We lump diversity and inclusivity together in our common discourse about identity and social acceptance to the point we now treat the two terms as having almost the same meaning, inclusive practices are even listed as one of the dictionary definitions for diversity. They are certainly connected but more in a Yin-Yang interaction of opposites sort of way. When you look at their core meaning they are in fact opposing and counter-cancelling concepts.
To be inclusive is to draw disparate and disconnected entities into a unified whole, to combine many into one. To diversify is to separate and make distinct individual entities, to clarify how many different ‘many’s there are. As with all comparative descriptive paradigms you can’t really have the one without the other. You can’t have tall without short, bright without dark, rich without poor, hot without cold…..
Eleven degrees Celsius exists as a temperature but we don’t brand it as being ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ without a point of comparison. Contrasted with thirty degrees it would be considered cold, with minus twenty degrees it would be hot making it balmy for late fall but chilly for midsummer. Someone who is 6’3” would be ‘tall’ surrounded with average people in an elevator but ‘short’ standing next to professional basketball players. Having five hundred thousand dollars in the bank would make you rich is some neighborhoods but poor in others. The same dim grey light of dusk and dawn seems bright as night shifts into day but dark as day shifts into night. Our descriptive concepts depend on having a counter point to contrast them with.
One of the powerful vulnerabilities this creates is how dramatically different the description, and thus potentially the definition, of the same phenomena can be depending on what it is being compared to or contrasted with.
Canada is doing an excellent job managing the pandemic compared to the US but gets a failing grade when compared with New Zealand. Those may not be exactly fair comparisons given the profound geographic, population, political, and economic differences between the three nations but as a societal impression and factor in public opinion or morale the impact can be quite different depending on the particular comparison.
The inherent confirmation bias we all have can manifest in many ways, a powerful one being the way we seek out frames of comparison which will reinforce our existing perception of ourselves and our situation. This means, though it is the more common approach, we do not always look for comparisons which will frame us as being superior. If we view ourselves positively we will seek out comparisons which favor us but if we view ourselves negatively we seek out those which will perpetuate our impression of being worse or lesser than those around us.
Both consciously and subconsciously we are aware of how this mechanism works and will frequently lean on it when we are feeling the need to bolster our sense of self-worth. The entire industry of ‘reality television’ owes a great deal of its existence and success to our desire for self-bolstering comparisons, Jerry Springer got twenty eight seasons on the air out of it. I may be odd, desperate, out of shape, in a bad relationship but at least I’m not that odd, desperate, out of shape, or trapped in that bad a relationship.
As the nature, tone, and impact of our descriptive definitions depends enormously on the contrasting entity we are comparing them to part of the quagmire we find ourselves in around issues of inclusivity and diversity is the result of us combing contrasting entities onto the same side. We have painted a picture of extensive subdivision being the path to unifying inclusion.
Diversity is by definition the process of separating and differentiating. This does not make it inclusivity’s kryptonite but there are key aspects to it as a process and concept which run contrary to the mission of unified solidarity. When we diversify a population we divide its members into distinct and different identified categories. This is not automatically discriminatory or damaging but it certainly can be used in that way, and sadly all too often has been. Differentiation is not instantly harmful but disparities in how societal power, advantages, and rewards are allocated based upon them most certainly are.
When we seek to increase diversity we divide those categories further by refining and sharpening the details and parameters between categories. We go from groups within a group to groups within groups within a group and so on and so on depending on how specific a level of detail we focus on. If taken to the fullest extreme every individual becomes their own ‘group’ as, despite our shared commonalities, there will always be a degree to which our personal combination of characteristics and experiences render us unique.
Inclusivity seeks to bring disparate entities together in a group or space where they are all welcome and safe. This does not make it diversity’s kryptonite either but the idea of a unified singular space or group can at times seem contrary to diversity’s mission of individuated representation and acknowledged identity.
Efforts to engender and promote inclusivity become necessary when circumstances are suffering from efforts to divide people in ways which harm and disadvantage certain groups more than others. Look within any larger inclusive group and you will find struggles and tensions between the inner groups, all the more so the greater the hierarchical disparities.
All groups and communities will develop hierarchical power structures thus there will always be some degree of tension and flux as people strive to climb as high up the structure as they can. It is inherent and integral to the efficient functioning of a group but when those structures become imbalanced, abused, or corrupted those tensions can then intensify to the point of threatening the cohesion of the group.
The mechanisms of diversifying can be used in harmful ways but those same mechanisms are also key tools in helping to identify the groups and individuals being harmed the most, whether they were being consciously targeted or not. Representative diversity is essential for helping to ensure attempts at inclusivity are in fact achieving the goals they are striving for. Sadly it has happened all too frequently that a space or group declaring itself inclusive has deliberately or unintentionally perpetuated levels of discrimination even within that space.
The LGBTQ+ community is probably one of the most historied and overt examples of this. The symbol of the rainbow Pride flag has from its inception been intended as a beacon of open acceptance and inclusivity to those which have been harmfully divested from heteronormative culture, ‘all outcasts are welcome and safe here’.
Unfortunately even that symbolic space has not been immune from human biases and under that unifying flag certain groups have continued to face discrimination and division. Queer people of color, particularly Asian people, bisexuals, and transgender people have met in many cases much the same type and level of discrimination they faced in the outside world which strikes wounds all the deeper coming from a group and space in which they were told they would be safe.
Over the past several decades the LGBTQ+ community has been embroiled in an ever increasing tug-of-war between the desire for a unifying safe space and the need for acknowledgement of individuated identity. Adding more and more letters to the LGBTQ+ chain at times seems counterproductive to some but the demand for the specific reference and representation stems from a very real and legitimate reticence born from too much history of ‘everyone is welcome here’ not actually meaning everyone.
The ultimate goal of inclusivity is the support, safety, and empowerment of unified solidarity. To belong is one of our most primal and fundamental needs. To achieve this will require both producing and embracing a singular welcoming and encompassing space. Diversity is an essential tool in ensuring we are indeed achieving precisely that by helping us clarify and verify ‘everyone’ does in fact mean everyone.
Both are necessary but both can become a disrupting or opposing force if taken too far. The goal of inclusivity is to welcome all the disparate groups not erase them by overwriting them with a single term or label. Diversity helps to keep this effort honest but becomes harmful when it gets exaggerated to the point of holding the unifying space hostage on demands for status of superseding power.
Inclusivity and diversity can be extremely powerful allies or bitter enemies it depends on which mission we choose to pursue. Do we want inclusive safety for the many or autonomy for the individuated few? If being part of a collective whole requires surrendering your individual identity that is not inclusivity that is dominance, as is requiring individual identity to supersede any larger whole.
It is a delicate, difficult, powerful, and wondrous balancing act but achieving true inclusiveness which acknowledges and welcomes different individuals requires both sides to recognize the importance of the other and to seek the common ground between them.