Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Downside of Diversity


Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

What does this mean? How is diversity measured for this study? I've read earlier discussions of the results and as far as I can gather the idea is that the larger populations of "diverse" individuals--black, Hispanic or Asian--the higher the level of "diversity." So Fresno, where there are just two significant ethnic groups--white and Hispanic--get would get a higher diversity rating than Springfield, with the pork-faced Irish cop and irritatingly avuncular black doctor, Apu at the Qwiky-Mart and Krusty the Jewish Clown, because there are lots of Hispanics in Fresno but only one Apu in Springfield. Diversity by this criterion measures the number of blacks, Hispanic or Asians in a place--not the number of different groups represented.

If so that's important because the serious question is one of what people are responding to when they "hunker down." Is it a consequence of some deep, biologically based aversion to people who look different, who are visibly not biological kin, or does it come from some more generic tendency to classify people as our people and Others where racial characteristics just happen to be a marker? Being an optimist, I'd bet on the latter, and that's why the criterion for measuring diversity is crucial. Where there are lots of people identified with an ethnic group, ethnicity is socially salient--people take it as a predictor of beliefs, preferences and behavior, as a marker of "culture"--and of class. Where there's just Apu, ethnicity isn't a big deal--more on the lines of personal eccentricity. When I was growing up being "Italian"--even unto the third and fourth generation--was a big deal in New Jersey (where everyone was very hunkered down!). Being Italian means nothing in San Diego--at most something along the lines of: "gee-whiz, ends in a vowel but not Spanish? I think one of my great-grandfathers was Hungarian--how interesting."

I suppose it's different for "visible minorities" but I still think it's "culture," and partly but not entirely class, that people pick up on. We're prejudiced and need to be honest about why in order to make some headway in fixing it. Why am I prejudiced? Partly because I take ethnicity as a class marker. I don't like lower class people and I am afraid in particular of young lower class males because they're statistically more likely to do violence than members of other demographic groups. If significantly more members of one identifiable group are lower class than members of another ethnic group we proceed accordingly. That's why, for all the anti-Muslim backlash in the US, Americans do not harbor any deep prejudice against Arabs or South Asians in the way that Europeans do: Europeans see an underclass--we see engineers. But that's not the whole of it. I think the real source of our discomfort is that we see lower-class "ethnics" living publicly in a way that we don't--not only guys hanging out on street corners harassing women but whole families sitting outside on beach chairs, socializing and transacting business in public, and little shops where people hang around and talk--in foreign languages we don't understand. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. The Greeks lived this way--built public stoa where people could stand around socializing and doing business. But it isn't our way, and makes us uncomfortable. We like to be private in public and don't want to live in this kind of neighborhood.

We also don't want dirty, messy little stores in our neighborhoods. That's also a matter of taste. Here is a remarkable story about how one grocery chain boosted sales by accommodating local tastes:

Kishore Biyani, a self-made businessman whose company, Pantaloon Retail Ltd., is India's largest retailer, recently spent $50,000 to improve his Mumbai store. The wide aisles and neatly-stocked shelves modeled after Western supermarkets just weren't doing the trick. Now thanks to Biyani's remodeling, the store is messier, noisier and cramped—a more familiar environment for customers accustomed to fighting their way through chaotic street markets. Narrow, winding aisles were added to create traffic jams and force people to stop and look at the products. Wheat, rice, and lentils are sold in large buckets so that consumers can feel and smell them to ensure their quality. Biyani even discourages his staff from straightening up after shoppers, believing that his customers are less likely to check out a product if it is in neat stacks. He even throws imperfect produce into the mix.

This is exactly what most Americans are afraid of. We don't want stores like this and we don't want this kind of arrangement spilling out onto our streets and into our neighborhoods.

Even where gross differences in behavior aren't an issue, we of course prefer to be with people like us--people who share our interests, know the same people to gossip about, like talking about the same subjects and operate according to the same conversational protocols. Talking to people unlike us takes work and the effort rarely pays off: most aren't interested in playing the games we like. At academic conferences I'm fairly sociable because I know anyone I talk to will be safe: they'll be easy to talk to, I won't have to work at figuring out the protocols, and the likelihood is that anyone there will be interested in talking about the topics that interest me in a way that I enjoy. Dealing with the general public I'm nervous: I don't know where they're coming from. I'll have to figure out the conversational rules on the fly, work at making conversation about topics that don't interest me and be careful to avoid being offensive. Living in NYC we really hunkered down: the odds were that anyone who made contact was either a crazy, a beggar, someone who didn't speak intelligible English or someone who was just so different culturally that conversation would be exhausting and unrewarding. Apart from conversation, we were hunkered down because we just didn't know how people were likely to behave, what they wanted, what they were up to. Hunkering is a habit and becomes a reflex, a cramp, so that even when dealing with "safe" people we were still hunkered.

I suspect that most people feel this way, but are embarrassed to admit it (I know I am). It's embarrassing to be shy, and there's a strong cultural imperative to like diversity: we're supposed to enjoy contact with people different from ourselves in the way that we're supposed to be curious and interested in a wide range of facts and factoids. If we're not, that's taken to show that we're dull of soul. What? You're not interested in the history of the Byzantine Empire, Goedel's Proof or the 10 most emailed articles from today's NYTimes? What a bore you are! Not interested in kidding with waitresses, striking up conversations with other shoppers at the supermarket or visiting exotic foreign places and getting acquainted with the locals? You're a bore, a snob and a bigot. Most of us though don't like dealing with people very different from ourselves and I don't see why we should. We like parties because, if the host/ess is doing their job, there's a tacit guarantee that the guests are people we'll find comfortable and interesting--people like us.

What I wonder though is whether the hunkering down reflex is a response to the perception or prediction of cultural/class difference or some hard-wired response to people who simply look different, whose appearance signals that they aren't close blood relatives. I'm optimistic that it's culture, group affiliation and ideology, not race. For one thing, lots of the major "ethnic" conflicts in times have been fratricidal: Sunnis and Shi'ites, Indians and Pakistanis, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Lebanese Muslims and Lebanese Christians. That doesn't prove the point: it shows at most that genetic kinship is not sufficient for peaceful co-existence--not that it isn't necessary. I just hope it isn't necessary. And given that hope, the thesis of my book stands: we should do every damn thing we can to promote assimilation. The truth is that immigration does not benefit us: it's the immigrants that benefit. But I still believe we should open the borders, or something close to that, and let in as many people as possible in--not for our sake, but for theirs. We're sitting on vast wealth, have lots of space, and hogging all this good stuff stinks. And I still believe that, ceteris paribus, most immigrants would prefer to assimilate--the problem is that it's difficult and the natives aren't welcoming.

If we're seriously interested in assimilating immigrants and counteracting prejudice though it's important to explain to people how they need to behave. It isn't primarily a matter of learning civics lessons or history, commitment to fundamental "values," or flag-waving. No one cares that much about "values." It's simply a matter of trivial, superficial behavior. We're ashamed that we care about these trivialities and, if we're politically correct, we pretend to regard neighborhoods where people hang out, do business and socialize in the streets, as "vibrant." But we really don't like it. We know there's nothing wrong with it so we feel bad about telling people they shouldn't do it--but if they do it we penalize them. But we want things clean, cold and tidy. Why can't we be honest about the whole thing and say, "Nothing wrong with this but it isn't our way--if you want to fit in and make it in the US don't crowd people, don't live publicly or interfere with people in public and don't make a lot of noise; don't run these dirty little stores in our neighborhoods or turn our streets into a casbah. Of course you have a right to behave this way--it's a free country: we just don't like it." However we have to keep our side of the bargain: we provide English language and citizenship classes; we enforce anti-discrimination regulations and support affirmative action programs; we do what we can to incorporate them into social and professional networks.

1 comment:

John said...

The truth of the matter is that we now live in a multi-cultural world and that we are just going to have to learn to live with it.

After all us whities are a minority in the world too.

I much prefer clean conscious environments---because they are inherently aesthetically pleasing to the body-mind as a whole. The body-mind as a whole responds to and is enlivened by conscious beautiful environments, and Beauty altogether.

I would also suggest that our western revulsion against messiness in all forms is very much a part of our squeamishness with everything that is below the belt, or the realms of shit, piss and fuck---and of course death and decaying bodies which are seldom even seen.

Also we really dont like being up close and personal. We like everything sanitised and deodorised--we dont like smells!

I remember reading a book by Edward T Hall in which he pointed out that smells of all kinds are an integral part of Middle Eastern and other cultures, and that such people find our squeaky clean smell-lessness offensive.

Our air-conditioned nightmare (in which death never seems to be present)--the title of a book by Henry Miller.

Meanwhile the only real antidote is suggested in these two essays.

1. www.dabase.org/restsacr.htm
2. www.dabase.org/coopcomm.htm