Columnist: Thought of the Day — Diversity of thought avoids breeding ignorance

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 11, 2015

By Sydney M. Williams

Contributing columnist

“When our student societies decide they want to put on events, they ask ‘do you think there is any particular risk, or do you think that there is any reason to think that any student would feel threatened or unsafe at inviting a particular speaker’?” Those Orwellian words were spoken by the president of the Students Union at Leeds University in England to David Aaronovitch of the London Times. They could, however, have been spoken by campus leaders, administrators or professors at any U.S. university or college.

We should all subscribe to the concept of diversity. Typically, we think of it in terms of race, religion, place of national origin, sexual preference, socio-economic backgrounds and/or the physically and mentally challenged. We ignore, however, diversity of opinion.

The word implies tolerance for those different from ourselves. There is no question that diversity strengthens us as individuals and as a nation.

Arthur Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Scholarly studies have piled up showing that race and gender diversity in the workplace can increase creative thinking and improve performance.”

This has been ground that the Left has tilled and sown with government programs like Affirmative Action and the Welfare State. They have reaped the harvest in elections, as they appeal to those who rely on government programs — a growing body of people.

The United States had long been a “melting pot,” but for decades limited to those who made it into the pot. It was not until after World War II that the armed services were racially integrated. It took Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement to bring some semblance of racial equality to schools and the workplace.

The first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, six decades after the Constitution was signed and seven decades before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Another 44 years would pass before the Civil Rights Act was enacted, which barred discrimination in employment on the basis of race or sex. But equality, while not perfect, is far more prevalent today than it was in the 1950s.

When I was growing up there were no handicapped parking spots. There were no special schools for children with autism and other similar conditions. Segregation was prevalent throughout the South.

In high school, boys took shop and girls, home economics. Anti-Semitism was rife, including in higher reaches of government. Homosexuality was considered a sin.

Class distinctions were more obvious. Even in small towns, the rich lived separately from the rest of us.

Nonetheless, the reaction to Sen. Joseph McCarthy showed that the American people would not stand for bullying. Speech and beliefs were rights.

Great strides have been made in the past half century. America is a fairer and more diverse place. But in our rush to find diversity in all areas of our external differences, colleges and universities have become homogeneous in terms of ideas, especially ideologies of a political nature. It is McCarthyism in reverse.

That sense is common within government bureaucracies. It risks infecting our work places. It finds expression in multiculturalism, which has substituted for national or regional cultures based on traditions and history, and which encouraged myriad opinions.

When conservatives like Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali were denied the right to speak at campuses it reflected bigotry and intolerance, as much as when African-Americans were denied equal school or job opportunities.

No one denies the leftward tilt of our colleges and universities. Michael Bloomberg, speaking at Harvard’s commencement in 2014, noted that 96 percent of campaign contributions from faculty at Ivy League institutions went to Mr. Obama. Such bias is antithetical to the concept of openness.

It is ironic that it has been the Left, those who consider themselves to be the messengers of tolerance — those who now welcome transsexuals and transgenders, those who would let men dressed as women use women’s bathrooms in Houston — that have become intolerant when it comes to political speech. They have erected “trigger warnings” to protect constituents from hearing or seeing something not part of their narrative.

Words matter and labels can create opacity where clarity belongs. The word “liberal” implies the willingness to hear and read all sides — to be fair and impartial. Yet today it is “liberals” that have become illiberal in the matter of free expression.

“Conservative” means a valuing of tradition and an understanding of history, but in today’s “liberal” world it connotes one clinging to the past — guns and God, an unwillingness to see both sides of a debate. I disagree.

I am a conservative. I value history, honor traditions and rank the individual above the state. I believe in a government of laws, not men.

I believe in a moral sense that transcends cultural, religious and racial barriers. I welcome diversity, especially of thought, including those who disagree with my opinions in these essays.

I read the New York Times, a paper I find blasphemously liberal. I do so because it allows me to understand how others think. How can our youth make choices when they have heard only one side? How can our young learn to reason and debate when they are told that contrary opinions may make them feel threatened or unsafe?

If an Islamic radical is invited to speak of the benefits of a caliphate should we not hear from Ayaan Ali Hirsi who suffered mutilation from Islamic fundamentalists? Can we make clear-headed decisions about abortion without hearing from the right-to-life folks?

Is the Left fearful that the Right’s recommendation for ending poverty — of using self-determination and free-market capitalism — may prove more compelling than simply relying on the state? The state needs to be the enabler, not the ‘doer,’ the teacher of fishing, not solely the provider of fish.

In the September issue of The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt wrote of this coddling of the American mind — of avoiding what are termed microaggressions. Examples: telling an Asian student that she (or he) is “supposed to be good at math;” or saying to an overseas student: “America is a land of opportunity;” or to another: “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

This fear of offending, according to the authors, is “vindictive protectiveness;” for it shields alleged victims from the real world.

The concept of fomenting sameness in terms of thought generation reminds one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s memorable admonition: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The lemming-like attitudes of those universities who deny challenge bring to mind Frank Baum’s Oz. The Wizard’s wisdom was accepted, and his pronouncements considered just and absolute; until, at the end of the story, Dorothy and her friends exposed him as a fraud.

Our elite universities have done a good job in most aspects of diversification, but not in the realm that is most important – the freedom to hear, discuss and debate all ideas.

The student leader at Leeds felt comfortable in his reasoning for not allowing contrary voices to be heard. He claimed his view was “consensus,” which is the same argument put forth by Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler and Mao Tse Tung, men who denied their people the right to think, speak and write freely.

It is not the institutions, or even those of us who are older, that are the losers; it is today’s students, our youth who are denied the opportunity to test their ideas against someone who believes differently. It is our children and grandchildren who risk becoming victims of ignorance.

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He describes his political leanings as being based in the rapidly disappearing ideology of common sense.