Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Diversity and Indifference

My latest column in the Georgetown student newspaper, "The Hoya":

Diversity is a word that slips easily off the tongue of today’s college denizen, but rarely do we give it the scrutiny that it deserves. While academics will argue about nearly anything, one sees little evidence that there is much argument over the virtues or vices of diversity.

A Diversity Initiative is currently underway at Georgetown, in which it seems that there is widespread agreement that diversity is desirable and that we need to explore ways of promoting tolerance and respect of the many varied people and cultures on our campus. The various committees were not formed to debate whether we should acknowledge diversity and encourage toleration and respect, but rather how to reach these ends.

A peculiar logic lies behind current discussions of diversity: While it begins by appearing to affirm diversity, more fundamentally we are encouraged to adopt a homogenous and identical stance toward the fact of diversity. While diversity appears to be celebrated, our first and foremost requirement is to exhibit toleration and respect toward differences among people.

A curious outcome seems to be the result: In response to diversity, we are all to become identical. Whatever our many differences, what is to be more basic and fundamental is our commitment to toleration and respect. Our liberal toleration is to trump our diversity.

Such an outcome actually renders our diversity secondary and even tenuous. If our first commitment is to a form of liberal toleration, then the forms of diversity that can be sustained are only those that can be reconciled to our primary stance of liberal toleration. This means, in effect, that we should expect to see an overall diminution of substantive diversity and instead a broader uniformity of outlook and disposition. An actual diversity in which liberal toleration is potentially confronted is to be trumped by the uniformity of toleration.

One expected outcome of a campus-wide — and globalized — commitment to liberal toleration is a decrease in substantive commitments to views and beliefs that cannot be reconciled with liberal toleration. We learn to be wary and suspicious of commitments that could substantively trump our primary commitment to liberal toleration, especially cultural and religious commitments.

A legitimate concern is that certain substantive commitments could manifest themselves as vicious forms of intolerance. Of course, there should be no place for hateful or violent denigration of difference. But what of respectful but serious disagreement? Is there room for viewpoints and perspectives that do not, strictly speaking, seek to tolerate difference, but whose commitments may consist in judging other beliefs or ways of life to be wrong?

The dominant form of toleration implicitly recommends indifference or apathy toward different ways of life. Yet many cultural and religious traditions are not indifferent to the question of how we should live — they are, to use an unpopular word, judgmental. Can an overarching culture of toleration in fact tolerate a judgmental stance?

From the perspective of the person whose worldview is defined by liberal toleration, those who judge certain behaviors and ways of life to be praiseworthy and others to be wrong would appear to be intolerant. Rather than to debate the substance of the difference, the tendency is to accuse a judgmental person of intolerance, and thus seek to end the dispute. But this is simply to say that such a stance of toleration seeks the evisceration of the beliefs that define a rich tapestry of cultural and religious traditions. This form of toleration is actually hostile toward true diversity.

In other words, the dominant expression of toleration has difficulty making space for cultural and religious traditions and beliefs that are not indifferent to every way of life. Among other consequences of this dominant view, one result is that every college and university (indeed, every institution, and eventually every individual) in America and beyond become more identical. Those who refuse to sanction every way of life are condemned and pressured to become tolerant.

For instance, on Friday, Oct. 2, in this newspaper, an editorial excoriated The Catholic University of America for refusing to recognize CUAllies, the university’s LGBTQ student group, as a student organization. In the name of diversity, however, isn’t there a compelling argument to be made that the religious commitments of that institution should be permitted, even accorded, respect? In a free society such as ours — where one can freely choose which institutions to join and which ones to eschew — isn’t there room for a rich diversity of institutions, some which will embody diverse faith and cultural traditions?

Doubtless, hard questions about intolerable intolerance need to be explored, but as part of that conversation it should also be discussed whether there is also an intolerable form of tolerance that is hostile to actual diversity, and an attendant danger of a globe of indifferent liberal individualists in which everything is permitted, but nobody really cares.


Caroline said...

Thank God for you, Patrick Deneen. Thank God you're willing to slog it out in the belly of the beast where you're really needed. Thank God for a remnant that can so beautifully illuminate the truth.

My Name is not Bruce said...

Dear Patrick, do you agree with Cohen's advice on what the woman should do about her realestate agent?