 

This rising tide of rhetoric, along with our current penchant for either/or constructions, is both symptomatic of, and a catalyst for, the growing polarization of American society, a polarization that has begun to affect how we think about everything from politics to the arts. It is diversity, truly, but it is diversity frozen in extremes. And this polarization is addictive. It has become the crack cocaine of the system. 

More than 200 years ago, as the ideas upon which this country was founded were taking shape, James Madison observed that it is in man's nature to form factions. "So strong," he said "is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where not substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts." He wrote in The Federalist that this zeal for different opinions has rendered these factions "much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good."

Madison knew that we have a fondness for black and white distinctions. We search for easy ways to categorize experiences, values and tastes, as though life were just one big athletic showdown, and someone must lose and someone must win. We see people as foxes, who know many things, or hedgehogs, who know one big thing. People either smoke, or they are against it. You either believe Elvis is dead, or you saw him last week buying Cheetos at Walmart. You either believe in UFO's or you don't. You are, in Ken Kesey's words, either on the bus or off the bus.

Recently, however, such amusing distinctions have given way to more serious efforts to pigeonhole the world, efforts that underscore our tendency to see everything in terms of either/or, all-or-nothing, left-or-right, right-or-wrong. Innocuous questions used to categorize one as a human being, but have now been replaced by reductive, and considerably loaded litmus tests. Are you "pro-choice" or "pro-life?" Are you for unemployed loggers or endangered spotted owls? Do you believe Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas? Is Bosnia another Holocaust or another Vietnam?

A new administration has come to power whose leader campaigned in part on the politics of inclusion. Candidate Bill Clinton promised that diversity would be the byword of his Administration and after he was elected he announced that his federal appointees would "look like America." President Bill Clinton then proceeded to assemble a racially, ethnically and gender-diversified cabinet, selecting six women, (one of them black), four black men and two Hispanic men to fill 12 of the 21 positions. 

In the process, he evoked criticism from all directions. Women's groups complained that there should be more women. The New Republic, a highly regarded journal of opinion, declared the diversity standard as "insulting." And from abroad, The Economist, though it commended the new American President on the merits of some of his nominees issued a warning: "This cabinet, designed to 'look like America,' is in danger of representing the worst face of the country, interest group against interest group, all clamoring for attention." 

By March, after 1,576 selections for subcabinet-level and White House Staff posts had been made, the overall composition as compiled by the Associated Press was somewhat less diverse: 86 percent white, 13 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, just one Asian-America and nearly two-thirds male. (The general population is 80 percent white, 12 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian American, and less than 1 percent American Indian.) 

Representatives of most minority groups opted to reserve judgment until they had seen all 3,000 Presidential appointments. Some, however, were not as patient. "What we want to see, what we have always wanted to see, is racial and gender panty," a National Organization for Women spokeswoman told the AP. 

We seem to have lost our penchant for moderation. Nothing satisfies us so much as to erase the grays from our lives and live in a black and white world. We truly believe that the only result of straddling the fence is a sore crotch. There are no moderates anymore--we are all radicals in the cause of our diversity. Therein lies the dilemma: How best to embrace and celebrate our nation's diversity without focusing too narrowly on our differences and thereby creating division? 

Clinton's talk of creating a new politics of consensus has devolved into factional fights between liberals and moderates within his own administration, and attacks from the right and the left without. The administration's struggle to find an acceptable attorney general nominee, its waffling over the issue of homosexuals in the military, the appointment of David Gergen as a White House consultant, all have been marked by a heightened awareness of reactions from the either/or groups, from the left and the right.

No doubt the roots of the "us versus them" view of the world had its roots in the Cold War decades, which pitted a virtuous democratic America against the evil empire of the Soviet Union; and in the counterculture struggles of the 60's about which I spoke earlier, which encouraged opponents of the Vietnam War to see themselves in an adversarial relationship. Conservatives saw liberals as obscenity shouting radicals, and liberals viewed conservatives as greedy capitalist pigs. 

As the world order has fragmented, as economic and social problems have proliferated at home, these old habits have died hard. In the escalating war of words, hyperbole flourishes, as both sides play to the public's fears, searching for easy scapegoats and convenient strawmen. Extremes consequently begin to dominate the debate while the left tries to equate conservatives with Senator Jesse Helms, and the right tries to equate liberals with another Jesse--the Reverend Jesse Jackson. 

In his eloquent new book The Culture of Complaint, Robert Hughes observes "one side needs the other, so that each can inflate its agenda into a chialistic battle for the soul of America." 

This process of polarization began decades ago, say Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall in their book Chain Reaction: The impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics. As the Edsalls see it, the reform wing of the Democratic Party, which gained control of the nominating process in 1972, alienated the working-class and middle-class whites by pushing the party toward an identification with minority rights. During the 80s, the Edsalls say, the Republicans learned to exploit this development, portraying the Democrats as the party of special interests and welfare recipients which culminated in the use of Willie Horton in television ads during the 1988 campaign-it effectively used racial politics as a wedge to break up the old Democratic coalition. 

Though the Democrats have regained the Presidency, the polarization nourished by years of divided government has remained in place. Voters have become accustomed to a familiar dialectic: the private sector versus the public sector, taxpayers versus welfare recipients; defenders of responsibility versus advocates of rights.

In much the same way that the liberal-conservative dialectic has politicized the workings of government from the selection of Supreme Court justices to the passing of the budget proposal, it has also infected the world of art. Some artists have willfully decided to use their work as a means of making political statements--rap music frequently purveys a hostile, divisive message, using ethnic slurs and violent antipolice demagoguery to try to shock audiences into an awareness of social problems. Much of the art I've seen this year is overtly ideological, banging home messages about racism, sexism, and ecology with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

At its best such art has the ability to educate the public at large and provoke intelligent discussion. More often, however, overly political art tends to preach to those who are already converted, accelerating the Balkanization of the arts in this country, and the loss of common ground.

To complicate matters still further, the politicized environment that encouraged overtly ideological works of art also ratifies the tendency to look at all art both past and present through an ideological lens. On the one hand, reactionaries label everything from Murphy Brown to the photos of Robert Mapplethorpe as subversive work that threatens to undermine family values and corrupt the youth of the nation. On the other hand, advocates of political correctness denounce the likes of Conrad and Melville and Twain as outdated manifestations of a sexist and racist power structure that needs to be overturned. 

"A dazzling array of different radio stations, music recordings and films," says history professor Paul Jerome Crose, in an essay in the magazine The Public Perspective, "are now available to individual customers, without their having to defer to the selective choices of media moguls. With polarized politics and technological variety, people can get the news and find entertainment things that used to be the province of the mass culture all within the segregated clusters of their own subculture." 

The loudest voices raised on both sides of the debate between the either/ors, the conservatives versus the liberals, the unconventional opposed to the traditionalist are shrill, admitting little room for rational discussion or common sense. Columbus is either the heroic explorer who opened the gates of the New World, or the barbaric imperialist who initiated the rape of Eden. Michael Jackson is either a dangerous pedophile, or an androgynous pop star philanthropist. To put it another way, you're either on the bus or off the bus. 

The problem with this glut of diversity which has evolved into an either/or approach is that it reduces all experiences to a message, and erases the subtle tones of ambiguity and chance. Characters become stick figures in a morality drama, and just to make sure that the identity of the heroes and the villains is perfectly clear, the audience is given lots of little signposts. In the movie "Indecent Proposal," for example, we know that Demi Moore is supposed to be a sympathetic character because she takes a job teaching citizenship; in "Jurassic Park" we know that the Brachiosaurus is a good dinosaur because it is a vegetarian; the Velociraptor is a bad one because it's got an unhealthy appetite for meat. 

The consequences of the either/or approach this overall polarization, are insidious. Hyperbolic rhetoric about any issue obscures the emotional and political nuances of the actual situation. Symbolism and metaphor-comparing Bosnia to Vietnam or the Holocaust, for example begin to color reality; generalizations take the place of specifics; snap judgments replace thoughtful debate.

Daniel I. Boorstin, a distinguished scholar who is the former Librarian of Congress and the author of 20 books on the history of American and world civilization, condemns the separateness which a raucous insistence on diversity has created. He says, "The menace to America today is in the emphasis on what separates us rather than on what brings us together the separations of race, of religious dogma, of religious practices, or origins of language." He continues, saying, "I think the notion of a hyphenated American is un-American. I believe there are only Americans. Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, or African-Americans are an emphasis that is not fertile. There has been so much emphasis recently on the diversity of our people," he continues. "I think it's time that we reaffirmed the fact that what has built our country is COMMUNITY." 

The idea of community permeates Boorstin's thought. An unprecedented form of community-building, he says, is an essential part of "American Humanism"--our nation's greatest achievement. This humanism was built upon several "happy accidents" says Boorstin, starting with the arrival of people to a relatively unoccupied continent who were able to make a new life together, transcending the boundaries of European religion, race, and tradition. At the same time, they established a new tradition and welcomed the stranger.

The positive attitude toward the stranger was helped, Boorstin insists, by the fact that, unlike much of the world, the United States never had a religious war, or suffered a hostile invasion. Thus, he points out, we have regarded the newcomer as a builder and not an enemy. 

This philosophy is in stark contrast to the fanaticism and miseries of the rest of the world...the terrors of ethnic cleansing in Europe, the horrors of tribal warfare in Africa, and the oppressions of totalitarianism, which has by no means disappeared in the midst of that kind of world. An emphasis on what brings us together is what is called for, Boorstin says. This kind of community building is what built America, Boorstin maintains. People coming by any mode of transportation, where they made their own systems of law and cooperated in going up and down the mountains and across the prairie and over the rivers to build new homes.

But community is more than people building towns and states. Another kind of community is called consumption community, in the sense of being drawn to other people by consuming the same kind of things. It may seem trivial, but it does give you a sense of relation to others; engaging the same kind of food that other people eat; using the same kinds of automobiles. Remember at the very beginning of my speech I noted how gratified we all are that we have choices and can make decisions, and how these seemingly innocuous options help to determine our lifestyles. 

So oh, YES, diversity is an absolute necessity in our lives, and we have to celebrate and nurture it, for without it, life has no color. Our political environment, our racial composition, our religious searches, our dietary options, our modes of transportation nothing has zest, nothing is relished, and our pleasure in life is diminished. So let us all cherish diversity, and cling to it, and paint our part of the town green instead of red, just to proclaim how much we value diversity. 

But NO, NEVER, let our applause of diversity be carried too far. We must not destroy our ability to distinguish between what is a diversion, and what is an abnormality. Our talent for discrimination should never be dulled, nor should we ever accept an aberration simply because someone says it is "politically correct." We must not mainstream diversity so competently that it vandalizes our skill in discovering excellence and discarding perversions. 

Please understand, I'm not saying that deviant behaviors should be condemned out of hand. It's just that we must never be bullied into giving such behavior our unqualified approval before we have a chance to determine how this experiment with diversity works out in practice. Let each of us have the opportunity to determine whether the arrangement between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow is a family, or a sordid sexual melange? Is incest a nontraditional spousal relationship, or a perversion which disturbs our deepest sense of propriety? Is a left jab a nontraditional display of affection, or yet another symbol of the violence which permeates our society?

Where does all this leave us? There MUST be, there HAS to be, some way to escape the horns of this either/or dilemma which pervades our rhetoric, and of course there is. Every adequate logician knows that to escape from the horns of the dilemma, all that is necessary is to show that there is another choice--that "either/or" does not encompass all our thoughts and actions. That escape from the horns is the commonsensical thing called "discrimination." We make distinctions and recognize that there is no sin in discriminating if what we're discriminating between and among are ideas.

As educated people, and as educators, we know the difference between the bizarre and the best, and we foster that knowledge so that we act as role models for our students. We understand and encourage experimentation, but we never lose sight of excellence as the end result, nor do we allow the young people we are molding to lose sight of that excellence. We inspire our pupils to examine diversity, but we never allow them to create apartheid. We make full use of the diversity allowed when we grade, using "A's", or "B's," or "C's." But we never permit an "A" to be a reflection of a "C" standard. We demonstrate our allegiance to diversity by accommodating our speech and theater programs to ALL students, but we never use a cookie cutter on them.

We taste both the vanilla and the chocolate of life, and we let them each melt slowly on our tongues. We enjoy them both, but we know that they must remain apart, for to blend them produces a blandness that does not please us, and would result in us losing our fondness for either. In other words, we practice discrimination. We embrace and celebrate our nation's diversity without focusing too narrowly on our differences. We create rainbows, not storm clouds. Our function is to preserve our identity, but at the same time find ways to recognize that "E Pluribus Unum" is still a good thing. Out of many, one. 

Amid the reality of escalating racial and ethnic tensions, President Clinton in his inaugural address said that the very idea of America is "ennobled by the faith that our nation can summon from its myriad diversity the deepest measure of unity." The face of America will be changed by the way in which our diversity gives birth to our unity. As teachers and as citizens, we have the power to highlight the promise of our nation's cultural, racial and ethnic diversity. It is up to us to make that highlight a flattering reflection.