Diversity of thought in academia

Recent events have highlighted the increasing divide between liberal and conservative ideologies in universities. Some thoughts on how we can move towards making campuses spaces where constructive dialog across political and other ideological boundaries is nurtured.

The latest policical cycle has, among other things, reinvigorated discussion around the role universities and higher education plays in political discourse. Recently we've experienced the controversy of Hamshipre College's decision not to display the U.S. flag, the controvery surrounding events at the University of Oregon and the intersection of free speech, academic freedom, and student comfort, and a couple of notable events occurring at Virginia Tech last year including controversy around a couple of invited speakers of know conservative leanings.

It is no secret that U.S. universities tend to lean to the left, politically, and though there may be justifiable reasons for that, it should be cause for critical inspection that in New England for example, professors who identify as "liberal" outnumber their "conservative" counterparts 28 to 1, and especially so that students are reporting feeling isolated and fearful of how their classmates will react to their conservative views. The irony of this debacle is that most liberal academics you ask, including this one, would make an impassioned argument that universities should be places where conversations about controversial topics, including political views, should (and often do) take place. So where is the disconnect?

To start, universities (and I'm speaking from a sample size of 2 here, but I suspect there are larger data sets to back this up) traditionally do an abysmal job of actually teaching how to have difficult conversations. While we say we want to facilitate these conversations, most of us don't know how, and are likely unaware that some of our behaviors in the classroom might make students feel like their views won't be welcome. This is coupled by an apparent lack of understanding what an actual conversation across differing ideologies realling looks like. The result of all this, I think, are instances like those I cited above, controversies over deeply seated beliefs that are reported only in terms of stereotypes of each side's ideology: liberals criticize conservatives for racist language and White supremacist ideologies, while conservatives seek the sympathy vote by pushing the image of the oppressed voice in a liberal environment. Of course, these outcomes tend not to result in constructive conversation for anyone.

The role of language and discourse

Among other things, a major barrier to constructive communication across political ideologies seems to be one of language and epistemology. This was highlighted during the presidential campaign by the divide around perception of Donald Trump's speech patterns. Many left leaning folks found it both laughable and frightening that the now president-elect would self-contradict himself from day to day, and truly puzzling that he contained to gain popularity. From our own sets of experiences, and the values that are typically expressed in the academic environment, we use language to convey meaning, and it is important to us, to our identities, that that meaning remain consistent across time. We tend to link this rational language with rational thought: we can discern a stable meaning simply by reasoning through each word, how they are ordered, and how the sentence is structured. But Newsweek suggests that Trump's use of language appeals to emotion, rather than reason. In another related piece that I can't seem to find now, an author argued that Trumps speaking style at his rallies was consistent with a performer playing to the audience: he starts by using a wide selection of topics and phrases, finds what the audience responds most strongly to, then repeats those particular phrases and restates those topics in different ways. Because the audience changes with each speaking engagement, so do his words, and it is somewhat beside the point that words he says one day are not consistent with words he said the last, that was never his intent.

Understanding Trump

George Lakoff has written two pieces about understanding Trump, and understanding Trump's use of language, from a cognitive linguistic perspective. Without going into too much detail, since that is in the original, there are a couple ideas from his analysis that help describe what might be going on in academic discourse. The first is his reduction of the two ideologies "progressive" and "conservative" to the family metaphors of "nurturing parent" and the "strict father", respectively. These metaphors describe one's view of the role of authority figures in society through the metaphor "society as family". From the "strict father" perspective, social authority is hierarchical with a strong (male) leader at the top, the "father". Authority is not questioned, disobeying authority is countered with swift and punishment. If society is not going smoothly we just need to enforce the "law and order". The "nurturing parent" ideology, on the other hand, is centered around the belief that the role of authority is to provide the means for your children to thrive in their own way.

Interestingly, we see a similar ideological rift in academia around beliefs about learning. The traditional lecture style of education is tightly aligned with the "strict father" ideology, while newer constructionist inspired pedagogues are more closely aligned with the nurturing parent ideology. It's not that one ideology is objectively better than another, but rather one may be more appropriate than another in a given social context. With the advent of the assembly line, and the explosion in manufacturing jobs the workforce needed workers who could follow instructions without asking to many questions. The "strict father" ideology fit well, and so did the type of learning that is well suited for lecture-based environments: memorization and recall. But with the shifting job market comes a shift in the aught after skills. More recently employers have expressed a need for creative problem solvers and critical thinkers, skills better developed in a constructionist classroom and more nurturing parent ideology.

Back to the problem at hand though: yes, academia tends to attract and retain liberal identified people, but this doesn't mean that we can't create a space for constructive dialog across political ideologies. In order to do that though, we may need to de-center the academic rational discourse and be more inclusive of a diverse forms of discourse and argument. We can do this without throwing out rational discourse altogether, i.e. I'm not suggesting we all adopt a more emotional style of communication in our next journal submission. This also doesn't mean we need to simply accept all forms of language, in particular, those that serve to objectify and dehumanize others. We do need to think how best to communicate why use of language like "illegals" and "alien invasion" to refer to people is destructive and undermines any attempt to discuss controversial topics like immigration and undocumented immigrants.

Feeling uncomfortable is part of the learning process, learning doesn't happen in our comfort zone, but just outside of it. Universities have a responsibility to create an environment suitable for people to step out of their comfort zones, but those us of who feel comfortable within the confines of the academy must be prepared to step out of our comfort zones as well.

Not all differences may be resolved (and that's ok)

It is important to remember that the goal of any difficult conversation generally should not be to change our opponent's mind, that is not likely to happen after a single exchange, if at all. Especially if values are deeply rooted in differing ideologies around power and authority, as in the "strict father" vs "nurturing parent" metephores, changing minds isn't easy, and isn't really desirable if what we are after is fostering an environment for diversity of thought. And this is where strategising becomes particularly hard, at least for me. For instance, George Lakoff discusses how the two ideologies he introduces are aligned with believes about causation. From a "strict father" ideology causal relationships are direct: too many immegrants crossing a boarder? building a wall with stop that. He makes the point that direct causation is built into the grammars of many languages around the world, and thus it is easier to understand and convey. This is true for everyone, regardless of politcal leanings, liberal polititions are often just as guilty has their conservative counterparts when it comes to favoring simple causal reasoning. Lakoff suggests however that those aligning with more of a "nurturing parent" ideology are more likely to embrace the indirect causality we see in complex systems. Unfortunately this is not a simple case of "both sides are equally valid, we just need to learn to listen to one another". The world is a complex place with massivly complex environmental systems that we are only beginning to understand interacting with the massivly complex social systems we have built on top of them. A simple direct causal reduction of a problem will almost always result in a bad solution because by definition it will induce unintended consequences that themselves will be tacked as "new" problems to be "solved" with yet more direct solutions. We really do need to take a more systems view when designing solutions, but this may be at odds with the "strict father" ideology at a deeper level than just "we don't yet have the linquistic tools to communicate these complexities" that everyone struggles with.