Jeremy, now 18, has always been a bit different. He was a dyslexic child who didn’t always click with his teachers and classmates. Jeremy was frequently bullied in school. He consumes fantasy literature and movies, and has a flair for creative writing. He’s not very interested in school. A couple of his English teachers have noticed his writing abilities, but still gave him low grades in their classes. Because of his lackluster grades and SAT scores, Jeremy was not accepted into the creative writing programs at his liberal arts colleges of choice, even though the admissions officers were quite impressed with his highly imaginitive writing samples.
We typically think of bigotry as prejudice against a group, such as African Americans, gays, women, or Jews. In each case, the group has experienced a pattern of mistreatment by large segments of society or the government. In labeling this pattern of mistreatment as bigotry, we highlight the need to support and protect the victims and to censure the behavior of the perpetrators. We include the victim group in our understanding of diversity.
But why do we limit our understanding of bigotry to groups? Aren’t individuals who deviate from the norm, who learn differently, think differently, and act differently, also mistreated by large segments of society? Isn’t mistreating and bullying a "quirky" individual such as Jeremy every bit as insidious as mistreating a member of a group? Doesn’t the victim suffer just as much and need the same level of protection? It’s time that we recognize cruelty against individuals who are different as a form of bigotry. Indeed, with astounding progress in gay rights in the past decade, overcoming bigotry toward individuals may well be the next big social project.
All forms of bigotry are both bad for the victim and bad for society. The victim bears the brunt of the hatred, but the larger society deprives itself of the victim’s full contribution. Slavery in the American South, for example, was first and foremost a crime against the slaves, but it also severely hampered the South’s economy. In providing itself slave labor, the South denied itself consumers with purchasing power. Northern states, by contrast, boasted a more expensive labor force that could afford to purchase goods produced by the burgeoning industrial economy. The North flourished while the South languished. Racism turned out to be an economic as well as a moral scourge.
The same principle applies to gender equality. When Bill Gates spoke at a Saudi university, a Saudi man asked Gates if Saudi Arabia will ever achieve its goal in becoming a world leader in information technology. Gates responded that “well, if you’re not fully utilizing half of the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.” Societies and institutions that exhibit gender inequality are poorer and less innovative than those that include women. By the same token, a business dominated by an old boy’s network is handicapped by its failure to use the entirety of its human resources. Women employees are the primary victims, but the company pays a price in profits for its sexism.
With the onset of the civil rights era and the feminist movement, America began to come to terms with its legacy of racism and sexism. It passed new laws and classified victim groups as protected classes. It was no longer permissible to discriminate against minorities in employment or socially acceptable to hurl racial epithets. Human resources departments began diversifying the workforce, which meant including people of various protected classes. Diversity itself became a value. While America still has a ways to go in overcoming its legacy of racism and sexism, at the very least it has a robust legal and social framework in place enabling progress.
There is no such framework protecting individuals who are different. As with the victims of other forms of bigotry, the Jeremys of the world are the primary victims, but in mistreating them, in underestimating their value, in shutting them out of the discussion, society deprives itself of their talents. We need people who are different, who bring a fresh approach and an alternative point of view. In being different, they think differently, and bring incredible value to our society and economy.
There's an ugly streak in society, however, that wants to purge such diversity from its ranks and wants everyone to be the same. And just as bigotry against groups can be embedded in the fabric of society, so too can bias against individuals with differences. The very structure of formal education, inasmuch as it upholds a single definition of intelligence and talent, devalues their attributes and potential contribution. The talents of those who deviate from the norm are often invisible to those around them.
Cruelty to individuals, like other forms of bigotry, is a cultural pathology that stifles the contributions of its victims, and suppresses human creativity and the growth of knowledge. It hurts not only the victim, but society at large. The purpose of the diversity ideal—the antidote to bigotry—is not just to protect the individual but to advance society. It calls for using everyone's talents. Up until now, we have mostly limited the definition of diversity to including protected groups. Top learning expert Mel Levine notes, however, that “the growth of our society and the progress of the world are dependent on our commitment to fostering in our children, and among ourselves, the coexistence and mutual respect of these many different kinds of minds.”
In making the case that mistreating and denying people who are different is a form of bigotry, and that our concept of diversity should include people with individual differences, I’m not arguing for the creation of a new protected class under the law or a new form of political correctness. I’m simply trying to raise our collective consciousness of kids like Jeremy, who have so much to offer the world but are precluded from fully offering it. They are the victims of systemic discrimination. We all pay the price.
Book recommendation: The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies by Scott Page