The dangers of using the master’s tools

Everyone knows what “diversity” means in an academic context. It does not mean making sure there is a good balance between chess players and lacrosse players. It does not refer to the desire that Republicans and Democrats should be roughly equally represented. It refers, rather, to the attempt to give more space to people (including texts) of personal backgrounds that have historically been excluded from universities and from academic consideration of their experiences and perspectives—people of color, women, working-class people, people of non-normative sexual identities, disabled people, etc. Again, everyone knows this. Anyone who does not should be able to pick up on the context clues and determine that, ah yes, this is the kind of diversity in question.

Some people feign ignorance on this question, however. They claim that there are many possible kinds of diversity and that we need to be really clear on our definition. They may say that they support diversity when it turns out that they mean they support greater representation for their pet subject or group. In other words, they take advantage of the apparent abstract formalism of “diversity” and take it literally—in a way that undermines the actual goals that everyone knows the term is supposed to serve. And there is no way to stop them from doing this. The very thing that makes “diversity” rhetorically attractive—the content-free universality that makes it such a good fit in the realm of liberal formalism—is also what makes it so gameable.

From the perspective of poetic justice, it may seem fair enough for diversity advocates to get gamed, because they’re trying to game the system of abstract liberal universalism—trying to slip in particularist demands through the back door. I personally don’t object to such gaming and even think it can be strategically necessary. But I think this is also a good example of the fact that attempts to game the system always put you up against the people who designed and benefit from the system, the people who live and breathe the system. And whatever we think of using the master’s tools in principle, in practice there remains the indisputable fact that the master is probably better at using those tools than you are.

This is where the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is so attractive. It doesn’t obsfuscate the goal through strategic abstraction. It says exactly what it wants, rather than setting up some new form of liberal proceduralism that will supposedly deliver what it wants without offending anyone. It’s unafraid of being divisive. Best of all, it’s a trap that exposes the lie of abstract liberal universality—the defensive white person who responds #AllLivesMatter is quite literally enacting the erasure of Black experience in the guise of a false universalism.

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