The Idol of Diversity

Courage, Anxiety and Despair: Watching the Battle – ca. 1850 – James Sant

I am a very frequent visitor to the processed fish section of my favorite hypermarket in the outskirts of Madrid. In its chest refrigerators I usually encounter a very specific kind of filleted fish in plastic trays that I do not recall having ever bought nor tasted. Nile perch. There are two reasons why. First, there are many other much more enjoyable alternatives readily available: tuna, salmon, trout, seabass, mackerel, etc. The other is that the Nile perch does not belong in my table. An attentive look at the label stuck to the film covering the tray might reveal that the filets have been flown all the way from either Uganda, Tanzania or Kenya. That is: Lake Victoria. But it does not belong there either. In the 1950s the Nile Perch was introduced from its original habitats into Lake Victoria. The more detailed results of this artificial introduction can be understood by watching the documentary “Darwin’s Nightmare”[i]. As it could be expected, it is messy and has plenty of ramifications. The introduction of the fast-growing perch boosted the fishing industry around Lake Victoria. But this growth in turn crowded the living conditions of those working in the industry. And, perhaps more importantly, the voraciousness of the Nile Perch made many local species go extinct. Thus, forcing the Nile Perch to interact with autochthonous species of Lake Victoria has had the positive effect of a more productive fishing industry, as was initially intended. But at the expense of both the living conditions of those working there; the fast-paced growth making it difficult to properly plan for expansion; and the depletion of local species that will never be recovered.

With the Perch Nile in Lake Victoria I want to draw a parallelism with the current push for “social diversity”, enshrined as an undeniably good thing, in any degree, for any society, and in any time frame. During the first years after the introduction of the perch the lake was certainly more diverse than before. All the native species plus the perch. But as time went on, the equilibrium resulted in extinction of all but a few species. The initial increase in diversity has resulted in no diversity at all. The same thing can happen with our societies. The current public discourse is that we can thrive while embracing all kinds of religions, all kinds of behaviors, any amount of immigration, and so on. But societies do not evolve as fast as fish, and in some generations, we might realize that once the dynamics have settled down a new equilibrium point has been reached. One in which we have reduced our diversity below its original value.

This general belief that diversity is always something good no matter where, no matter how much is currently entrenched in the Western public discourse. Thanks to the material abundance and welfare we currently experience the feeling-idea has taken over as the key element of public discourse building and the positive connotations of diversity are enough to justify its goodness, irrelevant from facts. Diversity being always good is, of course, contrary to all evidence from social sciences and history: more diversity translates into more conflict and less trust among individuals. Robert Putnam’s work, “E Pluribus Unum”[1], is to date the best study on how a more diverse society makes its members hunch down and avoid putting effort into the community themselves[ii]. The fact that Putnam is actually a leftist and that he delayed publishing his initial findings until he was completely convinced on how to reframe them adds further credibility to this conclusion. After 30,000 interviews across different cities of the United States, Putnam realized that numerous indicators of civil engagement went down as the community was more diverse. And it makes perfect sense. Would you be more inclined to attend church, neighbor meetings, school parent-teacher reunions, etc. if you felt some kind of belonging to where you live, some similarities to those that live close to you, some set of shared beliefs with them? Or if you were a complete alien in a land that is not yours surrounded by people that looked different from you and who did not believe the same things that you do? It is not only a matter of participating in the civic life, it is also about avoiding conflict. Ever since the end of World War II, and even more so after the fall of the Soviet Union, Europe has lived an era of material abundance and wellbeing. This has also had the effect of curbing conflict among us, which is great; but we have also forgotten what conflict really is and how serious it can become, which is not that great. If said abundance and wellbeing starts crumbling down, will we be equipped to avoid conflict in our newly found diversity? All the historical evidence I have gathered shows that we will not, we will not be better prepared.

There is not much new to say about Jews. Ever since the Hebrew culture started interacting with the Hellenic first, then the Roman and later the Christian and Arab, conflicts ensued. Stereotypes, prejudice, segregation, pogroms and finally extermination. Fortunately, most modern Jews are now completely average westerners and so the potential for conflict has been greatly diminished. The conspiracy theory factor of antisemitism still remains and might always be there but at least it is not possible to identify a Jew by how he behaves, how he dresses or how he eats. I’m obviously excluding the few orthodox Jews that, to this day, insist on behaving differently for theological reasons. In my view the big learning from the Jewish diaspora is not the melodramatic suffering they have had to endure, as eloquently portrayed by Hollywood, but that having different human groups living together but remaining different does not end well. Of course, whoever has had to go through some life-changing episode such as having relatives killed in death camps will tend to frame the issue as evil and powerful them against peaceful and weak us. But history shows that this kind of suffering has not afflicted Jews alone, their big prominence in our minds is only a matter of magnitude, availability and that Jews are actually a part of our western societies.

Gypsies, for example, are another group that, to this day, has suffered continuous discrimination and conflict. On the anecdotal: I’ve realized that in Spain Gypsies are the last group towards which you can show certain animosity in the workplace with epithets and slurs. Blacks, homosexuals, Jews… ¡No way! But use gitanada[2] to define certain dishonest and sneaky move and no-one will bat an eyelash. Still the good thing is that Gypsies can integrate into the mainstream Spanish society and do it so well that after a couple of generations of integration nobody can see from the outside that they are Gypsies. They are more dark-skinned than the average Spaniard but so are plenty of other non-gypsy Spaniards. In the Spanish collective imagination being a Gypsy means being a criminal, dealing with scrap or singing flamenco. Stop doing any of those and you stop being a Gypsy.

Chinese minorities in South-East Asia also suffer from stereotyping that seems surprisingly similar to what Jews experience elsewhere. Locals perceive ethnic Chinese as disloyal to their country of residence, that they do not mix with the local population and live there only for monetary gain. A perception that is boosted thanks to their disproportionate presence among merchants or shopkeepers. An extremely vivid recording of these dynamics can be witnessed watching “The Act of Killing”[iii]. In it some Suharto thugs tell us themselves how they behaved during the Indonesian killings of the 1950s. The documentary is also a great piece to understand man’s capacity to be banally evil and kill without feeling much remorse, even less psychological trauma. For the theme I am discussing here, however, the thugs also tell us first hand their perception of the Chinese in Indonesia: rich alien middlemen that could be justly extorted and assassinated for their money.

And if we go back to the Nile Perch story of “Darwin’s Nightmare” we will realize that something does not quite fit. The labor, fishermen and factory workers, are as expected all local black men. The crew of the massive Ilyushin 76 that hauls the filets back to Europe is composed by Russians and Ukranians, no surprise here either. But the factory owner, its operations manager and the plastic supplier managers are all Indians. How is that possible? To this day significant minorities of Indians still live in numerous African countries that used to be under the control of the British Empire. A well-known example is Gandhi, who lived for 21 years in South Africa working as a manager for a trading company before going back to India and focusing on Indian independence. Like him, many other Indians moved to Africa and other British colonies in hopes of achieving a better life in newly settled lands. Many became company managers, many set shops on their own as storekeepers or merchants. This in turn helped construct the stereotypes of Indians in Africa: rich tailors and bankers that segregated themselves from the rest of society. The most dramatic event Indians had to go through in Africa was their expulsion from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin. In his speech announcing the eviction Idi Amin referred to the Indians as bloodsuckers. Maybe Julius Streicher visited him in dreams.

Many more similar stories can be found concerning other minorities in other countries. To name but a few: The Komagata Maru incident of 1914 when many Indians, mostly Sikhs, were not allowed to disembark in Vancouver. The breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after The Great War. Japanese migrants to Peru and the United States. Greek Egyptians after the Ottoman Empire is dismantled and Egypt becomes an independent state. Blacks in the United States. Christians in Jordan. Muslims in France. Christians in Japan and their overrepresentation in political positions, etc. These are only the few I know about as a mere hierophant of History. The bottom line is that minorities that fail to integrate in their host countries and remain a visibly distinct group will suffer discrimination, one way or the other. If they are well off and their perceived wealth is above average they will be castigated for being greedy middlemen that buy their way into power. If they are poor they will look as lazy criminals that do not want to work and rather suck wealth of society by stealing and using social benefits. Also, a reinforcing loop happens here. There is the popular stereotype and the top-down instigation of violence, both things happen when dealing with diversity. Depending on the minority we are covering it is difficult to determine which came first. Is it popular distrust of the minority that tells leaders that they can use them as a scapegoat? Or is it the other way around, leaders promoting differences across groups to rule them more easily? Divide et impera? Regardless of what comes first once the minority has been a target of discrimination both mechanism reinforce each other to make sure tension always builds up and never cools down, always ripe for a new riot to start.

The conclusion is clear. Diversity meaning different people with different identities that prevent them for mixing is bad and should be discouraged and avoided. The evidence is out there for anyone to see. My brief and humble examples above. Benjamin Schwarz in his article “The Myth of Diversity”[iv] also shows us how the United States achieved success as a nation by integrating all sources of immigrants into a single common identity. Nate Silver[3] also points us to the fact that diversity and segregation are closely linked[v], which means that ghettos can pop up spontaneously without the need for any authority to set them up forcibly[4].

All this does not mean that we should strive for a uniformly homogeneous and grey society. It does mean, however that certain differences are not good, in fact they are bad, very bad. To the point that they instigate strife and ultimately violence. Any difference in identity that makes people see the others as a group with which they would not mix is going to be bad and will eventually end up in conflict. All the differences in food, the music that we enjoy, the colors that we prefer to dress in or the hobbies that we pursue will, conversely, enrichen our society. And to achieve this we can adapt two mindsets. One, the current one, is that we can transform shared beliefs into mere accessories of individuality. Muslims, for example, can be shaped to believe things that are compatible with what the rest of us believe. I take another point of view. I look back at history, I remember everything I know about the flawed nature of human nature and I must embrace a much more tragic and pessimistic solution: we must be extremely careful with who we allow to join our societies, letting only those that could eventually come to believe that which we believe. Also, we must make sure that their arrival is orderly and in small quantities, in order to be able to control any destabilizing trends. And still put a lot of effort in making sure that they indeed adapt their customs so that they become one with us. This is exactly the opposite of what has been done on the west during the last few decades.

We are already experiences the consequences.

[1] Latin: Out of many, one.

[2] Etymologically speaking it is just the substantive form of the adjective for Gypsy. Spanish also has a Jewish equivalent, judiada.

[3] Much like with Putnam, Nate Silver is not a reactionary conservative traditionalist. A further point for his conclusions to be considered with the utmost seriousness.

[4] My good friend Francesc has revealed to me plenty of insights on his life in Singapore. One of them is that the government there enforces the anti-ghetto. This is, within some given sector any ethnic group must not surpass a given threshold to avoid the formation of racially charged neighborhoods.

[i] Darwin’s Nightmare – Hubert Sauper – 2004

[ii] E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century – Robert D. Putnam

[iii] The Act Of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer – 2012

[iv] The Diversity Myth – Benjamin Schwarz – The Atlantic, May 1995

[v] The Most Diverse Cities Are Often The Most Segregated – Nate Silver – fivethirtyeight.com, May 2015

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