Lack of the right kind of diversity can be a killer. Just ask Kathy Griffin. She got into some scalding water for a staged photo of herself holding President Trump’s severed head. It is a disturbing pic.
To start, I’m a fan of Griffin. Her cutting and brassy wit enlivened many an appearance on Howard Stern. She comes out of a lineage of loud, brash, edgy female comics going back to Phyllis Diller. The highlight of Kathy’s career was the 2009 celebrity roast of Joan Rivers: bitch meets bitch.
The fascinating part of this decapitation story is that no one stepped in along the process to tell her the concept was a terrible, horrible, no-good move. Off the top of my head, I’d guess the whole production had to include at a minimum: her photographer, stylist, mannequin designer, publicist, and agent. Toss in her creative team (advisors, friends), and we’re talking at least 12-15 people who at no time took Griffin aside to forcefully say, “This is an incredibly a bad idea”.
In that circle, the decapitation photo was provocative but acceptable. The world swiftly stepped in to say they were badly mistaken.
Stupid People Moves
I write extensively about how groups of really, really smart people can get together and make really, really disastrous decisions. Choices which lead to bankruptcy, career suicide and even jail time. In this case, I hope it doesn’t leave Kathy Griffin scrubbing toilets to make the rent. But I also hope it helps her, and the rest of us, think deeper about the idea of diversity.
Diversity is important because we can learn from one another. We must have a level of understanding about each other to facilitate collaboration and cooperation. Makes sense, but we limit ourselves by what we exclude when discussing diversity.
In the past, I helped design an orientation curriculum for new adjunct professors who were making their first appearance on campus after decades in corporate America. Our message to these new faculty was they were about to be immersed in an entirely different civilization (i.e.: any cultural reference over ten years old will go over these kids heads, so no allusions to Monica Lewinsky). You may think you know these young adults, but you don’t.
We encouraged new professors to invest significant time getting continuing feedback from their students. There was nothing we could explain to them that would be as valuable as hearing it from the mouths of undergraduates. The president of Penn State supported us by urging faculty to take a couple of students to lunch once a week. Our charge was to expand our effectiveness by engaging in the lives of these kids.
The Diversity Blind Spot
So we circle back to the blind spots on our thinking about diversity. I’m certain Kathy Griffin’s circle includes a multitude of blacks, Asians, Latinos, LGBT, etc. However, it is apparent she had no one in her life who was a Trump voter nor anyone who had any empathy for Trump voters nor anyone who had a modicum of respect for the office of the presidency. This will cost her dearly.
This phenomenon is exploding across the country. On college campuses, in media, in entertainment…..we can celebrate the diversity of various races, genders, ethnicities so long as we all think alike. It’s tribal. In Kathy Griffin’s tribe, beheading Trump is well within the tolerable fantasies. So they published that photo. Oops.
Sure, all these identities impact a person’s experience, but each is shaped in different ways. That’s where much of the diversity talk fails. It is shepherding individuals into corrals based upon surface characteristics which strip them of all personal agency for their lives. But worse, it fosters intellectual bubbles which coerce people into thinking the same way lest they be expelled into the “out group.” Want a concrete example? Next time you see a program acknowledging African-Americans of high achievement in contemporary society, ask yourself why Clarence Thomas is frequently absent from that list?
This type of attitude saturates Portland, Oregon. The joke around these parts is that failure to utter the word “diversity” in every other sentence makes you, by definition, unclean. I saw this first hand on November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election. The Executive Director of a nonprofit I support sent out an emotional email bewailing those who brought us the Trumpocolypse while reaffirming a commitment to diversity and inclusion. “Great”, I thought, “You just told half the citizenry to f#ck off while proclaiming fidelity to inclusivity”.
The Limits Of Our Diversity Thinking
It is just this sort groupthink where we’re hitting the wall on diversity in our social discourse. In Portland, the Women’s March almost didn’t happen because of a schism between the black community and ‘toxic white feminism.’ In Seattle, a City Councilwoman proudly proclaims she has no friends from the opposing party. Organizations devoted to social justice openly call for discriminatory hiring. Colleges organize days where certain racial groups are asked to leave campus.
What we’re encountering now is that conversations around diversity are restricted to surface features while ignoring the life experience and intellectual outlook of the individual. Kathy Griffin was so immersed in this thinking that she could not see the lack of diversity in her life.
In the wake of the last election, I heard way too many comments in the vein of ‘I don’t know how ‘X’ could vote for Trump”. Well here’s a thought. If you don’t have any Trump voters in your life maybe it’s a sign you need more diversity among your in-group. So make an effort this week to reach out to a Trump voter. Invite them to coffee then just sit back and listen. Talk WITH them, not DOWN to them. Stop with the name calling. The country got a powerful message in November, and it’s one we need to understand.
The late Christopher Hitchens said it well about our current ‘Identity Politics”:
“At the instant that I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic “preference”, to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words, “Speaking as a…” Then could follow any self-loving description. I will have to say this for the old “hard” Left: we earned our claim to speak and intervene by right of experience and sacrifice and work. It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation of disability were qualifications in themselves.”
Identity politics is creating all sorts of exclusive bubbles in society and Kathy Griffin’s bubble just popped.