I’m all for diversity, and for all the usual reasons: basic fairness, a greater range of perspectives, and so on. Ideally, this should lead to a lively exchange of ideas, where people can disagree but still respect each other. Differences of opinion, belief, and lifestyle would be tolerated and even celebrated, and the only thing that would not be tolerated would be intolerance itself. Institutions, such as universities, adopt rules and procedures to promote this atmosphere, including sanctions against those whose actions are deemed inconsistent with it. It seems self-evident that no community would want its members to feel threatened or disrespected.
But there is an issue which arises when people have diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and values, which nobody seems to want to talk about: How does any organization deal with strongly-held beliefs and practices which are mutually incompatible, and which certain people find offensive? We may think that these conflicts will never arise, or can always be resolved, but experience has shown that this is not true.
Sometimes there is no problem. Most people seem to believe that, for example, the decision to eat meat or not is a personal matter. Even strict vegetarians accept that others have the right to eat meat, even though they are convinced that this is unhealthy. Yet there are often calls for certain books or periodicals to be removed from libraries or banned from sale; even though those who object are not compelled to read or even see them, they are offended by the possibility that someone else might read them.
Let me give you some examples from my own experience. I have several female friends who are African-American. Sometimes when we go out together we get nasty looks from other people, both male and female, both black and white, who are offended by seeing an interracial couple. The same thing can happen with same-sex couples. Let’s be honest: What do we say when someone is offended by this sort of thing? At the least, we say (and, I admit, I do this too), “Suck it up – That is the price you pay for living in a pluralistic society.” At worst, we condemn those who took offense as bigots. Yet these people are probably just as offended as we are by their actions. What is the difference?
Several years ago, in a public email, I criticized an official of a certain foreign country for mistreating a WPI student who was visiting that country. A few days later I got a call from WPI Human Resources; another faculty member had filed a complaint against me, saying that my criticism constituted harassment. Why? Because this faculty member was a follower of the same religion which was the predominant religion of that country. In his mind, the only reason anyone would criticize that country was hatred of that religion. I believe he was sincere, but did his being offended mean that WPI should discipline me? When called before the special hearing board, I pointed out that the consequence of accepting his position was that nobody would be safe – anyone could be liable for censure if someone else was offended by their opinion. Without criteria for determining what validly counts as offensive and what does not, we cannot even debate this – we are each reduced to saying what personally bothers us. That is no way to form a policy; for one thing, it does not scale.
A related problem is this: Who gets to decide? That is, who gets to speak for a group? Recently, someone suggested that Florida State University change the name of its athletic teams from the Seminoles, saying that this was a case of cultural appropriation. The actual Seminole tribe in Florida protested – they issued a statement saying that they liked their relationship with the university, and were pleased that the team was named in honor of them. Unfortunately, another branch of the Seminoles, in Oklahoma, wants the name changed. You might attempt a compromise and say that each tribe gets to decide for its own state, but that is not going to make the people in Oklahoma feel any better; they will still be upset by the use of the name. Do we tell them to suck it up?
Look, it is generally not my intention to offend anyone, although I may make an exception for someone who is acting like a bigot or a bully. Nor do I think that freedom of speech should be used as an excuse to threaten or harass people. But we need to acknowledge that part of being in a diverse society is that people have different ideas about what is acceptable, and different levels of tolerance for things they find bothersome. We, as a community, need to discuss not just what we each find unacceptable, but why we do so. Is it because certain statements are insulting or dehumanizing? Is it because they make us think or question our assumptions about the world? (But isn’t that part of the college experience?)
Why do we need to do this, especially now? As society struggles with these issues, I see many proposals being put forward which basically say that anything which makes someone feel uncomfortable, offended, or threatened should be off-limits. But these statements never say how we are to judge. It is sometimes asserted that this will not be a problem in practice. Those who say this always seem to assume that all “right-thinking” people will agree (and any other opinions can safely be disregarded as unjustified). But experience has shown that this is not true.
Some say that there is no need to be more specific; we can just consider each case as it comes up. But, one thing I have learned in my 66 years of life is that when someone says, “Oh, that won’t be a problem,” it almost always turns out to be one. It is far better to acknowledge the potential problem now and come up with ways to address it.
People are not all the same. This is both the benefit and the challenge of diversity.
Michael Ciaraldi is a professor of Computer Science and Robotics Engineering at WPI.