Diversity Matters

I’ve been thinking a little bit about diversity lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the value that real diversity can bring to an organization, whether that organization is a school, a magazine, a major corporation, a shoe store, or the U.S. Senate.

We hear about diversity all the time. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen standard stock phrases that extol a companies commitment to “diversity in the workplace.” Or notices that “Minorities are strongly encouraged to apply!” But racial, sexual, and ethnic diversity is ultimately a pretty shallow kind of diversity. It very rarely makes any difference to me whether my co-worker, boss, senator, plumber or teacher is a straight Catholic Asian man or a gay Hispanic Jewish woman. What usually matters most to me is whether or not the person is competent.

It is true that in some cases, there’s more at stake than mere competence. I certainly want more than a detailed knowledge of parliamentary procedure from my senator, and I’d like my child’s teachers to have a greater commitment to truth than to mandated curricula. In those cases, a person’s basic ideology makes a difference. A conservative senator can be equally as “competent” a law-maker as his liberal colleague, but the laws they enact can be markedly different.

Ideology doesn’t–or shouldn’t–matter in every occupation or circumstance. I don’t care what the ideology of my plumber is, so long as my pipes don’t leak. In fact, I’d be alarmed if I had cause to know my plumber’s religious beliefs. But ideology does matter in some cases. An art teacher committed to representation and life-drawing and an art teacher committed to abstract expressionism, for example, may be equally competent educators, but the effects on their students will be markedly different.

In many cases, access to different ideologies can be enormously beneficial. In an art department it helps to have faculty with different emphases and inclinations. The scientific community benefits enormously when scientists test competing hypotheses. Likewise, a polity benefits from a certain amount of ideological diversity in its politicians. Different ideas and different points of emphasis can help hone arguments, winnow fiction from fact, expand opportunities and helps to prevent tyranny and despotism.

But that’s ideological diversity. The extent to which racial, ethnic and sexual diversity has value is the extent to which race, sex or ethnicity is a determining factor in an individual’s ideology. (And I would think that we’d all hope to see those kinds of correlations diminish over time.) Too often, a commitment to “diversity” is a sham–a commitment to a simple racial/ethnic/sexual diversity can mask hard, ingrained prejudices that serve to keep organizations ideologically homogeneous.

Take for example, the two highly visible struggles that The New Republic has had with false journalism.

I don’t mean to pick on TNR, nor do I mean to pick on their bias, or suggest that a liberal conviction necessarily implies poor judgment or an abandonment of critical thinking skills. There are slavish dogmatists across the political spectrum. But both the Stephen Glass affair and the Scott Thomas Beauchamp debacle point out the dangers of an ideologically homogeneous environment.

In both cases, reporters for TNR fabricated stories that confirmed the ideological bias of the magazine’s editors, staffers, fact-checkers, and owners. In both cases, the factual evidence for the stories was flimsy and largely unsubstantiated. Had TNR committed itself to rigorous fact-checking, the articles in question would have been discarded before they were published. But the articles benefitted from confirmation bias. It’s not that the editors or fact checkers at TNR were dupes or rubes or dishonest, they simply trusted people who told them what they already believed: that soldiers are crass and uncouth, that republicans are boors, that corporations lie, etc….

Whatever commitment TNR makes to “diversity,” they make no significant commitment to ideological diversity. Of course, they’re not alone. The National Review makes no significant commitment to ideological diversity either. And to a certain extent, these magazines exist as participants in a broader collection of opinion magazines, and there is ideological diversity amongst the magazines. In that sense, a dedicated reader can pit the competing positions against each other within the “marketplace of ideas.”

But if a broad spectrum of journalists are biased in the same direction (as many people believe), then the overall debate will become more and more homogeneous over time. And as it relates to journalism, we do seem to see a trend in that direction. The major media coverage of the Duke Rape Case, the Jena 6, and of course scandals like Rathergate all contribute to a growing sense that journalists are increasingly less likely to rigorously check their own assumptions and instead accept the narrative that best fits with the prevailing ideology. Hence statements like, ” the facts were wrong but the narrative was right” or “ fake but accurate.

This problem, unfortunately, is not limited to journalists. Ideological bias and homogeneity is also a growing problem in American education . The faculty at American colleges and universities overwhelmingly self-report as liberal as opposed to conservative. And they do so in such stunning numbers that even some self-described liberals have begun to wonder whether there isn’t some institutional bias against conservative faculty members.

But it’s only a growing problem to those who recognize that some degree of ideological diversity is a net social benefit. To the dogmatists, ideological homogeneity is a sign of virtue and pride–but that way lies folly. In the absence of sustained criticism, people have the tendency to reify their beliefs. When a mass of people begin to think alike, they begin not only to casually dismiss alternative views, but they more easily dismiss the people who hold different beliefs as ignorant, lazy, stupid, or ill intentioned. This is what happens to people who immerse themselves in dogma; they tend to dehumanize nonbelievers. It’s easy to see when the dogmatists are religious fundamentalists, but it can happen with any ideology, from environmentalism to domestic policy, from foreign policy to privacy rights. The idea that your political/social/scientific opposition must actually be morally corrupt simply because they hold differing views is inherently dangerous.

Now, I’m not a relativist. I don’t think that we should tolerate any and all ideological positions, regardless of their merit, simply for the sake of a healthy debate and vigorous ideological criticism. Some ideas are actually wrong and some ideas are actually right. But the point is that we can only really be sure of which ideas are right and which ideas are wrong by examining those ideas in critical detail. And that examination is impossible without some oppositional position.

It is true that while some belief systems and ideologies will wither quickly away, and some others survive far longer than most people would wish. But for a truly pernicious ideology (like Aryan supremacy) to survive requires that large numbers of people get together to reify their absurdities and actively suppress oppositional ideas. The only way to effectively counter genuinely perverse ideas is to bring them into the light, subject them to criticism, and watch them wither and die under scrutiny. Open and honest debate is what drives the scientific quest for truth, and it’s what drives political, social, and spiritual quests for truth as well.

The hallmark of a crippled belief system is an aversion to criticism. Anytime you hear an advocate ridicule his opposition simply for having the temerity to disagree with “accepted” conclusions, you’re hearing the voice of a dogmatist. It makes no difference what side of the aisle the dogmatist is sitting on, nor does it matter how many people the dogmatist can rally behind his banner–or how pretty and exciting the banner might be. Dogmatists can’t stand dissent, criticism, or sunlight. Dogmatists thrive in homogeneity, but they wither in a ideologically heterogeneous society. And they know this, which is why they’re the first to crucify the heathen, the first to crucify the heretic, and the first to try to silence their critics.

The essential answer to dogmatism, of course, is free inquiry and free speech. But in addition to free speech, society requires a certain level of ideological tolerance–a real commitment to real diversity. Many talking heads have bemoaned the current political strife in America: the degree to which political disagreements seem to have “divided” America. To a certain extent I agree. Although the viciousness in political discourse is nothing new, there seems to be an increasing amount of vitriol from the rank and file, and that smacks of dogma. But there is also a sense in which a society with less political division is itself more averse to change and challenge–and more likely to reify it’s worst tendencies. The biggest problem is not that the Democrats and Republicans don’t get along, it’s that they agree on so many issues and conspire to marginalize criticism of institutional flaws (log rolling, pork barreling, corruption, scandal, fiscal irresponsibility, and general sleaziness). It’s bipartisan agreement that’s the real threat.

So let’s bring on the diversity! But let it be meaningful diversity. I don’t really care how many Transsexual African Mormons there on the masthead or on the faculty, but I would like to see more ideological diversity among the reporters at the New York Times and among the faculty at Brandeis University.