I was thinking about a conversation I had with a friend of mine who just got back from a wedding in Central America. He was telling me how impressed he was that just everybody at his hotel was, it seemed to him, effortlessly bilingual and even multilingual.
People switched back and forth from Spanish to English, and sometimes to French, in the span of minutes, depending on who was standing there and what was needed. I thought: Of course they are. They have to be. Their livelihood and advancement depend on it.
It's the same thing another friend of mine told me when I was doing some reporting in Canada, and I was similarly impressed with the language skills of the people I ran into there. That friend of mine, a Canadian, laughed at me.
"Of course they are, they have to be bilingual," he said, "to make a living and, most especially, to get ahead."
So that's what came to mind when I started hearing yet again about why diversity doesn't matter, or at least why it shouldn't matter, or at least why "liberals" need to do a better job of defending it.
Now this is one of those hardy perennials that tends to come up when there are primary elections, where someone feels the need to draw some ethnic hard line, or racial stress points of one sort or another emerge.
Interestingly enough, recently some conservative writers have rediscovered a 2006 study, published in 2007, that we talked about on Tell Me More. That study was by Robert Putnam, the social scientist famous for his previous work on civic engagement, Bowling Alone.
The work I'm talking about was a massive study of how diversity affects civic engagement, and he found — to his discomfort, actually — that more diverse communities actually suffer in many ways from civic withdrawal. People are less likely to volunteer, vote, give to charity and work on projects together. People trust each other less, so they do less and hunker down.
Can I just tell you? Is this really a surprise? Diversity is hard for the same reason marriage is hard. You're asking people who were raised in different houses, different families, usually different genders, to submerge a part of themselves for the sake of the whole. You're asking people to think of someone else's feelings, if not instead of their own, at least alongside their own. And when was that ever easy, even when you're in love?
But we don't tell people to stop getting married. And more to the point, today this country, and in fact the world, is not going to get less diverse. And do we really want to encourage more tribalism, since our recent adventures worked out so well with catastrophes like World War II, the Balkan Wars and the Rwandan genocide? So why don't we stop whining about what is, and get busy with what could be?
Just focusing on this country again, it seems to me the issue is not whether diversity is a civic strength or liability — that's interesting and instructive, but rather beside the point at this stage — but rather, how it should be talked about and even taught.
To me the right analogy is a life skill, kind of like swimming — not impossible when you're older, but easier when you are young; not always necessary, but lifesaving when it is. It seems to me that people who don't want to face this are the kind of people who live near the beach but never get in the water — which, come to think of it, is why I'm not surprised they are often so grumpy.
Recently, a white National Review writer was fired for a commentary that his editors deemed racist and gratuitously inflammatory. I won't quarrel with their decision. The writer trafficked in some very tired stereotypes about race and intellect, among other things, but he did say one thing that I found intriguing.
He said he was encouraging his children to make a black friend at work. Now, it was a cynical suggestion meant for political cover, not friendship, but it still wasn't a bad one. When an ability to function in diverse environments becomes necessary for our livelihoods and advancement, believe me, we will jump in that water, whether it is cold or not.