Thursday, November 17, 2011

Philosophy: Considering Diversity and Equality

A while back I asked why it matters whether women are represented in science? I was interested to know if we care about whether a variety of communities show up in fields, professions and pastimes, why do we care? Is it simply a matter of increasing the number of loyalists to our mission, or does it come from an openness to change the very system that stands resolute like Uncle Sam declaring “I want you!”

Yesterday during a research discussion at the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb, a lively conversation followed one colleague’s expressed desire to encourage “underrepresented” communities to participate in informal science education in the Adirondacks. The topic drew towards “diversity initiatives” and we went round and round on this subject until the room began to spin. The hour was fruitful for many reasons, not least because it helped me to clarify my own thinking (score for the discursive power of the philosophical method).

It also brought to mind that these types of discussions have come up lately with surprising frequency. I would love to think that this indicates something of our cultural zeitgeist,but it’s more likely that I am responsible for taking conversations in these directions. It is in fact, more likely that my participation (to be fair, my initiation of) interdisciplinary conversations about research and education at an institution devoted to science, actually changes the discourse.

What does it mean to change the discourse, and is that shift evidence of diversity at work? I think so, if we agree on the difference between “equality” and “diversity.” Oftentimes institutions are invested in counting heads as a way of establishing whether or not they can claim to be diverse and thus, proudly garner the gold star of liberalism. In that striving, the different concepts of “equality” and “diversity” merge, and we overlook the subtle and essential difference between the two. Namely that “equality” means that we all have a fair shot at getting where we want to go. “Diversity” means that once we get where we wanted to go (thanks to equal rights) then we have an opportunity, and I would argue an obligation, to change the culture by our contribution. That’s what I mean by changing the discourse and not simply joining a culture and taking on its character wholesale.

An old civil rights question lies at the heart of this difficult negotiation of insider advocacy. It asks whether it’s more effective to influence an institution or a system from the outside by deconstructing it brick by brick, or whether it’s better to gain admission and change the culture from within. The obvious drawback to the outsider model is the likelihood that the system in question can easily ignore fringe elements pushing against power. The danger of the insider method is the potential that once we gain access to the system that we were intent to change; we become slowly seduced by belonging and getting in step with the less fractious work of going-along.

This particular reading of diversity versus equality is problematic. According to this interpretation, “diversity” assumes that the culture will encourage alternative voices to re-shape it and indeed potentially change the nature of the system. Is that really what we want when we create “diversity” initiatives? Are the existing systems open and ready for that kind of reimagining? What are the risks if we endeavor to diversify something like informal science education or formal academic programs in environmental science that contribute to Park policy and planning?

I think it is risky to welcome this style of diversity, considering the potential that it has to unsettle the ground. I think it’s radical to invite communities with an entirely different way of entering the world and its situations to co-create a field or a discipline. I think it invites strenuous critique from our peers when there’s any whiff of breaking from tradition and traditional ways of pursuing science and education. I think we invite untold consequences when an established apparatus of power and knowledge comes to be renegotiated or reconceived altogether. I think it’s what the philosopher Bertrand Russell meant when he said “Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought is great and swift and free.” I think we should do it.

Photo courtesy Greenopia

Marianne is a philosopher living, writing and teaching in the Adirondacks.

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to

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