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Can You Hear Me Now? The Challenges and Promise of Viewpoint Diversity
Decades ago, on the first day of a freshman composition class with readings centered on the theme of war, I asked my students to respond to the following writing prompt: “Define an enemy.” I was troubled to find that more than half of the students defined an enemy as “someone who doesn’t agree with you” (or closely related wording). Having expected to read about enemy soldiers or longtime personal conflicts, I realized that I needed to start the next class session by discussing with my students the value of exploring different viewpoints and the dangers of seeing viewpoint disagreements as personal attacks.
Sadly, in our polarized society, this critical-thinking problem continues to plague us. Rather than embracing viewpoint diversity by exploring views that deeply challenge our own, many of us often close ourselves off to different views and those who hold them. In extreme cases on college campuses, students try to silence speakers whose views they find offensive. These actions do not bring us closer to understanding and relating well to one another. In fact, they escalate rather than resolve conflicts and divide rather than unite us.
Faculty can and should create safe classroom spaces for the good-faith free exchange of ideas. During such exchanges, students are genuinely open to examining their own views critically and to hearing, reading, analyzing, writing about, discussing, and trying to understand others’ different—even personally challenging—views. As many faculty can testify, creating these active learning spaces helps students grow both intellectually and socially.
Accusations that colleges and universities stifle viewpoint diversity continue to mount. Many among the public distrust higher education. Some of our higher education colleagues claim to have lost their jobs because of their views. Scholar Steven F. Hayward, for example, wrote in the July/August 2020 issue of Commentary magazine that he “voluntarily withdrew” from his invited appointment to teach at the University of California–Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy after students directed an onslaught of pressure at the dean who had hired him. Other colleagues argue that colleges and universities prepare students to be ideological purists who, after graduation, apply their learning to the detriment of society. For example, Professor John M. Ellis lamented in the Wall Street Journal in July 2020 that “universities used to be places where the major political and social issues of the day could be researched and debated” and warned that now the “campus offers not a reasoned corrective to partisan passions, but fierce, one-sided advocacy of dangerous and destructive ideas.” Lawmakers are taking notice and could respond by cutting funding for higher education.
How should we respond to such threats to the credibility (and perhaps funding) of higher education? More specifically, how can we ensure that we create allies among a diverse group of citizens who could work together to achieve a just society? If we ourselves do not embrace viewpoint diversity, and if we fail to expose students regularly to viewpoint diversity practices, we risk losing the opportunity to help students develop resilience and practice forming alliances with people whose views differ from theirs. Without this training, college graduates are ill-equipped to become civically engaged members of their communities. Working for the common good requires such alliances. Embracing viewpoint diversity is a necessary, foundational condition for achieving this end. In fact, if we persevere in this work, we might even discover that, as the following extreme example demonstrates, sometimes, unlikely allies are not so much out of reach as they are unknowingly in the making.
For years, Derek Black, the son and godson, respectively, of longtime white supremacist leaders Don Black and David Duke, was being groomed as a leader in the white nationalist movement. On his father’s Stormfront radio talk show, Derek Black articulated his vision of a white nationalist America. Charismatic and intelligent, he became a spokesperson for the movement. But then something happened.
As detailed in Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, Black enrolled in New College of Florida, a small liberal arts college, where he secretly continued to do his radio broadcasts. But he also met and interacted with several students from groups whose members were targets of white supremacist racism. After his identity was discovered, rather than abandon him, these students ramped up their conversations with him. Patiently and respectfully, they listened to his views, countered them with their own ideas and lived experiences, and shared persuasive scholarly work with him.
To his credit, Black was open to learning about views that challenged his most deeply held convictions. In time, he began to see that his assumptions and evidence were faulty and that his radio talks profoundly harmed the kinds of people with whom he had now become friends. Now doubting his previous ideas and feeling remorse for his actions, Black abandoned his former views and, at great personal risk, left the white supremacist movement. He now speaks to audiences about the dangers of white nationalism.
Although a number of factors contributed to Black’s transformation, this change likely would not have occurred had his schoolmates not engaged him in ongoing, difficult, yet civil conversations. As educators confronting the challenges of grappling with viewpoint diversity, we might take a page out of these students’ book.
Derek Black and his schoolmates could have easily seen themselves as enemies and refused to communicate. Fortunately, they did not take that path. Thus, this case study provokes a serious question for us higher education professionals: If the heir apparent to a key faction of the white nationalist movement and the students who are targets of that movement’s racism could have such challenging and sometimes disturbing conversations, might not the rest of us, including our students, also benefit from having them?
To be sure, we need to tread carefully, since many of us have been the targets of hateful ideas and actions. But colleges and universities can encourage risk-taking in thinking and serve as safe havens for examining different viewpoints.
If we are genuinely committed to being open to others’ perspectives and the concomitant goal of securing communities’ well-being, then we need a diverse group of allies working to bridge the gaps of our often dangerous divides. Ultimately, whatever cost we might incur to our feelings of comfort when we fully embrace viewpoint diversity, surely, as Derek Black’s story demonstrates, the cost of censoring viewpoints and silencing dialogue is far greater.
How to Guide Groups in Embracing Viewpoint Diversity
→ When possible, have participants sit in a circle in order to create a community-like setting.
→ Agree to jettison hierarchies in the room. Also agree that no one will be retaliated against for expressing a view that others do not like. One by one, everyone should commit to these agreements verbally.
→ Establish decorum rules that everyone agrees to follow (for example, no name-calling or personal attacks).
→ Ensure that everyone who wants to speak will have an opportunity to do so. (Perhaps use a “talking stick.”)
→ Especially for difficult discussions, establish common ground that unites the group (such as, “Do we all agree that we want to be engaged citizens working for the benefit of our communities?”).
→ Ask participants to avoid using overly general words or phrases such as “liberals,” “conservatives,” “the left,” or “the right.” Often, such terms are divisive and do not advance understanding or help to create alliances.
→ Remind participants to listen and speak to others as they would want others to listen and speak to them.
→ Agree to listen to others in order to understand them rather than to be ready to reply to them.
→ Before participants respond to a perspective that they find problematic, they should first summarize the perspective in a way that the person holding it would deem accurate. If they summarize it incorrectly, they should ask for clarification.
→ Commit to supporting each other, especially when people disagree. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable when hearing good-faith views that challenge one’s own assumptions.
→ Participants should not necessarily assume bad faith on the part of those whose views they find challenging.
→ At the end of each session, restate the group’s unifying common ground.
→ Inject grace. Allow for mistakes.
→ Remember: Ultimately, it’s about maintaining good relationships, establishing alliances, and strengthening the group’s health, not about adopting the same perspectives.
Now retired, Richard J. Prystowsky is a former professor of English and humanities and a former college senior vice president and provost. In addition to writing or giving talks on a range of topics from college writing to Holocaust studies, he has been active in promoting equity-based changes in higher education.