ot long ago, I was an assistant professor of history at the most racially and ethnically diverse university in the country. There, diversity, equality, and inclusion took priority over all other goods. And it showed. My classrooms were full of students of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual persuasions, and ages, all getting along famously. There was one catch, though: Everyone had to agree about everything of consequence, which they almost always did.
Intellectual diversity was negligible. Every now and then, whether out of naivete or bravery, a few students would contradict the party line. When that happened, before I could get a word in, students would attack, firing away at the poor deviants with a barrage of relativism (“But that’s just your truth!”) combined with an absolutist, puritanical devotion to equality and inclusion. The class would then turn to me, assuming I would put a professorial seal on their admonishment. Instead of obliging, I would rearticulate the most valid aspects of what the shamed students were trying to say. Once, a student in my class on religion and politics in the U.S. expressed regret for the loss of prayer in public schools. Her peers rushed to explain that school prayer was wrong because not everyone shared her religious beliefs. OK, I responded, “What if every single person in an entire school district supported school prayer? In that case, would forcing those schools to eliminate prayer still enhance religious freedom?”
In every such case, my goal was to clarify the real terms of disagreement and try to initiate a real debate. I’d invite my freethinking students to add more to the discussion, but because they had just been shamed, and because no one had ever before taught them how to articulate beliefs outside the party line in reasoned language, they usually demurred, leaving me to represent an unpopular idea alone.
This got old. You can only use the phrase “let me play the devil’s advocate” so many times before students start to think that maybe you’re not just playing.
Recent student protests reminded me of this strange combination of apparent diversity and intellectual sameness. At various universities, all of which speak of diversity as a first-order good, students have demanded the ouster of faculty and administrators for the smallest acts of dissent and endeavored to suppress politically unpopular speech on campus. Why should the university of all places, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and equality in its every public utterance, find itself attacked by pro-diversity forces? I have to wonder why in universities so dedicated to diversity a student culture that insists on intellectual sameness has developed.
We’ve been told again and again that the answer to racial conflict and gender inequity is more education; more celebration of different cultures, races, and lifestyles; and more sensitivity. Yet in the very place where all of these promised solutions abound, students report experiencing not less, but more injustice and exclusion. Something about the campus environment predisposes students to react to seemingly negligible events (an email about Halloween costumes, rumors of exclusion from a frat party, one person hearing racial slurs from a passing driver) with shocking levels of anxiety, including a particular distress about free and therefore potentially offensive speech.
The answer lies not so much in actual campus practices, tuition costs, dropout rates, or any other policy situation. There is a deeper cause: the university’s abandonment of belief that education prepares us to grasp objective and universal truth.
Certainly professors in the humanities, like professors in the sciences, retain, as they must, a belief in the possibility of apolitical knowledge and in some moral values (for instance, the wrongness of cheating or the rightness of hard work). And yet, particularly when it comes to the study of race, ethnicity, and gender, for several decades, scholars have taught their students to politicize and relativize knowledge. Innumerable books in various disciplines have argued that racial or sexual differences are solely the result of particular historical, social, ideological, and institutional forces. This particular pattern of study has produced a great deal of worthy and beneficial scholarship, and its success has provided a certain moral vigor to various humanities disciplines. And yet it has established a role for the humanities that is at odds with the pursuit of truth.
When it comes to sexuality and gender, the only claim that matters is the sexes are interchangeable and gender is fluid. Scholars seek accounts of historical processes that reveal how anything that appears to contradict such claims is historically false. In other words, the claims function as premises, not hypotheses or conclusions. Truth isn’t something to be pursued or discussed. The only applicable universal, absolute truth—the truth of equality—is beyond question. No one need ask what is true, because truth is either assumed, if it is politically desirable, or relativized, if it is not.
everely limiting talk of truth in this way serves the university’s moral purposes. Epistemological relativism looks to be a way of widening discussion and inculcating tolerance and empathy. It allows us to welcome and discuss multiple perspectives, interpretations, and values without feeling the need to harmonize them or to find the point at which they converge and thus contribute to a unitary truth. If we are pressed to reconcile varying interpretations, someone might be wrong, and someone else might be right. But if there is no truth apart from equality, there is no reason to fear a diversity of perspectives. Pull up another chair! (Although there’s no table left, nothing solid that we share apart from wanting everyone to be here.) Add any book you like to the curriculum! The more, the merrier.
But there’s a big problem with this vision: It makes intellectual conflict intolerable. If truth is something neutral that exists outside of all of us, then we can discuss it and disagree about its content without involving ourselves personally, at least not right away. But if the only truth for me is my own personal truth arising from my identity and circumstances, then any and all disagreement about what is is by definition personal. As Thomas Haskell once wrote: “If there is no such thing as truth but only a variety of incommensurable perspectives in criterionless competition with one another, then force and persuasion become indistinguishable, cutting the ground out from under any politics based on consent and representation.”
Thus the paradox of our educational culture: A relativism designed to promote tolerance and cooperation leads to suspicion and conflict. If there is a truth out there that we can hope to access, if only imperfectly, then intellectual conflict is meaningful and purposeful: It might help us inch closer to truth. But if there isn’t any truth apart from the equality of our endlessly diverse selves, then every debate is a personal battle. Every act of persuasion, no matter how reasoned, is an attempt to dominate, and to be persuaded is to submit to someone else’s reality. Epistemological relativism makes a free, open debate an aggressive, winner-take-all battle of wills.
To see this dynamic at work, take a look at the comment boxes beneath nearly any web publication or blog post expressing anything controversial. Disagreements degenerate rapidly into personal insult, reflecting not just the temptations of anonymity, but also the belief that the expression of an opinion at variance with one’s own is a kind of assault.
I have to admit, sometimes I crave “safe spaces.” Having been stung before, I avoid reading online comments on my own work, and I am tempted to sanitize my own intellectual space by blocking the political posts of Facebook friends with whom I disagree. Imagine if I had to go to class and share a dorm with these people, and imagine that while doing so I couldn’t rest in the knowledge that truth exists apart from all of us (and that ultimately, truth is a person who loves us all). No wonder students crave relief from conflict. No wonder they wield victimhood status as a shield against further aggression. I would, too, if I shared their worldview.
From the perspective of a student trained to value diversity for its own sake and to mistrust talk of truth, any form of free speech, even Halloween costumes, can represent naked aggression. You can’t have epistemological relativism and civility unless there are no actual disagreements of consequence. This means that everyone around you must share your politics, or at the very least, be forced to act like they share them. What do you say to the guy dressed up as a generic member of your ethnic group on Halloween when you have no hope of changing his perspective by appealing to a moral truth that is not relative? You’re going to want to bring your college master along to that fight. And if he indicates that he would refuse to join you? Oh, the betrayal.
The celebration of diverse perspectives that was supposed to yield a secure environment of inclusion, mutual respect, and happy diversity has instead given rise to an anxious, politically obsessed environment in which civility is predicated on intellectual conformity. By throwing millions at various diversity initiatives, university administrators propitiate the idols of diversity and tolerance while contributing to a climate that actively undermines the ability of students and faculty alike to engage in free speech and debate in an atmosphere of respect and civility. Diversity, equality, and inclusion are all good, of course, but they have not served the university well as first-order goods. If the university wants to develop a moral purpose that doesn’t depend on inculcating political hypersensitivity, and if students want to engage in free debate without feeling threatened, the university needs to rededicate itself not first of all to diversity—but to the pursuit of truth.
Molly Oshatz writes from Mountain View, California.