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Lexicon Watch: “Ideological Diversity”

After Mark Zuckerberg mentioned the buzzword earlier this week, let’s clarify its definition

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

During a town hall event at North Carolina A&T State University this week, a student asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg what he does to make his company a “free and safe environment” for self-expression. “We have a board member who is an adviser to the Trump administration, Peter Thiel,” Zuckerberg said. “I personally believe that if you want to have a company that is committed to diversity, you need to be committed to all kinds of diversity, including ideological diversity.”

Zuckerberg’s statement startled me, partly because he was more adept at defending Thiel than he was at addressing Facebook’s failure to hire black employees. (Facebook is about 2 percent black. Its board is 100 percent white.) But mostly, I was jarred because his words were familiar. I have heard a call for ideological diversity from an iconoclastic tech entrepreneur before.

In 2015, Gawker Media founder (and my then-boss) Nick Denton responded to an email from then-Gawker.com senior editor Jason Parham about the company’s need to prioritize racial, sexual, and gender diversity. Like Zuckerberg, Denton used a question from a black person about improving community to pivot into an adrenalized defense of giving right-wing ideologues a platform. “Let’s welcome, if not out-and-out racists, then at least the wide array of people with whom a conversation is possible: national greatness conservatives, Burkean Tories, and business pragmatists, for instance; Christians and other spiritual people; economic liberals, libertarians and techno-utopians; and black and other social conservatives,” Denton responded. Zuckerberg and Denton are not alone in their longing to infuse their ranks with National Review subscribers. The issue of “ideological diversity” is currently at the panicked heart of a college controversy. Critics worry that left-wing academia has infected liberal arts campuses and whittled them into hives of hissy-fit intolerance.

When a group of conservative Middlebury College students invited Charles Murray to speak on the Vermont school’s grounds this month, it renewed an old campus debate over ideological diversity. Murray coauthored 1994’s The Bell Curve, a discredited tract that argues for the innate intellectual superiority of white people over black people. For this reason, the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies him as a white nationalist. In response to his presence at Middlebury, which provided him an auditorium, a large group of students interrupted Murray’s speech and shut down the event through protest. Some agitators threw rocks at the car Murray left in, and pulled international politics and economics professor professor Allison Stanger’s hair as she accompanied him. Stanger was hospitalized and treated for whiplash and a concussion. In a New York Times op-ed, Stanger argued that students should have challenged him in a Q&A rather than interrupted him.

The incident echoed a protest earlier this year at the University of California–Berkeley, in which students protested an appearance from right-wing tech blogger Milo Yiannopoulos. Pundits quickly yoked the two protests together into a pattern of liberal student intolerance and intellectual daintiness. This is just the latest rash of takes on campus ideological diversity; the topic has been extensively lamented by columnists. “It’s important to have a frank discussion on campuses about ideological diversity. To me, this seems a liberal blind spot,” The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote last year. “Universities should be a hubbub of the full range of political perspectives from A to Z, not just from V to Z.” He is correct about one thing — it is important to examine why “ideological diversity” is such a buzzy phrase.

For starters, the trendy term is actually quite old. As media scholar Nicole Hemmer recently pointed out at Vox, the lack of “ideological diversity” in universities has been a favorite right-wing diagnosis for decades. William F. Buckley Jr. lamented the preponderance of liberal brainwashers way back in 1951 with God and Man at Yale. Allan Bloom mourned the plurality of professorial viewpoints in his 1987 best seller, The Closing of the American Mind. Even Peter Thiel cowrote a book about how left-wing multiculturalism hurt campuses with 1996’s The Diversity Myth. The general argument is that campuses have become stiflingly homogenous in their thought, and that they are now hostile to ring-wing thinkers in a way that damages the learning environment. To fix this, Buckley proposed that atheist socialists be swapped out for individualist capitalist thinkers, never mind that it’d mean exchanging one homogeny for another. In contemporary arguments for “ideological diversity,” the ask is more moderate: It’s not that campuses need to purge Marxists as much as they need to let a few more Ayn Rand aficionados and ethno-nationalists onto the tenure track. Hemmer notes that conservatives eventually adopted the pro-diversity language of the left as an undermining tactic, taking up the mantle of “ideological diversity” because it seemed a mere extension of calls for gender, race, and sex diversity and not a call to give more prominence to viewpoints that argue against the necessity of these types of diversity.

This tactic is working, at least in the sense that “ideological diversity” is now a deeply misunderstood concept. The push for “ideological diversity” as a curative confuses the benefit of dialectical learning with the notion that all ideas are worth debating. History is littered with horrible ideas that aren’t worth poking holes into during a question-and-answer session. “The earth is flat,” for instance. “Castrating homosexuals is an acceptable punishment for homosexuality.” “Slavery is good.” “Women’s suffrage is incompatible with democracy.” (That last one basically describes something that Zuckerberg’s ideologically diverse associate Thiel once wrote.) When students come out against ideas like this, they aren’t succumbing to dumb mob-think. They are taking a reasonable stand against legitimizing hurtful, wrongheaded nonsense. This is why the debate about “ideological diversity” is so fraught, and so frustrating. Pundits are getting distracted by the dubious tactical approaches of a small minority of protestors instead of focusing on why they’re so upset in the first place — because discredited, offensive, and abhorrent (often right-wing) fringe viewpoints are now getting treated like they’re merely “ideologically diverse” instead of poisonous.

It is true that a majority of people who teach in academia are left-leaning, and that sometimes the young people on campuses take concepts they have learned and apply them in half-baked and silly ways, like when some Oberlin College students decided that their cafeteria sushi was worth protesting as cultural appropriation. It is also true that arrogance and condescension are real problems among people who self-identify as liberal and left-wing, and some of the ideas that come from these groups can rival the poverty of the ideas they mock from ideological foes. Blue-state secession is a concept championed almost exclusively by wealthy liberals, and it would tear America apart. Antivaccination activism, which ignores scientific consensus and endangers children, is often undertaken by affluent liberals. But the “ideological diversity” debate, again, isn’t really about allowing every horrid viewpoint equal standing. It is about creating a schism in which extreme conservatives appear a trampled class.

When Zuckerberg used the phrase “ideological diversity” on a college campus, he was crouching behind the notion that the real problem is groupthink, not that Facebook did a bad job of hiring people of color to operate his company. When Denton talked about the concept, he was also pivoting away from an accusation that he was not good at other types of diversity, though I do think his paean to poaching conservative talent was intended to rankle internally more than anything else. Meanwhile, Facebook endured the most damaging scandal of recent years when Gizmodo (owned by Denton at the time) reported that former Facebook employees felt the website was biased against conservatives. The social network went into full-blown damage-control mode after that, Glenn Beck sit-down and all. I don’t know if Zuckerberg boasted of Facebook’s “ideological diversity” in keeping Thiel on its board to offer a deliberate olive branch to the right wing, or if he has genuinely conflated the value of having people with different perspectives working together with an idea that all perspectives are equally valid and deserving of a platform, but his words were either disingenuous or mistaken.

Skepticism and suspicion of the “ideological diversity” mission does not require agreeing blindly with every undergraduate crusade. People can disagree with some reasons for and tactics used during a protest and still believe that much of the protest speech was worthwhile. This sort of nuance is largely absent from conversations about ideological diversity, which is unfortunate, because leaving room for nuance means providing the room for differences in thought to be refined and articulated. But while it is a shame, it is not surprising, as the crusade for “ideological diversity” is about normalizing a fringe at the edge of a binary, not encouraging a plurality of perspectives across a spectrum. The phrase “ideological diversity” is a Trojan horse designed to help bring disparaged thought onto campuses, to the media, and into vogue. It is code for granting fringe right-wing thought more credence in communities that typically reject it, and nothing more.