THE DIVERSITY POLICE have stormed the Boston Symphony Orchestra. If they aren't ordered to retreat, Symphony Hall will find itself awash in cacophony and disharmony.
The BSO has won ovations for its admirable effort in recent years to reach out to the widest and most diverse audience possible. But now the BSO has hired a "diversity consultant" called International Management and Research Associates (IMRA) to conduct an inquisition into the multicultural correctness of the orchestra's staff. Or as a memo distributed this month to BSO employees puts it, "to ensure that culturally and ethnically diverse individuals are valued . . . throughout the orchestra."
Those who still cling unfashionably to standard English might wonder just what a "culturally and ethnically diverse individual" is. An Army brat with a Greek father and an Italian mother who grew up in seven different states? Somebody who likes to read Toni Morrison while nibbling Chinese food, with Rachmaninoff playing in the background?
Uh-uh. "Culturally and ethnically diverse individual" is the consultant's stodgy euphemism for any person who isn't white. When did euphemisms become necessary for such clear and simple terms as "Hispanic," "Asian" or "Black?"
But memos written in PC-speak are the least of what's out of tune at Symphony Hall. Employees have been instructed to "reflect upon" an inventory of "Workplace Cultural Diversity Comfort/Discomfort Indicators." These are presumably The 18 Warning Signs of Nondiversity that the diversity enforcers will be searching for. Among them:
- "Uncomfortably segregated coffee and lunch breaks." "Reticence of culturally diverse employees to give suggestions." "Tolerance of ethnic/gender jokes in the workplace." "Organizational literature or marketing imagery that is . . . not representative of all ethnic and cultural groups." "Feelings by majority employees that some culturally and ethnically diverse employees are more comfortable to interact with than others." "A majority culture view that everything is fine in your organization and no cross-cultural strains exist."
A common thread runs through these "indicators" and the others on the list, and it isn't just the calcified language. They are premised on the notion that people are, above all, members of groups, not individuals who are parts of a whole. In IMRA's blinkered view, you can't work at the BSO and be simply an American. You're either a "majority employee" or you're a "culturally and ethnically diverse employee." And if you're not having coffee in mathematically accurate ratios, beware. The diversity engineers are going to reprogram you until you do.
This mind-set is an affront to the central moral principle of American society: that individuals not be judged by the color of their skin, or the nation they descend from or the god they worship, but by the content of their character.
More than ever before, Americans are being badgered into focusing on their differences, into seeing one another as other, into calculating the claims of my race against his, my ethnic group against hers, my cultural community against theirs.
This is bad business. Why is the BSO buying into it?
IMRA's social mechanics have selected certain orchestra employees to fill out a "Cultural Self-Awareness" questionnaire. Get a whiff of some of the questions:
- Do you experience frustration when trying to communicate with someone who is not from your cultural group? Who does not speak your language? Do you wonder why people "stick to their own kind"? Do you feel ashamed of your parents and their "old-fashioned ways"? Have you been mistaken for a member of another cultural or ethnic group? Have you felt confused about which culture you belong to? Have you dated or married a person from another ethnic, racial, or cultural group?
These are questions that cannot be answered correctly. No matter what the answers are, they will be interpreted to "prove" that there are problems at the BSO -- that the staff is intolerant or insensitive or insufficiently "self-aware." More sensitivity training will be prescribed. More diversity planning will be needed.
"This is bureaucratic idiocy, destructive to interracial harmony," says author and social critic Wendy Kaminer. "It suggests the walls between us are practically impermeable, that we don't have enough in common to be able to relate to each other without some sort of course in racial sensitivity."
When it comes to questions of talent and musicianship, the BSO adheres tenaciously to the principle of group-blindness. "The judges sit in the hall behind the rehearsal curtain," relates the orchestra's guidebook, describing the absolute impartiality of the audition process. "The candidates come on stage without shoes, so that neither their appearance nor their sex is revealed."
That refusal to be distracted by appearance and sex -- by a multiculturalism dizzy with numbers and group gripes -- has helped make the BSO one of the world's eminent artistic institutions. Its new fixation on workplace diversity will only make it anxiety-ridden and tense. That may be ideal for therapists and hired consultants. It is no environment for performing great music.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)