In his recent column dismissing “ideological diversity,” Gabriel Arana grad pulled a straw man, reducing the idea as an attempt to stack the biology department with Creationists, to ensure the history department has at least one fascist sympathizer and to recruit students based on ideology. In a column from David Wittenberg ’09 that appeared last school year, Wittenberg was skeptical of conservative students’ desire for greater ideological diversity on campus. But rather than providing an example of intellectual diversity gone wrong within Cornell, Wittenberg resorted to name-calling and baseless stereotypes, writing, “The Cornell Republicans are the party of Ann ‘John Edwards is a faggot’ Coulter ’84.” These columns themselves misinterpret what ideological diversity really means. Ironically, these columnists’ lack of understanding for a viewpoint different than their own shows precisely why Cornell should promote ideological diversity.
Arana and Wittenberg are not the only guilty ones. In early 2005, an uproar ensued over the remarks of “conservative Christian” Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, an Evangelical Christian group, and his comments over a video sent to schools from the We Are Family Foundation. This video used cartoon characters including SpongeBob Squarepants, to promote the organization’s mission of diversity. Accounts varied, but you probably heard something about SpongeBob being gay or his video making you gay. When I first heard about this, I thought, “Crap, this is Falwell and the gay Teletubbie all over again.” But before I jumped to conclusions, I decided to visit Focus on the Family’s website and hear the story from Dr. Dobson himself. As it turns out, Dr. Dobson’s real message looked much different from the media’s portrayal of it.
First of all, Dr. Dobson does not think SpongeBob is gay; he does not claim SpongeBob will make you gay; and he does not object to the video itself. What Dr. Dobson did object to, however, were the academic materials included with the video. Essentially, the We Are Family Foundation equivocated tolerance of homosexuality with acceptance of homosexuality. Tolerance means that you treat homosexuals with the dignity all humans deserve regardless of how you view their lifestyle; acceptance forces you to agree with their lifestyle. A lack of tolerance essentially amounts to homophobia; accepting homosexuality, however, would force some people to disavow their religious beliefs. Dr. Dobson advocates tolerance towards homosexuals, but he obviously can not in good faith allow an organization to use federal funding from the Public Broadcasting System (and viewers like you) to promote a political message that many families, even if they are not homophobic, do not want their kids to hear.
Interestingly enough, the We Are Family Foundation removed the material pertaining to homosexuality from its website shortly after asserting that Dr. Dobson’s claims must have been false. However, the information had not entirely disappeared from the Internet. Google had not checked the foundation’s website recently, so for a few days after the material had been removed, Google’s search results included the links. I even clicked on the “cached” link below each search result to see a copy of the web page from the last time Google had visited it. The material appeared exactly as Dr. Dobson had described it.
That was the real story, but since the media did not do a good job of fully representing all sides of the matter, including the conservative one, Dr. Dobson’s real message was perverted into something entirely foreign. Truly, the concept of “ideological diversity” did not apply in this case. Even if you do not agree with Dr. Dobson, you still ought to know his side of the story. Of course, this argument about ideological diversity works both ways, too. Some of the problems facing the Bush administration have occurred because for most of the president’s term, his inner circle had about the same level of ideological diversity as Cornell’s government department, albeit on the other end of the spectrum.
Speaking of Cornell, I am not suggesting that the history department should have at least one “fascist sympathizer,” but perhaps instead the government department could have done a better job at retaining its one conservative professor, Prof. Jeremy Rabkin, who left Cornell last year for George Mason University. Or if not Rabkin, how about Prof. Jon Shields? Although he covered controversial topics such as conservative Christians and abortion, he nonetheless had a superb ability to look past all the emotion and rhetoric, presenting the material without bias. Because of his freshman writing seminar, I can tackle the topic of abortion with ease because I understand not only the pro-life but also the pro-choice side much better than before. Furthermore, since the government department offers classes in urban politics, racial and ethnic politics, feminism and Marxism, I have to wonder why it could not find room for Shield’s regular lecture classes on religious politics this year, one of which I had planned to take.
In addition to this, over the summer, Cornell’s uPortal website linked to Safe Place, an organization whose homepage for students makes the mistake of classifying both homophobia and heterosexism as ways to marginalize individuals. Bluntly put, heterosexism simply means you do not believe in homosexuality; it does not mean you advocate the oppression of homosexuals. By linking to this website, Cornell created quite the paradox, encouraging the marginalization of individuals with certain political and religious beliefs through a website that claimed to do the opposite.
In looking for a solution to the lack of ideological diversity at Cornell, I do not advocate censorship or the removal of certain classes from the government department. As Arana said, we cannot and should not remove politics from the classroom. Inevitably, people will segregate themselves into groups with labels, trying to hold onto the same beliefs throughout their college careers. However, will a lack of exposure to different viewpoints really do much to change that? Some people cannot be persuaded, but does that point to a failure of ideological diversity or to a failure of a person to show an open mind to another ideology? No one can control the mind of another person, open or closed, but we can control the environment around them. Ultimately, ideological diversity does not always have to change others’ beliefs. At the very least, understanding a different perspective, even if you passionately oppose it, can prevent you from misinterpreting that viewpoint, as some have misinterpreted the case for ideological diversity.
(P.S. From my stint as a politics blogger over the summer on CornellSun.com, I have learned through numerous comments that inevitably someone reading this will make some wisecrack telling me to stop watching Fox News. If that is you, forget about it. I do not watch Fox News nor do I have a strong favorable or unfavorable opinion of Fox News.)
Mike Wacker is The Sun’s Assistant Web Editor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.