Diversity in a Liberal Democracy -Friend or Foe?

It’s been almost exactly 8 months since my last blog post. Instead of adapting the course materials I was teaching last semester to blog posts, I ended up writing a chapter of my dissertation. This turned out to be very good for me since it guaranteed my funding for this semester. I’ll let you in on a secret: they do actually require PhD students to submit quality work every semester to continue receiving funding. My illness last fall put me at least a semester (more likely a full academic year) behind my anticipated graduation date. This means I have to work extra hard to convince my department that the funding they’ve doled out beyond what I was originally promised when I accepted this position is money well spent (I’m going into my 7th year!).

I have reasons of self-interest to finish my PhD. I’ve worked incredibly hard for this and overcome some substantial obstacles to be where I am. Some obstacles very few others in my profession have had to deal with: doing analytic, academic philosophy with a neuro-cognitive disability (PTSD). Other obstacles about 20% of my profession have had to deal with: doing analytic, academic philosophy while female. Sadly, much of the world still fails to see relevant difference between these obstacles (i.e. They appear to think that doing analytic, academic philosophy while female is tantamount to doing analytic, academic philosophy with a neuro-cognitive disability). The ability to make very fine distinctions is something one must be trained to do, so if it were the case that the distinction between being female and being cognitively impaired was a fine distinction, I’d be inclined to forgive the average person.

I am not so inclined. Neither am I inclined in the least to forgive my academic peers (all men, of course) who have been trained to make fine distinctions and yet still manage to fail miserably at homing in on the rather substantial distinction between being female and being cognitively impaired. It is especially hard to prove yourself in such an environment when you are both cognitively impaired and female. I’m only cognitively impaired under certain conditions: those that remind me of being tortured by a psychopath, which are actually somewhat common in my discipline. Academic philosophy can be aggressive and soul crushing. It’s taken me the better part of 7 years to educate my academic community about the effects of unchecked aggression on we the traumatized (and, as it turns out, all women in academic philosophy are traumatized regularly by Academic peers and advisors, so: two birds, one stone). What looks like stupidity is actually terror brought on by feelings of helplessness. Surely everyone can relate to the feeling of terror if not to the particular experience of being tortured by a psychopath, right? (Yes. The answer is ‘yes’ unless you’ve lived in a bubble your whole life. All of us have experienced terror.)

It takes a long time to manage a disability, educate one’s academic community, fight for social change, and research and write a dissertation. Going on 7 years, in fact. But I wouldn’t change it. I honestly wouldn’t. Here’s why: struggling with a deck of cards that has been stacked against me through deep structures of oppression (ableism and sexism/misogyny, mostly) has given me insight into a distinctive pattern of psychological traumas that are suffered by people who are underprivileged in one way or another (for a more thorough explanation of privilege see the second half of this blog post). I have common ground in my innermost being with the vast majority of people in the United States, and that’s a very powerful thing if leveraged correctly. I can connect on a cognitive, emotional, or experiential level with almost anyone. And in my role as a lecturer at one of the largest public universities in the country, I do so often. The more removed you are from the human condition, both in understanding and experience, the smaller the overlap between your life and the lives of others. The truly privileged elite generally belong to very small, insular communities. And yet, these are the people who are essentially running our country. Why? Why are we asking what value there is in diversity rather than asking what value there is in continuing to support the existence of a ruling class in what is supposed to be a liberal democracy?

The last promise I made to my readers before taking a hiatus from blogging to work on my dissertation was this: to adapt the course materials for my philosophy course on contemporary social and moral problems in the U.S. to accessible, engaging, and educational blog posts. I am teaching the same course again this fall, so I am in an excellent position to make good on my promises. My aim, as always, is to provide readers with a set of tools to help them navigate the current sociopolitical environment in a way that brings out the things that truly make our country great. Diversity, as it turns out, is one of those great-making things and I have a philosophical argument for this claim.

P1) There are social, moral, and political truths in the same way that there are scientific truths.
P2) The role of public discourse in a liberal democracy is to enable citizens to discover social, moral, political, and scientific truths.
P3) The best method for discovering social, moral, political, and scientific truths is by employing discipline-specific, evidence-based scientific skepticism.*
P4) Effective scientific skepticism is best achieved in environments where there is healthy epistemic diversity.**
C) Therefore, healthy epistemic diversity is crucial for effective public discourse in a liberal democracy.

*I’m using the term ‘scientific’ to pick out a type of collaborative activity that involves the critical assessment of evidence for (or against) certain kinds of claims.

**I draw a distinction between healthy and unhealthy epistemic diversity, as do most of us, I think. My aim is to provide an explicit set of conditions that distinguishes the healthy from the unhealthy. This is no easy task, but I do love a challenge.

Some of you may find the premises in the argument above highly intuitive, while others of you are probably less enthused. Premise one, for instance, is not obviously true. In my next bog post (or two) I will be defending each of the premises of this argument and discussing the threat that lies and bullshit present to a well-functioning liberal democracy. I don’t anticipate being able to provide reasons that convince everyone that the argument above is good. I do anticipate, however, that going through the process of challenging you to think about public discourse in this way will be a healthy and productive exercise of the kind of freedoms we still enjoy as citizens of a liberal democracy. It will also be a much better use of the internet than what lately passes for public discourse. Ultimately, I hope that what you learn here will motivate you into effective action. Clearly, voting is something one ought to treat as a serious moral and political obligation. But voting is only effective if people know what they are voting for, and public discourse is supposed to help us choose wisely. One must also act to protect and promote effective public discourse which starts here: eliminate dehumanizing rhetoric. This is more important than people realize. Here’s why.

We are intimately connected through the mere fact of our shared human experiences, whether we like it or not. But the intimacy with our fellow humans that comes with empathy can be uncomfortable sometimes, especially when we are confronted with human behavior that triggers intense reactive attitudes like anger, disgust, resentment, fear, horror, etc. Our tendency is to distance ourselves by finding subtle (or not so subtle) ways of dehumanizing the offenders. They are rats, dogs, monsters, slugs, cockroaches, pigs, bitches, etc. It’s easier to protect ourselves through withdrawal if we see others as different in kind. It is also easier to oppress and abuse people if you see them as different in kind. The history of American slavery is rich with examples of dehumanization that is still exerting influence through subconsciously reproduced structures of oppression.

Once we’ve distanced ourselves, we come to associate being human with the purely accidental features of our primary social groups. Accidental features are features that are not necessary for being the kind of thing that you are. So, having brown hair, being democrat, being an ice skater, are all features that are not necessary for being human. They are features that humans can, but need not, have. This is why we call them accidental. Accidental features of social groups are usually things like beliefs, values, commitments. It’s much more difficult to separate one’s humanity from what one cares about, but the fact is that one’s caring is constituted by desires, beliefs, values, and commitments, which are mental states whose contents are accidental features. One can still be human while having desires, beliefs, values, and commitments with contents that are fundamentally different than the contents of the beliefs, values, and commitments of one’s fellow human beings. It is not the contents of mental states that make us human. It is the fact that we have mental states at all that partly constitutes our humanity. You can radically change the contents of your beliefs and still be human, whereas if you stopped having representational mental states at all, we might have to take a closer look at what kind of thing you are (note: unless you are just dead).

None of what I’ve just said is inconsistent with the idea that to be a good human you ought to have beliefs with very specific contents (e.g. The belief that causing undeserved and unnecessary pain is wrong). But it is a fairly large leap from a state of being a not-so-good human to being non-human. Unfortunately, many of us make that leap every day in public discourse without ever thinking about whether there is any justification whatsoever for such attributions. It may be politically expedient, but it’s not without a price. The more we dehumanize and write off our opponents, the less effective public discourse will be. If public discourse fails to satisfy it’s functional role in our liberal democracy, then I think we have very, very good reason to be concerned for the future of our country. In this war you cannot fight fire (dehumanization) with fire (dehumanization). And as hard as many of us try, you can’t simply build a mound and call it the moral higher ground. We are ALL not-so-good humans and no one can escape this fact; it is part of what makes being human something of a tragedy.

When we subtly and subconsciously fail to make the distinction between ‘not-so-good human’ and ‘non-human’ we end up split into social groups that are, for the most part, non-overlapping. When this happens, public discourse fails to function properly because insularity leads to unhealthy epistemic diversity. It’s unhealthy because there is no threat of pushback from one’s peers. What makes academia work (when it’s working) is the fact that our research is exposed to peer review and our peers rarely agree with every position we seek to defend (e.g. Every instance of inquiry uses starting assumptions that are likely open to debate, even in science). Critical scrutiny usually has the consequence of improving our methods, which has an impact on how closely our results approximate truth.

You can try to ground public discourse in something other than shared experience of the human condition but the justifications all look pretty bad. Even if you try to ground it in morality you’re going to have a hard time arguing that distinctively human morality has nothing whatsoever to do with distinctively human experiences. Shared experiences give us a common ground from which to start our search for moral, social, political, and even scientific truths, and epistemic diversity in each of these domains enables us to more effectively arrive at our destination.

Tucker Carlson asks “Can you think of other institutions such as marriage or military units in which the less people have in common the more cohesive they are?”

My answer is this: No, I can’t think of social institutions like the ones you mention because you’ve cherry picked examples of social forms that help illustrate your point. I can, however, think of many more social institutions in the U.S. that do not illustrate your point. For instance: any institution that relies on knowledge for its proper functioning. The aim of discovering truth is what makes people cohere in to functional teams even if they don’t like, agree with, or want to marry their colleagues. Science, economics, policy, law, the justice system, education, corporate research and development, the entire tech industry, manufacturing, space exploration, medical research, medicine, etc. etc. etc. Shared aims are what draw us together into functional teams, and healthy epistemic diversity is what helps us achieve our shared aims. The fact of our ability to cooperate and function as teams is a huge part of what makes us human and never let anyone try to locate your humanity elsewhere. We are, fundamentally, a cooperative species. We don’t need structure in the form of social institutions and norms to make us function properly. WE create social institutions and norms to make it easier for us to cooperate effectively. But when those social institutions and norms fail to serve that purpose, then it’s time for us to create new ones. (Hmmm. Tool making. Another feature historically associated with being human…)

Next time I’ll say more about the relationship between epistemic diversity and gender, sexual, racial, religious, and ethnic diversity. I’ll also say more about the all-too-human tendency to skip the human/non-human distinction and settle on the not-so-good human and oh-so-good human distinction that we’re all flirting with constantly.

The image that appears at the top of this post is a drawing by Kristin Arestava.