KEVIN LEININGER: It’s a shame everybody doesn’t share Fort Wayne’s commitment to diversity of thought

Guest conductor Rick Bower guided the Fort Wayne Philharmonic through its Holiday Pops concert last year. All that "white Christmas" stuff was enjoyable, sure, but was it diverse? (News-Sentinel file photo)
Kevin Leininger

More than 60 Boston-area musicians have just asked that city’s symphony orchestra to perform more works by female and minority composers, since only one of 73 pieces scheduled for the current season was written by a woman. If they suggested any worthy alternatives to Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, The Associated Press failed to mention it.

In other words, diversity for its own sake, not artistic merit or even market demand, seems to have been group’s main concern. Or as violinist Shaw Pong Liu so charmingly put it, “At a time when racism is a critical topic . . . the BSU is disturbingly wedded to their brand of elite, European white-male music, and a home stage concert hall whose audience looks nothing like the community in which they perform.”

Such nasty drivel is not uncommon in the diversity-grievance industry, which in other contexts might have accused some of the musicians of cultural appropriation for venturing into a genre normally associated with another race. That’s reason enough not to be too hard on City Councilmen Paul Ensley, R-1st, and Jason Arp, R-4th, for refusing to sign the “inclusivity pledge” submitted last week by the Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana.

But despite the resolution’s purely symbolic, feel-good nature, council’s 7-2 support was worthwhile if only because of the pledge’s wise, welcome but all-too-rare commitment to inclusivity in all its forms — most notably diversity of thought.

Why does that matter? Consider what happened last year when, in the name of diversity, critics of Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act accused Gov. Mike Pence of supporting anti-gay discrimination, threatened an economic boycott and forced the state to revise the bill and pay a public-relations firm $2 million to undo the damage. When two incompatible forms of thought collided, one was widely deemed more worthy of respect and protection than another. Much the same happens on many of American college campuses, where speech codes and “safe spaces” are intended to protect the fragile leaders of tomorrow from ideas and people that might offend their sensibilities or challenge their preconceptions.

Now, just this month, Twitter’s vice president of public policy and communications has concluded that, in order to guard against the wrong ideas, it is “no longer possible to stand up for all speech.”

So kudos to YLNI and City Council and for acknowledging what should be obvious, but obviously isn’t: that “it is through our inclusive culture that we can attract the best employees, empower our customers and help our communities achieve great things.”

And, wonder upon wonder, that inclusiveness supports — on paper, at least — the ability to disagree in a cordial, respectful way without being called names.

For far too long, the quest for diversity has valued only the visible kind, which is the most superficial of all. I remember a conversation with a local business leader who, upon meeting a group of workers, huffed about the lack of diversity. Had she taken the time to look beneath the skin and assess them as individuals, she would have understood how diverse and unique each of them truly was.

If the people in charge of the Boston orchestra have been overlooking certain composers for nothing more than demographic reasons, shame on them. But let’s face it: The repertoire of great symphonic music has been composed mostly by white men, just as many other forms of music are dominated by other groups. Demands for diversity won’t change jazz or hip-hop any more than it will change the symphony. That evolution must happen organically and, as it does, the diversity of performance inevitably will change with it.

But to discount an entire genre as “elite, European white-male” music displays a willful — and, yes, elitist — denial of why the form has remained popular over the centuries and across many cultures. Ultimately, it’s only the notes that matter.

Not everyone agrees, but a good debate is always healthier and far more interesting than coerced agreement. Supposedly backward and closed-minded Fort Wayne seems to appreciate that, even if others don’t.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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