What is more important, diversity of ethnicity or diversity of thought? Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s the clear choice was diversity of thought – more importantly, diversity of thoughts AND the right to express that thought. Free Speech. At that time the universities were the “hotbed” of free speech – particularly with regard to speech that was deemed unpopular – at least, unpopular with the status quo.
At that time civil rights and the Viet Nam War were on the front burner. There were civil rights marches in the South to protest de jure segregation even though Chicago and Boston provided de facto segregation as deep seated and repressive as any found in Biloxi, MS or Birmingham, AL. Some marched for racial equality, some because they were idealistic kids, and still others because there was an opportunity for violence and revenge. Regardless of the reasons, the marches and the protests ushered in an era where the de jure Jim Crow laws were abandoned and the slow march to racial equality began. The de facto segregation of the northern industrial cities were and still are all but ignored.
There were protests against the war in Viet Nam with demands to end the war. Some protested because they deemed the United States the invader and the aggressor, others because they were pro-communism, and still others (myself included) because we were pouring our young men and women into a war that the politicians would not fight to win. Regardless of the reason, those protests brought the war to an inglorious end.
In both instances it was that diversity of thought and freedom to express that diversity of thought that carried the day. Amongst all the chanting, picketing, signs – both clever and imbecilic – and bullhorn demands, there ran ribbons of intelligent thought that challenged the status quo. Ribbons of thought that were first uncomfortable and then undeniable. Ribbons of thought that demanded an answer and then a resolution. Should a man be judged for the quality of his character rather than the color of his skin? If you cannot explain the purpose of a war, should you be fighting it?
While acknowledging the power of diversity of thought, let’s make sure that we do not give credence to those who resorted to violence at the first instance. It was not the Black Panthers nor the Nation of Islam that changed the norm for civil rights. The street riots, the burning of cities, the murderous killing of police were the spasm of violence that always seems to accompany societal change. It was Dr. Martin Luther King and those who marched, and prayed and rallied peacefully that brought about the change. It was not the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) or the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that changed the course of our involvement in the Viet Nam War. Rather it was the debates that often began on college campuses and ended in Congress that brought the change.
Let me give you a more personal anecdote about the power of speech. When I was a senior in law school I had relatively long hair and a pretty wispy mustache. (When I look back on pictures of me then even I have to laugh.) The dean of the law school was a rigid but excellent lawyer who had a preconceived idea of what a lawyer should look like – I did not fulfill the ideal. About a month before graduation he called me into his office and told me that unless I cut my hair and shaved my mustache I would not be allowed to graduate. I told him that I doubted he had that authority and demurred. I graduated with my long hair and mustache. After graduation I had signed on to assist my father’s law partner in a first degree murder trial and shortly after starting my father called me into his office and sat me down. He said that as a professional I had a responsibility to my clients and that responsibility included not doing anything that might distract from the cause of the client. We lived in southeast Montana in a community dominated by farmers and ranchers who, regardless of their political views, were generally conservative in their own lives. I thought about what my father had said for a couple of days, particularly with regard to the upcoming trial. A couple of days later I made my way to the barber where the mustached disappeared and the haircut became more mainstream.
In the first instance the dean demanded without rationale and I resisted. In the second instance my father provided rationale without demands and I understood and, frankly, agreed. In the end, the power of free speech coupled with a rational basis for a point of view prevailed over authoritarian demands. That is precisely the same sequence that has changed the course of our nation time after time – the American Revolution, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.
But we are now at a different time – maybe. It appears that we are at a time when demands are made without rationale. Free speech and diversity of thought have given way to intimidation and identity politics. In one instance diversity of thought is barred through disruption, threats of disruption and worse yet by denial of a forum to express that diversity of thought. College campuses and other institutions have barred diversity of thought using new tools like “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” but the object remains which is to suppress diversity of thought and the free speech that supports it.
In the other instance, identity politics seeks to delegitamize diversity of thought by ascribing a monolithic ethos to each category of humans – African-American, Hispanic, gay, lesbian, Jewish, Muslim, male, female, financial class, young, elderly, etc. And anyone seeking to deviate from the ethos of his or her ascribed class is deemed to be unworthy of trust. If you are female and opposed to abortion on demand you are deemed to be “submissive” and therefore unworthy to speak for or about women. If you are gay and believe in conservative principles you are deemed “self-loathing” and therefor unworthy. If you are African-American and critical of Antifa or Black Lives Matter you are deemed an Uncle Tom and a race traitor. Even the idea of free speech has come under attack as an example of “white privilege” and therefore unworthy of adherence. For every category there is a slur for members who dissent.
In both such instances the goal is to suppress diversity of thought and free speech because those who espouse such tactics are unable to defend their own views with facts and/or logic. They lack rationale for their demands. They demand assention without question.
Not surprisingly most of those who demand acceptance without logic or dissent come from the far left of the political spectrum. In many instances it is the same people that preached the glories of socialism (communism) during the 60’s and 70’s only to watch it fail universally – The Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba, Nicaragua’s Sandinista, and now we are witnessing the internal destruction of Venezuela. Even the massive Communist party in China is no longer communist – it has embraced a form of competition, free markets and private enterprise. And in other places the remnants of communism is more about totalitarianism than it is about socialism.
It was so under Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Castro, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chavez, Ho Chi Minh, and Mussolini. Their authority could not withstand scrutiny, questioning, debate or dissent and, therefor, repression was the only option. And today it is still true on college campuses and those who claim to “represent” the classes of people they have created. And while it is described as “post-modern” thought, it is in reality the same form of repression as all of its ugly predecessors. It cannot survive scrutiny. It cannot withstand debate. And diversity of thought coupled with free speech is its archenemy.
Before you think so casually about the importance of diversity of thought and free speech, think again. It is the singular foundation of what makes a free people FREE. And it is your responsibility to preserve it. If not you, who then?