CN Academics Corner

Celebrating Negativity Part 4 – The Invisible Power of “Againstness”

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Can the Diversity industry ever turn such a powerful negative like “differences,” still synonymous with conflict, into a positive term?  Not so far…and likely no time soon. Language isn’t that simple. Meanings are resilient, and have secondary and tertiary “back up” in their system of synonyms, prefixes and cultural origins.

Altering the meaning of a word can require systematically disconnecting its meaning from a host of other words, phrases, cultural circumstances and collective memories.  As we’ve seen in the forty-year history of Diversity training, though its theoretically possible, it’s a long, slow process that could take centuries, if it can be done at all.

Conscription of meaning has been accomplished for some terms, like “gay“, or “holocaust” for example, thought their original meanings haven’t changed. Though holocaust is largely associated with the atrocity committed against the Jews in WWII, some estimate there may have been three times as many civilian deaths at the hands of the Nazis among varied non-Jewish faiths and varied nationalities. [1] But the term has most assuredly not been changed from a negative to a positive meaning, nor was that the intent.

That conversion of meaning by conscription has proven to be not so easy for other terms. For the term “differences,” changing its meaning hasn’t quite caught on during the forty years that the Diversity industry has been attempting to associate “differences” with “value.”  The statistics don’t support that differences have become genuinely viewed as something to “embrace” in a way that positively alters the end result.

We can each likely think of a popular negative term or two that, over those same four decades of Diversity hasn’t turned the corner onto Positive Street from its negative cultural roots, despite the best efforts of new wave thinkers and entertainers. Likewise, despite forty years of diversiphilian chants, the dictionary hasn’t yet changed its fundamental meanings of “different.”

A consultant who posed the question, “When was the first time you realized you were different?” expressed his great surprise at what he characterized as the overwhelming negativity of the responses…he felt all but one were negative.  But the same consultant was unable to embrace the possibility that it was the nature of the terms in his own question that set the stage, saying, “I am stilled challenged by anyone’s understanding that the word “difference” is defined as being negative.”

The words and prefixes used in D&I came into the English language from root languages in which their meanings and uses were firmly established. They were assimilated into English in their essence.  How could the language of Diversity been steered toward the shoals of negativity in the choice of its foundation stone central theme, “differences,” ignoring its synonyms, their prefixes, as well as the meaning itself? Well, it was either on purpose, or by accident, but neither case seems to be a good way to found a paradigm.

The the negative prefix can become so dominant that, in time, it can cancel out the more positive root word in popular use.  It can be a difficult exercise to think of more than a few words that use a negative prefix, but have a root word also still commonly used. You’ll find a shortlist of examples at the end of this installment. [2] In some cases, the root has almost completely disappeared from use without the negative prefix.

Once we’ve taken that important step of recognizing and learning the meanings embedded in the language of Diversity, we can get to the distinction between positive, negative and neutral terms.  The next step is understanding how helpful it is to apply and deploy them purposefully…or to avoid them like the plague.

So, what’s the escape route, professionally, organizationally?  How have many resisted the seductive negative power of the Diversity mantra for all these years?  We’ll consider that in Celebrating Negativity Part 5.


  1. A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis. Ed. by Michael Berenbaum New York University Press 1990 ISBN 1-85043-251-1 

  2. Though still holding their original root meanings, you may recognize words that are seldom, if ever used without their negative prefix, and may sound “odd” to you.




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