Diversity is inherently divisive. In a classic social psychology experiment, Henri Tajfel created artificial groups by randomly telling some people that they had over-estimated the number of dots on a page, while others were told that they were under-estimators. Without even talking to each other, people later favored the members of their group. So how easy is it going to be to create a mutually trusting and tolerant society on America’s college campuses when those colleges are actively seeking out people who differ by race, nationality, and class? And what if colleges ever start seeking out viewpoint diversity, as we advocate on this site?
The answer, as we’re learning in recent weeks, is that diversity is hard. And one reason it’s so hard is that campus diversity programs rarely begin by extolling the essential precondition for tolerance: Generosity of spirit. Social life always contains misunderstandings. Diversity multiplies them by ten. Modern social media multiplies them by ten again. Training students to react to “micro-aggressions” (small and often unintentional slights) multiplies the misunderstandings still further.
Last week we all witnessed the most shocking lack of generosity at Claremont McKenna College, in California. The Dean of Students resigned in response to massive student protests. What was the dean’s offense? A Latina student had written an essay in an online journal saying that she did not feel that she belonged at CMC. She did not use the word “mold” herself, but her letter suggested the concept of a template or normative standard:
“Our campus climate and institutional culture are primarily grounded in western, white, cisheteronormative upper to upper-middle class values.”
In response to this letter, the dean of students, Mary Spellman, reached out to her. Here is the full text of Spellman’s now-infamous email:
“Lisette— Thank you for writing and sharing this article with me. We have a lot to do as a college and a community. Would you be willing to talk to me about these issues? They are important to me and the [Dean of Students] staff and we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those that don’t fit our CMC mold.”
The student interpreted Dean Spellman’s email in the least generous way possible: she was offended by dean Spellman’s use of the word “mold,” and she posted the email on Facebook. The response was explosive. Protests, hunger strikers, demands for mandatory faculty sensitivity training, and demands that dean Spellman apologize and resign. Which she did.
You can watch students taunting Dean Spellman here. The section beginning at 41 minutes is particularly cruel — a member of the crowd condemns Dean Spellman for “falling asleep” during the inquisition, when it is clear from the rest of the video that the poor woman was only closing her eyes because she was struggling to hold back her tears.
* * * * *
Philosophers often advocate what they call “the principle of charity.” It means that in any discussion we interpret others people’s statements in the way that makes their argument strongest, not weakest. We give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than trying to twist their words to support the ugliest possible implications–as we see happening in most of the ongoing campus crises, particularly at Yale and Claremont McKenna.
So I would like to propose a plan for restoring peace on campus and helping those who want to reform campus life to do so effectively. Over the holidays, from Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Years Day, Let us all read Dale Carnegie’s classic work, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie shows us exactly how to get along with those who differ from us–and how to change their minds. Don’t attack people. Be more indirect and psychologically skillful. Try to see things honestly from their point of view, and acknowledge what they are doing right, before you say what you’d like them to change. Appeal to nobler motives.
And after Carnegie, here’s the advanced credit reading list: Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”). Buddha’s Dhammapada (“It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults.). And a selection of verses from all the world’s wisdom literature passed down to us to warn us of our tendency to be mean-spirited, vindictive, and hypocritical. Make these tolerance-promoting works the required summer reading list for all incoming students, faculty, and administrators. (At present, college summer reading lists focus on social justice concerns, which seem likely to have exactly the opposite effect from reading for generosity of spirit.)
Diversity is inherently divisive; it takes work to reap its benefits. And as we argue here at Heterodox Academy, the most valuable kind of diversity of all is also the most divisive: viewpoint diversity. Without generosity of spirit and a dash of humility, the diversity project — indeed, the American project — is doomed to fail. Just look at Congress.
This holiday season, let us all step back, press the reset button, and do some reading that may help us to live together in peace, generosity, and diversity.