Intellectual Diversity and the Problem of Speaking Up

A few thoughts about disagreement in academia.

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There have been a lot of debates here at the blog, and elsewhere, about the value of intellectual diversity in academia.  The case for intellectual diversity is usually expressed in terms of the value of having different ideas. No one ideological perspective has a monopoly on the truth, the argument runs.  You can get to better ideas, in general, by drawing insights from a range of different inputs.  To borrow a metaphor, the marketplace of ideas produces better products when there's competition.

There's a lot to that, I think. But I've come to think that an under-appreciated benefit of intellectual diversity in academia is not so much the range of ideas felt as it is the range of ideas actually voiced.  In my experience, at least, intellectual diversity makes it more likely that people will speak up.  This is perhaps an under-appreciated corollary to the general case for having a broad range of inputs.  To get those benefits, people need to be willing to say what they think.  And my sense is that people are more willing to say what they think when they aren't necessarily sharing the priors of the speaker, or at least believe some others in the audience aren't.

The dynamic within a  particular faculty or discussion group might run something like this.  Imagine there's a faculty workshop, and a professor presents an academic argument that supports a high-profile political or ideological cause.  Imagine, further, that pretty much everyone in the audience strongly supports that cause.  At the same time, many in the audience conclude that the professor's specific argument has a lot of problems.  It's in support of a wonderful cause, they're all thinking.  But it has a lot of problems.

When the audience questions the speaker about the argument, social dynamics may encourage the audience to be self-conscious about how or whether to respond.  Dynamics vary group to group, of course.  But my sense is that, often enough, those who share an ideological view are more reluctant to voice objections to arguments offered in support of that view.

Part of the problem is what you might call the suspicion of hidden sympathies. Direct questioning of the argument may create the impression the questioner is secretly sympathetic to the other side of the political cause.  You see this all the time in public discussions of hot-button topics.  When an objection is made, the specific question about whether the objection has merit often brings up additional questions about why that person asked the question, what's their agenda, and the like.  If the cause is one you hold dear, and that the group sees as important to its collective identity, you may not want to risk being seen as having uncertain commitment to it.

In that setting, potential questioners may decide to keep objections to themselves. You can't have your motives questioned if you stay silent, after all.  Or if they decide to speak, they may do so obliquely, downplaying objections so that they become easier to dismiss or ignore. Either way, the questioner ends up trying to balance the group's interest in the exchange of ideas with the questioner's self-interest in in-group identification. To varying degrees, the former suffers to protect the latter.

Intellectual diversity can help this situation, I think, because outsiders are less likely to worry about these in-group dynamics.  Not sharing the views of the rest of the group, they are likely to be less worried about suspicion of hidden sympathies.  And I think this extends to those in the group who share the majority view but who know there are dissenters from it.  The more they believe that their colleagues are coming from different perspectives, the less self-conscious they are likely to be about whether their question might be misunderstood.

The usual caveats apply, of course.  Group dynamics can vary.  And there are limits to what kinds of intellectual diversity are useful, with judgments always needing to be made about what views are off-the-wall and useless versus on-the-wall and useful.  But I think this dynamic occurs often enough, and in settings where the dissenting voice is on-the-wall, that it ends up as an important purpose intellectual diversity tends to serve.