visages of false virtue?

There’s a problematic element to the fact that our public discourse is awash with buzz-words: Diversity. Engagement. Community. Social justice. Pluralism. Multiculturalism.

We often view these as goals in and of themselves… almost as a panacea for society’s problems. But we fail to understand that a great deal of our society’s problems are part and parcel of these so-called panaceas. It’s possible for something to be both the solution to and the instigator of the same problem.

Things never can be simple, can they?

Multiculturalism and diversity for example. The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, in 2007, found a correlation between greater levels of ethnic diversity and a fraying of the social fabric.[1] Greater diversity creates more social distrust. This breakdown in communal relations leads to more political activism, people looking to the government to solve the problems that had historically been solved between neighbors.

It comes down to the question of whether this result is due to a bug or a feature of having a diverse communal landscape. What does the probability of this result say about human nature?

Despite the findings of his study, Putnam maintains his value of diversity. He says that over the long term, more diverse societies and communities are much stronger if they learn to live with one another. But it’s in the short term where the difficulties are most evident.

We do a disservice to ourselves by dismissing the fact that multiculturalism brings with it a great many problems. Whitewashing all skepticism or even resistance to greater diversity as racist or bigoted doesn’t move the needle on working through these inevitable problems. These brands of deprecation appear “holier-than-thou” and only serve to entrench the divisions we’re trying to overcome by issuing these labels in the first place.

It all comes back to values. A threat to ones values, even a perceived threat, is a mindset worth seeking to understand. We all feel it, we all experience it. Through exploring another’s hesitancy to embrace diversity, I’m convinced we have a great deal to learn about ourselves. By indiscriminately ascribing labels to the viewpoints of others, we run the risk of sheltering ourselves behind a visage of false virtue.

We’d do well to expose the shortcomings of our virtue, no matter how uncomfortable. For in these shortcomings, we find our humanness, our fragility. This recognition on a communal or societal scale acts as a social glue stronger than any other because it imbues us with a humility geared toward self-reflection and simultaneously communal progression.

If we are to be a society that prides itself on encouraging diversity, we must at least acknowledge the apparent unsavory pieces of that diversity.


[1] Robert Putnam: E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century, 2007 (