On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era
by Russell Jacoby, Seven Stories Press, 2020, 152 pp

In a recent article for the online magazine UnHerd, Irish commentator Conor Fitzgerald uncovered some uncomfortable truths about Ireland’s non-profit industrial complex. This small island nation, population roughly five million, boasts no fewer than 33,000 NGOs. And the Irish taxpayer funds them to the tune of €5 billion every year.

Admittedly some of the these NGOs pursue worthy and practical causes, supplying essential health and social services that the Irish government has not taken responsibility for managing itself. However, many others merit further questioning. 

Dampening democracy

Fitzgerald focuses on the National Women’s Council, whose latest annual report for 2020 reveals that it received over €800,000 in funding from various government agencies. This contrasts strongly with the mere €40,000 it received in private donations.

Holding strongly partisan views on contemporary social issues, the National Women’s Council was very vocal during the 2018 abortion referendum and in the campaigns leading up to it.

An NGO is meant to be a non-governmental organisation — that’s what the letters stand for. But is an NGO still worthy of the name when the funding it receives from government is twenty times greater than its private income?

This is about more than one NGO, though. The issue raises troubling questions about the health of public discourse in Ireland which our commentariat have been reluctant to explore.

In February, an editorial in The Irish Times weakly pondered whether such NGOs “can… be regarded as truly independent if the Government they lobby happens to provide the bulk of their funding.” Unfortunately it probed no further, uncritically concluding that organisations such the National Women’s Council “contribute to a vibrant civil society and help bring about positive change.”

The possibility that Ireland’s parliamentary democracy and associated web of NGOs are a mere tax-funded social construct has produced no further probing or introspection from our intelligentsia. The editorial’s cowardly attempt to lift the veil on a troubling matter for the nation’s intellectual, political, and cultural life saw it submissively return it to its place once more.

Yet the fine weave of messaging and action produced by this parasitic symbiosis of government, media, and tax-funded NGOs on significant political, social, and cultural issues in recent years should make one think twice about the existence of a genuinely diverse “vibrant civil society” in Ireland in 2022.

Global conformity

Although based on American cultural life, Russell Jacoby’s On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era offers fertile material for observers of Ireland’s monochrome official social, cultural, and intellectual landscape.

Jacoby problematises our contemporary self-concept as “diverse” when the penetrative effects of globalisation in capital and culture are actually leading to greater homogeneity in how many people around the world dress, speak, consume, and think. Positing the “diversity idea” as mere “rhetoric or jargon”, Jacoby argues that “the world is not becoming more but less diverse.”

An American intellectual historian, Jacoby is Emeritus Professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He has published widely on aspects of intellectual and cultural history, and in recent years has focused his critical gaze on the increasingly monolithic culture of the modern university. The book is not a simplistic tirade against the global ubiquity of jeans and T-shirts, soft drinks and hamburgers, or the English language — although it does explore some of these tokens of cultural hegemony in its early chapters.

Jacoby’s point is more subtle, and the book’s subtitle is important here. His concern is the eclipse of the individual amid global movements toward material, cultural, and intellectual homogeneity. Jacoby argues that as individuals become less diverse, the distinguishing features of groups of individuals will fade:

“But individual, not group, diversity is my concern. Diversity in its multiple incarnations turns hollow if the individuals are becoming not less, but more alike. And this is happening.”

“Diversity” has unequivocally entered the popular lexicon in recent years, with companies, government agencies, and educational institutions promoting events and awareness campaigns under its banner. Jacoby makes a persuasive case that this is essentially superficial. Those who emphasise their diversity are not really seeking to live out this diversity in a materially or culturally distinct way — but to mainstream it. He argues:

“The legitimate demand here — and of most outside groups clamouring for representation — is to join the mainstream and enjoy its benefits.”

In contrast, those who are genuinely diverse would rather live according to their own rules, even if that means living outside the mainstream. Jacoby cites the Amish and Hasidic Jews as examples: “The Amish and Hasids do not want to ‘blend in.’ They incarnate a diversity that gives lie to its current form, whose adherents only desire to be let in, not left out.” Thus when diversity becomes about fitting in and entering the mainstream, the idea begins to ring hollow.

For Jacoby, “as people become less culturally different, they fetishize their differences.” Irish readers may appreciate this in the context of the St Patrick’s Day celebrations of a few weeks ago, when people around the world donned green hats or orange wigs, ostensibly emphasising diversity and difference (their Irishness, however tenuous). By 18 March, however, those external signifiers of difference had been cast aside, and the indistinctness of the masses returned.

Mainstream diversity (as paradoxical as the phrase sounds) can be worn lightly, at little cost, and cast off when its moment passes. Moreover when so many are wearing leprechaun hats and proclaiming their Celtic roots, is diversity really evident here in the first place? For Jacoby, such diversity is no more than superficial when, underneath the external differences, most people think and dress the same. Ultimately today’s corporate and institutional campaigns to promote diversity are “a façade” and in fact monotonously mainstream.

The book comprises two parts. The opening three chapters consider historical manifestations of diversity in material culture. The final two chapters attempt to trace the history of the idea, particularly through the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, although Jacoby’s evident wide reading draws amply on the writings of lesser known figures, too — revolutionaries, reactionaries, eccentrics, and romantics — from the lively intellectual circles of eighteenth and nineteenth century France, Germany, Switzerland, and Russia.

Crushing childhood

An interesting exploration of diversity’s material dimension occurs in the third chapter, “Playing with Diversity.” Jacoby explores threads of diversity, and its retreat, through the fascinating, entwined histories of childhood play and boredom.

A circumscribed period of time when children can live and engage in activities specific to their age, childhood is largely a modern, post-industrial development. Improved nutrition, sanitation, mandatory schooling, and limits on child labour have “opened a space between infancy and adulthood” which was previously “strangled” by the “realities of poverty and work.” However as childhood has become more formalised and regulated, Jacoby argues, it has also become less diverse.

What does he mean by “diverse” here? Jacoby evaluates modern attitudes to free time and play. Contemporary children’s games, from organised sports to computer games, are designed by adults. Well-meaning though they are, “as adult-run activities, organized sports, and computer games occupy this space [i.e. childhood], the capacity for diversity shrinks,” Jacoby suggests.

The bleak vista of contemporary “dull playgrounds” have seen sandboxes, seesaws, monkey bars, and high-pitched slides disappear in favour of modular, easy to maintain, colourful tubes, low platforms, and shallower slides. A fatal mix of health-and-safety-ism and fears about litigation have deadened the spirit of adventure and risk in playgrounds. Jacoby notes a remark by the author of one study of childhood play that some playgrounds are now “too safe.”

This erosion of diversity and vibrancy in childhood play is contrasted with boredom. This existentially unpleasant condition is sure to leave many a conscientious reader uneasy. Nevertheless, careful to distinguish boredom from melancholy or sloth, Jacoby provocatively argues that this condition ought to be appreciated as a privilege rather than a nuisance.

We ought to cherish our fleeting moments of boredom since it was once “a marginal phenomenon, reserved for monks and the nobility.” Permitting boredom in childhood, opening up a space for limited, temporal and existential lack of structure or organisation, can foster creativity, flexibility, and resilience — conditions necessary for diversity to flourish. Nowadays, Jacoby writes, “we worry if our kids are not occupied — and they have lost the ability to do nothing.”

Philosophical underpinnings

The final two chapters of the book progress from brief histories of everyday manifestations of diversity and plunge us into the history of the idea itself. The writings of Mill and Tocqueville feature prominently here, although they percolate the entire book too. Both men were concerned about “the ability of the individual to stand up against society — against social homogenization and conformity.”

Tocqueville’s influential Democracy in America queried how “the rise of commercial society based on money and equality undermines the individual.” According to Jacoby, “Tocqueville saw the advance of democracy and equality as irreversible, but worried about its consequences — uniformity, greyness, and even a new despotism.”

Tocqueville wrote of his fears for modern democracies whose leadership “inhibits, represses, saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end […] reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals” — a remarkably durable and prescient assertion even today among the West’s machinery of capital and opaque managerial bureaucracy.

Assessing the new-born United States, Tocqueville found society there both “agitated” and “monotonous.” Tocqueville, according to Jacoby, identified in the burgeoning post-Enlightenment and post-revolutionary democratic nation state the “twin movements of individual emancipation and individual conformity.”

Mill was heavily influenced by Tocqueville, with one caveat — Tocqueville, according to Mill, mistakenly “attributed to democracy the ills of capitalism.” Mill’s philosophical classic On Liberty argues for “the importance, to man and society, of a large variety of types of character” and the importance of “giving full freedom to [society to] expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions.”

Mill was concerned that the growth of commercial activity entailed “the growing insignificance of individuals.” Genuine diversity requires a tolerance for an individual’s own agency and responsibility. Jacoby points out that “unlike today’s diversity boosters, Mill saw diversity not simply as choices or inherited characteristics, but was something deeper, modes of living.” Jacoby regrets that Mill’s pleas for greater tolerance of variety, even eccentricity, in living and doing, for going against the tide, “barely elicit a nod from current academics who write on him.”

Readers expecting a laboured and predictable critique of current political and cultural movements carried out in the name of diversity will be disappointed. This is not the book for them. Jacoby studiously avoids highly current matters. The book attempts to walk a tightrope — between the progressives who ostensibly promote the concept of diversity yet implicitly demand ideological conformity, on the one hand, and the reactionaries who critique progressive notions of diversity because they work against their own interests and values, yet implicitly demand similar conformity to their own worldviews, on the other. Jacoby considers himself a friend of neither camp. Nevertheless, the target for much of his book is the progressive consensus that prevails from campus to corporation today.

Jacoby is a historian, not a philosopher, and “diversity” is not an abstract ontological peculiarity, but manifests itself in real ways that people think and behave. Occasionally the book’s argument in these final chapters is hard to follow. This is understandable given the ephemeral nature of the concept. However, at times one feels that Jacoby could have slowed down his frantic and exhaustive aggregation of source material in order to remind the reader of how they fit the book’s overarching argument regarding the decay of the dignity of the individual amid totalising narratives of diversity. This pitfall is understandable for someone who has spent their career in academia. The highly distilled and at times opaque train of thought in these final chapters neglects to bear in mind the average reader whom it is presumably trying to convince, and to pace its argument for them. However this criticism is, in another sense, a compliment to Jacoby, whose reading and knowledge is as wide-ranging as it is deep, and whose message grows ever more relevant.

David Gibney is a school teacher in Dublin. He holds a PhD in English literature.