Disagreeing To Agree
The recent online battle between Coleman Hughes and Adam Grant on race-preferential policies demonstrates our tendency to maximize differences even when we generally agree with each other
I had to do a double-take while listening to a recent podcast episode featuring an interview between author Malcolm Gladwell and psychologist Adam Grant. At one point, Grant talked about the benefits and challenges of racial preferences in hiring and college admissions. Given the challenges, and the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action, he proposed a solution: “Maybe we should stop defining people by their group membership.”
I backed up the podcast to hear him say that again. I was stunned.
One month earlier, the writer and podcaster Coleman Hughes had accused TED of suppressing views of his TED talk that argued for race-blind public policy, partly due to red flags raised by Grant. Hughes skewered TED for “displaying all the hallmarks of an institution captured by the new progressive orthodoxy.” Responding to the allegation, Grant gave more context and insisted that Hughes’ talk contradicts the science on color-blindness.
But here he was on Gladwell’s podcast, making an argument that sounded very much like a central point of Hughes’ TED talk. To learn more about Grant’s view, I read his new book, “Hidden Potential,” in which a chapter on college admissions and job interviews makes a compelling case for race-blind policies that Hughes would probably support.
I couldn’t help but wonder: Had these two public intellectuals argued and stoked a culture war over an idea on which they actually agree?
I’m not accusing Grant of hypocrisy or flip-flopping. Rather, I think this controversy reveals a challenge of modern dialogue. Cultural and political forces magnify our differences and disagreement goes viral. Our common ground goes missing.
In Search of Common Ground
I’ve spent the past 12 years working in university public relations. As a political moderate working on somewhat liberal campuses in conservative states, I’ve learned to look for the strongest arguments on both sides of an issue—political or otherwise—and, where possible, find common ground. That mindset helps when explaining academic programs and ideas to a divided public.
That’s the attitude I brought to my reading of what Hughes and Grant have said on the issue of racial preferences. I found quite a bit of agreement, even if they follow their common premises to different conclusions.
In his TED talk, Hughes proposes a society that does not treat race as the essential, defining characteristic of a person’s life and identity. “A person's race doesn't tell you whether they're kind or selfish, whether their beliefs are right or wrong, whether they'll become your best friend or your worst enemy,” he says.
He argues that color-blindness is not racist, and he criticizes the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund for its gender- and race-based rollout that got the relief program canceled. According to Hughes, awarding aid based on income or class would help disadvantaged people without the opposition that race-based programs receive.
Grant, a four-time TED speaker and host of multiple TED podcasts, was asked to review the talk after it drew some backlash from progressives. Grant told TED leaders that the talk contradicts a 2020 meta-analysis that said color-blind policy fails to prevent discrimination as compared with multicultural approaches.
But in his talk with Gladwell and in his new book, Grant explains some challenges of identity-based programs, which “don’t capture all the difficulties individuals have endured.”
He told Gladwell, “Maybe instead of assuming that just because people came from a particular background that they had the same degree of difficulty and the same adversity, we should actually get to know the individual students and find out the obstacles they faced.”
One chapter of “Hidden Potential” argues that the methods we use to select people for jobs or college admission are broken because they reward past opportunities rather than individual potential. Elite university degrees, years of experience in a job and success in a previous job are not exceptional forecasters of future performance, Grant writes.
He also says that affirmative action is “a double-edged sword” because the people who supposedly benefit from affirmative action actually perform better in organizations that do not practice it. Racial preferences may give these individuals an acute case of imposter syndrome, according to Grant.
He suggests other ways to identify and support potential, such as looking at grade point trajectory (how a student’s grades improve over time), considering difficulty of courses taken in addition to grades earned, or using low-stakes assignments to gauge a candidate’s ability and potential. One thing these proposals have in common? They are color-blind, just as Hughes would like them to be.
Grant and Hughes differ, though, about what to do when color-blindness does not result in equal representation of racial groups. For example, they both address how orchestral auditions behind a screen result in more women being selected, but racial diversity is still lacking. Some observers have argued for ending race-blind auditions.
At the end of Hughes’ TED talk, TED curator Chris Anderson joined him on stage and asked what an orchestra should do to increase diversity. Hughes’ take: Keep the audition behind a veil, but level the playing field by investing in music education programs.
“If you rig it at this level [of the audition], then you're just changing the bar by which you would measure progress to begin with,” he says. “We want to maintain color-blind standards, but actually address the root causes of the problem.”
In contrast, Grant’s solution in “Hidden Potential” is that self-taught musicians be held to a different standard from musicians who benefited from an expensive Juilliard education. It’s a different approach from Hughes’, but it’s still a color-blind standard.
Hiding Our Similarities Increases Polarization
These shared principles might surprise anyone who followed the controversy of Hughes’ talk. Neither Hughes nor Grant identified any common ground between their ideas. In fact, Hughes amplified the differences between them.
This could be because of nuanced differences in their definitions of “color-blind.” Maybe it’s that they address different contexts—Hughes focuses more on public policy, while Grant’s book is more interested in giving people opportunities to succeed—and therefore the ideas didn’t seem to connect. But it could be that the political sympathies of their different audiences drove them to emphasize very different aspects of their ideas.
But regardless of how their common ground got lost, the result is clear. Hughes’ allegations provided ammunition for a heated woke vs. anti-woke cancel-culture war. Reactions on X (formerly Twitter) ran the gamut from complaining about “ideological capture” at TED to warning Hughes, “This could be a case of them keeping their enemy close and prepping for an assault on you,” while others explained away the low views on Hughes’ talk as the natural result of people not wanting to watch it.
Grant took a beating in the public response to Hughes’ claims. One person imagined him “wielding daggers in the background,” while another claimed the story as proof that “academics like Adam Grant are whoring themselves to affirm ideological agenda both out in the public and behind the scene.”
Jesse Singal and Hughes have published essays criticizing the science that formed the basis of Grant’s critique. They have a point that there’s another way to read that research, and that a replication crisis renders such science untrustworthy.
You might be tempted to brush off this battle as just another example of woke cancel culture—TED showing its true colors!—or as the latest round of overblown pushback against it—conservatives love to cry wolf when their ideas don’t go viral! But I think this conflict matters. The fact that sharp divisions arise from a disagreement over similar ideas reflects a general dysfunction in public discourse. Too often, America’s areas of agreement get papered over by partisan politics, with potential for dangerous consequences.
For example, it’s difficult to imagine any middle ground on abortion or gun control in the U.S. But according to a 2022 Pew poll, more than half of pro-choice Americans said that abortion’s legality should depend on how far along a pregnancy is, while a third agreed at least somewhat with the statement, “Human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights.”
On gun control, half or more of Republicans support background checks for purchasers at private sales and at gun shows, a federal database to track guns and bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
These stats might surprise or confuse pro-life protesters and gun control advocates. America has a political perception gap, meaning Democrats and Republicans both overestimate what percentage of people in the opposite party hold extreme views. This perception gap may result from moderate voters’ tendency to support more extreme candidates and parties “insofar as these parties pull policy in a desired direction.” Two voters might have similar ideas, but because one leans right and the other left, they seem miles apart.
Rather than find common ground, Americans tend to gravitate toward more heated arguments based on partisan disagreement—or stop communicating altogether. In the 2020 election cycle, nearly half of U.S. adults stopped talking politics with people with whom they disagreed. At the same time, the dynamics of social media reward attacking the opposition. By overlooking our common ground, we become more polarized.
Talk Rather Than Condemn
The good news is that open communication could reverse the trend. New research by More in Common shows that hearing people from the opposite party share what they actually believe reduces partisan rancor temporarily. Hearing someone within one’s own party clarify the other party’s beliefs helps, too.
Real-life examples abound. In Arkansas, a series of dinner discussions helped fish and game regulators win hunters’ support for some regulatory changes. In Utah, a joint commercial by two opposing candidates for governor reduced support for partisan violence.
Ironically, this idea of talking across disagreements is another strategy on which Hughes and Grant agree. In Hughes’ piece for The Free Press, he shared that during the TED conference he was asked to speak privately with Black TED employees who were concerned about his message. “I agreed to speak with them on principle, that principle being that you should always speak with your critics because they may expose crucial blind spots in your worldview,” he wrote.
In November, Grant shared the following on X and LinkedIn: “The best way to open people's minds isn't to argue with them. It's to listen to them. When people feel understood, they become less defensive and more reflective—and develop less extreme, more nuanced views.”
What would have happened if Grant, upon reviewing Hughes’ talk, had reached out for a conversation? If Hughes, rather than penning a viral op-ed, had asked Grant a few clarifying questions?
They might have discovered similar beliefs, or at least understood the nuanced concerns that separate their ideas. They might have struck on a compromise idea—race-blind public policy, but race-aware evaluations to detect lingering discrimination or disadvantage. They could have co-authored a piece: “Five ways to support disadvantaged communities without defining them by race.”
That headline might be less likely to go viral. But it would have modeled constructive discussions and showed people how to discover their hidden common ground. It’s a lesson we need to see and practice.