In the wake of the Harvard Affirmative Action lawsuit, it is clear that our society has a certain obsession with diversity and its limitations. In 2018, movies like Black Panther became the hallmark of “woke” and the #MeToo movement has fought for representation of women from leading corporate roles to STEM fields. Diversity, by all means, has merit. Far from being simply corporate lingo, an entire social justice movement has centered itself around diversity as a core value. And while this pursuit may be a just one, it, along with every movement that has come before, is not exempt from criticism. For all societies’ desire to become a more “vibrant” and “diverse” community, there is one type of diversity that is underrated and overlooked -viewpoint diversity.
Even the most casual of political observers understand polarization is a threat. Pew Research Center found that over the past two decades, Americans that that express consistently conservative or liberal opinions have “doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%”. Furthermore, much of the political center has hollowed out, replacing itself with partisanship, populism and “burn down the establishment” politics.
What Has Caused This Divide?
Obviously, there is no simple answer to why polarization has spurred, especially in such a time as ours when globalization has left the world interconnected. However, there are factors unique to our time that can be uncovered. The American Interest claims that the issue may be generational. The Greatest Generation, born in the midst of the Great Depression and WWII, lived with a certain cultural code which unified many Americans. This included “a willingness to sacrifice for country, concern for the general welfare, a mature character structure, and adherence to a shared civic faith”. The actor John Wayne, commenting on John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, said: “I didn’t vote for him but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job.”. In today’s political climate, such a comment would be seen as apostasy, especially in the age of Trump. However, generational values aren’t enough to explain such animosity. It acts as a superficial explanation at best. Although identity politics arose in the 1960s in response to legitimate grievances, much of today’s politics works within the conceptual framework of identity. This is Francis Fukuyama’s (a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies) central thesis of his book “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment”. Groups have become increasingly divided on lines of immutable traits: race, gender, religion, etc. The issue is when these traits undermine the civic discourse and align our loyalties to our “tribe” over a greater concept of the American creed. The belief that there is a common thread, some unifying American identity that we all serve together in spite of our differences. And while identity politics has fought legitimate injustices, it has undeniably changed American politics for better or for worse, depending on whom you ask. Discourse is becoming divided by cultural and social narratives that make it increasingly hard to communicate across partisan lines. The rise of these narratives take social problems and draw drastic conclusions from them. Amy Chua wrote in Political Tribes (2018), “The Left believes that right-wing tribalism – bigotry, racism – is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism – identity politics, political correctness – is tearing the country apart. They are both right.”
Against the Tide of Science
Jonathan Haidt, a professor of political psychology at NYU, has dedicated his life to studying polarization. Tribalism, according to Haidt, isn’t simply a product of our culture, but rather it is part of evolutionary baggage that prioritized group conformity over our pursuit of truth. Haidt uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. In the metaphor, the rider represents rational, conscious decision making. The elephant, on the other hand, represents automatic, reflexive thinking. Although we may claim objectivity, according to Haidt, much of polarization is sustained through the use of confirmation bias. We use reason as a post hoc justification of our beliefs. This means that we are in constant search of evidence that confirms what we want to hear. In that same fashion, we filter out (or minimize) the importance of data that challenges our narrative. The problem that this poses is that an objective look at polarized issues becomes impossible. Take a look at how political sides viewed the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Support for Kavanaugh was almost entirely along partisan lines. Republicans put blind faith in Kavanaugh and Democrats did likewise for Christine Blasey Ford. The truth was subservient to political opportunism that was more concerned about scoring political points than justice. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham even said after the hearings, “If you vote no, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I’ve seen in my time in politics.”. Politics based on tribalism betrays enlightenment values of reason and objectivity, values necessary for a healthy functioning democracy.
Transcending partisanship is not easy, to say the least. Our identities/lifestyles/experiences are intertwined with the set of beliefs we adopt, so the answer isn’t to abolish partisanship but rather to prevent rigidity. Ileana Akresh, Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Illinois, writes that viewpoint diversity is key in fighting hate, extremism, and flawed beliefs. She concedes that political diversity (and free expression) acts as a trade-off and that there will always be individuals that seek to spread hate-filled beliefs. However, it is through rigorous debate and dialogue that radical beliefs can be challenged, improving the quality of our discourse. Furthermore, viewpoint diversity prevents the rise of echo chambers. John Stewart Mill argued that claims ought to be scrutinized through opposition. Empirical evidence supports this claim. Conservatives are more capable of pointing out progressive hypocrisies and vice versa. By creating a platform that shuns homogeneity, individuals are forced to constantly reevaluate their own beliefs. This is because viewpoint diversity covers our own biases and blind spots. Ultimately, this ought to guide discussion towards the pragmatic center.
The University… The “Academy” has long been held as the bastion of free thought and discussion. However, empirical evidence shows that colleges are becoming politically homogenous. The problem that this poses is that free thought becomes hard to conduct when there is a single viewpoint. However, groups such as the Heterodox Academy have begun initiatives to increase viewpoint diversity. The problem though ranges far beyond the university. Groups such as ANTIFA and white nationalists have created narratives incompatible with modern society. Preaching hatred and dogmatism, the ultimate challenge is exposing these groups to the pure, blunt force of reason.