Diversity Is Not Enough. We Need Pluralism

In a pluralistic society, power is dispersed, and mutual consent is the order of the day


It was bound to happen.

Ben Borgman, who is gay, recently ejected a group of Christian anti-abortion activists from his coffee shop in Seattle. He took great offense at one of their flyers, which he found outside, and understandably so: It graphically links gay pride with a dismembered fetus. He told them to get out in no uncertain terms (and in very colorful language).

"Heroic Gay Coffee Shop Owner Kicks Out Anti-LGBTQ Group," exulted Out magazine. "Gay coffee shop owner throws out Christian zealots whose leaflets feature rainbow hands dripping blood," is how Pink News put it.

The parallels with a current Supreme Court case are obvious. The justices soon will decide whether a Christian baker can decline to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Gay-rights activists say refusing to do so amounts to blatant discrimination that violates public accommodation laws. Defenders of Masterpiece Cakeshop say the owner, Jack Phillips, is not discriminating against gay people—he will gladly sell them all sorts of baked goods—but rather, exercising a First Amendment right not to create cakes that violate his religious convictions. (He won't make Halloween cakes, either.)

The degree to which religious believers deserve accommodation also turned up last week in two moves by the Trump administration. In one, Attorney General Jeff Sessions laid down new guidelines for federal agencies, directing them to protect the ability of religious people to live out their faith. In the second, the administration expanded religious exemptions to Obamacare's requirement that employers provide insurance coverage for contraception.

Liberal interest groups immediately went ballistic over both.

Which is rather telling. And what it tells us is that "celebrating diversity" means somewhat less than you might think at first blush. It suggests there are really two kinds of diversity—and that only one of them is considered worth cheering.

We might call the first kind shallow diversity. It's the kind that is only skin-deep: the kind that complains the Oscar nominations include too few minorities, or that not enough women major in economics, or that all-white juries are inherently suspect, or that Asians are overrepresented on college campuses.

Shallow diversity is still important and useful: Diverse companies tend to make better decisions and higher profits, for example. Diversity also suggests the absence of discrimination (although organizations can use discrimination to achieve a diverse mix). This kind of diversity enriches everyday experience, fosters tolerance, and broadens understanding.

But a superficially diverse community can still lack diversity in a deeper sense. Take higher education: Colleges and universities go to great lengths to pursue demographic diversity in the faculty and the student body. But over the past couple of decades campuses have grown decidedly more liberal—to the point that in some fields, conservative voices are nearly extinct. Yet there is no corresponding effort to increase ideological diversity in higher education.

And this holds true despite the fact that while conservatives and liberals might disagree about, say, whether racism is a personal character flaw or a coordinated system of social control, they share many values and assumptions common to the American upper middle-class. They are apt to live in similar homes, read similar books, and—most importantly—share similar ideas of what the good society entails.

Celebrating diversity gets harder the further down it goes. What happens when people disagree fundamentally about what the good society looks like?

One answer involves the use of raw power to make others knuckle under. That is the answer preferred by many on the right: Build a wall. Make English the nation's official language. Lock up drug addicts. Ban pornography. Prohibit gay marriage. Fire every pro football player who doesn't stand during compulsory patriotic rituals preceding sporting events that mimic wars between nation-states. And so on.

But it also seems to be the answer preferred by many on the left as well: Ban or disrupt any speech that threatens liberal orthodoxy. Make Catholic nuns provide contraception. Reject and defund student groups guilty of wrongthink. Force Christian bakers to participate in gay weddings. And so on.

Deep and genuine diversity requires something more—namely, pluralism. In a pluralistic society, power is dispersed, and mutual consent is the order of the day. Different visions of the good society are permitted to coexist—even if some of them are offensive. People are allowed to be wrong—sometimes even outrageously so.

Suppose Ben Borgman had been a printer instead of a coffee shop owner, and the Christian group had asked him to print its bloody flyers. Should the government have made him do it?

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.