On Diversity

In keeping with this year’s theme of the Ayudh Europe summit, I thought it would be good to think some more on diversity. This paper is meant to help me develop my thoughts, communicate my thoughts , but most importantly create a common ground for discussion. Whether you agree with my stance on what diversity is (and should be) or not, by writing this paper I hope to create a certain shared vocabulary, a common starting point for further discussion. Also, since my intention is to share this with people who don’t have a background in philosophy, I will try to keep the philosophical jargon to the minimum. Forgive me if I slip up somewhere, or please understand that sometimes expressing a sentiment with jargon will actually be clearer than trying to talk my way around it. 

Also, since this year’s summit theme is ‘Celebrating Diversity’, this is not the place where I deliberate as to whether diversity in general is desirable. I will simply assume that it is. Please know that this is in no way obvious. 

I will first try figure out what diversity is. Then, I will show how we get from acknowledging differences between people to how we discriminate against others. By doing this, I will show that there are two different models of diversity, which I will name ‘intersubjective diversity’ and ‘normative diversity’. After having explained what these two models are, I will argue that we should prefer intersubjective diversity over normative diversity.

What is diversity?

With all of this in mind then, what is diversity? Let me propose a working definition: diversity is the presence of difference within a set. When one has a country music album and a rap music album next to each other, the set of those two albums is a diverse set. Notice that diversity relies on something else: difference. One has to acknowledge that within a set there is a difference between its elements in order to have diversity. Ironically enough then, there is no diversity without discrimination since discrimination is the act of establishing difference. We discriminate between things and thereby create diversity. 

Now of course in ordinary language there are two senses in which a person can discriminate – one can discriminate between and discriminate against. We have talked about discriminating between. Discriminating against is to treat a certain person or group unfairly on the basis of some perceived difference between you and that group. To avoid confusion, I will call discriminating between simply ‘to discriminate’ and discriminating against I will call ‘discriminatory behaviour’. 

Like diversity, discriminating against relies on discriminating between. For me to discriminate against people from a certain country, I have to first establish some kind of difference between me and those people (in this case, the difference in nationality). Now, since I assumed for this paper that diversity is something desirable, I believe it is safe to say that this would make discriminatory behaviour undesirable. The two are mutually exclusive. Since diversity and discriminatory behaviour both rely on discrimination, it is important to take a look at the process getting from discrimination to discriminatory behaviour. Before we do this however, let me turn towards two concerns which can be raised against my working definition of diversity – both of which would make the term ‘diversity’ useless. 

There are two extreme claims in which the term diversity loses its relevancy and usefulness:

  1. There ultimately is no difference between people. Humanity is one whole, difference between us is a mere illusion. If this view were to be true, there can be no diversity between humans, since there would be no difference between them. This would make the term utterly useless. This could even be extended from humanity to all existing things.
  2. Diversity means the presence of any difference between people. If this were to hold true, the term diversity would also become useless. The set of two exact clones would form a diverse group simply because of their difference in location. Two people can’t be at the same place, so there is always a difference between people – there is always diversity. 

I think the first point is a point which deserves careful consideration, which I won’t be able to do in this paper. The second point does bring a flaw in my definition to light. Faced with this second objection, two options are left to choose from: either it has to be acknowledged that diversity is a useless term, or the definition of diversity has to be changed. The first option deserves careful consideration again, but for now I will focus on the second option. How can we keep the definition of diversity useful? A new definition would look something like the following: Diversity is the presence of specific differences within a set.

Which specific differences we ought to favour is a topic for another discussion, but differences which we do favour are abundant: skin colour, religion, political views, mental prowess, physical ability, etc. 

With this improved definition it is time to look at the steps one needs to undertake to get from discrimination to diversity, or from discrimination to discriminatory behaviour. 

From discrimination to discriminatory behaviour

For this example, I will take a hypothetical specific difference to be important – eye colour. I do this in order to not talk about more controversial real-world differences. The first step to either discriminatory behaviour or diversity is, as discussed, discrimination: the act of establishing difference. If diversity is something we should desire, then the second step needs to be that of establishing that these differences matter. If differences between people wouldn’t matter, then we shouldn’t be concerned with diversity, since diversity relies upon our attitude towards differences. After this, the third step would be what was just discussed: establishing that some differences are more important than others. From this, the next step is to establish which specific difference is important for diversity. This is where the hypothetical scenario of eye colour comes in. We establish that a difference in eye colour will result in a diverse group while a difference in, say, feet size won’t. 

An overview of these steps would be the following:

  1. We establish difference between people.
  2. We establish that differences matter.
  3. We establish that some differences are more important than others.
  4. We establish which specific differences are more important than others. 

This is where we could stop if we wanted to have a useful definition of diversity. We would establish which differences ought to be important and try to have a diverse group with those differences. To use eye colour, we could have a diverse group when we have people with brown, blue and green eyes. It takes us a few more steps to get to an act of discriminatory behaviour though, steps which I will explicate now. 

The fifth step would be to establish that a specific eye colour is the normal eye colour. Note that we can still have diversity under this condition. If the normal eye colour is blue, then if we have someone blue eyes, brown eyes and green eyes in one group, that group will be a diverse group. The way in which diversity is achieved in Step Four and Step Five differs, since the property of difference in step four is intersubjective, while in step five it has become a property of those eyes differing from the norm. I will explain this in more detail later on. 

The sixth step to discriminatory behaviour is that we elevate the standard eye colour from step five to the better eye colour. Blue eyes are better than other eye colours. From here it is only a small step to the seventh and last step, which is acting upon step 6 – when someone with blue eyes acts in a discriminatory way against someone with brown eyes. Steps 1 to 7 combined will look like this:

  1. We establish difference between people.
  2. We establish that differences matter.
  3. We establish that some differences are more important than others.
  4. We establish which specific differences are more important than others. (Eye colour)
  5. We establish that a subdivision of that specific difference is the standard. (Blue eyes)
  6. We establish that this subdivision of the specific difference is better than the other subdivisions. (Blue eyes are better)
  7. We act on step 6 in a discriminatory way against others who have a ‘lesser’ form of the subdivision in the specific difference. (Discriminate against people with brown eyes)

There you have it. Steps one through six are all necessary and sufficient to form the conditions for discriminatory behaviour. If one of these steps would be missing, discriminatory behaviour couldn’t exist. 

The two forms of diversity

Through this investigation it has become apparent that there are two forms of diversity (Step Four and Step Five). The two differ in the sense that the property of ‘difference,’ which is necessary for having diversity, is located in different places. As I’ve briefly mentioned before, the difference in Step Four is intersubjective and the difference in Step Five is defined in ‘differing from the norm.’ Let me explain first diversity in Step Four, then diversity in Step 5. Afterwards I will argue for why I think we should use diversity in Step Four as our model for diversity, not diversity in Step Five. From now on, I will refer to Step 4 as ‘intersubjective diversity’ and to Step 5 as ‘normative diversity’. 

When there is a group of four people who all have differing eye colours, diversity in intersubjective diversity is achieved because all of these people differ from each other. If one were to represent this schematically, it would look like this (eye colours: blue, green, grey, brown):

1. Schematic representation of Step 4, Intersubjective diversity

The group of people with these eye colours is diverse because all these eye colours differ from each other. Blue differs from brown (and vice versa – represented by the double arrow), green differs from green (and vice versa), and so on. When we would add another eye colour to this (say, purple), the group would become more diverse because there is more difference between subjects – the difference is intersubjective, not located in any one individual but located in between them. 

If we would move on to Step 5, normative diversity, and establish that blue is now the normal eye colour, then diversity seizes to be intersubjective. There still diversity when we have blue eyes and brown eyes in a group, but that is not because blue and brown eyes differ from each other– it is because brown eyes are not blue eyes – they differ from the standard. The schematic representation looks like this:

2. Schematic representation of Step 5, Normative Diversity

A consequence of normative diversity is that difference doesn’t concern eye colour anymore – it concerns deviation from the norm. Green doesn’t differ from blue because they are different colours. They differ because one is the standard and one is not. Green somehow has gotten the property of ‘difference’. A deviation from the norm is the prerequisite for diversity in normative diversity. Notice as well that the arrows I’ve used here are single arrows, in contrast to the double arrows in intersubjective diversity. Grey differs from blue, but blue does not differ – since it is the standard from which other things differ. 

To clarify what I mean I will look at another situation, a situation in which there is another hypothetical difference we find important: the size of one’s nose. If we combine eye colour with the size of a nose, diversity in intersubjective diversity (Step Four) would look like this:

3. Schematic representation of Step 4, Intersubjective Diversity

This might look complicated due to all the arrows, but it really is not. Let’s take a look at the upper brown square, representing someone with brown eyes and a large nose. It has two double arrows pointing towards the green triangle (someone with green eyes and a small nose). This means that these two people have two differences between them: their nose size and their eye colour. The brown square also has one double arrow towards the blue square, representing that someone with brown eyes and a large nose has one difference between himself and someone with blue eyes and a large nose.

If we combine eye colour with nose size in normative diversity (Step Five), we get the following: 

4. Schematic representation of Step 5, Normative Diversity.

Let’s take a look at the Brown Square, as we did previously. It now has a single arrow towards the Green Triangle, unlike the two double-arrows in intersubjective diversity. Why? Because difference in normative diversity is determined through a deviation from the norm – blue eyes and a small nose. Green triangle has 1 difference from Blue Triangle, that persons eye colour having the property of ‘difference’ or ‘not the norm’. Brown Triangle has two differences, since it has eyes and a nose which both possess the property ‘difference’ or ‘not the norm’. Brown Square doesn’t differ from Green Triangle because it has a different eye colour and a different nose, but instead because it has one more difference from the norm than Green Triangle has. To represent that the ‘2 Differences‘ column doesn’t differ from the ‘1 Difference‘ column directly I’ve added the circle with the -1 in it, representing that it differs from the whole column that has ‘-1’ from the norm (or one difference – it is the ‘Standard -1’). The Brown Square doesn’t differ directly from the Green Triangle, but it differs from it through both differing from the norm in different ways.

I also believe this theory to be at the basis of intersectional theory, but that is a subject for another time.

Intersubjective Diversity over Normative Diversity

I will now argue why we should prefer intersubjective diversity over normative diversity. A simple argument is that if we want to stay as far away from discriminatory behaviour as possible, we should stick to intersubjective diversity since normative diversity is one step closer to discriminatory behaviour, as I’ve shown. Once we say that blue eyes are the standard eye colour, it is only one small step from saying that blue eyes are better than the other colours. I think it can even be argued that a standard is always normative, even if it claims to be descriptive. The claim ‘Blue is the standard eye colour because it is the most occurring eye colour’ is simply hiding its normativity by citing a descriptive statistic. To show what I mean by the inherent normativity of standards let me discuss ‘disadvantages’. 

When we are talking about disadvantages, we are implicitly using a model of normative diversity. When someone is disadvantaged, what we are saying is that they differ from the standard. Not only that, it implicitly says that being disadvantage is worse than being the standard. For example, if someone is disadvantaged due to them being physically disabled, we have first said that being physically abled is the norm and that, second, if you don’t have this norm you are worse off. It would be better if you weren’t physically disabled. There is in fact no difference between saying that someone is disadvantaged because of their lack in physical ability (or because of their lack of wealth) and that it is better to be white than black. I therefore think that normative diversity is worse than intersubjective diversity. It is a faux diversity, one that constantly seeks to disadvantage or de-humanize people in order for the people holding this agenda to be regarded as the saviours who re-humanize the ones whom they have just alienated.

Normative diversity is a form of diversity that doesn’t wish to be inclusive, since if no one has the property of difference, there would be no diversity. Let me explain. If the goal of normative diversity would be achieved, there would be no diversity anymore. Physical disabilities, age, gender, living in a rural area, etc., are all disadvantages (deviations from the norm which establish difference), and we want to get rid of these disadvantages, there would be no differences, and therefore no diversity. I think it is a ridiculous goal to make everyone the same, make everyone the norm. By definition not everyone can be the norm, or the same, because these terms are defined in contrast to what they are not. People promoting the normative diversity agenda cannot, by definition, be striving towards inclusivity, because there would be no diversity if they would do so. You cannot be striving towards a goal which while striving, defeats itself. It would be like walking over a bridge but every time you step closer to the end, the bridge in front of you disappears more and more. 

I’ve given three short arguments for intersubjective diversity by giving three arguments against normative diversity. Please, let me know if I wasn’t clear. I’ve tried to keep it as short as possible so this paper would be readable, but this might have compromised the readability. I have set out two frameworks for diversity: Intersubjective Diversity and Normative Diversity. I have explained why normative diversity is self-defeating, and that when we talk about disadvantages that we implicitly use a model of normative diversity. There are also a lot of things which I have not addressed, which could be the subject of future discussion. Some (but most likely not all) of these are:

  • Whether diversity is desirable at all.
  • If there is any difference between people. 
  • Maybe the fact that we are all different is enough for diversity. (I haven’t argued in depth why we should focus on specific differences instead of anydifferences.)
  • Which specific differences we ought to favour. 
  • Whether we should care about differences. 
  • Whether we establish differences ourselves or we recognize differences in the world. 
  • Whether all norms are bad.

2 thoughts on “On Diversity

  1. fabiogauss

    Wonderfully clean and lucidly written. As far as my understanding goes every point of yours is coherent and interconnected to the others.

    The only point where I would not immediately agree is your argument that descriptive diversity is another form of normative diversity: that someone who is disabled to do something is automatically worse off.
    According to my view on this matter it would be possible to include ‘disability’ within the set of ‘intersubjective diversity’.
    Since, if you consider diversity as relational and relative to different functions of ability, for example ‘being able to walk’, could you not then say within the frame of intersubjective diversity that a person is disabled according to the function of ‘walking’, and therefore disabled according to a relative but not a normative standart?
    In such a case a person could be called disabled, but would not as a necessary consequence be worse of.
    In this case the person would not be worse off since its disability would due to relative functions (i.e. walking), however not dependend on the establishment of standarts.
    I would be interested in what you think about it because personally I do think that ‘disabled’ is a term which has pragmatic value, but I do not see that it implies ‘being disadvantaged’.

    Cheers, I hope you have a good summer.


    1. Sven Bouman

      Thanks for your comment! I think you are partly right. The way I set up that some forms of descriptive diversity simply hide the fact that they are normative, is by using statistics as a means of establishing a standard, which are inherently normative. I do not think that someone who is disabled is automatically worse of than someone who is not, and I think you are right that this disability/ability dichotomy can very well fit into a intersubjective framework.

      Since I am not in favour of talk of disadvantages in diversity discussions (as shown in this essay that is a category mistake), I think you are right! Disability does not imply disadvantage, but I do think the way the word disability is used is tricky, since it implies a lack of some sort. One can interpret this as sprouting from some normative / standardized framework, and I think this is fair. So in order for it to be truly non-normative, we’d have to do away with the term itself.

      I also think that the current dominant view on the topic is that disability does imply disadvantage! This can be another point in favour of why disability is inherently normative, and why we should do away with the concept in discussions about diversity.

      Let me know what you thinj and enjoy the holidays 🙂


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