Dear Partners in thought,
I would like to talk to you about some aspects of “The Diversity Delusion”, a book by Heather McDonald, which is focused on a highly sensitive topic in America today which gradually is becoming one in different and local ways throughout the Western world. McD looks at the shortcomings of the diversity drive from different angles notably race and gender and what she sees as the pandering that corrupts the university and culture in America. Admittedly this is an “engaged” book and McD is a well known conservative writer so will take a rather negative view of diversity drives and their evolutions as the book title suggests. Peggy Noonan who wrote McD’s book cover praise is indeed a well known critic of anything liberal and Hillary Clinton in particular, setting the stage for the reader. McD was known as the author of “War on Cops”, another title underlining her position on policing in America at a time when there was a debate on this matter following the death of individuals, especially African Americans, in clashes with police throughout America. She is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributor to City Journal, an American public policy magazine. A self-described former aspiring academic with roots in deconstruction and post-modernism, she has been the target of violent protests from student activists for her work on policing. A New Yorker, she is an accomplished student herself with a BA from Yale, an MA in English from Cambridge and a JD from Stanford Law while her writing has appeared in a vast array of publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic and Partisan Review. In other words, while her work is clearly divisive she is no light weight and is well grounded, which should provide prima facie for solid material to be discussed.
In her own words, “The Diversity Delusion” is an attempt at understanding the rise on campuses in the demand for “safe space” and expressions, often violent, of reflexive accusations of racism and sexism, mixed with “a contempt for the Enlightenment values of Reason and due process which increasingly infuse businesses, government and civil society” through a total refusal to let opposite views being aired. McD sees the roots of this evolution in a set of ideas (she opposes virulently) dominating higher education that individuals are defined by their skin colour, sex and sexual preference and that discrimination based on these characteristics has been the driving force in Western civilisation, making America a deeply bigoted place, where heterosexual white males rule and continue to deny opportunity to everyone else. She believes that these ideas that can be called diversity or identity politics have remade the university in America and shaped future leaders through new fields focused on race, ethnicity, sex and gender identity. Not supporting what she sees as campus self-pity, McD feels on the contrary that American college students are among the most privileged human beings in history, benefitting from great institutions and unparalleled access to knowledge, who otherwise act as spoiled brats. She feels that the claim of ubiquitous racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia is now firmly part of the non-academic world as well, where it is being used to silence speakers and ideas with which favoured victim groups disagree, thus creating a shrinkage of civility and endangering civil peace as well as free speech itself.
I was hesitant to write a Book Note about “The Diversity Delusion”. Anyone doing this is open to be whipped one way or another given the topic at hand. It takes a balanced mind to address such a sensitive topic even if one will already or eventually side more or less on one side of the fence based on values and societal beliefs. Such a topic needs if at all possible some distance to be reflected upon, preferably from Mars, in order to be discussed serenely which is not to say that distance will erase for some the trauma associated with the absence of diversity. Distance will not erase the racism or sexism to call things by their name or will lead others to accept the direct and indirect regrettable consequences that too much focus on diversity may have brought on society and, given the book angle, university campuses and culture in America. It is debatable if one can take a view on matters of racism and sexism that there is a grey area and it is not a back and white matter. However it may be possible to find some grey area in reviewing diversity and whether it is a deluded concept as a way to correct the ills of racism and sexism and their various mild and awful expressions. I thought that it was useful to air some thoughts in as a dispassionate way as possible, which arguably may not be possible, also realising that some radical left ideas need to be opposed, all the more as they give rise to populism and their opposite extreme right features, sometimes shaping election results within a democratic context. It should also be clear that opposing radical left ideas when they should be opposed should not lead to pandering to their opposite radical right stances.
Diversity is inextricably linked to a dual phenomenon that started in the late sixties and seventies again in the US and found a fertile ground there, called Affirmative Action and Political Correctness or PC-ness to use its current appellation usually not by its promoters. Affirmative Action arose from the fact that minority students (then, at the time, African Americans as what the blacks in the US were gradually called) were under-represented in college based on admission that favoured standard testing and a traditional academic path often not achievable by them for social reasons. While there were clear cases of societal imbalances in colleges that were clearly white, things changed as minority student college applications started being looked at with less stringent requirements. After a few years, the inevitable backlash came as with the famous case in California where a Jewish American student stated that he had been rejected for the benefits of African-Americans even though he had achieved much higher standard SAT test scores. Political correctness then was noticed in the language and ways of America, all driven by a goal of not offending minority groups in a majority white America.
A recent poll showed that 75% of Americans were tired of political correctness, which sounds like a large majority. It is clear that the numbers don’t tell the whole story and should be analysed closely. There is no doubt that the PC-ness drive as it was felt by many and for many years in the white middle working class led “to some extent” to the Trump ascent to the White House. To be sure Trump’s core voting base was driven by a rejection of the bi-coastal elite and the perceived effects of globalisation but the anti-PC drive and the rejection of measures to favour minority groups out of of a sense of societal guilt and correction also mattered to the “left outs” as these moves were never designed to help them either. It was not the only reason, also noting that PC-rejection is well spread across the political landscape outside of the activist and true believer groups, but it was an additional element that was associated in the American heartland and the white (male) “left outs” with the bi-coastal cosmopolitan elites that liked and could afford to be supremely liberal to the point of expiating for all the ills suffered by the minorities, starting with slavery and its mutations for the vocal elements of the black minority.
Great achievements have been noted in minorities reaching the top echelons of American society in all walks of life, very often distancing themselves from their ethnic group. American suburbs count many African-Americans who are medical doctors, lawyers and bankers. Hollywood is full of minority actors across races. However there is no denying that many in the black community feel trapped and see no access to the social mobility elevator in a parallel with the white left outs of many Trump-supporting middle America states for different reasons which obviously do not include race. It is hard to simply rejoice about the few who have made it outside racial determinism or despair for those who have not though improving their conditions in spite of an early poor deck of cards looks possible even if a daunting process at times. It is difficult to point to affirmative action as the driver behind the societal rise of the Asian-American communities – and are they a struggling minority today? – as many have done very well in terms of ensuring their children have reached the higher echelons of society, creating the unusual problem that if only tests mattered, elite colleges might have too many of them, this incidentally leading to some form of reverse discrimination and unofficial quotas to law suits like with Harvard in 2018 of the same nature as the one in California by the white Jewish student protesting against affirmative action decades ago. What is more surprising today may be the activism on campus emanating from minority students, African-Americans (many the children of those doctors in the suburbs) and their supporters in particular, who display often violent opposition, defining primarily themselves through campus activism, to what they do not like to see and hear, feeling empowered to fight for causes that relate to race.
McD’s book covers four major parts, each divided into a few sub-parts. The key parts are Race, Gender, the Bureaucracy and the Purpose of University. This is a very wide and far reaching book and as such I wanted today, while encouraging to read the whole book which is clearly not without a very conservative and divisive viewpoint, to focus on the Race part not so much as it is about race but as it deals with free speech or its organised ban and the reconstructing of history on American campus and beyond.
McD talks about what she describes as “the hysterical campus” and the violent demonstrations that took place on various campuses in the last two years like at Claremont McKenna, UCLA, University of Missouri, Yale or Emory. She describes in detail those demonstrations (including two involving her) staged for different reasons against speakers – silencing tactics – or professors, courses and administrators whose topics or views were not liked by groups of student activists, most of whom being minority students finding those views and talks offensive to their beliefs or simply as they fought for existence as a self-described oppressed minority in an adverse environment. Screams of “Black live matter” and “Let’s stop the fascist” abound and the rejection of any dialogue is the rule in what McD sees as an attack on free speech and founding American and Enlightenment values (and indeed the First Amendment). She also stresses that in many if not most cases the university administrations and certainly a large section of faculty side with the protesters, when not encouraging them and while some protesters are punished when there is destruction of property others receive special statuses, and even prizes, upon graduation for taking a stand to defend what values they believe in. McD stresses that these “oppressed” students actually are staying in very good conditions at very well endowed colleges. As an example of business being infected by these new diversity ideas, McD covers the well-publicised case of James Damore, a Google engineer who had published a paper criticising Goggle’s diversity focus which he deemed to be harmful for the overall Google quality as a firm. Interestingly McD talks about Proposition 209 which in 1998 was a California vote on stopping affirmative action drives on California campuses which passed but was fought back by university administrations and admission committees who wanted to have student bodies that would represent society at large, this instead of what would result from standard admission requirements and other usual tests like the SATs.
In her book McD covers well-organised groups opposing the expression of free speech via talks by visiting speakers on campus in the name of their right to free speech though allowing no discussion in a very terminal way as would be the case in dictatorships. It is often the expression of the strongest as the modus operandi is to disturb often violently the organisation of talks albeit on sensitive topics that were initially allowed by the administrations of universities. These groups are driven by a righteous cause of correcting historical wrongs that would have led to societal stagnation for members of minority groups, notably among African-American and to some extent Latino groups. This approach can also go further in opposing an academic curriculum as the authors who would be studied would be too representative of Western civilisation such as the leading white philosophers of the Enlightenment or the musicians like Mozart simply as representing white society that dominated the times. While one can understand grievances expressed by the descendants of slaves and taking an extreme case, the challenges that may have been associated with growing up in drastically impoverished areas if not ghettos, common sense should not condone violent rejection of free speech simply as the drive behind the violent opposition is seen as hallowed and a respectful dialogue can be engineered.
Taking down the statues of confederate generals as they fought for slave states, changing the names of colleges (like at Yale) as the man on the front porch, who happened to a be US Vice President in the mid-19th century, had a cotton plantation with slave workers or trying to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the godfather of Rhodesia, at Oxford’s Oriel College have been very sensitive topics and the subject of much violent activism on campus and elsewhere. On one hand nobody should condone slavery. And everybody should oppose the white supremacist hijacking of those topics as during the bloody events in Charlottesville in the summer fo 2017. On the other everybody should live with their history while rightfully making sure some of the dire aspects are not repeated. Confederate generals fought for their states and many like Robert E. Lee, who decided to fight for his own Virginia after being offered the command of the Northern armies, did so out of patriotism at a time when the economy of many confederate states were reliant on cotton and so slaves initially purchased from Africa. This is history and by today’s standards would be unacceptable but it is dangerous to rewrite history to fit the times as the Soviets erased unwanted individuals from official pictures. While rewriting history with today’s lenses is not sound for any nation that should of course remember all the good and bad aspects of its history, removing statues or changing college names brings little change beyond polishing the resumes of activist leaders for having won their drive. It may also eventually erase key tragic blemishes like slavery from historical memory which would achieve the opposite of the inner reasons for the activist leaders to address the matter in the first place. It is also true that to the visiting Martian devoid of any agenda that American campuses could be seen today as cradles of fierce and temperamental activists who decided to focus on causes in order to exist while wittingly or unwittingly starting a career for themselves.
Rejecting violent activism on campus and elsewhere is not like rejecting student activism which is eminently healthy and shows a societal commitment on the part of the young generation. There are also many forms of student activism on campus, some of which can be quite vocal but also based on dialogue. One of these involve students who wish to steer their university endowments to invest ethically and not only focus on returns. Even if at times mutual trust is not always involved, student activists get involved directly or more often indirectly addressing ad hoc committees in the way their university endowments invest. Experience shows that at times the process is not always smooth as noted with the recent exchange between David Swansen, the famed CIO of the Yale Endowment Fund and the Yale Daily News, the student newspaper that usually ends up representing the views of endowment activists on campus. However a respectful, if at times intense, communication can be managed and compromises found as long as free speech is respected on both sides. While the focus on racial discrimination is of course one of the most sensitive topic today, together with gender equality, one would wish that a respectful and rational dialogue take place on American campuses with the objective of fostering a more harmonious environment where students can also focus on their studies and keep learning “how to think”.
It is difficult to discuss serenely the matters that McD covers and, like I did, others which relate, however distantly, to them. Society’s wounds may indeed be too recent to reach an appeased dialogue while there are still traces of bigotry that perdure. However, common sense should also dictate that as much progress was done on those sensitive, key matters and while society should work further at creating a more harmonious and inclusive environment, it would also be helpful that activists opt for dialogue in spite of violent rhetoric and hatred, refusing to hear opposite views if they are constructive all the more within an academic context. Activists who refuse exchanging views as they do not tolerate dissent can only achieve the opposite of what they seem to wish to gain which would be to become the fascists they decry and encouraging a societal response that may go back to the very ills at stake and may indeed include racism and exclusion. It is arguable that those minority students who have been admitted to elite universities should certainly be entitled to voice their opinions as they wish but focusing on dialogue, seizing the opportunity to keep changing society from within and becoming the active leaders of tomorrow.
I recommend the reading of McD’s book as even if it is representative of a one-sided conservative and in many respects reactionary view, it covers the main areas of intellectual battle (often physical too) on American campuses today that may indeed have consequences on society at large, first in America and then, as often, more globally. I hope that I was able to express some balanced and respectful viewpoints, enshrined in common sense and rationality, even if the topics at hand are highly sensitive so we can always thrive for a much needed dialogue and eventually a more balanced society away from the extremes.