For good reason, concern has emanated from many factions of Georgetown University in recent months over various incidents of behavior contrary to the aspirations of a healthfully diverse community. As discussions of the issues proceed, I would offer the following for consideration:
First of all, it is important to recognize and remember that virtually all talk about diversity at Georgetown is a discussion about demographics: the institution is “diverse” to the extent that various categories of people are represented in sufficient numbers. However desirable such institutional diversity might be, it should not encourage the complacent belief that a statistically diverse institution has or will inevitably produce persons whose inclination to respect other persons is unqualified by considerations of gender, race, ethnicity, religious confession, sexual preference, etc.
Plainly, it would be possible for an institution to be demographically diverse without having any respectful persons among its members, and, just as plainly, an institution could lack broad demographic diversity yet have only respectful persons among its members.
So the question begs: What is our objective here? Are we seeking institutional diversity for its own sake, or is the ultimate goal a community of persons respectful of other persons? My own biases incline me in the latter direction, and, from this standpoint, it occurs as a possibility that, all good intentions notwithstanding, the rhetoric of “diversity” – and the public posturing that often accompanies it – might have to yield to the thoughtful consideration of deeper issues.
After all, the irony of the slogan “No tolerance for intolerance!” was right there last spring, staring us in the face from the front page of The Hoya. The slogan preached tolerance but shouted at the same time that tolerance has its limits. And so it does. But when another’s intolerance shows us the limits of our tolerance, we must justify ourselves on some other grounds. What might those grounds be? Is it our view that all persons should respect all other persons? If not, what is our view? If so, what is the relevance of demographic classifications and designations? When we regard persons as representatives of demographic categories, do we, perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless effectively, turn them into things? Is this a good thing to do? Is it possible the rhetoric of “diversity,” emphasizing as it does what separates rather than what unites us, is diverting our attention from these questions? Might, therefore, such rhetoric actually be part of the problem?
The largest segment of our university community is constituted of persons at a stage in life when questions of personal identity are among the most salient and difficult questions of all. For this reason, talk about “kinds of people” seems highly relevant – perhaps even essential – even after it is understood that talk about institutional demographics per se is quite beside the point. But just what are the foundations of a psychological sense of identity? In what terms do we formulate our thinking about the question: “Who am I?” In what terms do we formulate our thinking about the identities of others? At first blush, it seems obvious that considerations of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, etc., would have to play a central role here. Still, I would recommend serious discussion of the possibility that not only are such considerations not crucial to a viable and coherent sense of personal identity, but they may not even be desirable. At the very least, we should be prepared to consider the way(s) in which they might actually be both psychologically problematic for individuals and injurious to the fabric of communities.
What if an individual’s personal values run counter to those stereotypically held by (i.e., said to be true on average for) others of his/her “kind”? For example, suppose that the dress and demeanor of a woman of African American heritage happen to reflect values or customs regarded as stereotypically European American or Asian American? This would immediately compromise that woman’s sense of personal identity to the degree that the category of “African American woman” is central to it, and, at the same time, would expose the woman to ridicule and ostracism by others of “her kind.” Here lies a psychological minefield that would be terribly difficult for any person to negotiate, especially for a person of 19 or 20 years of age.
There is more: If living our respective personal identities – i.e., actually being ourselves – requires that we conduct ourselves in accordance with what stereotypically distinguishes our “kind” from other “kinds,” then there is a force at large in the community that is actually driving different “kinds” of people apart from rather than toward one another and, within “kinds,” compelling a sameness that, left unchecked, would only reify the stereotypes. If private conversations I have had with many students and some faculty colleagues are any guide, then social pressures of the sort to which I allude here are very real at this time within our university community, and it is partly for this reason I suspect that talk about “kinds” of persons, so central to the rhetoric of diversity, might not be all that helpful after all – either for the psychological well-being of individual persons or for the social fabric of our community.
The sign tied to the tree in Red Square reminded us that in the current Middle East conflict: “There are no Palestinian or Israeli victims, only human victims. We are all one!” Precisely. It seems to me that it is this essential truth that finally grounds that basic human value of respect by persons for persons – all persons – regardless of what “kind(s)” they allegedly “represent.”
Through an appreciation for this value, beholden to no demography, indeed finally indifferent to the very notion of “kinds” of persons, genuine tolerance for diversity, in the most worthy sense of the expression, might just flourish.
James T. Lamiell is a professor of psychology.