Sunday, October 02, 2005

Column on Pitfalls of Diversity

Pitfalls of Diversity

Tibor R. Machan

Diversity is a goal of many organizations, including private
businesses?especially those wishing to gain work from governments.
Universities across the country are holding formal sessions in which staff
and faculty are instructed about how to stop being insensitive to
minorities and anyone who might feel offended by certain language and

In the wake of this the burden has fallen mainly on employers to shield
vulnerable personnel from unpleasant experiences, so that, for example,
they are prohibited from asking certain questions when they hire or
promote people. Even those who have habits that can impede their assigned
work have been known to get a pass so as not to violate some provision of,
say, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Someone who is an alcoholic or
dyslexic may not be refused work or reassigned lest that be construed as
singling out the person and thus violating his or her civil rights.

It has come to light, however, that all this protectiveness toward
certain minorities may actually do them some serious harm. It turns out,
for example, that medical doctors have been reluctant to call attention to
their patients? obesity of the last several decades. ?The likelihood that
a health professional had mentioned a weight problem varied with a child?s
age and ethnicity,? reports Science News in its September 24th issue.
Researchers Cynthia L. Ogden and Carolyn J. Tabak, had written about this
matter for the September 2nd issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly
Report. The younger the obese children, the less likely would health
professionals call attention to this to their parents and recommend any
sort of remedy.

Of course, such statistics do not say very much but it is not unlikely
that one reason for the reluctance of health professionals to alert
parents is that they find doing so awkward, potentially offensive. In my
own case when a few years ago I suggested to some of my students that they
speak up in class instead of merely sit passively as I presented the
material and discussed it with others, several of them reported me as
being insensitive to their cultural background which encourages students
to remain silent instead of raising questions and offering observations or
opinions in class. Of course, not taking part in the discussion robs
students of the opportunity to hone their skills, and I am responsible, in
part, to help them to avoid this. So what?s more important, guarding them
against possible offense or helping them gain a handle on class materials?

The more these areas of sensitivity bear on behavior that is actually a
matter of choice, not merely on attributes over which no one has any
control, the more teachers, health professionals, and others in the
service professions may find themselves hampered in the effort to
conscientiously serve their clients. A tax attorney may have to tell a
client that his or her way of preparing a report is inadequate but that
client might well take offense, construing this an insult instead of
assistance. A hair dresser might suggest a different cut for a client only
to be rebuked for insensitivity. There is, in fact, no end to the possible
ways human communication could be undermined by all this worry about
hurting people?s feelings. It isn?t just that employers must put up with
habits they consider objectionable. But they and others could well be
impeded in providing valuable information to those who can benefit from it
because such information could upset those to whom it is communicated.

There used to be a pretty sensible distinction between lashing out at
someone for something he or she had no control over?one?s race, sex,
height, national origin, etc.?and matters over which the person had or
could gain ample control?e. g., how well one speaks a language, how one
dresses, one?s hygiene, and so forth. But when government got into the
business of regulating how people interacted, some began to see an
opportunity to exploit it all. The first instance that came to my
attention was when some San Francisco taxi drivers decided it went against
their culture for their employers to require them to cut their hair or
stop wearing certain kind of garments.

Now it seems anything about anyone is coming to constitute an essential
part of his or her identity and may not be criticized, even for practical
purposes. But, as is the case with those young children whose obesity can
be a serious medical hazard, the failure to discuss some of these personal
attributes could itself be not just something uncomfortable but out and
out hazardous. For the sake of not offending someone?s sensibilities,
their well being itself could be placed at risk.

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