A sketch of human faces, Not so long ago, diversity in works of art was criticized as the result of political correctness (PC). The current manifestation of this criticism targets Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Such criticisms can be about the content of the work, about the casting, or about the people involved in the creation of the work.

In terms of criticism of content, the obvious claim is that DEI content harms a work of art. This could be, as discussed in the previous essay, because the ideology comes at the expense of aesthetic quality, or it could be a claim that DEI content is inherently bad. But this is not an aesthetic judgment, but an ideological judgment and falls under the non-aesthetic areas of value theory such as ethics and political philosophy.

In terms of criticism focused on the cast of characters, this criticism can be of in-world characters or real-world casting choices. In-world criticism is aimed at the identity of the characters in the world of the work of art while real-world criticism is aimed at the identity of the actors portraying (or voicing) the in-world characters. In many cases, in-world and real-world identities are the same, such as when an African American woman plays the role of an African American woman character. In other cases, the identities can be different, such as a gay actor playing a straight character or a white actor portraying an Asian or Black character. And, of course, there is the famous fact that in early British theatre males played the female roles.

Both in-world and real-world criticisms focus on the qualities such as ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation of the characters or cast. One stock criticism includes claiming a work is somehow harmed by having a diverse cast of characters that the critic sees as somehow inappropriate. For example, a critic might emphasize that white people are either a minority or absent in the work. Interestingly, for those who see diversity as part of the aesthetic value of a work, a good faith argument can be made that unfairly excluding, for example, white, straight men from a work of art would harm the diversity and hence the aesthetic value of the work. But this, of course, rests on the assumption that diversity is a good—which would be a “woke” assumption. As such, the anti-woke critics would be hard pressed to make a good faith criticism of such exclusion. Their own opposition to diversity would seemingly justify such exclusion.

The most benign interpretation of the anti-diversity criticism is that anti-woke critics are accustomed to the less-diverse works of their youth and are responding negatively to this change. They are, in effect, upset that the people in movies, TV and video games don’t look like they did when they were kids. This is, of course, not an aesthetic criticism beyond “I don’t like this.”

Perhaps the least charitable interpretation is that this criticism taps into the ideology of the Great Replacement Theory. In general terms, this is the conspiracy theory that white people are being intentionally demographically and culturally replaced by non-white people. On this view, increasing diversity of casts (characters and actors) would be evidence of this replacement. This is, of course, not an aesthetic concern but one of ideology.

A similar, but less extreme, interpretation is that the anti-woke critics believe that the increasing diversity of characters and actors inflicts an economic harm on white actors and most especially white male actors. This argument does have some theoretical appeal. Historically, movies and television in the United States were dominated by white actors and white male actors. Whites even played many non-white roles (known in two manifestations as yellowface and blackface). This meant that white actors did not need to compete against non-white actors. As roles began to open for non-white actors, this could be seen as roles being closed to white actors. On the extreme side, white actors are unlikely to be cast in yellowface or blackface roles these days, which is a loss of roles. On the less extreme side, an anti-woke critic could argue that too many roles are being taken away from white/straight/male people and given to diversity hires. There are, of course, those who claim they cannot get hired because they are white/straight/male. While complaints about there being too much diversity are nothing new, these complaints are consistently made in the face of the facts: the diversity in the media does not match the diversity in the population. Also, as of 2023 white men are still getting most of the big Hollywood film roles. While some might doubt the statistics, this is easy enough to check if one has the time: grind through the casting of movies on IMDB.

This does lead to a question of concern to the “woke” and “anti-woke”: how diverse should hiring be in this (or any) context? But as an economic concern about employment opportunities, this takes us far from the claim that wokeness is making art worse as art.

In terms of making the connection between DEI “wokeness” and aesthetic harm, one stock argument is based on the claim that DEI hiring results in the employment of less capable people. This claim is connected to the reasonable premise that less capable people working as actors, writers, producers, directors, programmers, and such will tend to result in an inferior aesthetic product. Therefore, it is concluded, DEI hiring will result in an inferior aesthetic product. Or, in pop terms, “woke” DEI hiring will kill art.

The second premise is reasonable: the quality of a work of art, such as film, is causally linked to the capabilities of the people involved in its creation. While skilled people can fail and thus produce a bad work of art, they will generally produce better works than those with inferior skills. The movie Lady Ballers illustrates this nicely: a cast consisting mostly of conservative pundits and inexperienced actors directed by Daily Wire CEO Jeremy Boreing would have a hard time matching the performance of more skilled and experienced actors, directors, and writers. The film turns out to be what one would expect, given the talent and experience levels involved. It also serves as an ironic example of what happens when a work is focused on an ideological message first.  But what about the claim that DEI hiring results in the employment of less capable people?

This is, of course, the same criticism used against affirmative action and is based on the same assumptions about identity and competence. That is, it is assumed that certain people (usually straight, white males) are superior to other people and that if someone else is hired, it is likely to be an unmerited DEI hire. After all, it is assumed, a merit-based hiring would result in the right sort of person (usually a straight, white male) being hired because of their superiority. In blunt terms, this anti-woke criticism seems to be based on racism and sexism. One could reply by insisting that this view is not racism or sexism because the superiority is real, but that would seem to only serve to remove all doubt about the racism and sexism behind the criticism. And if it is not claimed that diversity hires are inferior because of the identity of those hired, the criticism of DEI “wokeness” falls apart: without an assumption of the inferiority of some and the superiority of others based on race, sex and so on, it cannot be claimed that a diversity of hiring would entail an inferior aesthetic work. As such, the anti-woke criticism of DEI rests, unsurprisingly, on what seem to be racist and sexist assumptions.

 

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