Tuesday, January 26, 2016


A Different Kind of Diversity Fear

This week I heard a comment that brought me up short.  

In a discussion of diversity on campus, and the various ways that it can be expressed and supported, a younger professor helped me understand why diversity discussions often stop right where they need to start.  He mentioned that many faculty of his age group get really quiet when diversity comes up because they’re afraid that in saying something inadvertently off-key, they’ll get tagged as anti-diversity.  Rather than take the chance, they simply wait for the subject to change.

I hadn’t put it together quite that way, but it sounded right.  

It’s a tough one to solve, because it’s based on an understandable fear.  I apply the same logic to Middle Eastern politics: since I know I’m no expert, I have no power to change anything, and almost anything I offer will set somebody off, I just don’t swing at that pitch.  Anyone with politically mixed families who gather for holidays knows the drill.  You don’t mix it up with Uncle Larry at Thanksgiving because there’s no “winning” with him.  You just let him air it out until someone changes the subject.  

In grad school, I did my fair share of cultural studies and postmodern theory, both of which addressed race and gender (among other things) in myriad ways.  They “interrogated” all sorts of things, often revealingly.  But I remember getting terribly frustrated at the constant refrains to reflect on your own subject-position; it struck me as leading inevitably to paralysis.  We’re all flawed and we’re all complicit in all sorts of things, just by being here.  Letting a sort of secular Original Sin overwhelm you forecloses any possibility of acting for positive change.  

I had to relearn that lesson when I went from faculty to administration.  It’s easy to criticize almost any decision, policy, or practice, and some folks spend a lot of time doing that.  In the absence of information about constraints, or in the presence of information that wasn’t available at the time, it’s tempting to contrast a flawed reality with an imagined perfection.  But when you actually have to make decisions -- almost always with limited resources, imperfect information, and conflicting goals -- there comes a point when you just have to jump in with both feet.  It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than doing nothing.  Over time, those improvements add up.  Taking the criticism, gleaning what’s useful in it, and moving forward is part of the job.  If you’re allergic to criticism, you won’t get anything done.  

I think that diversity is like that, too.  Although some people like to behave as if perfection were possible, it isn’t.  People have blind spots, hobbyhorses, and emotional histories.  That’s the starting point.  But getting beyond the starting point requires a certain willingness to be publicly awkward.  On a charged topic, that’s a tall order.  I’ve had the no-fun experience, more than once, of realizing in the middle of a public exchange that I was wrong.  It’s humbling and awful.  But it’s also an opportunity for improvement.  And it offers the chance to affirm the value of debate and discussion as tools for clarification, rather than just domination or rationalization.  If we’re going to engage each other meaningfully, that strikes me as a good start.

To my mind, the difference between diversity on campus and Uncle Larry is that we can actually make progress on diversity on campus.  That will involve some awkward moments, some partial improvements, and some human failings.  But it’s worth it.  The point of a community college is to be there for everyone, including those who haven’t been treated fairly.  Some will criticize, with varying degrees of accuracy.  But letting the critics win means letting students down.  This pitch is worth a swing.

I think the real question* is whether the current trends in the social justice et al. community create structures that make real dialogue impossible, or close to it. (You identify one mechanism - large and asymmetric risks for expressing things unknowingly "off-key" - but there are others.) I think the vast majority agree that it is both possible and important to have real conversations about diversity; the uncertainty is whether it is possible to have productive conversations in the current environment.

*And I do mean that as a genuine question, not a rhetorical one. Perhaps the current structures are the best we can do at the moment until broader societal parameters are changed!
So they should LEARN. When you are in a position where discussing diversity is part of the job, you have to learn. Being a professor on a campus trying to address diversity is not actually like dinner with cantankerous family members of differing views.

LEARN. Possibly by saying something wrong, apologizing, and learning better.

"but it's too hard!" is not acceptable at this level.
I can see why faculty members might be anxious about diversity discussions. This is especially true for junior faculty members or for adjunct part-timers, since they fear if they say something perceived as being “anti-diversity, they might manage to offend senior faculty members or high administration officials. This might place their careers at risk when they come up for tenure or for reappointment. Best not to say anything.

At most colleges and universities, there is an official institutional doctrine on things like diversity, affirmative action, and sexual harassment. And it is best not to be perceived as holding views on these matters that depart in any significant way from officially-received doctrine. There really is no academic freedom here, especially if you are not a tenured faculty member or if you are an adjunct part-timer.

This is reminiscent of what things were like when I was working at Large Telecommunications Company. We were required to attend frequent meetings on diversity, affirmative action, and sexual harassment. The company had put in writing that an employee’s annual performance review rating could be adversely affected if they had or were perceived to have “difficulty in supporting affirmative action”. Consequently, at these meetings employees were reluctant to express any opinion that could be perceived by management as differing in any appreciable manner from the company’s official line on affirmative action or sexual harassment. If they said anything, they felt reduced to repeating slogans that were deemed to be “politically correct”. After all, this was a corporate environment , not an academic setting, there was no such thing as academic freedom, and the purpose of these meetings was strictly to inform the employees about official company policy on these matters, and hopefully keep the company out of the courtroom.

He mentioned that many faculty of his age group get really quiet when diversity comes up because they’re afraid that in saying something inadvertently off-key, they’ll get tagged as anti-diversity. Rather than take the chance, they simply wait for the subject to change.

Yeah. That's happening because the diversity coalition is, weirdly, eating its own supporters. We see this in grant writing and wrote about it in "Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the 'Big Bootie' Problem in Grant Writing." The story is hilarious and demonstrates the dangers of saying almost anything about diversity, since the line between cultural sensitivity and insensitivity barely exists and move constantly.

Scott Alexander wrote about similar matters in "Radicalizing the Romanceless.

Jonathan Haidt has also written about the dangers of victim culture.

It takes only one well-meaning but inadvertent comment to end up pilloried. The optimal solution for someone who values their job is the one your prof came up with: silence.
In academia, it would seem, honesty is never the best policy.
It can be a minefield, all right. And sadly, there seems to be no shortage of people trying hard to be the biggest victims, or looking to get outraged on someone else's behalf. (David Brin calls righteous outrage addictive, and I'm beginning to agree with him.)

In a world where we have millions of refugees pouring into Europe (and millions more who can't get there who are living in even worse circumstances), a mosquito-born virus (that may also be sexually transmittable) that apparently causes microcephaly, and an even shakier long-term prognosis for climate — we see academics upset that a yoga class is taught by non-Indian instructors (cultural appropriation, don'cha-know).

Even tenure won't protect you against remarks misinterpreted or taken out of context. Better to say nothing.
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