Diversity without conflict?

The Campus on a Hill

Ismael Farooqui

About five years ago, I was seated next to a wispy old man at a communal table. The occasion was the dreaded college interview; it seemed unavoidable and unending. Somewhere between his reminiscing on the integrated crew team and the ‘50s, my interviewer turned his head to face me directly. “You don’t think diversity comes without conflict, do you?”

I didn’t drink coffee then, but the question called for a thoughtfully long sip before a baritone “Hmmm.” In the 17 years I was around, no one ever bothered to mention that diversity could be anything but good. I was left to jumble together a cogent response, and perhaps I still am wanting in clarity.

I was reminded of this moment after the publication of an anti-Semitic cartoon by The Daily Californian in a city celebrated for its diversity — ironically. The little bits of wisdom I’ve collected since that college interview have led me to the conclusion that diversity is conflict. And in the case of the cartoon, our diversity seemed to condone open hostility toward an ethnic group. The value of diversity on our campus can be described as a civil state of conflict among different groups of people. If we don’t recognize this delicate balance holding our campus up, we may allow the collapse of the very diversity we cherish.   

Diversity is an abstraction that is defined as a variety or a range of different things. There are essentially two main ways it becomes operable on campus: in admissions policy and group representation. UC Berkeley’s incoming class is one of the most economically diverse in the country and has one of the highest proportions of Asian American students compared to other elite institutions. As for group representation, one can find examples from the diverse list of elected officials of the ASUC, representing a multitude of ethnic and religious communities, or the endless number of student organizations on campus celebrating different group identities.

From orientation to graduation, UC Berkeley is a vast and expensive celebration of the diversity of its student body. The Division of Equity and Inclusion has institutionalized the value to the point that there is a website devoted to diversity.

The diversity of people here is worthy of celebration, but it must be distinguished from diversity of opinion, which is also important but differs in a few fundamental ways. Opinions are not so arbitrary or fixed as the circumstances of an individual’s birth. Not all opinions are created equal or deserving of equal representation. Consider the divisions exposed by the anti-Semitic cartoon. The cartoonist’s opinion clearly wasn’t civil, and instead of a dialogue on Israel and Palestine, it became hostile and regrettable for our campus’s diversity.

Why call diversity a civil state of conflict? Diversity is civil in that it’s bound by norms and laws. Diversity is a state because it exists in living, breathing and speaking people. Diversity is conflict because the very existence of disparate people and ideas colliding, clashing and interacting but not merging, consolidating or integrating means they are in a state of sustained conflict. In other words, the very existence of a diverse and contrasting community means people, opinions and lifestyles are in conflict with each other.

My formulation of diversity means that not all conflict is bad. When you hold a disagreeing opinion or live a distinct way, the conflict, or contrast, between yourself and another is often enriching. When it breaks out in debate that extends late into the night, it’s a praiseworthy process of learning.

But not all conflict is enriching, and when it directs itself against ethnicities at large, it becomes dehumanizing and regrettable. When people direct their anger toward another group at large, ethnic conflict emerges and threatens to destroy the peaceful coexistence it grew out of.

A further danger is when ethnic conflict masquerades as diversity, claiming to be the other side in a debate or an honest representation of a marginalized community’s grievance. Here the values of diversity are used in defense of group hostility, which of course undermines diversity. One may aptly think of hate speech masquerading as free speech. The invitation of Milo to campus was frequently defended as providing “the other side” to the liberal perspective on campus. This was a rather dishonest argument, as it implied that Milo’s extreme views were representative of conservative opinion.

Diversity can also slide inwardly into a near-exclusive attachment to one’s own group. In the name of diversity, we can become infatuated with our identity and begin projecting its boundaries around us. This can engender the kind of commonplace thinking that, for example, one wouldn’t understand the Muslim experience if they weren’t Muslim. Perhaps unknowingly to the speaker, the claim challenges the very value of diversity: that we can learn and understand each other’s experiences.

Once we erect these ethnic borders through our campus, it becomes terribly difficult to remove them. An observer of the Israel and Palestine divide on our campus may come to believe it is as intractable an issue here as in the Middle East. More than ever then, it’s incumbent upon us to consider the barriers we are projecting on our open campus.

Living in the diverse city we do, I ask that we recognize that our diversity is conflict. Curiously enough, by not being afraid to discuss diversity and conflict together, we might make our campus a little more hospitable for everyone.

Ismael Farooqui writes the Friday blog on campus culture in a time of institutional crisis. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishfarooqui.

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  • Man with Axe

    I appreciate the central thesis of your article. Diversity certainly seems to lead to conflict. It’s not clear whether that is a good or a bad thing in and of itself. What makes it bad is the application of identity politics to diversity. You touch upon this, but it is worth clarifying.

    A group of diverse people, of many colors, wearing different kinds of clothing, eating different kinds of food, is so much more interesting than a group where everyone is alike. It’s a positive for all when these various people also have a variety of viewpoints which they can share in a civil manner as they try to come closer to the truth. But what gets in the way of that ideal on the modern campus? Identity politics.

    Every day some minority student (or several) is writing about how tough it is to be a colored person on campus. And this is true at the most progressive campuses in the land, not just at White People Conservative State University.

    http://columbiaspectator.com/news/2017/11/16/i-dont-feel-like-i-belong-for-students-of-color-unique-challenges-shape-columbia-experience/

    Colored people have been taught that they should stick to their own kind, that the white majority doesn’t want them, doesn’t like them, doesn’t understand them. So they self-segregate, but they complain about it because they know in their hearts this isn’t right. They complain that they are exhausted from “teaching” white people about race, as if the white people are asking to be taught. They complain that white people don’t participate in their protests against white people, and when they do participate, they criticize them for “performative allyship.” They don’t like it when their fellow colored students date white people. They think that the university isn’t doing enough to make their lives easier, such as more colored faculty, more colored studies programs, bigger physical buildings for their ethnic centers, colored-only dorms, orientations, and graduations. They have their antennae out for microaggressions. I saw a good one the other day. A Chinese student thought he was being disrespected because a couple of his dorm mates who were studying Chinese didn’t seek out his help. If they had, that would have been a microaggression. “Oh, you think because I look Chinese that means I speak Chinese?” they no doubt anticipated as a response.

    There are plenty of things wrong with white people, too, don’t get me wrong. But the failures of “diversity” are coming from the leftist insistence on multiculturalism, instead of working toward the melting pot. America only works as a creedal country. We all come from different places and peoples, but we can all get along if we can agree on the foundational principles: free speech for all (even Milo) even when I hate your speech and you hate mine; violence is not speech and speech is not violence; group identity does not matter, only individuals matter; none of us represents his race or ethnicity; no individual is inherently privileged or racist or fragile because of his race, rather if he is any of those things it is only because of his individual character and his personal circumstances.

  • BlackConservative

    I wish you kids would recognize intellectual diversity and and diversity based on someones character not the color of their skin.

  • cadcam

    Unfortunately, the focus on diversity has become over wrought and suboptimal, because now no one is focused on what we have in common, the things that held us together as a productive and orderly society and nation. in fact the few things that we had in common most of the last century that held the country together are under attack. With nothing left in common, and cleaved by identify politics, the country is gone. Tribal. It is not going to be pretty. And the attack on bourgeoisie culture of hard work, sacrifice today for a better tomorrow, being self-responsible, rule of law, MYOB, etc. (something most Americans had in common) puts our economy and society at risk.

  • Killer Marmot

    It is strange that Farooqui did not mention the most toxic forms of conflict on campus — namely, violence and depriving people of their right to speak or associate as they wish.

  • McBain

    >different races are in constant conflict

    sounds like you fundamentally misunderstood dialectical materialism but okay