The president of my alma mater oversaw multiple conservative pushes and projects during my four years as a student. He justified many of these with a doctrine of “political diversity.” The liberal arts campus, he declared, had become a space in which conservative viewpoints were not respected nor heard, and giving them the space to be voiced was integral to creating an intellectually rigorous and truly inclusive learning environment.
During my senior year, a conservative student group, prompted by a racist and divisive website called Campus Reform, staged a damaging and inaccurate anti-affirmative action bake sale. The president never directly addressed the event or any of the students who had felt personally bashed by it, even after oppressed students and their allies staged a vocal and well-attended demonstration in the student center in response and solidarity. He also failed to attend a community meeting held later that week, in which students and faculty met in discussion with the conservative group to challenge the accusations posited by their bake sale, and engage in dialogue about why the event had hurt so many people. When a student coalition met with him in his office to question his silence and negotiate a response from the university, he defended the event stagers’ right to the free expression of their own political opinions.
Most recently, Supreme Court Justice Scalia was invited to campus to deliver a lecture on originalism and the law. During the speech, silent student protesters (dressed in orange jumpsuits in reference to Scalia’s rulings on the torture and incarceration of untried terrorists) who placed themselves strategically around the hall were forcibly removed by public safety, despite meeting the request made by the university that any demonstrations not stop the lecture from “being heard.” This reaction was remarkable, not only because it seemed unwarranted, but even more so because only a week earlier the president had spoken in a public forum about the importance of hearing out all viewpoints–even those of with which one disagrees–in creating spaces of genuine political diversity and intellectual engagement. Why were students who found danger and violence inherent in Justice Scalia’s message not allowed to make their opinions a part of this discussion? How did ‘political diversity’ factor into this interaction?
‘Diversity’ itself is a misleading term precisely because it masks legacies of struggle and conflict with the broad brush of benign tolerance. In the case of political diversity, the term works to boil down complex viewpoints and conflicting histories into a “political spectrum.” This imagined spectrum is comprised of two almost indistinguishable doctrines– ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ –neither of which hold relevance beyond a mainstream US political discourse, and both of which are shifting evermore to the right. This outlook is not only US-centric, but fails to grasp the breadth and vastness of the political landscape therein, much less in the larger world. Furthermore, it makes no distinction between political outlooks which are different or opposing, and those that are based on falsehood, prejudice, and the strategic disenfranchisement of specific populations of people (such as women, immigrants, queers, poor people, etc.) In the name of ‘diversity,’ this outlook conceals conservative motives to silence a wider array of discussions and perspectives, and quells growthful and important conflicts by asserting the “acceptance” of all view points. This seductively simple idea actually aids in silencing a true diversity of opinions and perspectives, and halts discussion even as it claims to be building more rigorous dialogue.
In 2010, when the state of Arizona voted to outlaw Ethnic Studies in public schools, the Raza Studies Program in Tucson’s Unified School District was one of the lawsuit’s primary targets. Multiple officials testified against the program as “seditious” and “anti-American” specifically because of teachers’ use of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book which cites the works of Karl Marx. Educators in the program were accused of brainwashing their students, profiting socialism, and the program was ultimately shut down. This, I think, is a perfect example of the defense of conservative politics being used to ban challenging views, rather than creating the space to dialogue with them. I have never heard of any educator who used a textbook which cited Adam Smith being accused of forcing a capitalist stance on their students, or indoctrinating them with the notion that their own histories of enslavement, colonization and disenfranchisement are justified. Why were the views of the leaders of the Raza Studies Program effectively branded as poisonous and their expression outlawed, while in the debate at my old college, Justice Scalia’s legacy of utter disregard for human rights was shielded from protest in the name of ‘diversity?’
When we imagine a political spectrum as a line with ‘liberal’ at one pole and ‘conservative’ at the other, we are not merely failing to imagine politics as taking place outside of a mainstream US discourse. More significantly, we are imagining politics themselves as a war of semantics between arbitrary labels, instead of what they really are: A struggle to devise ways of living in the world which can meet and balance the needs of all people. Do I expect every person to hold the same political beliefs and persuasions as my own? No. Giving voice to the vast range of experiences that we as human beings represent depends on embracing the fact the we will see things differently, hold contradictory opinions, and need to challenge one another in order to locate our common ground. Do I expect my own views to be challenged and corrected? Yes. Growth in my own perspectives and the alignment of my struggles with those of all people requires that I both examine my own beliefs, and adjust them when my comrades point out their problems. But will I make room for hate speech, the stripping of basic human rights, or the profiting of misinformation by individuals, organizations, media or government in the name of ‘political diversity?’ Absolutely not.