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An Honest Diversity Statement

For a number of years now pleasant young women (or persons identifying as women, or with female-sounding names) have been contacting me from the university’s diversity office, inviting me to attend sessions to discuss our DEI policies. Harvard has to be different, so we use the acronym EDIB, for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (our previous president Drew Faust, as her contribution to the collective wisdom, added the “Belonging”). These sessions are never described as compulsory, but the pleasant young women don’t take “no” for an answer. In former times, I was able to avoid these sessions by pleading that I had a subsequent engagement. During the pandemic, however, there was no escape. There was no obvious way to evade a Zoom EDIB “training” session that one could take at one’s leisure. So I took the “training.” I was afraid that the interactive videos would demand that I agree with the policies, in which case I would not be able to check the appropriate boxes, with what tedious and time-consuming consequences I knew not. But fortunately, that didn’t happen. Professors, then, were still exempt from taking loyalty oaths.

Recently, however, volcanic activity has broken out further down Olympus, reportedly arising from the graduate students, who want to step up the pressure on us. They ask why, if they have to write diversity statements, shouldn’t we senior professors be subjected to the same requirements? (Let’s smoke out those white supremacists!) In past times I would have been confident that Olympus could easily withstand attack from any and all inferior cults. Now I’m not so sure. I thought maybe I should get a statement ready, just in case.


So here goes.

Dear Members of Harvard’s Faceless Bureaucracy:

You ask me to explain my thinking about DEI. The fact is that I don’t think about it (or them?) at all if I can help it. {snip}

Since, however, you require me, as a condition of further employment, to state my attitude to these “values” that the university is said to share (though I don’t remember a faculty vote endorsing them), let me say that, in general, the statement of EDIB beliefs offered on your website is too vapid to offer any purchase for serious ethical analysis. The university, according to you, espouses an absolute commitment to a set of words that seems to generate positive feelings in your office, and perhaps among administrators generally, but it is not my practice to make judgments based on feelings. In fact, my training as a historian leads me to distrust such feelings as a potential obstacle to clear thinking. I don’t think it’s useful to describe the feelings I experience when particular words and slogans are invoked and how they affect my professional motivations. It might be useful on a psychoanalyst’s couch or in a religious cult, but not in a university.

Let me take, as an example, the popular DEI slogan “Diversity is our strength.” This states as an absolute truth a belief that, at best, can only be conditional. When George Washington decided not to require, as part of the military oath of the Continental Army, a disavowal of transubstantiation (as had been previous practice), he was able to enlist Catholic soldiers from Maryland to fight the British. Diversity was our strength. On the other hand, when the combined forces of Islam, under the command of Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik, besieged Constantinople in 717, diversity was not their strength. At the crisis of the siege, the Christian sailors rowing in the Muslim navy rose in revolt and the amphibious assault broke down.

Since most societies have usually been at war or under the threat of war for most of history, public sentiment has ordinarily preferred unity to diversity. Prudent and humane governments have usually tolerated a degree of pluralism in order to reduce social discord, but pluralism as such has not been celebrated as a positive feature of society until quite recently. In fact, diversity is a luxury good that can be enjoyed only in secure, peaceful societies. Even in such societies, it has to be weighed against other goods (like meritocracy) that will have to be sacrificed if it is pursued as an absolute good. An indiscriminate commitment to “diversity,” bereft of any loyalty to unifying principles, is the mark of a weak or collapsing society.

It’s not just governments and armies that prefer unity to diversity. Most religions in the last millennium have placed a premium on preserving the original vision of their founders. They have had to resist pressures to undermine (or diversify) that vision and conform to the values of the world around them. They have had to fight against spiritual entrepreneurs, whom they disobligingly label heretics, who have been eager to diversify their doctrines. For those religions, which include orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, diversity has not only not been a strength, it has been dangerous, even damnable. When religions cease to care about their unifying beliefs, they cease to exist.