The new year started with this lesson. Claudine Gay, the first Black woman president of Harvard University, resigned early this month after controversy over her management of protests on the Harvard campus over the Israel-Hamas war and a subsequent plagiarism accusation. The truth is that Gay’s resignation was the result of a coordinated effort to take down Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. That’s not speculation. Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist, admitted it to the online publication Politico.
Gay’s resignation is just the most recent victory at taking down DEI. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order that targets diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in higher education in the state and requires schools to “review the necessity and efficiency of DEI positions, departments, activities, procedures, and programs.”
Twenty-four of 50 states introduced or passed anti-DEI legislation.
To improve — or just preserve — diversity, maybe we should ditch the word diversity and use the word variety instead.
Diversity and variety have slightly different meanings. Diversity involves acknowledging, accepting, and valuing the differences among individuals. In a social context, diversity often refers to differences in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, religion, abilities, and more. Embracing diversity means recognizing and respecting these differences and understanding their significance in creating a richer, more inclusive environment.
Variety also involves differences, but it emphasizes various types or forms within a particular category or context. It can refer to the assortment or range of different items, aspects, or characteristics within a set.
“Diversity” tends to encompass a broader and more profound sense of acknowledging and embracing differences, especially for people and their identities.
In essence, diversity encompasses a broader spectrum of differences, while variety typically refers to the range or assortment within a specific category or set. Diversity appreciates differences among individuals or things, while variety just highlights the presence of different types or forms within a particular context. It’s an issue of nuance.
The problem is that this nuance has become noxious in some places and it’s costing people opportunities. For instance, in the State of Texas, any program that seeks to enhance the variety of people has been essentially banned, effective January 1, 2024. There’s a trickle-down effect of these policies. After a more than 29% uptick in job postings with DEI in the title or description between November 2020 and November 2021, there’s been more than a 23% decline in the number of job postings with “DEI” in the title or description between November 2022 and November 2023.
We’re headed in the wrong direction.
While some may see the differences in the two words as theoretical, and best reserved for detailed etymologies that few people read, the practical reality is that the word Variety emphasizes choice whereas the word diversity doesn’t — at least as it’s come to be understood by its critics. And the prospect of choice connotes freedom.
Freedom is what we want to associate with diversity. One of the reasons why DEI has been pitted against freedom — academic freedom, freedom of speech — is that it’s a winning strategy. The public bristles at the idea of losing freedom.
Using the word variety reunites the concepts of freedom and diversity.
This isn’t conjecture. Academic research bears this out. Variety is a defense against something called hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation describes how people become insensitive to new stimuli, and quickly readjust to an emotional baseline. Just the prospect of something novel, before it’s even happened, activates dopamine receptors in the brain. This reaction, in turn, makes people happier and more receptive to ideas they previously resisted.
Swapping out one word for another is essentially a rebranding of diversity. Consider the change of Facebook to Meta. At the time of the name change in 2021, Facebook was under fire after former employee Frances Haugen delivered withering testimony to Congress. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the change better reflected the future of the company but the timing of the change revealed the company’s intention: to distance itself from strategies that weren’t working.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with diversity itself; it’s quite the opposite. It’s a noble and necessary goal. But somehow seeking it using that word has backfired. And if words matter, as evidence shows they do, then using the same word to pursue this ideal will leave us in the same position: losing ground.