Every fall, as Oktoberfest comes around, I hear apologies being made for the city of La Crosse, as in: “La Crosse is a great place to live, but it’s not very diverse.”
It is a commonplace in American society that we should celebrate diversity. But why is diversity important? And how is it best celebrated?
In one sense, La Crosse is not very diverse: its inhabitants are overwhelming white, Lutheran and Catholic, and German and Norwegian.
In another sense, however, the very fact that La Crosse has an identifiable cultural heritage and that the community comes together annually to celebrate that heritage, is what makes it distinct from many other American cities.
Imagine for a moment that every community in the world was equally diverse, that every town, city and state had a proportionate representation of the world’s cultural, social, political, racial, religious, gender and age groups. Would that be a better world than the one we inhabit now?
It would undoubtedly be more equal, but I cannot help thinking it would be less interesting and less fulfilling — and even, ironically, less diverse.
Without communities of shared characteristics there is no culture, and without culture, there is no diversity.
The idea of diversity has meaning only against a backdrop of groups of people joined together by their shared characteristics. In other words, the value of diversity requires a context of commonality.
One of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons features a king who complains to his chef, “Every day it’s the same old thing — variety!” What he wants instead is plain old rabbit stew, so he demands, “I want some hasenpfeffer!” Variety may be the spice of life, but you can’t live on spices.
The biggest problem with the term “diversity” is that it doesn’t help us make crucial distinctions about the kinds of differences we should appreciate and those we should not. It does not help us to form an opinion about cultural practices such as polygamy, arranged marriage, witchcraft, vengeance killings, female circumcision and so on.
To form opinions about such controversial practices, we must rely upon more robust notions, such as respect, dignity, freedom and natural human rights.
Using the term “diversity” to set a social agenda is misleading. It suggests that everything is valuable — every person, every trait, every custom, every practice. But that’s not the case. What we really value in other people is not difference, but goodness.
However, goodness is expressed in so many different ways that we need to keep an open mind in order to recognize it.
Instead of diversity, we should encourage hospitality — the ancient virtue of welcoming the stranger. Sharing a meal, talking together, finding out how we differ as well as what we have in common — that is the only way to really earn mutual respect. In the sharing of hospitality, we participate in difference, but we discover goodness.
As globalization becomes the new normal, and people acquire more freedom to travel, to interact with people from other cultures, and to experiment with different lifestyles, the real champions of diversity are not those who “appreciate difference” but those who commit themselves to continuing the particular practices and traditions that bind communities together: the old man who plays jazz trumpet every Wednesday night on Beale Street; the Canadian grandmother who teaches her grandchildren how to make chokecherry jelly; the Mongolian youths who spend years perfecting the skill of riding horses.
La Crosse should be proud of its heritage. Personally, I could be perfectly content without ever hearing “Beer Barrel Polka” again in my lifetime. But I’m glad there are people who enjoy it and places like La Crosse where people are passionate enough about their community to dress up in leather breeches, drink beer from a golden keg, eat hasenpfeffer and dance the polka until they get blisters on their bunions.
It may not be for everyone. But you have to admit — it’s different.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.