If you ask me what’s beauty, or ugliness, or maybe even the distinction between right from wrong, I likely wouldn’t be able to tell you, except to say I know it when I see it. That’s why, as I’ve already blogged, the University of Lethbridge’s sexual violence policy is such a pig’s breakfast. That it’s a pig’s breakfast is the predicable product of a committee’s attempt to put into words what any reasonable person should already know. Human sexuality is messy. Mess doesn’t have definable borders. If it did it wouldn’t be messy.
So it’s not surprising that the Report of the President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which was released to the University community on March 19, 2019, is worse than a pig’s breakfast. That committee had not one but three undefinable to try to define. But unlike pornography and inappropriate sexual conduct, homogeneity, inequity and exclusion are not self-evidently visible. They do have to be defined. And sad to say but, thinking carefully about how to do so proved not to be the committee’s forte.
According to the document, diversity is “the dimensions and/or the characteristics that differentiate individuals from one another, such as gender, disability, ethnicity/race, sexual orientation, thought/perspective, age, religion, and nationality.”
At first I thought I understood each of the constituent terms of this definition, but apparently I don’t. I’d have thought that, as a professor of philosophy, my inability to comprehend a word of Jacques Derrida would count as a disability. I was mistaken. But if disability doesn’t mean inability, I no longer know what it means.
Nor, to my disappointment, does pedophilia count as a sexual orientation. If it did we’d have to try to attract a representative sampling of pedophiles to campus, and I’m told that that would not be on. So orientation is restricted to acceptable orientations, upon which, I presume, the University will pronounce and update in subsequent appendices.
But as with the ‘analogous grounds’ interpretation of section 15 of The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it’s the “such as” that creates the most telling difficulty. To make sense of this “such as” we’d have to know – or at least guess – what it is that “gender, disability, ethnicity/race, sexual orientation, thought/perspective, age, religion, and nationality” all have in common. That they’ve all been the grounds upon which people have been discriminated against? Perhaps. But if so the analogous grounds interpretation would entitle us to add being redheaded, albino, left-handed, stupid, ugly … But the University is not urging affirmative action admissions, hiring and promotion for any of these people.
A more plausible referent of this “such as” are the people the University thinks are likely to bring something different and valuable to the University community. I add “and valuable” because mere difference can’t be a desiderata. If it were we’d be looking for people with Down Syndrome, a shoe fetish, career criminals, pedophiles, and hate preachers. What we want are people who bring something desirable with them, and apparently the University has a view as to what properties – race being one of them, sexual orientation being another – are and are not the bearers of that something. So the way to combat stereotyping is to stereotype.
Some people find this objectionable. I don’t. I’m just not convinced that the University has picked out the right properties. For example, by including being a member of a racial minority but not of the Westboro Baptist Church, the University has presupposed the very values it wants diversity to question. So, if we really want diversity so as to encourage heterodoxy in the academy, I say bring on the pedophile and the hate preacher. That it’s unprepared to do that would seem to suggest that what the University really wants is to perpetuate some particular set of orthodoxies. I see nothing wrong with that, provided we acknowledge that diversity is precisely what that’s not.
Equity, in turn, is “the state, quality or ideal of being just, impartial and fair, and takes into account differences in opportunity and resources.” Apparently the drafters of the document know, and think the rest of us know, what’s “ideal”, “just” and “fair”, which, if true, leaves me to wonder why Philosophy departments offer courses on the 3500-year history of attempts to reach consensus on these concepts. If the University would like to pronounce on these efforts, I’m sure we’d be all ears. But alas its silence is deafening!
And, finally, inclusion is “the mutual feeling of respect and demonstrated enrichment that is achieved when a mix of diverse individuals work well together.”
If I’ve parsed this right, it’s less a definition than a tautology embedded in an empirical claim. If a diversity of individuals, as defined above, work well together, they will feel respected and demonstrably enriched. I’m sure that’s true, provided that by “work[ing] well” is meant “achiev[ing a] mutual feeling of respect and demonstrated enrichment”. So what we have is an “If p then p,” in which case it’s logically impossible for the University not to have already achieved this mandate for inclusion.
More worrisome, however, is that these individuals need only feel respected and demonstrably enriched, not that they actually be either. So provided I feign respect for my indigenous students’ ‘special ways of knowing’, and provided I feign having been enriched by these special ways of knowing, and provided she, in turn, therefore feels she’s been respected and having enriched me, it’s all good.
But if being enriched involves something more than just reporting a feeling of being enriched, we need to know what that is. If one’s learning math, she’ll be demonstrably enriched by being able to solve a binomial equation. But how will she demonstrate her having been enriched by a fellow student’s special way of knowing?
These are questions it’s considered churlish to ask, in the same way it would be churlish for a teacher to return a love letter from a student corrected for spelling. These definitions are not meant to define. They’re meant to send a signal. Of what? Of an admittedly amorphous but nonetheless genuine desire – a desire shared by all of us – to make the University a more accommodating place to work and study. Unlike pornography and sexual misconduct, I’m not sure we’ll know it when we see it. But we do ourselves and our students no favours by pretending to have some formula that cannot be had.