Deifying diversity: a value for our times?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


Being ‘diverse’ is no longer simply about shaking things up. Today, diversity is considered a core value of any civilised society and its institutions. Diversity strategies are a must for businesses, small or big – diversity is good for the planet, good for politics, good for social mobility and good for our sense of self. Diversity is no longer a means to a better future, but an end in and of itself.

For many, this is a no brainer – having different people from different backgrounds in your work or social environment can only be a good thing. They argue that cultural melting pots provide border horizons on everything from what food we enjoy to our appreciation of different beliefs and world views. In contrast, homogeneity is a sign of a moribund system. The idea that similar groups of people might apply for the same job – from nursing to plumbing – is a sign of discrimination or closed mindedness, and must be challenged.

But not everyone is so keen on the prioritisation of diversity over all else. The home secretary, Suella Braverman, caused uproar with a speech in Washington in which she described multiculturalism as a failed ‘misguided dogma’, adding that ‘the consequences of that failure are evident on the streets of cities all over Europe’. Some say the scenes of celebrations in Western cities at Hamas’s actions in Israel seem to prove her point. Critics point to the way in which it has been institutionalised via policies in the workplace or education, with contentious political topics on everything from the climate to transgender ideology being repackaged as mandatory ‘diversity training’. They argue that a ‘fetishisation’ of diversity has led to its opposite – atomisation and tribalism. Many argue that the push for multiculturalism as a political policy objective has led to a confusion of social norms. Instead of a utopia of rich cultural fusion, neighbourhoods are often defined by national identities, with hostility between groups commonplace. If we don’t ask for shared values in some key areas of life, critics ask, how will we ever hope to get along?

For some, diversity is a necessary strategy to help break open closed areas of public life for groups previously discriminated against. For others, it is too focused on the things we can’t control – like race or sex – and too disregarding of diversity of thought and feeling. Has the d-word taken over as our new deity? Variety is certainly the spice of life, but is our love of diversity at risk of creating its opposite? And how do we talk about shared social values in a world where difference is king?

Simon Fanshawe OBE
consultant and writer; author The Power of Difference ; co-founder, Diversity by Design

Maya Forstater
executive director, Sex Matters

Mercy Muroki
policy fellow to minister for women and equalities and business and trade secretary

Tomiwa Owolade
writer and critic; contributing writer, New Statesman; author, This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter

Dr Joanna Williams
founder and director, Cieo; author, How Woke Won and Women vs Feminism

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question