Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reaction to the "Reinventing Diversity" Presentation

We viewed an interesting presentation today during our Hopkins Orientation called Reinventing Diversity, delivered by a man named Howard Ross, who wrote a book by the same title. The presentation challenged the notion that there are biased people and not-racist people, or even that bias was bad, arguing instead that we are all biased and that that is okay. They trick, he argued, was to separate helpful, logical biases which help us (don't touch hot stoves, run from somebody if they're charging at you with a weapon, etc.) from unfair, illogical biases which do not. He then gave advice on specifically how to do that, both individually and organizationally or culturally. I totally, 100% agree with this core element of his presentation, and I strongly recommend it to any who get the chance to see his slide show. But something doesn't feel right, here...uniform consensus is just no fun! I would feel like I'm falling short of my duties if I didn't find something in his presentation to disagree with! So here are some of my caveats with what he had to say.

1. At one point, Mr. Ross argued that oftentimes we don't control how we act, because our unconscious does. I disagree with his definition of the word "we". He referred to "we" as in our rational consciousnesses. Since many of our decisions are driven by the irrational aspects of our mind, products of our experiences, emotions, and biases rather than of reasoned thought, Ross concluded that "we" don't actually control our actions. But "we" includes our unconscious too. Even if a drug addict's brain has a chemical imbalance which makes it dependent on heroine and chemically incapable of reasonably choosing not to pursue it, that drug addict still chooses to buy (or steal) drugs. Even if a fat person is heavily influenced by his or her brain to buy food, they still choose to buy food. We are our brains! In our attempt to understand how our brains work, we mustn't separate the brain as if it were not part of our identity.

2. He made one joke that appeared to me the height of irony. In an attempt to encourage us to become more culturally aware and less ethnocentric he joked that "If somebody speaks three languages, we call them trilingual. If somebody speaks two languages, we call the bilingual. If somebody speaks just one language, we call them an American." Nearly everybody in the audience laughed. I bet very few people recognized that he had just totally stereotyped Americans! I know what he means, and I found the joke to be funny, but isn't that exactly the sort of mindset he's trying to confront? If he had made a joke about Mexicans instead of a joke about Americans, I doubt many in the audience would have laughed. Joking about ourselves is always less awkward in a group setting, but it's still a contradiction.

3. The issue of Affirmative Action arose, and he said "Now, I'm not going to tell you what to believe, but affirmative action is really no different from______". He filled in the blank with a lot of common, everyday examples which very few people oppose. Firstly, that roughly translates to "I'm not going to tell you what to believe, but here's what to believe." I am a staunch opponent of affirmative action, and even of the EEO programs he spoke of as universally approved, and I didn't appreciate his preaching. But besides that, his analogies were poor. He said affirmative action was no different than allowing in athletes who aren't quite as good academically as others. This isn't true. One is a wise business move, and one is misguided social engineering. Athletes bring in money through TV, merchandise, and ticket revenue. The benefits of affirmative action do not. College is a business, and giving one applicant a boost for monetary reasons is different than giving a boost to promote social justice. Besides, on merit alone, being good at sports is a talent, or else a learned and practiced skill, whereas race is luck of the draw. Athletic abilities are a marketable attribute which should be placed on an application, because certain people have better athletic abilities than others. Skin color is not, because nobody has a better skin color than anyone else.

4. Lastly, he also seemed to bemoan the clash of ideas in modern political discourse as narrow mined and futile. He encouraged us to preface our stated opinions with the words "I think" and recognize that our perception of the truth is not the same as another's perception of the truth. This is true, of course, but it doesn't mean a clash of ideas is bad, and it doesn't mean objective truth does not exist. Ideally, objective truths emerge from this clash of ideas when we establish what we agree/disagree on and then logically reason out the areas of contention. In a way, he encouraged politicians not to assert their beliefs as true, but then attempted, through statistics, anecdotes, and experiments, to tell us what the truth was. He didn't meekly go up there and say "well, I'm not sure, but I think that we all have bias and I think we should stop separating us from them." Rather, he trumpeted that he had 45 years of diversity training experience and that this was the way it was. Good for him for doing so! The recognition that your beliefs are heavily influenced by your perspective, experiences and culture doesn't mean you should back away from your beliefs.

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