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Maintaining Dialogue Amidst Diversity

Those who praise diversity often claim it is good on either an aesthetic ground—because the interaction of different ways of life is beautiful—or on an epistemic ground—because the interaction of different people produces in each of them broader perspectives and fuller insight. But if we are to have these benefits, it is clearly not enough simply for differences to exist. The differences must exist together—not just by proximity, but in dialogue

Diversity existing in a community is like adopting diversity in you reading. If you are a conscientious reader, you likely read books from many times and places—perhaps even works that challenge your own positions. But merely claiming ownership of the books is not enough; they may be excellent but they will do you no good at all if they are never opened. And they will do you far less good than they could if you only skim the first few chapters. Unfortunately, this is just what those who care most about diversity do. The ways it happens are various, but I will name the two that I most often encounter. 

The first is the adoption of a radical "us and them" distinction. This is found in attitudes like racism where the idea reigns that an individual of one race cannot know the challenges faced by those of another race; either way, the books remain closed. But diversity demands a balance. Differences should remain differences, and those who identify those differences must not mend their walls until they can no longer have meaningful conversations. 

The other is a kind of straw man fallacy (which, to follow my analogy, trades reading for skimming). It manifests itself as harmless categorization, but the moment you attach to another’s perspective terms like "privileged," "dogmatic," or "war on women," with which the other might have disagreed, you’re talking past each-other. To answer not the view that was presented to you, but rather the one you wanted more to hear, surpasses mere intellectual laziness: it is the outright rejection of the very perspectives one ought to receive most enthusiastically. 

And so I make my appeal. If there is a way for you to ensure that you get the most out of whatever diversity there is in your social environment, it must begin with listening. And by "listening," I mean sitting in front of someone, in silence, until he or she has been allowed to defend some thoroughly crazy or offensive view, and by refusing to put forward any argument at all until you have understood why the other would hold such a position. I can speak to the technique’s success at the level of people; it is possible to exercise open-mindedness—even empathy—without betraying one’s own ideas. As for the levels of universities and nations, I can offer no better hope than a tower built from a million stones.

Tucker Sigourney is a student of philosophy and physics at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania.


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