Intellectual Diversity and the Problem of Speaking Up

The blog has been the scene of many debates about the importance of intellectual diversity in academia.  Arguments for intellectual diversity are often made in terms of how different ideas can be beneficial. Arguments run that there is no single truth perspective.  It is possible to get better ideas by combining different inputs.  For example, the market of ideas creates better products when there is more competition.

It’s important to realize that there are many benefits. However, I think the greatest benefit to intellectual diversity within academia isn’t so much its ability to generate a wide range of ideas. feltIt is also the variety of ideas it actually represents voiced.  According to my experiences, people are more inclined to speak out if they have intellectual diversity.  This corollary is probably an under-appreciated one to having access to a wide range of inputs.  These benefits can only be achieved if people are open and willing to share their thoughts.  My sense is that people will be more open to sharing their opinions if they don’t agree with the speaker’s priors or believe in something else.

The dynamic within a  particular faculty or discussion group might run something like this.  Let’s say that a professor gives an academic argument in a faculty workshop supporting a highly-publicized ideological or political cause.  Imagine further that almost all of the people in the room support this cause.  However, the majority of the audience agrees that this professor’s argument is flawed.  They’re thinking and it’s supporting a great cause.  However, it faces many challenges.

Social dynamics can encourage audience members to question the speaker and make them more self-conscious when deciding how to answer.  The dynamics of the audience will vary between groups.  My sense is, however, that those with an ideology are less likely to object to arguments that support it.

Hidden sympathies are a part of the problem. It is possible for direct questioning to give the appearance that someone may secretly sympathize with the opposing side.  This is a common occurrence in heated public discussion of controversial topics.  When there is an objection, the particular question of merit can often be followed up with additional questions regarding the reasons for the objection, their agenda and so on.  It is possible to lose your faith in a cause that you are passionate about and which the group considers important for its collective identity.

Potential questioners might decide to not raise objections in that situation. If you keep silent, your motives won’t be questioned.  If they do decide to speak up, they might use indirect language to make it easier for you to ignore or dismiss them. The questioner tries to find a balance between the interest of the group in the exchange and their own self-interests in identification within the group. The former is protected to varying degrees.

Because outsiders have less to be concerned about the in-group dynamic, intellectual diversity may help.  If they do not share the view of the majority of the group, they will be less concerned about the suspicion of secret sympathies.  This is true even for those who are not in agreement with the majority of the views but know that there are others.  They will be less concerned about misunderstanding their questions if they think their coworkers are from different viewpoints.

All the usual cautions are in place.  There are many variables that can affect group dynamics.  However, there is a limit to how much intellectual diversity can be useful. This means that judgments must always be made as to which viewpoints are useless and on-the–wall.  However, this is an interesting dynamic that I feel happens often enough and where there is opposition, it can serve an important purpose.