Can diversity be ‘too much of a good thing’? More Americans wonder.

Why We Wrote This

Is there such a thing as too much diversity? While the idea that “our strength is in our diversity” has gained favor, some on the left wonder: “Shouldn’t there be core American values that unify?”

David Goldman/AP/File
A mural celebrating diversity decorates a hallway in Lewiston High School in Lewiston, Maine, March 15, 2017. Fifteen years ago, the school district had an enrollment of 4,500 students and falling - a sign of a city on its knees, says Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster. Today, there are 5,400 students, more than one-quarter of them immigrants, and the number is going up.

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Donald Mazzella, onetime publisher of Essence magazine, thinks something has been lost in America’s motto, “e pluribus unum,” or “out of many, one.”

“To just say diversity, pluralism will make us stronger is to say separating the strands of a rope will add to its strength,” says Mr. Mazzella, now chief operating officer and editorial director of Information Strategies. 

There has long been a bipartisan consensus in the U.S that openness to different kinds of cultures is “essential to who we are as a nation,” according to Pew Research Center. In its 2018 survey, nearly 6 in 10 Americans expressed a positive view of the country’s racial and ethnic diversity, saying it makes the country a better place to live. Only 9% said it made it worse. But last year, a growing number of people in both the U.S. and Europe began to express reservations, according to Pew.

“We need to seek to find common ground and celebrate our unity,” says Mr. Mazzella. “When I was growing up, we disagreed about everything, but in the end you were an American first and everything else second,” he says, noting that a statement like that could bring on a charge of bigotry.

Which is of course a thing, Mr. Mazzella says. And of course there are racists as well as white nationalists. But emphasizing the “pluribus” while ignoring the “unum,” he says, is a sure way to tear at the country’s social fabric.

Jonette and Ken Christian have become a bit uneasy with the emphasis people place on the idea of diversity.

It’s a fraught subject to criticize, they say. As liberal Democrats living in Holden, Maine, they’ve sometimes been frustrated that even raising concerns about the scope of immigration policy, say, is often met with charges of xenophobia or, even worse, racism. 

“It seems that we’ve been so pummeled with the ‘inclusivity’ narrative, we can’t set any limits on diversity, or defend our own values,” says Ms. Christian, who last month retired after decades as a child and family therapist. “Of course we have the values of America as an open, generous, inclusive, and diverse nation. But anyone questioning how diverse, or how open, or how generous, is looked at with suspicion — or as a heretic.”

It’s exasperating, she feels, especially since their family has a decidedly international flavor. She chatters in Spanish with her sisters-in-law, one from Honduras and the other from Mexico. Her brother-in-law is from Poland, and her niece is Japanese. 

“But diversity in isolation, without universally agreed upon and unifying values such as individual rights, freedom of speech, religion, and the press, risks deteriorating into tribalism and factions,” says her husband, a retired emergency room physician who works part time at an opiate addiction treatment clinic.

Even aside from legitimate policy disputes and the rough and tumble political process, the fundamental idea of diversity, they say, has become nearly impossible to critique in this era of toxic polarization, in which they feel only those on the furthest political extremes have a say. 

“Not all diversity deserves celebration,” continues Dr. Christian, who notes he’s voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election from George McGovern to Hillary Clinton. “We obviously should not celebrate the presence of neo-Nazis, those who practice female genital mutilation, homophobes, terrorists, etc. And while diversity can enrich our culture, there can be too much of a good thing. Sheer numbers can inspire fear and misunderstanding.”

Still, there has long been a general bipartisan consensus in the United States that openness to different kinds of people and different kinds of cultures is “essential to who we are as a nation,” according to Pew Research Center. In its 2018 survey, nearly 6 in 10 Americans expressed a positive view of the country’s fast-growing racial and ethnic diversity, saying it makes the country a better place to live. Only 9% said it made it a worse place to live. 

But last year, a growing number of people in both the U.S. and Europe began to express reservations, according to Pew. Most of the spike in the U.S. last year has come from Republican-leaning voters, the survey found, as well as older generations, but some Democrats and liberals have similar worries.

It’s been even more pronounced in countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Spain, where only about a third of their populations describe their growing diversity in positive terms. In countries such as Greece and Italy, solid majorities now describe such growth as making their countries a worse place to live.

“Diversity really can be a challenge, and people actually find it very difficult,” says Sally Scholz, professor and chair of the philosophy department at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

“But I think part of what the call for diversity and the valuing of pluralism in our culture is, is a call for recognition,” continues Dr. Scholz, who studies political solidarity and coalitions of those with diverse cultural and ideological perspectives. “And recognition is really fundamental to other liberal values, like freedom, like equality. If we can’t be equal, if we’re not recognized as equal, we can’t be recognized as rights holders.”

Many who want to tap the brakes on diversity in the U.S. point to the nation’s seeming growing unrest, including acts of violence in places of worship, or the attacks on Hasidic Jews in New York over the holidays. 

And with the U.S. in what seems to be a perfect storm of political polarization – including the challenges of algorithm-driven news feeds that foster myopic echo chambers – more people say they are starting to see the idea of diversity as one of the possible causes of the country’s dysfunction.

“E pluribus unum”

Donald Mazzella thinks something has been lost in America’s motto, “e pluribus unum,” or “out of many, one.” A longtime media professional, he recalls his years as a publisher at Essence magazine, when the New Jersey native got a lot of smiles when he called everyone “paisan.”     

“To just say diversity, pluralism will make us stronger is to say separating the strands of a rope will add to its strength,” says Mr. Mazzella, now the chief operating officer and editorial director of Information Strategies, a business consultancy in New Jersey. 

“No, we need to seek to find common ground and celebrate our unity,” he says. “When I was growing up, we disagreed about everything, but in the end you were an American first and everything else second,” he says, noting that even a statement like that could bring a charge of bigotry.

Which is of course a thing, Mr. Mazzella says. And of course there are out-and-out racists, as well as white nationalists. But emphasizing the “pluribus” while ignoring the “unum,” he says, is a sure way to tear at the country’s social fabric.

Dual impulses: altruism versus othering

On one level, human beings may have certain built-in aversions to group differences, many anthropologists say. The human species, with its unusually long gestation and child-rearing periods, develops especially close interpersonal bonds. These begin at the family level and then extend to other closely-clustered groups, fostering an instinctive group altruism and willingness to sacrifice for others within groups. 

Even at six months, however, infants have an instinct to fear those they do not recognize, observers note, and there is a tendency to be wary of outsiders. In his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains how humans are not necessarily predisposed to valuing diversity and pluralism, since they make instinctive decisions about social life in a tenth of a second.

“Which is long before our reasoning portion of our brain – which may want to put our prejudgments aside and ‘listen to alternate sides’  – can become engaged,” says the Rev. Gregory Love, professor of Christian theology at the University of Redlands in California. 

Nevertheless, humans do have the intellectual and even spiritual capacity to universalize the group instincts for altruism and direct them to all of humanity, scholars say. 

“In their histories, the world’s religions have shown quite a mixed effect on this issue,” says Dr. Love. “We are to love all humanity, and consider all persons human, as we are.”

“All the world religions, however, also display that deep human sentiment of rejecting difference, and privileging one’s group over others,” continues Dr. Love. “Frequently, religion has deepened the problem.”

Question of foundational principles

Similarly, the secular universalism at the heart of liberal democratic theory has also had mixed effects, some scholars say.

“I do believe that there is a thing called a culture, and certainly a culture within a political sphere,” says Charlie Copeland, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which promotes conservative values on college campuses. “If the populace writ large does not share a certain set of components, it’s just hard to govern.”

Mr. Copeland and others express concern that the “identity politics” of the left often dismisses the idea of foundational principles, focusing instead on their failures and hypocrisies, which he doesn’t deny are real.

“But sometimes you also need to hold up the examples of other countries across the globe and go, you know what? Compared to how those citizens are allowed to live, we’ve done more right than wrong, and certainly more right when it comes to human flourishing than any other country in the world or in the history of the world,” he says. 

People like Dr. and Ms. Christian feel that the emphasis on identity politics and a focus on the nation’s obvious flaws misses the bigger picture. 

“Expressing pride in America today is often met with endless reminders of our historic failures and hypocrisies,” says Ms. Christian, seeing a series of “shamings and scoldings” or accusations of “privileging Western civilization.” “Yes, we did make some grievous mistakes, but we have also been more willing than almost any other country to tell the truth about our mistakes and make amends.”

In many ways, with such a wide bipartisan consensus on the value of diversity, some of the debate is more a matter of emphasis and the scope of diversity.

“Political solidarity actually allows for, and really centralizes, diversity and pluralism,” says Dr. Scholz. “Because each of us is coming to our commitment in our own individual way, we’re able to see different facets of a problem, and we’re trying to address it together.” 

It’s similar to old-fashioned coalition-building, in which diverse identities unite in solidarity to petition the government for a redress of grievances. But diverse perspectives can bring personal benefits, too. 

“We often have our own way of looking at the world, and we encounter other people, and they show us a different way of looking at the world,” Professor Scholz says. “And there’s value in that. You come to see yourself as others see you. ... I think often we could even say that one of the strengths of having diversity in our solidarity is that different people show us, or open up for us, a new understanding of our own existence, or of our own world.”

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