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Has ‘Diversity’ Lost Its Meaning?

01mag-01firstwords-t_CA0-master675How does a word become so muddled that it loses much of its meaning? How does it go from communicating something idealistic to something cynical and suspect? If that word is ‘‘diversity,’’ the answer is: through a combination of overuse, imprecision, inertia and self-serving intentions.

Take the recent remarks by the venture capitalist John Doerr at this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in September. Doerr, who with his firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has invested in Google, Facebook and Amazon, was on hand to discuss diversity in the overwhelmingly white and male Silicon Valley. After explaining that K.P.C.B. had begun putting its employees through training in unconscious bias — the company was the subject of a high-profile 2012 sex-discrimination lawsuit brought by a former executive, Ellen Pao, which Pao lost — the 64-year-old Harvard Business School graduate professed himself ‘‘deeply committed to diversity,’’ adding: ‘‘We have two new partners who are so diverse I have a challenge pronouncing their names.’’

Doerr was quick to issue an apology for what he called ‘‘an unfortunate joke,’’ but his conflation of a few additions with substantial changes in corporate hiring and recruitment practices inadvertently revealed what’s so irritating about the recent ubiquity of the word ‘‘diversity’’: It has become both euphemism and cliché, a convenient shorthand that gestures at inclusivity and representation without actually taking them seriously.

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