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Diversity for the Sake of Democracy

“Stand up if you identify as Caucasian.”

The minister’s voice was solemn. I paused so that I wouldn’t be the first one standing, and then slowly rose to my feet. “Look at your community,” he said. I glanced around the auditorium obediently. The other students looked as uncomfortable as I felt, and as white. ¨Thank you,” the minister said finally. After we sat down, he went on to repeat the exercise for over an hour with different adjectives in place of “Caucasian”: black, wealthy, first-generation, socially conservative. Each time he introduced a new label, he paused so that a new group of students could stand and take note of one another. By the time he was finished, every member of Princeton University’s freshman class had been branded with a demographic.

This mandatory orientation event was designed to help us appreciate our diversity as a student body during the first week of classes. But what did it really accomplish? In compressing us into isolated communities based on our race, religion or gender, the minister belittled every other piece of our identities. He faced a crowd of singular young adults and essentially told them that their heritage outweighed their humanity.  The message was clear: know your kind and stick to it. Don’t risk offending people from other backgrounds by trying to understand their worldviews.

Why were the university administrators, who speak so highly of diversity, choosing to strip us of our individuality?  No doubt their intentions were good. In an effort to appear enlightened and progressive, they wanted to show their appreciation for the distinctions between various cultures. Unfortunately, this is hard to do without forcing members of each culture to assimilate to the most extreme stereotypes of their group. And so the administration chose to celebrate our cultural diversity as a student body, at the cost of our individual diversity as students.

Like many other schools, Princeton has become disturbingly homogeneous because of this phenomenon. Not only that, but the pressure to respect other groups on and off campus is pushing my generation into left-wing uniformity. We are encouraged to mind our own business by mimicking politically correct values without ever thinking them through on our own.  No one questioned the students and faculty members who disrespectfully walked out of Charles Murray’s lecture hall after he was invited to speak on campus this winter.

My teachers and classmates openly referred to Trump’s voters as uneducated bigots throughout the election season, while taking any criticism of Clinton as an attack against women. Anyone who dares to voice a religious opinion is regarded as unintelligent. The fear of being called racist draws our attention to a black woman’s skin instead of her character, and the fear of being called homophobic emphasizes a gay man’s sexuality over his personality. We have been trained to tiptoe around each other and distribute trigger warnings with generosity.

We’ve forgotten how to look past the extremist values of the groups we identify with, and instead celebrate our nuanced differences as individuals. Walt Whitman wrote: “I am less the reminder of property or qualities, and more the reminder of life.”

The point of diversity is not that each culture is different, but that each person must live his own life and develop his own worldview.  As Whitman eloquently noted, “Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself.” But instead of letting us travel it by ourselves, Princeton limits us by constantly pressuring us to behave and think like others in our demographic.

This concerns not only my university and others like it, but the future of our nation as a democracy.  The less we respect our individuality, the more likely we are to blindly follow partisan values. This prompts an extremist us-vs-them mentality that builds barriers between Republicans and Democrats, African-Americans and Caucasians, and the wealthy and the poor. Because we’re afraid of considering any opinion that is foreign to our demographic, we can’t hear any voices except those that agree with us.  This is especially true in light of the recent election. Trump’s supporters ask each other who could possibly trust Clinton, and Clinton’s supporters ask each other who would dare validate Trump; but neither group finds answers because of the wall between them.

Embracing our singularity would allow us to see past these walls and genuinely consider each other’s ideas. For the sake of democracy, we should take the spotlight off our various backgrounds and focus instead on our personal and idiosyncratic worldviews. Though our minds crave different knowledge, our bodies explore different feelings and our hearts beat to different rhythms, we all share the gift and burden of citizenship. There is a beautiful history of personal sacrifice in the relationship between diversity and democracy.

Diversity is the celebration of individuality and nonconformity, and democracy is most precious when it allows three hundred million individuals to reach a compromise out of love for their country.  As Whitman wrote in his Democratic Vistas, “there is nothing grander… than a well-contested American national election.”

Let’s not lose sight of that grandeur.

 

Carrie Pritt is a freshman studying computer science at Princeton University.

 

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35 Comments

  1. Social Justice Warriors are the new brown shirts. Study up on the Milgram experiments to learn what obedience to authority leads to and tell your teachers to fuck off.

  2. Great piece Carrie. Maintain this kind of courage and articulation and you’re bound to change some minds. Best wishes.

  3. Frank C. Strasburger says

    This is an articulate and well reasoned piece, and Princeton is fortunate to have Carrie’s voice in its intellectual mix. She is certainly right to demand to be taken as an individual and to object to being forced into a group identity. I would note, however, that for people from marginalized subcultures, being lumped in a group is a pretty common occurrence. So while it clearly wasn’t the purpose of the orientation exercise, it’s possible to use it to develop empathy for such marginalized people, many of whom quite regularly experience the same outrage she did in not being recognized for who they are. That identity is a lot harder to claim in our culture if you’re not white.

    (Disclaimer: I’m a Princetonian, too–Class of ’67–and a former Episcopal chaplain at the University.)

    • Jon E Pizza says

      And I would note that as a white male in software engineering that was bullied by pretty much everyone in his life growing up, the idea that I get to claim my own identity is absurd. Pretty much no one in my field knows anything about my life, but that doesn’t stop regular accusations of privilege or being ‘part of the problem.’

      Because that’s what you get when you insist being marginalized belongs to minority groups and not individuals themselves based on life experiences. You can’t split people up into groups and not end up with prejudice, regardless of how good your intentions were.

      • Ann L says

        What Jon E Pizza says. Intersectionality is a term I heard recently. It’s an attempt to recognize that human identity cross-cuts groups. When we’re lucky, we get labeled favorably.
        I was lucky back in the early 70’s in certain ways because I was labeled “attractive, intelligent white girl.” I kept the reality of “white trash-drifter-dysfunctional home-homeless-child-of-alcoholic-parents” a secret and got by. All grown up now, I find it rich that my skin color prohibits me from identifying with at least some levels of experiences commonly assumed to be shared by other groups.

    • stevengregg says

      If you are a student at Princeton, exactly how marginalized can you be?

      • Ann L says

        That’s an interesting assumption about what it means to be a student at Princeton.

  4. Having recently been a student at Princeton, I disagree with this characterization of the student body, particularly when it comes to religious opinion. You are in a major that is particularly hostile to religion, but in campus at large, there are several figures who are known to be among the most intelligent on campus who are openly and proudly religious. Look for people who are or were previously in the HUM sequence and are religious, particularly Catholic.

    I was also a strong critic of Clinton and a white male and was never accused of sexism for my criticism.

    If you are willing to enter conversations with the mindset that you want to learn from the other people as well as educate them about your worldview, you will not face these problems in any significant measure, especially among other intellectually curious students. The fact of being a minority is not grounds to claim oppression, a view which I assume you share, so you should not fall into the trap of considering your personal unpopularity as systematic censorship.

    • nsowon says

      You appear to be making assumptions.

      From the article: “Anyone who dares to voice a religious opinion is regarded as unintelligent.” This is written in the context of how other people react, not the writer’s opinion. There’s no evidence she believes religious people are not valued, but that others say so.

      “The fact of being a minority is not grounds to claim oppression, a view which I assume you share…” I believe the article suggests exactly the opposite.

      “…considering your personal unpopularity as systematic censorship.” Appears to suggest you believe she is unpopular. If so, on what evidence?

      • The phrase “who are known to be” implies the reaction of the population at large, not the writer.

        People who don’t hold unpopular views unfortunately tend to not write this sort of column. So if she in fact does hold mainstream, college campus, progressive views, good job on self-awareness, but I have the feeling that would be a poor prediction. I was unclear that I meant unpopularity of opinion, not in a social sense, so I apologize for that.

    • Evan Plommer says

      Your reply indicates that you didn’t really understand (or read?) the piece. You’re commenting on a different topic.

  5. Roberto Alazar says

    Miss Pritt, you’re too young to run for president. But stay true to civilization. You’ll get older; you don’t have to get swept up in barbarism. Ivy-League graduates who haven’t are going to be at a premium someday.

  6. As a PhD student at Cornell, I know this all too well. But I think people who don’t buy the orthodoxy on campuses must also speak out more and that’s one of the reasons why I started http://necpluribusimpar.net, a blog where I share my thoughts on random topics, from history to economics including philosophy.

  7. Timothy Rohrbacker says

    You are an island of sanity in the middle of the capital of regressive thinking. Well done Carrie.

  8. Lucrece says

    I went to University of Massachusetts – Amherst, a campus priding itself on its “diversity”.

    Turns out, it was a collection of racial and ethnic ghettos. South had the Latino/Black ghettos, and the Northern campus closer to the science/math buildings were a collection of Asians and whites.

    In turn, the Asians were divided across nationality and stuck pretty much exclusively to each other, just as whites did.

    When I, as a Hispanic student, went to the cafeteria and received calls from family and spoke in Spanish, the Americans natives would stare.

    This is a ridiculous pantomime and it’s all talk and no real action. We’re still as tribal as we have ever been.

    • stevengregg says

      It is interesting that speaking in Spanish at politically correct Amherst would compel people to stare but doing the same in politically incorrect Texas would be unworthy of note.

      • Lucrece says

        To be honest, I would expect less of a response in Texas given Texas has more Hispanics than Amherst which is mostly made of whites, blacks, and whatever Hispanics they have are Puerto Ricans whose younger generations already tend toward English and speak rather spotty Spanish.

  9. John Aronsson says

    What an odd little essay. Thirty years ago, that team building exercise would have asked the group to stand based on the region they came from, whether they were urban or rural and the income of the household they were raised in. Now it is all about race, ethnicity and victimhood. You have open Pandora’s box and you seem oblivious to the likely consequences.

    Your last point is the most telling. You don’t seem to realize a people must share a national identity based on a kind of foundation myth. You must see that the foundation myth you seem sympathetic to labels the largest group, irredeemable racists and sexist who need to be extirpated. This will not end well.

  10. Sammy Small says

    Well done essay. That the tribal instinct is alive and well may have been the central point of the exercise. But next time some indoctrinator asks the question about what race you identify with, simply proclaim the Human Race, and let the exercise continue from there.

    • “simply proclaim the Human Race…”

      Have you ever tried that? You’ll either get rolled-eyes for expressing such naivete or a few “well yes, of course, but,” grumblings. I’m afraid it won’t do.

  11. Karen says

    Soon this diversity exercise itself will be called bigoted, ignorant & insulting. Think about it. The exercise starts with self-labeling into categories that are fading away, or against which the left is fighting. If I were a freshman, I might not stand up for any category the good reverend named.

  12. Law Prof says

    Many in academia are uncomfortable with this sort of thing, but the penalties for not conforming can be high. Thanks to the author of this piece for showing courage as well as intelligence.

  13. An Alum says

    “The message was clear: know your kind and stick to it. Don’t risk offending people from other backgrounds by trying to understand their worldviews.”

    I wouldn’t draw that message from what the minister did. He said our community is a group composed of diverse individuals (pretty much the goal of Princeton admissions), many of whom occupy multiple demographics. If she was really paying attention, she should have seen both black, Caucasian and others standing up for the “wealthy” and for “first generation” and for “socially conservative,” etc.

    Rather than saying don’t try to understand other people’s world views the minister was saying, enjoy the smörgåsbord while you are here; you may not see its like again.

    By the way, I would stand up for Caucasian, and Latino/a, and First-Generation, and possibly several other categories. She must have been so uncomfortable about standing up that she didn’t bother to keep watching as all others stood up, some multiple times.

  14. Tribalism in its myriad forms (racism, nationalism, collectivism) is the moral and political view that accidents of one’s birth (bloodline group membership) are the essence of a person’s “identity”.

    Except for the last 300 years and in a few societies, tribalism has been humanity’s overarching organizing principal:
    • If your tribe was “guilty” then you were “guilty”.
    • If your tribe lost a war, then your entire tribe was wiped out or enslaved.
    • If you were born a commoner or a aristocrat, then that was your lot in life.
    • If a woman “shamed” the tribe, she was stoned to death.
    • If you married outside the tribe you were ostracized.

    But modern civilization exists only to the small extent that the primitive instinct of tribalism has diminished in favor of individualism: the ability to see oneself and others as individual human beings rather than as tribal members.

    Moral individualism holds that each person creates their own “identity” after birth as a result of their own choices and achievements. Accidents of birth are irrelevant.

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  16. James Stewart says

    Good for Carrie Pritt.

    I’m Princeton ’58 and a long-serving US Marine officer, where merit and proficiency trump – no pun – skin color or ethnicity.

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  18. The great hypocrisy of the diversity promoters is that in the absence of physical barriers (such as oceans and deserts that are not crossed), diversity requires racism in order to be maintained.

    Anyone who supports diversity is necessarily a racist.

    The reason is evident. In the absence of physical barriers and racism, people mix their cultures and their genes and create something different. Spaghetti requires wheat from the near east, the idea of noodles from China, and a Central American berry that had been highly modified by Italian growers to make what we know call a tomato. And it is the Philippines consumes almost as much per capita as Italy and the US. And if someone were to make a list of common “American foods”, spaghetti would be on the list.

    If you are not a racist, then you will mix with others freely and the differences disappear. If you are a racist, then you continue to point out those differences as a means of keeping people apart.

  19. coniston says

    What would have been telling was if the Minister had asked how many were liberal/Democrat and how many conservative/Republican or independent of any stripe. Even better he should have asked how many are children of professionals (lawyers, doctors, account etc…) And he should have asked himself how many people of differing politics were in his close circle of friends. Then the myth of diversity would have evaporated. The only true diversity is in thought – the rest is just an illusion of diversity. As someone has commented earlier, it is tribalism not diversity that the left promotes. A huge step backward for civilisation.

    Diversity of thought is hard. What do you do when sincere believers who are women tell you that they support FGM or that women deserve to be punished when they fail to wear a burqa or go out without a male relative? When people who you really like and admire turn out to be telling you what they think you wish to hear, but are cynics doing it for the money.

    I thank goodness that I went to college before PCism. I went to two fine schools – one Seven Sister and one Ivy League..but today I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone but a very tiny group – for whom contacts are more important than knowledge – and perhaps for a few STEM subjects. Otherwise they aren’t worth the money. My parents spent $12k. (OK, I finished in 3 years and it was 40 yrs ago but still..).

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