Monday, December 10, 2007

Agreeing to Agree

Georgetown, like most universities, is obsessed with promoting diversity. The latest iteration of diversity promotion centers on gay and lesbian demands for greater diversity training, awareness, and representation on campus. In response to these demands, the university administration has formed several working groups that are going to make recommendations for concrete changes to student life, curriculum, even campus tours.

Diversity is a tough issue, particularly because no one is willing or even permitted to talk about what it actually means. Diversity means "difference": therefore, efforts to encourage diversity on campus would seem to involve the promotion of difference and the sharpening of distinctions. However, movements such as these are actually an effort to discourage difference: "diversity training" is intended to make every person on campus equally tolerant and non-judgmental toward everyone else, and, in fact, equally uncaring. Difference is to exist but not to matter. But this is as undesirable as it is impossible: difference can only exist if it really matters, if differences are noteworthy enough for us to notice and care.

Plato long ago noted that we have different eye colors but that it's a difference that doesn't matter to us. Differences in gender have far more significance, and hence we talk about them and notice them a lot more. It's the effort of "diversity training" to make things like differences in gender no more significant than differences in eye color. But, success in this effort would be to make the difference irrelevant and to undermine the very idea of "diversity." All the while, it remains highly dubious whether one could render such differences truly irrelevant and unworthy of notice.

We pretend as if "diversity training" is to make us all appreciate the differences that distinguish us, but in fact it is to promote indifference to actual difference. We then assume this indifference to be toleration or even approval. Those who cannot be rendered tractable to such indifference are shamed into pretending as if they don't care, fearing above all the label of "intolerance."

In the end, the aim of "diversity training" is for difference to be superficial: our differences are to distinguish us like clothing fashions but not be so deep as to foster "discrimination" or "judgmentalism." To discriminate would be, well - to recognize distinctions. To judge would be - well, to differentiate. Diversity can't allow that. I can wear as many nose rings as I want, but you are not allowed to acknowledge that you notice them. I demand to be different - but you'd better not say that I am.

These discussions about the paramount importance of diversity take place in the backdrop in which intellectual diversity does not exist as a topic of conversation on today's college campuses. Indeed, it could be argued that efforts to encourage diversity are premised upon the dampening if not the elimination of intellectual diversity. It should be surprising to no one, then, that according to an article in today's Washington Post, universities have serious diversity deficit in the currency of ideas - what one would imagine to be of paramount importance in the life of a university. According to this article, you're as likely to see a Republican on a university campus as you are to see a glacier in Iceland.

Indicators like party identification are coarse and inexact: they don't really indicate profound diversity of thought, but at least suggest the presence or absence of certain kinds of political diversity. More importantly, such analyses don't speak to why we have arrived at a point in which universities are dominated by like-thinking people. Maranto notes that people have a tendency to want to surround themselves with people who think like themselves, but he doesn't tell us how we reached a point we are now at. For that we would need a deeper analysis of the modern liberal project and especially the transformation of the idea of a university from a place in which certain kinds of knowledge was transmitted from one generation to the next, to one in which the university came to be an agent of human progress and advancement. We would further need better understanding of what this transformation does to the humanities - those very disciplines that were the conservators and transmittors of ancient learning, and which become superfluous in the new university. Left without a mission or an identity, their only recourse is to demonstrate their hostility to the very thing that they are supposed to teach: and hence, they become critics of past thinkers, of past ideas, and even of books. Each person is charged with making themselves anew, and no limits or ideas of what constitutes human good (or a good life in concert with natural limits and possibilities) can be posited or even intimated. Thoroughgoing human autonomy is the object and aim of the transformed university - and thus, the humanities become the intellectual handmaidens to the modern sciences and their quest to extend human mastery of the world.

The one thing we do not have in today's university is diversity. There is one forbidden idea: the idea that there may be limits based in nature. The modern university exists explicitly on the rejection of this one assumption. One can be sure that there will be no "working groups" anytime soon exploring the creation of a campus "Resource Center" (what a revealing phrase!) for "Nature and Limits." On this point we can be sure that even Democrats and Republicans can agree.

4 comments:

Black Sea said...

I think diversity training is aptly named. It is not an exploration, nor a discussion, nor an investigation of diversity. It is training in officially sanctioned thoughts and attitudes, and more importantly, it is instruction in what constitutes non-sanctioned, or rather, offically proscribed, thoughts and attitudes.

As is the case in most forms of training, the answers are known before the questions are asked. There will be no honest examination of the answers, nor will any deviation from the answers in any meaningful way be tolerated.

In this sense, I don't think the function of diversity training is to trivialize difference; rather, it elevates certain "identities" as necessarily in need of protection, while others are deemed and will necessarily remain suspect.

Protected identities must be "celebrated," but may not be criticized nor questioned. Suspect identites must be criticized and questioned; they may not be "celebrated." Of course, the terminology of this indoctrination consists of intellectually inert buzzwords. The point of this training is not to arouse intellectual curiosity of any kind, but rather to reinforce a nodding compliance with a prevailing orthodoxy.

I remember years ago hearing the author Edmund White comment, rather snidely, that any heterosexual man who openly "celebrated" his sexuality would have to be an ass. His apparent point, if I may tie it to my observations here, was that celebrating sexuality was something that gay men were not only encouraged, but practically obligated, to do. Women, perhaps even heterosexual women, might also be somewhat grudgingly allowed this same celebration, but this was something absolutely verboten for a straight man.

Let's leave aside for a moment that fact that any celebration of human sexuality is bound to teeter on the brink of absurdity, because human sexuality has its inescapably absurd side. I think his comment was ultimately terrorial. "We can go here, you can't." I suspect this is the gist of most such diversity training. If you're among those deemed officially marginalized, step forward and speak up. If you're among those officially deemed priviledged, speak only when spoken to, and make sure to say only the "right" things. If you are among the offically "priviledged" and you want to escape the stigma this status carries (paradoxical, eh?) then jump on board our program, and maybe we'll "tolerate" you.

There is an article here about diversity training at the University of Deleware.

callowman said...

How incongruous that universities should be promoting feigned indifference to difference even as such distinctions are being enshrined in law.

This morning there was an item in the Stockholm newspaper about a Swedish MP who was attacked by drunken louts on his way home from a gay club in Gamla Stan. He got away unscathed, apparently talking his way out of the worst of it. The crime is presumably unsolvable. Nevertheless, a retired cop friend of his convinced him to report it to the police because he knew it would get press and would thus publicize the recent inclusion of homosexuals as a protected group in hate crimes legislation.

Reporting the crime to the police is certainly a good thing. I'm sure the cop meant well, too: he figured anything that sends the public message "Gaybashing is not OK" is a good thing. But including special "hate crimes" provisions in the law is sinister. Assault is already illegal.

At the risk of sounding like a libertarian nutter, the only real beneficiary of "diversity" and hate crimes legislation that I can see is the state, which gains an opportunity to expand into a murky new field of jurisprudence. This stuff really sets the propeller on my Road to Serfdom beanie to spinning.

Scott D said...

I graduated from liberal arts college in '96 and am unsure how exactly 'LGTBQ' issues have developed on campuses, especially in relationship to other developments -- women's resource centers, international students houses, vegan food, etc. These working group suggest the actions are likely to be as far and wide as possible.

From one perspective, LGBTQ interests simply asks for inclusion into the tolerance regime as other groups have achieved. As the saying goes, "How could a group who has experienced oppression turn around and oppress others." Similarly, how can a university deny entrance into the pantheon of acceptable identities to celebrate? At present they simply cannot, unless they contain a center of gravity stronger than the trends of the day.

Therefore, the phenomenon we see today are rightly put into perspective by Prof. Deneen in terms of the trends in academia and the role of tradition. Instead of condemning the latest group to join the chain of demands (who appear the least powerful), critics ought to examine the sources and deeper trends. Thanks to Prof Deneen for furthering our consideration of these topics.

Black Sea said...

Q: "How could a group who has experienced oppression turn around and oppress others."

A: Human nature, or if you prefer, original sin.

The rhetorical nature of the question above illustrates, I think, the point I was trying to make. If this question were actually treated as a question, and explored as such, both history and contemporary experience would be seen to provide a wealth of information about groups who have been oppressed and who have simultaneously, or subsequently, oppressed others.

This question, however, is not actually approached as a question. Rather, it is repeated as a mantra meant to close down rather than open up inquiry.

The point is to enforce a conformity of opinion to a sanctioned way of thought, and to discouraging questioning and doubt, which lie at the root of real thought.