The Oscars and the Glue that Binds

IN THE LATEST Oscar Awards, Hollywood, no doubt shockingly, has decided to end what has been amusingly referred to as a “diversity drought” (as if diversity were the very rain necessary for the growth of our art!), by nominating and granting awards to a number of persons pertaining to various minority groups. The Economist had this to say about the affair:

The president of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, had worked to diversify the organisation’s voting body, and her labours resulted in a set of nominees and winners which rebutted last year’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Mr Ali, for instance, is the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.

How nice. But shall we not unravel it a little? What is really being said here? Just this: that both the nominations and the victories of this year’s Oscars resulted immediately from “diversification of the organization’s voting body,” or that there is a direct, and evidently uncontroversial, link between the presence of, say, women, blacks, Muslims, homosexuals, amongst the judges, and women, blacks, Muslims, and homosexuals amongst the winners. In plainer language—really, enough of this insufferable moralistic posturing!—one votes for one’s own.
      Which leads to the inevitable question. This new plethora of “ethnically diverse” nominees and award-recipients—did they merit what they were given? Or were they granted nominations and awards simply because they are not white?
      As always when it comes to questions of diversity, ethnicity, and race, our liberal epoch wants it both ways. It wants to claim that this victory for diversity is owed to the brave and socially aware protesters who brought Hollywood’s inequalities to public attention; and it wants simultaneously to say that those in the limelight earned whatever they received, solely through the quality of their work. But friends, it cannot be both ways—unless…
      Ah, yes: unless. There is only a single logical basis for the unification of these desiderata, a single argument which preserves their coherency, though it is seldom spoken aloud, and is but everywhere almost even instinctively presupposed: one must suppose the invidious influence of a peculiarly white racism.
      For consider. We evidently believe that these minority recipients would not have been recognized, had the voting body remained predominately masculine and majority white. Where a diversified voting body was able to adjudicate with fairness, a homogeneous voting body would be sure to arrive at racially prejudiced conclusions. Diversity is fairness, while homogeneity is prejudice.
      And—homogeneity of any kind? Had the voting body been all black, for instance, or all Muslim, would the results have been similarly skewed?
      Tread carefully, oh wanderer! Say you yes, then you must allow that all ethnic groups are ethnically prejudiced, and will reliably tend to favor their own members to exclusion of the members of other groups—which is tantamount to admitting that diversity must end inevitably in conflict. Say you no, then you must allow that only a single ethnic group is tendentially prejudiced: namely, that formed of white males. Either our precious diversity is inherently precarious, or our white folk are inherently racist.
      It seems to me that the former statement is closer to truth, and that the latter statement is closer to what is commonly, though silently, presumed in our society. I will say more: it seems to me that in countless issues, as affirmative action, group discrepancies in crime rates, and inequalities in earnings and in school performance, this same logic makes its appearance. I would suggest that it points to a deep critical tension between two concepts fundamental to us, which are commonly manifested in the ideas of “merit” and “diversity.” It appears more and more, to anyone who looks critically on our society, that these two ideas are perhaps even incompatible with each other. And though it is generally best in any time and any society to leave such tensions beneath the surface, given the gravity of our present situation, it seems to me we must sooner or later confront this one, if we are to supersede it peacefully. Then let us state the matter with all clarity, though it requires touching on issues that are as unpleasant to hear as to speak. We can do no less, as we are valorous and clear-eyed observers of the troubles of our contemporary West.
      Here is how matters stand: the necessary linchpin keeping the wheels rolling in our pluralistic society—that simple supposition, without which egalitarianism itself tumbles all to pieces—is the notion that white people are unconsciously racist, that this racism permeates society thanks to the majority status of whites, and that this racism builds unjust barriers around minority groups, which explain a wide array of social ills and inequities. Without this linchpin, our contemporary egalitarianism must fall apart of a hundred internal scissions. Put otherwise: the very glue holding together countless tenuous facets of our present-day society, is the little-analyzed, everywhere-presupposed, concept of white privilege.
      A warning, then, is in order to all the advocates of diversity: sooner or later the whites—who are too often made the unofficial scapegoats to justify any number of shortcomings in the project of diversity—will grow weary of this never ending immolation, and they will throw it off. It does not matter if their throwing off will be just or not: they will be right to do so by the standards of the very ideal which secretly condemns them. But if whites take up precisely the same attitudes which are so readily permitted to all other ethnic groups, it is equally inevitable that tensions long submerged and dissents long slumbering will rise and awake. You will find then that the unspoken dogma of white privilege, will be replaced with an open dogma of racial inequalities, which cannot help but spark dispute, strife, and finally violence. For whatever use such a theory finds in the hands of intelligent and moral men, it will find quite another one in the hands of the ignorant and the self-serving, who are everywhere and always the majority.
      If we are wise and gentle governors of our future, then it would behoove us to seek to cut this bad plant off at the shoots which are springing up everywhere around us. But as they are too many and we are too few, we can only do our work by a reconsideration of diversity. Diversity was once thought to be preserved exclusively in the honorable principle of equality under the law, or political equality, and that was a more or less pacific ideal; but lately, it has come to demand equality as such—equality of achievements, economic equality, educational equality, equality of opportunity, equality of Oscar awards, etc. This last sense of equality must be severed from diversity, or else I foresee that the people of the West will find itself fragmented into countless ethnic factions, each at the throat of the others.
      But if you reject this, oh lovers of diversity, as I am sure you will, then heed me at least this far: it would be well for you to dream long and profoundly, on what must come when the glue now holding the West together, refuses any longer to bind.

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