A Wish for Ideological Diversity and Community Dialogue

(I originally wrote this as a post for CRTNET (my discipline’s e-mail listserv), but then reconsidered. CRTNET is a bit like kicking down your neighbors’ doors and leaving your message on their kitchen tables, and then waiting a day to see if any of your neighbors kick down your door to reply in kind. I’ve previously criticized CRTNET as less than helpful for discussing difficult issues, and indeed my discipline currently seems in an unwanted repetitive pattern in that forum. So, I decided instead to post this on my blog because, following my metaphor, I hope that’s more like inviting the reader over to my house so she or he can read what I wrote, or decline the invitation if they so prefer. To those who are here, welcome; although we may disagree on little or much, I hope you hear my heart that I value your humanity and want to understand your perspective too, and I hope you will extend that same attitude toward me.)

As our discipline engages in an overdue discussion regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, I hope we do not lose sight of the value of ideological (or viewpoint) diversity.

In a recent Spectra, NCA’s leadership graciously gave me the opportunity to discuss viewpoint diversity in the communication discipline. In that piece, I cited empirical studies indicating that progressives/liberals greatly outnumber those of other ideological stances (in academia overall and our discipline specifically), and that active ideological bias may serve as a partial explanation for that. I also reported stories from those who have experienced ideological bias in our field that made them feel silenced, shamed, and unwelcome. I have experienced this at times in my career too. In some cases, such bias has led people to leave NCA, the discipline, or academia as a whole. 

Although perhaps unintentional, I am concerned that some aspects of the current discourse might be exacerbating this problem–first by omitting viewpoint diversity from the discussion, and second, in some cases, by communication choices (e.g., ad hominem attacks and intimidation) that discourage others’ expression of ideological diversity. In contrast, the principle of academic freedom suggests that, when in doubt, we should fall on the side of viewpoint inclusion. This principle is enshrined in NCA’s Credo for Free and Responsible Communication in a Democratic Society, which NCA’s Legislative Assembly reaffirmed in 2017:

  • “WE SUPPORT the proposition that a free society can absorb with equanimity speech which exceeds the boundaries of generally accepted beliefs and mores; that much good and little harm can ensue if we err on the side of freedom, whereas much harm and little good may follow if we err on the side of suppression.”

I understand the argument that calls for civility (which this Credo and NCA’s Ethical Credo certainly are) can serve to silence dissenting views. That is an unfortunate possibility that I know some have experienced. However, I do not believe that tells the whole story about civility (or, as we have termed it at TCU, “community dialogue”). When we approach each other with hope, humility, respect, and trust, those norms of community dialogue often enable voice and understanding. I believe that’s an aim worth striving for together.

I do not say any of this to exclude or diminish forms of diversity beyond ideological; advocates of ideological diversity in the marketplace of ideas must enable other forms of diversity in that marketplace as well. As our discipline moves forward, I hope we can continue to strive for effective ways to communicate across lines of difference of all kinds, including by ideology and viewpoint.

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