Why we need racial and experiential diversity in our universities, not political diversity
Earlier this month, Texas governor Greg Abbott went on another one of his diatribes about liberalism in universities, safe spaces and the typical nonsense you get from a guy whose main mission is convincing baby boomers from Amarillo that white people with traditional values need to save American culture from an increasingly multicultural world.
As a substitute for multiculturalism, knowing that might too closely tie him to the Steve Bannons of the world, Abbott chose to instead use liberalism/conservatism as a placeholder.
Given his policy agenda, and the fact that his Public Enemy №1 is currently a free-market conservative in the Texas House, it’s clear that Abbott has no issue with a lack of trickle-down economics being taught at the University of Texas at Austin, just blocks from his home next to the Texas Capitol. Rather, Abbott’s worldview centers around denying LGBT rights, denying minority rights and, most importantly, his fight to keep transgender men and women from using the bathroom that matches their gender.
Abbott is presumably a smart guy, who has studied history. He knows where people who opposed Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia and even Sweatt v. Painter—the case that forced the University of Texas to integrate its law school—have ended up in history. He knows which side he will be on when the history books discuss the fight for same-sex marriage and transgender rights. He knows he will be viewed the same as those reviled men whose statues he is fighting to preserve on his state’s flagship campus.
The world moves toward progress and acceptance, even if the journey is long and the setbacks are severe. There will be a day when anti-gay marriage laws are viewed the same as anti-miscegenation laws.
Abbott knows this, so he has reframed the debate—it’s not about human rights, it’s about politics. If it’s about politics, then suddenly it’s palatable, because every political opinion is one to be respected. Every political opinion deserves a platform. And who doesn’t give every political opinion a fair platform? The University of Texas at Austin.
At many universities, this is probably a fair characterization. I sincerely doubt that the University of California-Berkeley is out there teaching about the merits of LGBT discrimination, and I doubt the Mike Pences of the world are lining up to go to there. On the same token, I doubt many liberals are lining up to attend Liberty University, which has a class that teaches about “Myths of the Homosexual Agenda.”
But the University of Texas School of Law is different, and proudly so. While the majority of top law schools are certainly liberal-leaning, Dean Ward Farnsworth bragged to our section during orientation that our class is split 50/50 along partisan lines.
In my two months of experience, that seems a bit off. While not as liberal as most schools, UT does lean liberal, and many of the conservatives I’ve met are libertarian-leaning if really that conservative at all.
But what’s relevant is the fact that UT wants us to believe it’s 50/50. An even split in political ideology is seen as a good thing, because there can be debates and people can learn in the marketplace of ideas. This is reflected in the extra-curricular offerings at the school, where debates take place between [Conservative public official/think tank person] and [Liberal public official/think tank person] multiple times a week.
There’s this idea that if only we would have discussions with people with different political opinions, everyone would get along. It’s the idea behind my brother’s class at the University of Michigan, called “Beyond Partisanship.”
But there are two very troubling problems with this line of thinking, which seems to be widely accepted by both parties. The first, less obvious one, is the idea that the “marketplace of ideas” leads to the best outcomes. History has taught us that even if there is an even split on an issue, that split will not necessarily be reflected in policy, because people don’t always fight for what they think is right—they fight for what’s important to them, and they make their first concessions when it comes to protecting marginalized groups.
This is why, even when a sizable portion of the American public opposed slavery, the practice remained for years—the North made constant concessions to allow the practice to continue. It’s why even when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, it made concessions to allow segregation to continue for decades. It’s why we are seemingly okay with the anti-intellectual, factually unsupported reasoning that allowed John Roberts to claim “our country has changed” when gutting the Voting Rights Act, even as resegregation continues its resurgence.
Even in its purest form, with no big money or corrupting factors involved, the “marketplace of ideas” doesn’t lead to an objective fairness for everyone. It doesn’t even lead to a progressive’s sense of fairness, because there will always be concessions.
But the more obvious issue, made very obvious by everyone’s favorite euphemism—“our political climate”—is that simple debating doesn’t change people’s minds. In fact, research shows that when confronted with views that directly oppose our own, we just become more entrenched in our own views.
This idea that simply being around others with different politics will make us more understanding, empathetic people who try to come up with the best societal changes for our fellow man is contradictory to everything we know about psychology, and it should be apparent given the nature of our society.
Hundreds of years of slavery couldn’t be challenged by political debates; Ultimately, war ended slavery. Segregation couldn’t end just with a political debate; the courts, then federal marshals, had to do it. Gay marriage couldn’t be legalized with politics; the court, based on a public opinion swayed by LGBT Americans coming out of the shadows, ultimately turned the tide.
It’s the last example that should prove once and for all that diversity of political opinion isn’t an inherent good—it’s diversity of experience that we should be striving for, because we only start to accept that change when it becomes a human issue.
Not coincidentally, it is this kind of diversity that many Americans who criticize a lack of political diversity on campuses have fought to stop, in part because it is this kind of diversity that actually affects change in society.
When you’re around people who don’t look like you, or when you’re around people who have had different experiences, you understand the world better. The data shows that it makes you want to do better for others, and it makes you a better version of yourself.
This goes for almost any experience. If you’re white, you’ll learn by meeting non-white people. If you’re from a city, you’ll learn by meeting people from the country. If you’re straight, you’ll learn by meeting LGBT people. If you’re rich, you’ll learn by meeting poor people. If you’re non-religious, you’ll learn by meeting religious people.
You learn empathy, and you learn to think critically about issues and obstacles you’d never considered before. Political debate doesn’t solve that; human relationships do. And if you’re hurt by someone else’s opinions, or if you don’t understand why your opinions hurt them, you can reach out to them more effectively if you get to know where they’re coming from, and why they think what they do.
Anecdotally, if you have been around people with different backgrounds, you can see yourself how it has shaped your worldview. I grew up in an 80 percent white, well-off, suburban zip code. Half my family is from a near 100 percent white, poor, rural zip code, where I spent a lot of time growing up. I now live in a 33 percent white, urban zip code. The shift in my understanding of others has been drastic.
When I lived in a homogenous area, I figured gay people could deal with civil unions. Then I met gay people, and I realized how harmful that could be to someone’s mental health, and how there’s no reason anyone should go out of their way to hurt someone’s happiness. I wondered why people didn’t just go and get a well-paying job, until I met people born into situations I couldn’t imagine, and for whom capitalism created a major disadvantage. I had no empathy for undocumented people, until I met them and realized what actually happened in their lives that brought them to the United States.
Just as the data would support, I have learned far more about the world by getting to know people with diverse experiences than I have from “political” debates. Before I met undocumented immigrants, when the topic turned to immigrant rights, I could, as a left-leaning centrist, deflect and call it political. If it was political, it gave me an out to not have to change my opinion. I would share opinions, of course, but even if I was confronted by facts that I knew challenged my view, I never felt pressured to change. I even resented people who would yell at me about my politics—politics that in many cases were closer to Abbott’s than where I am today. I was only able to be empathetic after I got to know people with the experiences I mistakenly thought I could understand and fairly dictate from afar.
People like Abbott purposely frame this as political, because that allows them to justify their resentment. They claim they’re more open-minded because they’re bravely talking politics to people who disagree. But that’s not discomfort; that’s pandering with views you know you’ll never have to address or self-analyze, because you’ve absolved yourself of the responsibility to do so, thanks to “politics.” True discomfort comes from confronting your views when you realize they hurt someone you’ve connected with. That’s the discomfort we all avoid, in favor of a superficial diversity that makes us feel like we’ve escaped the evils of our past.
We say we’ve moved on from that past, just as Roberts suggested in his Voting Rights decision, but the political debates we have today are the political debates we’ve had for centuries. Texas Law will tell us that Brown v. Board is to be celebrated, and most would agree. But put us back in 1954, and suddenly, we’d be calling it “politics.” Hell, in the 1980s we’d be calling it politics.
Political diversity masquerading as a net societal good allows us to put off the next Brown v. Board. It promotes our failures to address discrimination in our society. It allows us to claim in the abstract that we want equality, while suppressing it in reality.
Many of our discriminatory ideas today will be deemed evil in the future. Some of them are already deemed evil by large segments of the population. But because we promote political debate over diversity of experience, these evils will be allowed to fester, and they will be widely accepted, because politics cannot be questioned. Politics is immune, and its framing is counterproductive.
We can actually improve our society if we reject the tautological argument that every idea we deem political today is necessarily legitimate on the grounds that it is political. But that can only happen if our institutions work toward racial, sexual and experiential diversity by forcing new experiences upon those of us from homogenous societies. It’s the only thing short of war that history has shown as an effective vehicle for positive social change and equality.