Last week, I attended an online virtual tour for a college that has attracted my interest. The visit supplied a three-dimensional view of different parts of the campus, accompanied by student volunteers who spoke about the university and its student life, academic rigor, and its deepest commitments — of which two stood out. One student host explained how, at this particular university, traditional ways of thinking are challenged and renounced. Amusingly, in the same breath, the student valorized “diversity of thought” as one of the university’s core commitments.
Diversity is a word regularly invoked on today’s college campuses (and beyond) where it is regarded near-unanimously as an unassailable positive. But a peculiar and even paradoxical logic underlies the modern liberal emphasis on diversity: as individuals, we are encouraged to adopt a homogenous and identical stance towards diversity. Before diversity can be celebrated, our first and foremost requirement is to exhibit tolerance and respect towards differences in people. In response to diversity, then, we are all to become uniform and identical. Whatever our many differences, what is to be more fundamental is our commitment to universal tolerance and respect. Our liberal toleration, in many cases, trumps our commitment to diversity and indeed renders diversity subsidiary. Hence why an appeal to diversity can coexist ambivalently with a repudiation of traditional thinking. If our core commitment is to a form of liberal tolerance, then the only forms of diversity that can be retained are those that can be reconciled with our primary stance of toleration. In effect, those who most emphatically claim diversity are, at the same time, promoting a system of beliefs that will invariably diminish substantive forms of diversity and create homogeneity in outlook and disposition.
Liberal toleration in the modern age directs skepticism towards commitments that may unduly burden our primary devotion to liberal toleration — traditional cultural and religious commitments especially come under assault. The dominant form of toleration recommends indifference or apathy towards different lifestyle choices — no matter how atypical or depraved. Yet, most cultural and religious traditions are not indifferent to the question of how we should live. They prescribe certain behaviors and practices as moral goods and establish absolutes of goodness and virtue, on the one hand, and evil and vice on the other. But from the perspective of the person whose beliefs are guided by liberal toleration, those who examine certain behaviors and ways of living and pass judgments of praise and blame would appear to be intolerant. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) summarized this disposition when she said the following during a 2020 Congressional hearing: “The only time religious freedom is invoked is in the name of bigotry and discrimination.” In spite of this, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is most pronounced in her commitment to diversity. It becomes evident that liberal toleration seeks the evisceration of the beliefs that define a rich tapestry of cultural and religious traditions. This form of toleration is actually hostile towards true diversity.
The tension between the two elemental commitments of modern liberalism — diversity and tolerance — is perhaps more clearly illuminated by the introduction of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, in its contemporary form, rests on two simultaneous assumptions: cultural identities are valid, unique, and worthy of preservation, but all cultures are also indisputably equal in merit and equally deserving of protection. But as it turns out, no culture can be genuinely preserved and protected if your tolerant and egalitarian sensibilities prevent you from asserting and prioritizing that culture over others. The homogenous and equal celebration of all cultures effectively means no culture at all. Well understood, multiculturalism leads to the evisceration of substantive cultural diversity.
In all cases, the deeper commitment of liberalism to universal tolerance trumps its commitment to diversity. Appeals to diversity are on every occasion accompanied by a quota of tolerance. Perhaps even more ironically, liberal toleration today reflects many of the earmarks of the “intolerant” and “judgmental” traditional religious and cultural beliefs — but it is also caricatural and misguided. Liberal toleration today is, in fact, intolerant and scornful towards that which is perceived to be judgemental or intolerant — and all in the name of nonjudgmentalism. There are certain words, behaviors, and practices that are forbidden because they are heretical. Moreover, its advocates approach debate in a spirit of radical non-compromise that suggests that even those who bridle at traditional concepts of absolute good and absolute bad are indeed following their own set of absolute normative principles.