Posted on June 12, 2009

The Careful Calculus of Acceptable Diversity

Colby Cosh, National Post (Toronto), June 12, 2009

The National Post’s Wednesday front-page story about the inept Photoshopping of an African-Canadian face on to the cover of the City of Toronto’s summer Fun Guide has been criticized for unnecessary frivolity–perhaps by people who are opposed to fun in their newspaper, the way one might be opposed to having raisins in one’s oatmeal. I can’t speak for everybody at the Post, though as a reader-turned-contributor I note that it has survived a decade-plus largely by being more fun than the competition. But a couple of points seem worth making.

One is that bad Photoshop is a pervasive cultural plague, well worth ridiculing out of existence. The Fun Guide cover had a particular message to convey about Toronto as an exciting place full of activities and programs for people of all ethnicities. Bad art direction, as bad art direction always does, obscures or effaces the message. The doctored cover instead trumpets the ineptitude of its corporate authors; tacitly insults the intelligence and taste of the customer; demonstrates that the city couldn’t figure out how to purchase the appearance of “diversity” from a stock-photo service, even though attractively packaged inoffensiveness is the raison d’être of all stock-photo services; and reveals that the city couldn’t even manage to arrange a half-decent amateur photo of a racially mixed group of people having a good time–perhaps even doing so actually within the city of Toronto, with some civic landmark in the background.

After all, Toronto really might be the most ethnically diverse metropolis in the world, so diversity should not demand much of a premium there. And we live at the end of a quarter-century in which the number of amateur photographers with access to the means of making a print-quality photograph has been multiplied by–I don’t know, a million or more? If you are familiar with the remarkable amateur online Photoshop contests at sites like–contests usually dominated by non-professional hobbyists–you know there is no excuse on Earth for a paid design worker (God help us, it was probably a union member with a pension) to produce a clumsy monstrosity in response to a high-visibility assignment like the Fun Guide cover.

Toronto spends untold billions of dollars trying to cultivate the appearance of being a “world-class” city, and then it goes and fills thousands of Toronto magazine racks with an object that would shame Kapuskasing. A story worth covering? I think so.

But, of course, the Fun Guide fiasco is not just interesting as a story of marketing gone wrong. It also provides an invaluable sneak peek at the operating ideology of Toronto’s unelected ruling class. For my money, this kind of deep politics is what really belongs in a newspaper, because it affects our lives more pervasively than day-to-day horse race coverage of elections. What does it matter who gets voted in to run the machine? What matters is what kind of machine it is, and what it is for.

What’s notable here is that, confronted with a tacit accusation of hypervigilant political correctness, city spokesman Kevin Sack did not issue a denial. He said, in effect, “Hey, what’s wrong with wanting to be correct?” We have a policy, he explained, requiring the city to “show diversity” in its marketing materials. He admitted that “diversity” does not have any concrete definition, and he added that the family in the original stock photo “does not look like a nondescript white family, it looks maybe Latino.”

Here we have a precious insight into the “diversity” math.

“Nondescript” white people? Not diverse at all. Interestingly exotic Latino family? Perhaps somewhat diverse, but not diverse enough. Latino family with awkwardly leering black face pasted into the picture? We have a winner!

The flaws in this kind of calculation are too obvious to need much elucidation; what we have here is a species of “diversity” that can be shown, in the end, to militate against actual diversity. It’s what gives us the depressing homogeneity of college student handbooks and television news anchor teams (stay tuned for Tenured Old White Guy, Cute Asian Woman and Non-Threatening Black Dude with up-to-the-minute sports).

After all, the math works the same way everywhere, which is why the city’s great “strategic communications” brains were able to consider using stock photography that would have worked equally well in Vancouver or Chicago or London. The premise of “diversity,” carried to its logical conclusion, is that no place should actually be a unique expression of a national spirit or culture; it pushes us, paradoxically, toward a less diverse world.