How to practice actual idea diversity

John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty 

Chuong Nguyen, Toronto Star, December 09, 2023

I recently interviewed a member of The Satanic Temple to my podcast—Stephen Bradford Long, whom I was introduced to through another guest – author Jonathan Rauch, perhaps most famous for his book, Kindly Inquisitors.

As a Christian, I did not know what to expect. It turned out to be one of my favorite podcast conversations.

We bonded over our mutual love for Milton’s Paradise Lost, our misgivings about the current political culture and our strained sympathies for Nietzsche. In Long, I discovered someone fully committed to the principles of liberalism, namely free inquiry and religious tolerance.

In our cancel-culture age, many need to be reminded that genuine diversity starts with those two tenets. That’s why I am dismayed when diversity is co-opted into harmful programs aimed at indoctrinating university-goers, while others dunk on the notion that diversity has any usefulness at all. My own position: diversity can be a societal good but only when it includes the diversity of ideas.

To get there, let’s understand the word in its true meaning. Up until now, “diversity” has been understood in academia and in politics to describe something like a Gap commercial: names and faces of people of different races, genders, and sexualities being featured as equal contributors in a company boardroom, academic seminar, government cabinet, and so forth.

But this view of diversity is superficial at best and harmful at worst—superficial, because it discounts the diverse national, cultural, religious, political, and philosophical traditions which underlie all human beings. It is harmful because it presents a cheap caricature of pluralism that can be construed as a strawman by liberalism’s opponents.

Let’s define tolerance with the help of the Cambridge dictionary: A “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.” Historically, this applies to both religious and secular beliefs.

Thus tolerance, properly understood, is a virtue disdained by an increasing number of citizens but is crucial to fostering a pluralistic liberal nation. Without it, we are either left with a perpetual state of Balkanization, or the tyranny of a monoculture.

In Western Europe, this notion was applied to put on hold the bloody wars waged between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. In the Anglosphere, it has been the governing ideal that allows for citizens of various beliefs to be fully recognized as equal under the law, be it previously persecuted faith groups like Catholics, Quakers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Amish and others.

Similarly, in the political sphere, in the case of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, tolerant diversity honors the individual’s right to free expression. It includes in its “fundamental freedoms” section including ‘freedom of conscience and religion’, ‘freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression’, ‘freedom of peaceful assembly’ and ‘freedom of association’.

A consequence of this broad application of tolerance is that the views and opinions aired by the extreme fringes of our politics are entitled to the same protection as the ones accepted by the majority. The exceptions are calls to violence or libel. For example, Alex Jones, a popular conspiracy theorist in America, can utter any crazy belief he wants—we tolerate that—but Jones rightly ran into trouble only when he denied an actual school shooting, and accompanied his rants with diatribes against parents who lost children and others, comments found to be defamatory.

Defamation and calls to violence as the exceptions aside, the temptation to idea intolerance has appeal on both the ideological and political “left” and “right.”

The “woke” Left, employing a mutated form of political correctness, militate against all ideas outside of their narrow orthodoxies, creating a climate of anxious self-censorship. In response, the populist Right sometimes wields the anti-woke hammer against any concerns regarding the teaching of controversial ideas such as critical race theory. Let me be clear: I believe that critical race theory, and its variants, are bad ideas. However, bad ideas should be challenged by better ideas and reasoning, not the restrictive power of the state.

I am currently writing this essay in Hungary, where an illiberal government restricts such expressions of social justice ideology. In contrast, Canada, where I spent my four years as an undergraduate, sees many of its most respectable institutions being steamrolled by the same progressive orthodoxy and disdain conservative or classical liberal ideas. Both regimes maintain their legitimacy by fostering animosity towards an unseen enemy, namely those who embody the views they find odious. While both wish to have their views heard in the public square, neither is willing to give the opposition the same benefit.

Intolerance of this kind works against genuine diversity, which is individual-and idea-based rather than group-based and attached to identities. For example, the prominence of black intellectuals like Glenn Loury and Coleman Hughes shows that black Americans do not think alike, and should not be easily categorized as an interest group. For genuine diversity to flourish, another virtue must be emphasized: rational free inquiry.

Restlessness is the intellectual’s curse – no serious thinker finds satisfaction in what things are. The status quo, thus, invites either reform or revolution. The suppression of ideas almost always invites revolt, while the promotion of free inquiry often results in moderation and reform.

As written by John Stuart Mill, such suppression betrays a form of arrogance that turns truths into dogma and falsehoods into punishable offences: “However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

Diversity requires a level of nuance within moral and intellectual judgment, as well as a constant dose of humility.

Back to my favorite Satanist podcaster, Stephen Long, who extended and encouraged this kind of intellectual humility in his conversation with me. So, setting aside much of our differences on the nature of God and Satan, as well as our divergent political philosophy, we have in common our core beliefs in the virtues necessary for fostering genuine idea and political diversity. At the end of our podcast episode, I asked Long to give me a case for Satanism. He did one better, and provided a powerful plea for a genuinely tolerant and pluralistic society: “Living in a pluralist society means that we know that the consequences of our beliefs can be profound, even immoral. And yet, we still have to live together.”

Chuong Nguyen is a contributing writer at the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy and host of the Unlicensed Philosophy podcast.

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