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In Defense of Discourse

the politics of intellectual diversity

 

There were two of them, standing in front of the soda dispenser in the Ratty, bodies tense and movements agitated.

“You can’t say that.”

I saw her hands clenching and unclenching by her waist, face scrunched up in frustration. “I know you disagree, but I’m just saying that— ”

“You’re wrong.”

“Just let me explain, Nina— ”

“You know what, I don’t have to listen to this shit.”

“Nina!”

There is an issue with the way that we define diversity on this campus. I know that diversity may seem to be a word that has been exploited to exhaustion, become so common that it’s nearly synonymous with the inane, but that does nothing to undermine its importance.

In my eyes, diversity on a university campus should be first and foremost defined as intellectual diversity. I would define intellectual diversity as the collective diversity of thought, opinion, and perspective, which are primarily fed and sustained by individual diversity of culture and identity.

It often seems as though the definition of a university’s diversity has become conflated with the simplifying categorization of its individuals: statistics generated based on characteristics of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or academic focus. At times it feels as though the reason that those differences are so precious in constructing the community has been forgotten.

Each of our perspectives is shaped through our unique experiences and culture: our expectations, norms, history, beliefs, dress codes, political affiliations, and identities—all are culturally dependent.

The reason that it is so important to compose a university body of individuals who embody these differences is that they create the varying perspectives that feed and sustain discourse. Discussion confronts people with opinions that differ from their own, which puts preconceived assumptions under examination. Individuals step beyond their comfort zones, fostering debate that ultimately leads to the progress that is so unique to a university setting.

We all have different reasons for coming to Brown, but a common thread among students and faculty, regardless of their particular fields, is the search for some form of knowledge and intellectual growth. How can we grow without the intellectual diversity of our community creating a platform for discussion and debate? Without exposure to new ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking? What would push us to define our ideas, find creative solutions, and piece together new concepts if there was no one to challenge us to do so?

As a community, we thrive because of our differences. Yet, particularly since the most recent election, there is one difference that we are beginning to exclude: Views or opinions that have been deemed “conservative” on issues that have become politicized by the bipolar partisan nature of our governmental system are beginning to get shut out.

The issue is that the more topics become politicized, the less is left to discuss without honest debate being replaced by partisan diatribe. Today, even scientific fact has become a partisan issue: hence the legion of climate deniers and luke warmers that persist in the United States despite the overwhelming data gathered each year pointing toward our changing atmospheric composition.

In an article titled “Intellectual Diversity,” published by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2005, author Stanley Fish suggested that “the line between the political and the academic is at times difficult to discern—political issues are legitimately the subject of academic analysis; the trick is to keep analysis from sliding into advocacy.”

It is hard to dissect an issue like climate change, abortion, immigration, or religion without blurring the lines between academics and advocacy. But there is a line, difficult though it may be to respect: Once you cross it, you hear the other side but are no longer listening.

Politics is woven around most areas of our lives, and at the moment, we do not have a very politically diverse campus. It is less a question of how many members of our community identify as conservative than it is a matter of how few people are willing to voice opinions that have been “claimed” by the conservative party.

I have found it increasingly difficult to have an honest discussion with people on campus on what are deemed “sensitive” issues, since it has reached the point where even friends will hesitate before sharing a controversial opinion. And it’s not even that we have become expected to disagree with whatever opinion is being propagated by the conservative party—as my friend put it quite candidly one evening, “If you don’t subscribe to a particular brand of liberalism, you’re shut out from most of the social circles.”

Brown University: a community where increasingly homogenized political-intellectual notions are becoming normalized throughout the student body. Whether or not you agree with those norms is irrelevant—this trend could be seen as a recipe for intellectual stagnation.

We cannot allow nuance to be forgotten or inhibit its development by restricting our discussions to only what we want to hear. And it is not enough to hear ideas we disagree with—we actually need to be willing to listen and engage in conversation.

“Nina! Nina just hear me out— ”

“I don’t want to.”

Not everyone who voted for Trump is racist, misogynistic, or bigoted—those labels are becoming an excuse, a cheap shot to discredit their opinions and opinions propagated by the conservative party. Opinions we don’t want to listen to.

Worse, though, is the ease with which those words are now tossed toward anyone who voted for our president, regardless of their actual reasons for supporting him. And we fear those labels, despise them, do our best to avoid them: We would sacrifice sharing our perspectives just to avoid being branded by them.

The consequence? Reducing the collective intellectual diversity of our campus body, fostering intellectual stagnation by limiting discourse and debate due to the overly partisan politicization of opinions to conform to majority trends.
Intentionally or not, we have begun to limit free speech on our campus.