Diversity matters. Everywhere.

Yesterday a colleague posted a link to an article in The Federalist calling out liberals for not listening. I think the author has a point.

The anonymous author voted for Trump. She’s afraid of the reaction from liberals that surround her in her professional career. Everywhere she sees liberals painting Trump voters with a broad brush: deplorable. The liberals around her repeat the mistake made by the media, commentators, and political campaigns over the past two years: the ecological fallacy. Both sides of politics made this mistake. But our anonymous Trump supporter is repeating it.

Over and over I saw headlines, blogs, videos, tweets and facebook comments that said things like “Racism is associated with Trump support”. Every single one of these articles was based on poll results that ended up reporting an average level of X (substitute racism, misogyny, education, income) for probable Trump voters compared with probable Clinton voters. The fallacy arises when this average, an attribute of the entire population of Trump voters is assumed to apply to all of them as individuals. I agree with Anonymous that this mistake ends up making conversation difficult, if not impossible.

Reflecting on her time in graduate school, Anonymous says

We want to stop feeling silenced and condemned for having alternative viewpoints. We want to articulate thought-provoking, uncomfortable truisms, and not be told, “you can’t say that,” without even a modest effort at explaining why.

I’ve heard this sentiment from other conservative colleagues. I think it is a terrible outcome for universities to reject ideological diversity across disciplines. We celebrate diversity in race, gender, and ecosystems. Why not diversity of political opinions?

At the same time, painting all liberals as people who insist “you can’t say that” without explaining why is the ecological fallacy all over again. Yes, there are people who insist I shouldn’t say “Gay people shouldn’t get married.”, without really thinking through why I shouldn’t say that. Some liberals have thought through why. But most people don’t have the energy or time to work out the details of moral reasoning. They buy a worldview as a package. Conservatives do this too – it is simply a consequence of our bounded rationality. Expecting everyone on both sides of the political spectrum to be deeply conversant in moral reasoning is, well, unreasonable.

It is uncomfortable to be somewhere people don’t share your political views. In the gym yesterday I overheard “You’re too nice to be a liberal!”. As I sweated away on the bike I wondered what she would think of an atheist immigrant liberal. “If you’re not with God you’re with Satan!” Ulp. Good thing I kept my mouth shut. I get it. Having different thoughts from the people around you is uncomfortable. Universities should do better.

Anonymous says that her and her husband

… endeavor to get our points across by subtly questioning our opponents’ assumptions, while letting them take things to their logical conclusion if they are open-minded enough to do so.

Why is taking this approach a bad thing? It’s brilliant! Examining our base assumptions about moral reasoning is a fantastic way to build a deeper understanding of the other. I had many great conversations with a conservative, deeply religious colleague that took this form. I learned a great deal.

In conclusion Anonymous writes

When confronting people who disagree with you, the best tactic is to prove why they’re wrong instead of shutting them up. Have enough faith in your own arguments to welcome dissenting opinions; if your ideas are truly superior, it will show. No need to get emotional, indignant, or defensive.

I agree with the last sentence, but disagree that the goal is to “prove why they are wrong”. At best, you can reveal that someone’s base assumptions are different from yours, or that their logic is inconsistent. But expecting to change those assumptions, those bedrock beliefs, is unreasonable. Nonetheless, avoiding the ecological fallacy is a great place to start.

Andrew Tyre
Professor of Wildlife Ecology
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