Engaging with diversity

In the office of the Chaplain to the College and Coordinator of Community Service Rick Spalding hangs a quotation: “The most radical thing that we can do is to introduce people to one another.” If this is so, then we at the College have failed to be radical in our struggles to confront issues of diversity on this campus.

Socrates once denied that virtue was a teachable quality and ended up claiming that the virtuous are simply lucky to have turned out that way. My guess is that we take a different view at Williams, especially in light of our institution’s commitment to maintaining a diverse student body. One can value variety in student backgrounds and interests in many ways, but I’m writing to specifically consider the idea that we each have something to gain in our ethical lives by surrounding ourselves with people who are different from us. In other words, maybe we can learn to become more virtuous, with our peers as our teachers.

I’d like to use the work of Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, to frame my inquiry into how diversity at the College might help develop our moral compasses. Appiah offers two principles that guide what he calls a cosmopolitan conception of our ethical responsibilities. The first is that we have obligations not only to our friends, family and neighbors, but also to people across the country and across the globe. The second is that we value all human lives and take an interest in the various practices and beliefs that give them significance.

I believe that some of the ways that we struggle to combat intolerance at the College and prepare students to live in this community points to a misunderstanding that, somehow, the ideas behind Appiah’s two principles can be considered separately. On the contrary, understanding our obligations to people different than ourselves necessarily requires knowing something about their stories and their values. Simply telling people what is morally correct does not work. To borrow the mantra of high school English teachers, we want to show, not tell.

Acting morally is a tricky business not because we cannot agree on our principles, but because real life doesn’t lend itself to simple analyses. If helping students become thoughtful and respectful of others were as easy as, say, writing up a social honor code or explaining what a microaggression is, then we wouldn’t need to attract a diverse group of students. Rather, an expanded Exploring Diversity Initiative curriculum and more teachers to teach it would be sufficient. Or even simpler, maybe every first-year should get a list titled “What Not to Do.”

But that’s not how it works. I deny the idea that real virtue can be taught the way our classes are taught. Kids learn not to steal toys and hit their friends through empathic interactions with others, not through reflection or discussion. Similarly, the sort of learning we are after is best done face-to-face, together. In any case, we already have great teachers and a great curriculum. That’s you and me.

With November around the corner, I’m reminded of the hate crime and the powerful response that followed a year ago. What made that open microphone gathering, as well as events such as Take Back The Night and You Are Not Alone, so powerful is that real faces get put to words like depression, rape and hate. These events made me very uncomfortable, but because that discomfort arose from an empathic response to the personal stories I heard, I found the experiences rewarding.

This explains why many people believe that their entries played a crucial role in showing them what it means to live ethically in a diverse community. Becoming attuned to others is intuitive when we share a space and activities, even when that sharing is not framed as an opportunity to build community. Friendship, trust, fun – these are the building blocks of cosmopolitanism.

Ironically, the harder we try to directly teach ethical behavior, the more we make people uncomfortable in a completely unproductive way. People often feel awkward, antagonized and talked down to when this happens, and they come to think that they have nothing to contribute. This is only conducive to helping people disengage with what they perceive to be forced and one-sided conversations. These responses to intolerance only serve to draw attention away from what we all have in common.

Ethical considerations are only one of many reasons to be interested in diversity. We should continue to talk about the issues that face us, support those who need it and celebrate what makes us special. Most of all, we should enjoy the good company. However, if one of our goals as a community is to provide opportunities for students to learn how to be better community members and to radically change the way we interact with one another, we must not be under any illusions about what works and what doesn’t.

So long as the labels that we describe ourselves with remain faceless, they will be abstractions that have no currency in everyday ethical decision-making. A diverse smattering of people who have never met one another is not a diverse community, and a person with a list of moral dos and don’ts but no understanding of them is not an ethical person. Only by becoming more connected and engaged with each other can we learn to be better to each other.


Henry Su ’13 is a philosophy and biology double major from La Jolla, Calif. He lives in Gladden.