Americans are currently facing a pandemic, civil unrest and a contentious presidential election. Each of these events is destabilizing—and controversial—in its own right. That the three are happening simultaneously sometimes makes it impossible to talk about anything else.
Reality bears this out. Difficult conversations on these controversial topics are happening everywhere people interact, including in the workplace. But while it’s always positive when people feel free to discuss difficult issues, lately these conversations have often descended into name-calling and personal attacks. Indeed, collectively, we lack the skills to communicate across political and ideological divides. Increasingly, we don’t agree on what’s real or what makes a claim true. Often, we can’t even agree on what specific words mean (for example, what is racism?).
Of course, a complex problem such as this one has complex causes. However, one contributing factor stands out: the lack of viewpoint diversity on campuses.
Higher education leans toward a singular ideological perspective. Often, the downsides of this singular vantage point are discussed in terms of self-censorship—students who see things differently often feel uncomfortable speaking up or asking questions. However, while self-censorship is certainly not conducive to learning, the inability to communicate that we’re witnessing today throughout our broader society may be the lack of viewpoint diversity’s most pernicious effect of all.
Absence of Diverse Perspectives on Campuses Has Far-Reaching Implications
A single viewpoint—based upon a specific set of beliefs about identity, social change and inequality—shapes teaching, research and the administrative side of campus life. UCLA professor John Villasenor and I go into this more deeply here. This perspective defines which positions, utterances or questions are considered perilous to one’s social or professional standing.
Indeed, numerous instructors have gotten into trouble for running afoul of the unwritten rules stemming from this singular perspective on issues that touch race, gender or other marginalized identities. Consider the experience of Lisa Littman in 2018. Littman, a professor at Brown University, published research suggesting that peer effects might be a contributing factor for some late-onset transgender youth—suggesting, in other words, that perhaps not every transgender person had felt that way since birth. The backlash was swift. As a result, two weeks after Littman’s paper was published in PLOS One, the journal announced it would be conducting a post-publication review—an unusual move in the world of academic publishing.
More recently, in 2020, University of Southern California professor Greg Patton used a Chinese word in class that some students felt sounded too similar to an offensive racial slur. Patton was subsequently removed from teaching the rest of the course. Littman, Patton and many others have run headlong into these challenges. And, while some may be inclined to dismiss these as isolated incidents, the reach of the problem is far greater.
These unspoken beliefs also help govern the narrow way students are taught to think. When students are limited in their exposure to the range of reasonable positions on controversial issues, one of two things happens—and, from a societal standpoint, neither is desirable. First, students who are predisposed to be sympathetic to the perspective that’s presented never learn that there are other positions fair-minded people can take. Second, students who are inclined to question or disagree with the dominant perspective are not given any framework or language to understand their own intuitions. They are left to wonder in isolation how to articulate what they’re thinking.
The upshot is that students can and do move through their entire education with the impression that there is one right way to understand the world, a subject I’ve written about here. To be fair, if the ideas that fell into that category were limited to statements such as that the Earth is round, the Earth revolves around the sun and water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, there would be little cause for concern. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Ideas that are exempt from criticism include politically controversial, but frequently invoked, concepts such as microaggressions, white privilege and color-blind racism. These concepts are taught, presented and discussed as though there’s no way to question or disagree with them that doesn’t come from a place of racial resentment or racial animus. They are treated as though they are as universally accepted as the scientific examples I listed above.
Color-Blind Racism—One Way to Understand the World
Color-blind racism, a component of critical race theory, is the idea that any attempt to view social problems through a “color-blind” or race-neutral lens is itself racist. In this sense, suggesting that affirmative action be based on socioeconomic class instead of race is a manifestation of color-blind racism because it doesn’t view the problem of socioeconomic disadvantage and differential access to opportunity through the prism of race.
The concept of color-blind racism elevates the importance of race and ethnicity, usually placing these in the highest possible ranked position on an imaginary list of how people define who they are. And some people feel this is exactly the right way to reclaim the very identities that have historically been marginalized and shut out.
As useful as the concept of color-blind racism can be to some, there are legitimate reasons to question and criticize it. First, not everyone thinks about identity in this manner. Some reasonably minded people (of all racial and ethnic backgrounds) think about who they are first and foremost based on, for instance, what they like to do or what they’re good at, and their race doesn’t enter the picture until further down the list.
In the not-too-distant past, I had a conversation with a graduate student who was himself a member of an underrepresented group. He expressed great frustration that, as an undergraduate, various racial-identity-based student organizations aggressively tried to recruit him, making assumptions about his interests and his politics based on his outward appearance. Meanwhile, his interests lay elsewhere. He said he had the same experience in graduate school, where people often assumed that he wanted to focus his studies on an area that was related to his minority status. Color-blind racism effectively denies that such people exist.
Second, one could reasonably ask whether embracing concepts that divide society along historically fraught lines does more harm than good. If the goal is to solve seemingly intractable social problems, is an approach that deepens our tribal identities the best way to proceed? On campuses generally and in classrooms specifically, these concerns are usually dismissed with a wave of the hand, if they’re even mentioned at all.
This brings us to the current problem: students don’t stay students forever. The college experience spills into students’ lives post-graduation—after all, that’s the goal of an education. This means that any inflexibility in thinking that is nourished during the college years is carried with students as they transition into the workforce. As a result, college graduates are completely unprepared to navigate the variation in thought that exists on some of the most controversial and sensitive questions we face today.
Into the World They Go
Since the advent of COVID-19, social interactions have been limited. However, people have slowly begun to return to their places of work, making it one of the settings most ill prepared for this communication breakdown. Employers need cooperation and goodwill among their employees, but they get neither if people are weighed down with the deterioration of these conversations that are happening now with increasing frequency.
In a series of recent interviews for Forbes.com, I spoke with the chief diversity officers at several large corporations. While they each brought their unique perspective, one point was clear: workplace discussions of sensitive and controversial sociopolitical issues are happening. This includes conversations about racism (including what the word means), fairness, policing, affirmative action, discrimination and any number of other issues. Businesses need to help their employees navigate that space.
Creating a harmonious and cooperative workplace requires reframing the contours of the discussion on sensitive issues and often entails, for example, frank discussions about the following:
- What kinds of attitudes, behaviors, or statements shut down conversations?
- What is the role of intent, when is it important to consider, and how much weight should it get?
- What makes a comment racist, and who gets to decide?
- How do we think about the variation of what people consider offensive?
The long-term solution to this problem is to bring more perspectives onto college campuses and into the classroom. With this goal in mind, I teach a course called “Bigots and Snowflakes,” where we take a deep dive into the sources of this breakdown and think about how to move forward. And for those who can’t take the course, I have created a series of short videos that can serve as a starting point for some of these difficult conversations.
As long as campuses continue to fall short in this area, we should recognize the effects that its absence has had on our lives, including in the workplace, and take steps to remedy this shortcoming. It may be difficult, but it’s never too late to learn how to create the space we need to communicate with one another on controversial issues effectively and in good faith.