Diversity: it’s selfish

9 Dec

“Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilization, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and cooperation, the satisfaction of profit.”

–Michael Beard, Nobel Prize-winning physicist in Ian McEwan’s Solar

Sometimes fictional people speak power to truth better than the 3-D rest of us.

In Solar, flawed protagonist Michael Beard makes the case for investing in clean energy innovation, arguing that finding alternatives to oil and coal is necessary, inevitable and lucrative. Virtue–recycling, taking shorter showers and walking instead of driving–is all well-intended and good, but these individual acts of virtue alone will not save the planet from an inevitable and catastrophic energy crisis.

As I read Beard’s speech, I found myself both flinching and nodding.

I do believe that what one person does matters: actually and symbolically. What we do is who we are, and when we actualize our beliefs–turning ideas and intentions into everyday action verbs–we reshape not only our consciousness but our actual ecological and social footprint. If all 7+ million of us in the San Francisco Bay Area took 1 minute off our running water shower time, we would save 17.5+ millions gallons of water per day (assuming only one shower a day, and low pressure/water saving shower heads).

As much savings as that amounts to (over 6.3 billion gallons of water a year, plus the energy to heat it!) I also agree with Beard’s premise that even collective individual action will not avert the crisis toward which we are headed, as populations grow and resources–water, coal, oil–dwindle.

When Beard asks his audience of investors and industrialists “the central question, the burning question[:] How do we slow down and stop [global warming] while sustaining our civilization and continuing to bring millions out of poverty?” I can’t help but hear resonance with what I consider to be the central question of diversity: how can we engage diversity not just to address and resolve conflicts, but to sustain individual and collective well-being and to transform socially unjust systems and institutions to help all–not just some–people to thrive?

When I pose this question, I find myself nodding all the more vigorously along with Beard when he warns, “Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilization, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and cooperation, the satisfaction of profit.”

Transformative social justice is not going to come about because I stop saying sexist things or actively call others on their racist, heterosexist or classist assumptions. Even if all 6.8 billion of us in the world speak and listen with more awareness, it will simply not be enough to eradicate injustice.

That’s the -ism part. Sexism, racism, ableism, ageism… these aren’t personal problems. They are socially perpetuated, if not sanctioned (sometimes through the institution of law), ingrained in our collective habits of mind as “normal”even if we disagree morally or philosophically, and practiced publicly and communally. So the solution must also be communal. And systemically motivated by something greater than the individual desire to be good, kind and fair.

What’s the selfish motive for social justice? And no, I don’t think that’s a contradiction in terms. Social justice is an all or none, and as such, it’s as much about and for me as it is for you, for those who are starving, for those who are victims of war and for those who perpetrate crimes against others. We tend to stand in our own blindspots when we speak of inclusion, equity and justice, when the fact is that none of those are possible if they’re just charitable donations or noble gestures offered to others.

So what’s the self-interested motive for dismantling the -isms that discriminate against some and seem to benefit others? Very simply: we can’t afford to lose the human power, creativity and ability that discrimination costs us. A robust, substantive and growing body of research consistently bears out that diversity helps us think better. That diversity includes thought and social diversity: “thought” diversity comprises the complexity generated by multiple intelligences, diverse learning styles and different education and training; “social” diversity comprises the rich divergence that stems from the differences among the identities we wear, inherit and learn from each other.

Interestingly, social diversity matters as much as thought diversity. Why? Because the very perception that someone is different in some way from us triggers self-awareness; recognition of another point of view (rather than an assumption of agreement or shared perspective); and thus more intentional thought and action not in how we speak to and engage each other, but in how we process our perspectives and experiences.

In research-ese, heterogeneous groups (especially those in which the diversity is recognized) are more likely to generate opinion minorities, which enhances:
  • divergent (as opposed to convergent or group) thinking,
  • perspective-taking (Nemeth, 1992), and
  • integrative complexity, which is the ability to synthesize conflicting and unequal information–in other words, to recognize shades of gray instead of coloring everything in black or white (Gruenfeld et al., 1998; Antonio et al., 2004)

Translation: diversity begets better thinking.

You can see the upside for groups from juries to venture capital firms to third graders collaborating on a science project. Striving for diversity, inclusion and equity are not just about “doing the right thing” or even getting credit for doing the right thing: they’re about being the best jury, vc firm or science students we can be.

It turns out that Michael Beard is really on to something: if we “welcome the ordinary compulsions of self-interest” into our discourse on diversity, we invite the talent, “ingenuity and cooperation” of an indeed diverse group of innovators–not just the usual suspects working in the usual paradigm of altruistic activism–to problem-solve the social injustices that prevent us from tapping the full spectrum of human resources that we need to marshal in order to find solutions to the other issues–energy, population, famine and human conflict–that define the quality of our lives and our shared future.

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