“Only the fighters are left,” my friend remarked, “and they have basically chased everyone else away.”
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“Only the fighters are left,” my friend remarked, “and they have basically chased everyone else away.”
Like so many other topics in American life (immigration, Trump), DEI has become embroiled in a fight, and many people do not have the energy for it.
The dynamic is demonstrated in a report put together by the research group More in Common, which found that public discourse is dominated by the 8 percent of the country who are progressive activists and the 25 percent who are conservative advocates. They relish presenting their arguments in stark binaries (Let every migrant in! Build a wall!) and punishing people who do not fully embrace their view. When it comes to DEI, it’s Ron DeSantis or Robin DiAngelo, whitewashing or wokeness, and nothing in between.
The report identifies the 67 percent of the population who are turned off by the culture wars as “the exhausted majority.” Too often, they do what people at my friend’s university are doing: walk away from the issue, leaving it to those who relish the fight.
This is a problem. Diversity work is too essential to the American project to forfeit to those on the far left or far right. We need to find a way for “the exhausted majority” to re-engage.
This assertive stance from the DEI movement is currently backfiring. The good news is that there are other paradigms for diversity work. In fact, they have been in front of our faces the whole time.
Kwame Anthony Appiah is perhaps the nation’s most prominent social philosopher on pluralism. His weekly Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine frequently tackles fascinating identity challenges, like whether non-Jews should be cast in a production of Fiddler on the Roof, or whether you should be friends with someone whose political views you find offensive. His 2006 book Cosmopolitanism was widely viewed as a monumental work that defined a paradigm, and his more recent book The Lies That Bind was an influential contribution to the scholarship of group identity.
I do diversity work in American higher education for a living, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard Appiah referenced by someone in a DEI role on a campus. This is strange. How can a movement supposedly rooted in scholarship ignore such fundamental academic work on its key subjects? But there’s a silver lining: Appiah has avoided becoming either a combatant or a totem in the culture wars.
It’s not because he has milquetoast views. To the contrary, Appiah frequently confronts the thorniest diversity questions of the day, and he is manifestly unafraid to touch the third rail. In a front page Sunday New York Times Opinion piece, he tells us why he dislikes people legitimizing their view on a subject by invoking their identity with the phrase “As a [such-and-such] person.” In another Sunday Times Opinion piece, he emphasizes that social change on topics like gay rights is best done in coalitions within established democratic institutions rather than through revolutionary methods such as the Stonewall Protests.
Appiah’s The Lies That Bind is a sharp critique of the current diversity paradigm. “Much of our contemporary thinking about identity,” he writes, “is shaped by pictures that are in various ways unhelpful or just plain wrong.” And then he proceeds, chapter by chapter, to dismantle contemporary ways of constructing race, gender, nationality, and the like, replacing the unhelpful pictures taught to us by standard DEI paradigms with more accurate ones. At the heart of the book is the idea that the same identity — Muslim or male, Black or gay — means many different things to many different people. The great error of contemporary diversity work, in Appiah’s view, is the insistence on essentialism.
People have been canceled for far less, but Appiah goes unscathed. Maybe his identity as a gay Black immigrant in a same-sex marriage makes him harder to criticize by those who want their preferred identity groups to always hold their favored ideological views. Maybe it’s because his arguments are so complex that they’re simply ignored by people who prefer simplistic binaries.
Whatever the reason, Appiah’s cosmopolitanism represents a departure from the reigning DEI model, and therefore has the potential to re-energize the exhausted majority around a fundamental dimension of the American project — building a healthy and diverse democracy. Simply put, Appiah is more interested in the encounter of particularities and in cooperation across difference than in requiring people to check their privilege or declare themselves antiracists.
The origin story he tells for his commitment to cosmopolitanism is walking down Kingsway Street, the main commercial thoroughfare in Ghana’s Ashanti region, and enjoying his interactions with the Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Syrian Greek, Hungarian, Irish, English, and various other groups who sold food, made art, taught philosophy, practiced medicine, or just tended the flowers in their gardens. Diversity meant different identities relating pleasantly. It broadened your horizons and expanded your friendships.
The categories that interest Appiah are not oppressed and oppressor, marginalized and privileged, white supremacist and ally. In fact, those words barely even appear in his books. Rather, he is interested in the particularities of being Ghanaian and English, Ashanti and Amish, Muslim and Maronite. He does not presume to call you either powerful or vulnerable based on the color of your skin, the shape of your genitals, the people you sleep with, or the nation where you were born. He assumes all identities have deep dignity and great contributions to make.
Appiah’s mode is conversation, not confrontation. His goal is concord, not revolution. His posture is open, inviting, and optimistic — the extended hand, not the raised fist. And unlike so much DEI material, which gets so predictable that it feels like someone is simply moving word magnets around on the refrigerator, the questions Appiah raises and the insights he shares are endlessly interesting. He writes that the most challenging part of his parents’ marriage was not that his mother was white and his father Black, or that one was from England and the other from Africa. It was that his mother was Anglican and his father Methodist. That was the identity conflict that required careful negotiation.
Anybody see that one coming?
It is only one of many examples about religion in Cosmopolitanism. The fact that faith is center stage in and of itself makes Appiah’s work very different from the vast majority of DEI literature, which either ignores religion or assigns it, simplistically, the role of oppressor or oppressed. Appiah pursues a different mode of inquiry: Can people of various faiths, with their fundamentally different worldviews and long history of bloody conflict, come together and build a nation?
For Appiah, the answer is yes, but it takes work, especially the work of being curious about other people’s practices. Appiah delights in telling stories of his devoutly Methodist father engaging in the traditional African practice of pouring libations to the ancestors and requesting their guidance through various difficulties. Or of his equally devout Christian sisters who, when they are convinced a spell has been cast upon them, enlist the help of a Muslim malaam who they believe had the power to counteract such witchcraft.
Appiah’s own journey to taking religion seriously, some of which he shares in Cosmopolitanism, is worth noting. He tells a story about his father singing the national anthem of Ghana, “God Bless Our Homeland Ghana.” The younger Appiah had recently graduated from Cambridge with a degree in philosophy and was well on his way to becoming an atheist. He told his father that he would have preferred an anthem without reference to God so that nonbelievers could sing along to it wholeheartedly.
His father’s response: “Nobody in Ghana is silly enough not to believe in God.”
One could imagine the younger Appiah taking offense to this statement. In the current era, we might even expect him to say that his identity was being “erased.” Instead, he chooses to see the larger point that his father is making: Ghana is indeed a deeply religious nation, and a highly religiously diverse one. If he wanted to understand his country better, it would be wise to pay attention to the religious expressions of the people around him.
As for his own identity as a gay atheist, he was perfectly content to develop it alongside people who were different than him, even those who disagreed with him. Diversity, after all, is not just about the differences you like. Diversity work means learning about, relating to and contending with people whom you find interesting, whom you appreciate, whom you learn from and love — but also those whom you are very much at odds with.
I asked Appiah if he would accept a consulting offer from a university president looking to shift her campus diversity program away from antiracism to cosmopolitanism.
He said he’d consider it. But he also said that applying a cosmopolitanism approach on campus isn’t really that hard. He pointed to the interfaith programs that Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khalid Latif organize at his own institution, New York University. This is what diversity work should be, he emphasized: conversations between people with fundamental differences seeking to learn from one another, identify commonality, and find ways to cooperate. He noted that it was a devoted Catholic, the former New York University President John Sexton, who was the strongest supporter of these programs. And Appiah ended by saying that he would like to see more atheists involved.
Diversity work can be about creating spaces for people from the broadest possible range of identities and belief systems to constructively encounter one another. Civilization is defined by living and talking together. And campuses should model that.