Touching the Third Rail

In a flash, it was over. Victor Davis Hanson, a Hoover Institution senior fellow, made racist statements about diversity in colleges, The Stanford Daily’s Editorial Board called for an apology, Hanson and the blogosphere responded, and another opportunity to actually discuss affirmative action was lost. Once again, political correctness and groupthink smothered an important dialogue and left tough questions unanswered. So the following fundamental question remains: Why can’t we have dialogue on political “third rails”?

We are too eager to avoid confronting contentious topics because it shows us that we are less than the unified whole we’d like to present to the world. When dealing with the issues people feel most strongly about—the ones that touch the most nerves—offense is inevitable.  It is impossible to imagine a discussion of abortion, immigration, or affirmative action in which everyone is content. But what happens when we hit that point of offense is what defines the dialogue and the community.

The goal is not to leave the room or avoid conflict. When we are faced with an offensive remark, it would be better to see if the person can explain themselves. If discussion ceased after the opinion was expressed, then the opinion would live on in the mind of its holder. If this view is held through ignorance, no one has been educated. And if it rests on a specific line of reasoning, then that argument has not been heard and challenged. In either case, nothing is gained by either party.

In the academic setting on campus, we should give each other the benefit of the doubt. Assume those you disagree with are reasonable people, even when their points seem extreme to you. In any impassioned debate about contentious issues, someone’s likely to find some remarks inappropriate. Although mutual respect and sensitivity are important in dialogue, prizing political correctness above all else constricts free debate.

The alternative, mandatory self-censorship and political correctness, reduces the overall diversity of ideas. Coming from our wide range of backgrounds and personal experiences, there will inevitably be issues on which students disagree down to their very core principles. To cover up the magnitude of that disagreement for the sake of some harmonious whole is to deny ourselves the full potential of debate to illuminate our diversity.

All of this does not mean, however, overlooking offensive acts or remarks. Just as people should not prematurely suppress their thoughts because of sensitivities, if those thoughts provoke outrage, they should be challenged. Not to pursue an apology or to stifle aberrant ideas, but purely in the spirit of open discussion. The expression of a controversial idea should be the beginning, not the end, of a dialogue.

If people retreat from debate whenever they encounter opinions different from their own, the result is that we will only discuss important topics among like-minded people. That’d be easy and natural, but it would not advance understanding. Ultimately, it’ll become harder to find common ground on which to address future issues.

One topic we discuss especially cautiously on campus is diversity. Although the term appears everywhere on campus–from admissions to student groups to RA training–there’s no universally accepted definition. It’s clear it describes the presence of difference, but of what kind? Is it racial? Ethnic? Religious? Class? Political? Geographic? All of the above? Are some of these more important than others? For such a frequently used word that affects huge policy decisions, it is striking how variable its definition can be depending on who is using it. Fear of offense and the reactions and judgments that a misstep might bring especially restrict some of the harder questions in this field. What if someone else and I have a different working definition of diversity? What if my definition of diversity includes sexual orientation, but not geography? Are white males important to diversity?

In asking these sorts of questions, we may find the ugly, offensive answers that divide us. We risk discovering that underneath this uniformity of purpose and generally cheery disposition, we have been working towards different goals all along. This risk is not only worth taking, but necessary. In this discussion lies the fundamental question of the importance of diversity. But to reach the core of this issue, people will have to be willing to put aside the politically correct in favor of the honest. We have to be willing to walk on the third rail.

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