The Diversity vs. Equality Paradox and the Branding of America

I just read an interesting article on the ambivalent feelings some homosexuals have had toward the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage. According to some homosexuals, especially the older ones, the normalization of homosexuality has eroded the uniqueness of the homosexual identity:

Rainbow-hued “Just Be You” messages have been flashing across Chase A.T.M. screens in honor of Pride month, conveying acceptance but also corporate blandness. Directors, filmmakers and artists are talking about moving past themes of sexual orientation, which they say no longer generate as much dramatic energy.

The Supreme Court on Friday expanded same-sex marriage rights across the country, a crowning achievement but also a confounding challenge to a group that has often prided itself on being different. The more victories that accumulate for gay rights, the faster some gay institutions, rituals and markers are fading out. And so just as the gay marriage movement peaks, so does a debate about whether gay identity is dimming, overtaken by its own success.

This constitutes merely one aspect of the larger question of how various communities in the United States can promote both diversity and equality at the same time. We all want to be special. We want people to see us as being different. Some of us will even seek out identity with an oppressed, persecuted, or outcast fringe community in order to taste the sweetness of being “different” or “special” (I’m looking at you Rachel Dolezal and Bruno Grosjeans.) Yet, at the same time, we all seem to want to be treated the same as everyone else.

This is just one of the many paradoxes of modern American values. It seems obvious that you can’t have it both ways. You cannot be both “average” and “special” at the same time, can you? That hasn’t stopped people from trying, most notably homosexuals in recent times:

“There is something wonderful about being part of an oppressed community,” Mr. Marcus said. But he warned against too much nostalgia. The most vocal gay rights activists may have celebrated being outsiders, but the vast majority of gay people just wanted “what everyone else had,” he said — the ability to fall in love, have families, pursue their careers and “just live their lives.”

I think the most common way to try to achieve the paradoxical combination of diversity and equality is through a dualistic, vaguely Platonic perspective on identity. In the Platonic model for equality and diversity, normalcy comes from within and difference comes from without. In other words, I might be rainbow-colored, brown, white, yellow, or red on the outside. But on the inside, I’m just the same as everyone else.

That’s a very dangerous resolution to the paradoxical longing for both diversity and equality. Why? Because it emphasizes superficialities, encourages shallow judgments, creates communities around external earmarks, and downplays the most important, central differences between individuals. That’s a recipe for disaster on so many levels.

Take racism. (No, really. Please take it. Preferably into the far reaches of a cosmic pothole.) Racism is the natural outcome of creating communities around external differences. I understand that, in most ways, racial communities are created first by the fact that they are marginalized for superficial reasons by some “majority.” But perpetuating the community on the basis of superficialities will do nothing to abolish the original ignorance that precipitated the persecution. That’s why I think “celebrating diversity” has to be more than skin-deep. It has to be more than style-deep. It has to be more than brand-deep.

And it doesn’t end with race. Most of the communities in the United States have created a specific, superficial external template for belonging in that community. Christians certainly have it. Look at the homogenous consistency of our music, movies, dress, worship, voting records, neighborhoods, etc. We’re a herd. A brand. There’s even a site (probably a few) dedicated to chronicling what Christians all collectively like. For the most part, you can tell a Christian just by looking at him, just like you can tell a homosexual, a transgender, a member of any various race, etc.

And even given all of those compounded external differences, we weren’t satisfied. Desperate to find more superficial preferences, external earmarks, and trivial diversities to define ourselves by, we stake out the property markers of our essence with our favorite consumer choices. As if our identity were nothing more than adherence to a particular set of brands. I’m a Mac. I’m a PC. It’s a Jeep thing. I’m Emo. I’m a Belieber. I buy organic or American or local or whatever. The list goes on and on.

We do this not to support particular products we find useful. The products have become accouterments of our personal identity—our own personal brand. And since our personal brand is shared by so many other people with the same or similar combinations of external signs, we end up lumping ourselves together in normalized “fringe” communities, none of which actually support or cultivate what makes each of us uniquely valuable.

And the most damaging part of this external emphasis on diversity and belonging is that it has basically crippled any diversity of discourse and obscured the individual, immaterial contributions that make each of us valuable in society. All of the nuances and complexities of what you believe rarely transfer to external signs—a flag, for instance. If you are allowed to be different only in externals, then differences of opinion are effectively outlawed. Where they aren’t outlawed, differences of opinion are at least simplified to the point of uselessness: grandstanding, fist-bumping, chest-thumping, trolling, and flaming (all in 140 characters or less).

Who can argue with “Love wins”? No one. Who would want to? The assumption is that we all have the same core belief about what love is, but we each express that same love in different external ways. Think about it. You can choose to express yourself in whatever way you want, as long as it’s skin-deep. In so many arenas, freedom of speech has been replaced by freedom of expression. It’s not the content of your beliefs that matter anymore. It’s just the way that content is able to be translated into various signs and symbols—the logos and trademarks of your brand. The complexity and uniqueness of your beliefs must remain personal. Only your consolidated brand is allowed a kiosk in the public marketplace.

And what is your brand? It’s nothing more than whether you wear cowboy boots or Jordans; whether you have a mohawk, a comb-over, or an Afro; whether you have a Co-Exist bumper sticker on your car or an ichthus; whether you drive a Prius or an SUV; whether you listen to country, CCM, rap, or black metal; ink or no ink; Budweiser or a micro-brew; Pepsi or Coke; whether you’re an Apple fanboy or an Android; whether you vote Republican or Democrat; whether you talk with a lisp, a twang, or a drawl; whether you watch Fox News, CNN, or Comedy Central; who you follow on Twitter and who follows you; the pages you “like” on Facebook; your level of education; the cost of your watch; the sports team you root for; the color of your skin.

And do you know what all that adds up to? Not a whole lot. We go around hating on each other for things that don’t make any difference and pretending to love our “brand mates” when we have no idea who they actually are at their core. And all the while, true diversity and true unity—the kind that can come only from a vigilant promotion of individual responsibility, individual liberty, and true empathy and compassion—continue to fall well beyond the reach of our superficial shows of solidarity.