"Celebrate Diversity!" posters aside, diversity is neither inherently good or bad... it just is. In other words, human difference is
simply a fact of life.
Whether diversity is mostly good or bad is a contested, mostly subjective value judgment. As such, people (with diverse and often incompatible beliefs and commitments) are unlikely to agree with any particular authoritative, subjective assessment.
Some people love diversity, and it stands near the top of their particular value hierarchy. Others don't particularly love diversity or place a particularly high value on it - that is, they are perfectly content with homogeneity. Most people probably have mixed feelings about engagement with diversity and lie somewhere along a continuum between these extremes.
Thus, romanticized narratives about how "diversity is our strength" aren't particularly helpful guides for responding to difference in a multi-racial, ethnic, and cultural constitutional democracy. Neither are romanticized narratives about homogeneity very helpful in that regard.
In instrumental terms, diversity is often beneficial - for instance, when our lives are improved through cultural exchanges or when people with different perspectives challenge each other's prejudices and enhance the accuracy of each other's understanding of the world.
Sometimes, however, diversity is a major source of division and conflict - for instance, when people from different groups have mutually incompatible worldviews or when they are unable or unwilling to agree on fair terms of cooperation across difference.
Likewise, it is difficult to maintain a romanticized view of diversity
when people sharing the same political and geographic space
fiercely disagree about what factors contribute most to disparities of outcome or how a diverse society should respond to them. In other words, diversity is much more complicated than it is typically presented today.
The challenge, then, is finding out if and, if so, how or whether
people with very different identities, worldviews, and commitments can or should peacefully, sustainably, and constructively coexist in the same political and geographic space.
Prominent responses to these questions don't seem to be offering very constructive or realistic solutions. Just look around... There is a great deal of division, distrust, and disengagement among various squabbling factions within our country.
I recognize the need to think differently about these questions and work toward better, rather than worse, plausible versions of the future. It is unlikely that there will ever be universal agreement about how human beings should respond to the challenges of diversity.
A Plausible Vision for the Future
If a society with as much diversity as ours is to function well, it has to have some clear and reasonable terms of cooperation. Otherwise, it will fail to motivate some groups to maintain their political ties with others, which typically leads to some form of political separation. Often, it leads to political violence.
Today's America, however, is not united by any clear guiding principles or overarching philosophical framework. As such, I am increasingly pessimistic about the ability to bridge the growing gulf between the far-Left and far-Right, between urban and non-urban populations, and among the squabbling identitarian and other militant groups in our deeply divided country.
Uncritical celebrations and denigrations of diversity do little to constructively address our present political challenges. Alternatively, reasonable pluralism encourages thoughtful consideration of and engagement across meaningful human differences. It recognizes that identity, both individual and collective, is an important and meaningful part of many, if not most people's lives.
“The Pluralism Project at Harvard University defines pluralism as ‘not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity…’ This conceptualization of pluralism aims for ‘not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference’. It calls for an ‘encounter of commitments’ through constructive dialogue, which involves ‘give and take, criticism and self-criticism… both speaking and listening’. Rather than seeking universal agreement among everyone ‘at the table’, this conceptualization of pluralism ‘involves the commitment to being at the table — with one’s commitments…’ (Eck, 2006).
Constructive dialogue across difference is necessary for any well-functioning democratic institution. Engagement with others in good faith efforts to understand diverse perspectives is particularly important in the context of public institutions... [which] should put a premium on... epistemic justification and critical scrutiny of competing knowledge claims. Distinguishing itself from an unsustainable form of radical relativism... pluralism... requires some overarching ‘metaperspective’ to provide principled guidelines for engagement with diversity (Siegel, 2012, p.76).
On the one hand, to avoid merely replacing one variety of fundamentalism with another, the overarching view cannot be overly determinant or exclusivist. On the other hand, any sustainable, principled framework would have to be, at least to some degree, exclusive.
Thus, one is confronted with what Karl Popper (1945, p. 581) called ‘the paradox of tolerance’—how can tolerant societies prevent intolerance from dominating without themselves having to exercise some form of intolerance (i.e., an intolerance of intolerance)? As long as open societies can counter intolerance and other challenges to pluralism ‘by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion’, he argued, ‘suppression would certainly be unwise’.
The challenge, then, for those who wish to promote pluralism in diverse societies is to make the tent of inclusion as wide as possible without causing its legs to buckle under the weight of its own contradictions…” (Bindewald & Hawkins 2020, 2-3).
“In Living with Moral Disagreement, Moses (2016) suggests that, for democratic societies to function well, public deliberations must include a wide range of reasonable perspectives. Paraphrasing Rawls (1993), she states, ‘The concept of ‘reasonable’ herein excludes oppressive and hateful views’ (Footnote 12, p. 115)...
[She] identifies white supremacist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and any other ‘views that are indefensible or intimidating, especially to marginalized groups’ as beyond the limits of reasonableness (Moses, 2017, pp. 533–534).
[O]ne’s legal right to free speech is not the same thing as epistemic or ethical justification for expressing hateful, intimidating, or malicious views. Overtly bigoted expressions… are indeed unreasonable. However, stigmatizing labels lose their power when used in a cavalier manner, and, as such, moralistic labels alone do not effectively demonstrate a perspective’s unreasonableness or justify its exclusion from public deliberations…
[I value universal principles of civility, mutuality, kindness, empathy, respect for all citizens' basic equality, liberty, and dignity, which in my view, provide reasonable guidelines for social interactions. However, like everyone else, I have to draw a line in the sand somewhere to mark the limits of what types of expression and behavior I am willing to tolerate.
In my judgment, even prior to the campaign and election of Donald Trump, the window of tolerance had moved way too far to the Left for our country to remain intact for very long. No matter how much the U.S. has progressed toward its founding ideals, it is as if many "progressives" are fundamentally unable or unwilling to acknowledge how good citizens of all identity groups have it in this country today.
Those on the "Left pole" (often loudest, most aggressive voices in our public discourse) seem to consider anything to their Right as intolerable fascism (or other pathological -isms and -phobias they have socially constructed to suppress dissent from social justice orthodoxy).
Meanwhile, many on the Left seem unable or unwilling to clearly articulate any limits to tolerance for intolerant authoritarians and militant identitarians in their own ranks. For example, when does militant black nationalism, radical feminism, or social justice activism cross the line of what reasonable people should be willing to tolerate?]
Protecting members of historically marginalized groups from arbitrary forms of discrimination and recognizing their equal human rights are requirements of ...reasonable pluralism... Suggestions that… [far-Left] radicals should have ‘license of tongue’ to engage in overtly bigoted speech or that they have the authority to (perpetually?) discriminate for political purposes (DiAngelo & Sensoy, 2014, p. 7; Boler, 2004, p. 3), however, are not...
Discriminating (in)tolerance of conservative speech and expression is, "at best, a nonstarter for the majority of Americans (More in Common, 2018). At worst, it alienates potential allies, undermines progressive aims, and exacerbates existing political and social conflict…
Burbules (2016) emphasizes the importance of ‘being critical about being critical’. He notes that many... [on the far-Left] take ‘a dichotomous view of conflict: Group A is always right, and group B is always to blame; all conflict is the result of X, and if you can just transform or overthrow X, everything will be better’ (3).
Alternatively, “there cannot be simple dualities of oppressor and oppressed, and one’s theory of social change or transformation cannot be reduced to simply taking sides in advancing one group’s interests over another’s or overthrowing one particular system and replacing it with something else” (3).
A more constructive solution, he argues, ‘is an ongoing, iterative process of critique, reform, and self-questioning’ that includes thoughtful consideration of ‘the history of idealism gone awry, of good intentions that end up yielding their opposite, of absolutisms that end up creating their own oppressions…’ (3)."
Legitimate Epistemic Authority
"The distinction between epistemologically warranted public knowledge (Kitcher, 2011) and ‘personal’ (i.e., not necessarily warranted) private belief, however, is an essential feature of this vision...
When… [people] make empirical or moral/political claims that they expect others to accept as justified or legitimate, they assume these claims have normative force—that is, they imply that others ought to also consider them valid and worthy of high epistemic status.
If one expects others in a context of great diversity of perspective to accept the legitimacy of or obligations associated with one’s claims, then such claims require justification in the form of public reasons and evidence.
While appeals to private beliefs, subjective interests, or psychological experiences may be personally meaningful... they are, by themselves, insufficient sources of epistemic justification for public knowledge...
[E]mpirically warranted claims could be used in support of ethically sound or unsound practices... a claim could very well be epistemologically warranted and incompatible with one’s political commitments...
Epistemologically relevant values include clarity and precision of language, logical coherence in argumentation, commitments to justifying one’s claims with public warrants, ‘dedication to the pursuit of truth, openness to counter evidence, receptiveness to criticism, accuracy of measurements and observations, honesty and openness in reporting results, and the like’ (Phillips & Burbules, 2000, pp. 54 and 55)...
Free speech and open inquiry are also, in important ways, epistemologically relevant values… Protecting free speech and open inquiry from coercive suppression promotes freedom of conscience and provides necessary checks against unjustified forms of discrimination, authoritarian policies and practices, and the entrenchment of orthodoxy… These protections do not, however, require uncritical inclusion of unreasonable forms of expression."
Limits of Tolerance?
"When… speech explicitly calls for or directly incites physical violence or lawlessness, it should be suppressed by the appropriate, democratically sanctioned law enforcement authorities... Similarly justified is the use of police force against... militants who harass, intimidate, and attempt to violate the civil liberties of political opponents… [see, e.g., Fascists, Antifa & Black Lives Matter].
When objectionable speech does not warrant a coercive response but includes unreasonable, offensive, disrespectful, or bigoted content, public institutions should call it what it is and respond to it directly (Lawrence, 2017). Beyond their important role in protecting free speech, public [institutions] …have additional obligations that include subjecting ideas to critical scrutiny and calling for them to be justified to the public.
Some expressions will prove unreasonable... and should, therefore, be actively marginalized... For example, if extremists and provocateurs [e.g., Milo Yiannopolis, Richard Spencer, etc.] engage in unreasonable, disrespectful, or bigoted forms of expression, these views should be directly confronted with peaceful, lawful protests, reasonable counterarguments, and formal institutional counter-messaging…
[Public institutions] have an ethical obligation to directly challenge and counter actual hate speech, regardless of its source or target. No one should be expected to respectfully engage with those who clearly and intentionally insult them, openly question their basic equality as human beings, or suggest that it would be okay to violate their democratic rights. Whether from the Right or Left… speech should be critically scrutinized, explicit incitements to violence suppressed, and unreasonable expressions marginalized.
Epistemic processes, assessments, and the ways in which participants are treated do, however, raise significant ethical considerations. Power plays a significant role in such processes... Yet, contrary to Foucault, warranted knowledge claims and arbitrary assertions of power are not the same thing.
Claims are not reasonable or unreasonable simply because they are uttered by a particular group of people or because they serve specific political interests. Instead, knowledge claims made by all people, from all groups, should be granted an initial presumption of worth and should, therefore, be taken seriously enough to scrutinize according to public principles of reason.
Assessment of a claim is not the same thing as an evaluation of the human worth of the claimant, although it could be subjectively experienced that way. We treat others with respect as persons by taking their views seriously—not by granting them automatic, uncritical acceptance. It is possible, however, that after giving due consideration we can justifiably determine that some claims do not have normative force or warrant the same epistemic status as others...
[Without] reciprocal obligations to justify public knowledge claims with public reasons and evidence [public institutions] ...become unable to credibly marginalize unreasonable views or effectively establish that purported victims of injustice are actually victims, for such claims would also require some sort of publicly assessable, reasoned justification (Siegel, 1995)...
[T]here will be individuals and groups who express views at odds with mutuality and reasonable pluralism... If people wish to establish free associations guided by and committed to the promotion of unreasonable views in the private sphere... they should be permitted to do so.
Private institutions are not bound by the same First Amendment constraints as public institutions, and they can legally promote sectarian views and limit or restrict speech inconsistent with their guiding mission and values (FIRE, 2015)…"
A Crisis of Institutional Credibility
"[S]uppressing dissenting views and selectively distributing ethical and epistemic privileges on the basis of political perspective or group identity—even when done in the euphemistic language of social justice or as a supposed corrective to past and present injustice—erodes trust and disincentivizes good faith engagement across difference.
Alternatively, more substantive critiques of unreasonable views and behavior from the far-Left… could give [public] institutions … a boost in credibility needed to more effectively confront... threats to reasonable pluralism and democracy... [from the Right].
Rather than mirroring the forms of injustice, discrimination, and unreasonableness that often characterize the broader world, the ethical and epistemic norms of public [institutions] should model those most of us would like to extend to it” (Bindewald & Hawkins 2020, 5-8).
Bindewald, B. & Hawkins, J. (2020) Speech and inquiry in public institutions of higher education: Navigating ethical and epistemological challenges, Educational Philosophy and Theory, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2020.1773794
Boler, M. (2004). Democratic dialogue in education: Troubling speech, disturbing silence. Peter Lang.
Burbules, N. (2016). Being critical about being critical. A response to toward a transformative criticality for democratic citizenship education. Democracy and Education, 24(2), 1–5.
Eck, D. (2006). What is pluralism? The pluralism project. Accessed October 24, 2019. http://pluralism.org/what-ispluralism/
Foucault, M. (1984). Truth and power. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault reader (pp. 51–75). Pantheon Books. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.3.763
Foucault, M. (1999). The meaning and evolution of the word parrhesia – six lectures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California at Berkeley, Oct–Nov. 1983 in Discourse & Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia.
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) (2017). Bias response team report 2017. https://www.thefire.org/first-amendment-library/special-collections/fire-guides/bias-response-team-report-2017/
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) (2015). FIRE’s Guide to first-year orientation and thought reform on campus. https://d28htnjz2elwuj.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/29150208/FIRE-Guide-Orientationand-Thought-Reform.pdf
Heim, J. (2017, August 14). Recounting a day of rage, hate, violence and death: How a rally of white, tragic weekend. Washington Post. Accessed November 9, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/local/charlottesville-timeline/
Kitcher, P. (2011). Public knowledge and its discontents. Theory & Research in Education, 9(2), 103–124.
Lawrence, F. (2017). Free Speech 101: The assault on the First Amendment on college campuses. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Accessed June 20, 2017. https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/06-20-17%20Lawrence%20Testimony.pdf
More in Common (2018). ‘Hidden tribes’ report. https://hiddentribes.us/pdf/hidden_tribes_report.pdf
Moses, M.C. (2016). Living with moral disagreement: The enduring controversy about affirmative action. University of Chicago.
Moses, M.C. (2017). From the editor: Diversity of thought on campus—to a point. Educational Theory, 67(5), 531–536.
Phillips, D. C., & Burbules, N. (2000). Postpositivism and educational research. Rowman & Littlefield.
Popper, K. (1945). The open society & its enemies (Vol. 1). University Press.
Rawls, J. (1993). Political liberalism. Columbia University Press.
Siegel, H. (1995). Radical’ pedagogy requires ‘conservative’ epistemology. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 29(1), 33–46. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9752.1995.tb00339.x
Siegel, H. (2012). Epistemological diversity and education research: Much ado about nothing much?. In Ruitenberg & Phillips (Eds.), Education, culture and epistemological diversity: mapping a disputed terrain (pp. 65–84). Springer.