Higher Education

OPINION: “We are facing a fight over intellectual diversity”

An academic discusses the need for words that protect

CAIRO, Oct. 9, 2011 — Seventeen people were killed in clashes between security forces and Coptic Christians protesting against an attack on a church.

CAIRO, Oct. 9, 2011 — Seventeen people were killed in clashes between security forces and Coptic Christians protesting against an attack on a church.

In 1912, my great-grandfather donated land and money to build St. Damiana Coptic Orthodox Church in my mother’s village outside of El Fayoum, Egypt.

He even had the bell from the church fashioned and imported from Italy.

In 2013, just one year after celebrating its centennial anniversary, the church was sacked and burned to the ground.

It was part of a spate of church burnings that occurred that year in Egypt. The isolated few who conduct terrorist attacks like those on my great-grandfather’s church think of the Coptic people, my people, as sub-human.

In my American homeland, far away from my ancestral home, our response to such extreme and brazen hate has been to do exactly the same — to demonize our different, though no less aggrieved, minority brethren. For example, in 2017, assaults on Muslims in the U.S. exceeded post-9/11 levels, according to the Pew Research Center.

We are facing a fight over intellectual diversity. However, I see this fight as less about differing views and more about the extreme language increasingly used to present these views. Such a fight hits home for me as a Coptic Egyptian-American.

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On a professional level, what I see is an alarming recent trend to conflate intellectual diversity with extreme language. The very extremist language used to justify so much hate of my people and so many others is now being argued as necessary for a truly diverse dialogue. As a particularly glaring example of this trend of welcoming diversity as welcoming extremism, I found myself viscerally moved by the recent approaches advocated by the group Rhodes Scholars for Intellectual Diversity.

Dan Lubrich, a spokesperson for the group, says that the Rhodes Scholarship, and academia more generally, is in a “leftward drift” and seeking to ban conservatives. This is an important point to consider, and one could debate this with an informed discussion around numerous studies that show while academics in the social sciences tend to be more liberal, academics in engineering and business disciplines are more politically balanced as a group, with as many independents and conservatives as there are liberals.

In fact, such results come from an article posted by the group Conservative Criminology, which shares Lubrich’s view that academia is left-leaning.

Instead, the Rhodes group argues that this leftward drift can only be countered with extreme language and graphics. For example, in the group’s recent post entitled “The Oxford ‘Rape Epidemic’ and the Sorry State of Feminism,” they argue that in order for us to have a more balanced dialogue about feminism and identity politics, we must acknowledge and engage with graphic visual and verbal accounts of rape and female circumcision (note: the article isn’t linked here due to the graphic nature of its content, but interested readers can easily find the article by searching for the post’s title).

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To argue for balance with extreme language is paradoxical. In essence, because I do not want to use graphic accounts of female circumcision in my arguments, then I am seen as anti-conservative or anti-women. This does not even consider the extreme language they direct toward those who disagree with them, which I choose not to repeat here.

What Rhodes Scholars for Intellectual Diversity and many others fail to realize is that this is not a debate about political ideology but about language. The use of words such as “trigger warnings” and “microaggression” is not to suppress certain viewpoints, but rather the extremity and hostility in which such viewpoints are shared.

Rhodes Scholars for Intellectual Diversity does not acknowledge such language as extreme, but I do. They note their aims are for a “pluralism of opinion within the Rhodes Community.” If that is the case, then they and groups like them should respect my unwillingness to engage with them through such language, and they should not conflate my lack of engagement with an unwillingness to listen to their view. I simply do not want to give power to such language because that same power has been used to motivate so much hurt and suffering on my family and so many others. I truly believe we can welcome diversity without devolving into extremism.

Because of such extreme language and my deep worries that it is fundamentally undermining our longstanding abilities in the U.S. to listen to one another, I have tried to take action in my professional capacity as an academic.

On my off-teaching terms, I hold “open office hours” in which I work very hard to ensure students from all backgrounds and views can come and simply share their thoughs in a free, open space without judgment. These hours have brought conservatives and liberals alike.

I hold occasional “flash classes” where on a week’s notice, we convene to discuss current issues at the intersection of science and society from a variety of perspectives. (The decision to conduct these classes came out of conversations with Ian Desai.) In all of these instances, I have come away truly challenged and educated, and I am humbled by how much I have learned each time. Only when intellectual diversity is cultivated through an inclusive ethos is such learning possible.

I am not against sharing the political views advocated by groups such as the Rhodes Scholars for Intellectual Diversity. Indeed, I welcome it — they force us to think about intellectual diversity more carefully. In fact, others who have thought deeply about these issues have also recognized the intellectual challenges in cultivating diverse discussions in academia. What I am personally and professionally against is the language that they, and other similarly constructed groups, use to convey such views. I have seen the hurt that such language is used to justify, and I find it demeaning to my peers who think like they do but who don’t feel the need to use such language to eloquently justify their beliefs.

More than ever, our world does not need a common set of views. However, we do need a common and respectful language whereby all feel welcomed to share and embrace our intellectual diversity and the debates around it.

Hate, and the extreme language underlying it, has tragically removed many of the physical reminders that we had of my great-grandfather. My actions in supporting intellectual diversity are humble attempts to erect a new living embodiment to his legacy of faith and the inclusiveness that it represented.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Daniel Armanios is an assistant professor in the department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a 2007 U.S. Rhodes Scholar; the views expressed above are solely his.

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Daniel Armanios

Daniel Armanios is an assistant professor in the department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a 2007 U.S. Rhodes Scholar; the… See Archive

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