Thursday, October 22, 2015

Breadth

I don’t listen to any modern music, at least not willingly. This used to embarrass me: I never admitted to anyone I knew in high school that I could sing The Marriage of Figaro from beginning to end, or that I was bored by Radiohead and the Rolling Stones. But I’m happy saying it now: with the exception of some folk music, I find almost anything written in the last hundred years to be either vaguely pleasant, or annoying, or just noise. Whenever I get asked whether I prefer Hamilton or Rent, I can only shrug my shoulders indifferently. The only genre that I heartily enjoy is what people today call Classical.

But the label “Classical” is ridiculous and ignorant, since it puts a thousand different kinds of wildly diverse music into just one bin. And even though my music comes from only that bin, I’ve always maintained that my taste is broader than that of nearly anyone I know. I listen to music from the early medieval period, stretching to Gregorian chant and beyond. And I listen to music from every period between then and the early twentieth century. The breadth of my taste is geographical as well as chronological. My two great loves are Italian and German music, but Corsican polyphony is one of the most moving sounds I’ve ever heard. English madrigals are also delightful. Czech romanticism is warm and enchanting to me, and I even find a small amount of French music heartfelt enough to tolerate. Almost everyone I know, meanwhile, has a vanishingly narrow taste in comparison. Most members of my generation stick exclusively to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and mostly to the twenty-first at that. American music tends to be heavily privileged; anything foreign isn’t necessarily forbidden, but classified as edgy and niche. It’s clear, in other words, that the music I listen to covers a far wider spectrum. In a just world, there would be bins in the store for every kind of real music, with a box in the corner reserved for contemporary American fare. But the opposite is the case. (I once saw a rental store in Spain stocked entirely by American movies, with one small shelf in the back labeled Cine español. I feel the same sense of doom whenever someone asks me what genres of music I like.)

Now, what’s obviously going on here is that I’m applying a very different understanding of breadth than my friends are. And that’s exactly the point that I’m writing this essay to make. Breadth is a pliable and relative concept, despite giving the illusion of being firm and absolute. Let me give a few more examples of its fickleness.

First, take the century-old debate over the content of high-school curricula. To one faction, the traditional liberal-arts course of study is deficient. It leaves out, for example, any contribution from women or people of color. Its history courses focus inordinately on the West, ignoring Africa, Asia, and the pre-Columbian Americas. It does not put enough emphasis on stem fields. It is, in a phrase, too narrow, and needs to be made wide enough to encompass the subjects that are relevant in a modern society. On the other side, though, the conservative faction thinks that these reformers seek to deprive high-school students of any true scholarly depth whatsoever. Few students, they point out, have any knowledge of English literature before the second half of the twentieth century. Whereas their predecessors could intelligently compare Chaucer to the Pearl Poet and Carlyle to Johnson, modern students can write impressionistic, almost-grammatical five-paragraph essays on Kurt Vonnegut. They know no Latin or Greek or French. They cannot tell you about the main battles of the English or American Civil Wars. They cannot tell you what a Gothic church looks like, or what nineteenth-century romantics imagined them like. They wade in the shallowest pools of half-learning, their minds closed to any sense of secular history or the immense sweep of literature through the centuries. Here, it’s clear that each side in the debate has appropriated the language of breadth and diversity to its own purposes. What looks like depth to one is pointless repetition of the same to the other.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale
This man’s library was entirely stocked by the works of European men.
Talk about every flavor of vanilla.
A second example: diversity in universities and workplaces. To the social-justice left, diversity can be measured from the proportion of women, lgbt people, and people of color in the room. But the response to that is a simple negation: that race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are are irrelevant criteria for deciding whether you have real diversity. Intellectual breadth, for example, is sometimes held to be far more important—a diversity that has little to do with the accidents of personal identity. If we really want helpful diversity by this standard, we should make sure we’ve got liberals, libertarians, neoreactionaries, and Thomists; the devil mind who these people are in their private lives. Or one might want to ensure religious diversity, or international diversity, or class diversity, and so on. Like before, I want to emphasize that I’m not taking a side in this debate, at least not here—I am just pointing out that every side has managed to claim the banner of diversity with what I think is equal logical justification.

Finally, take religious morality. There’s nothing more common in Cambridge, MA to say about an moralizing Evangelical than that he’s narrow-minded. He has failed to imagine the full sweep of human experience. He has failed to consider that there are other attitudes to morality out there, some perhaps as valid—or more valid—than his own. But let’s listen to an Evangelical for a minute. “All your multiplied moralities,” he’ll say, “are just meaningless variations on a rebellion against God. They’re all just writhings on the floor of the court of Sodom. And what’s real open-mindedness? It’s openness to spiritual truths. There’s an infinite number of divine experiences—repentance, for one—that you can’t possibly conceive of in your narrow-minded attachment to the passing fashions of the moment.” Who is right? I think that question cannot be answered empirically, only with reference to values that we hold independently of our logical judgments.

It ought to be obvious by now that the language of breadth can be applied with firm logical backing to nearly any rhetorical purpose imaginable. But as I suggested before, the concept of diversity gives off a seductive aura of absoluteness. When we imagine a person as narrow-minded or a room as non-diverse, we have characterized him or it as cosmically irrelevant. The leftist who talks about “dead white men” implies that one only comes to grips with what ultimately matters when one’s view is wide enough to include living women of color. When Jesus and Plato describe love of the world as petty shadow-chasing, they imply that they are open to the range of things that really matter. And a Haredi Jew does the same thing when he laments that most Jews couldn’t tell you the difference between an Amora and a Geon: he implies that the Jewish intellectual tradition is what goes deep, and that everything else is shallow and goyish. Calling something narrow is to dress up contempt in intellectual clothing.

What should we conclude from this? Not, certainly, that we should stop using the words “broad” or “diverse”, or that we should stop caring about the sort of diversity that we do want to foster. But we should be humbler: we should stop believing that the worth of own concept of diversity can be logically demonstrated to our ideological opponents. They might have their own, after all, which might be wrong, but definitely not incorrect. (This distinction is lost on nearly everyone.) If we're going to contemn and despise our ideological enemies, let's go ahead and do that, but not assume that we have crystalline logical proof on our side.

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