Aug 11, 2020

Be a Fox, Not a Hedgehog

Ben Klutsey talks to Ilana Redstone about critical thinking and intellectual humility
Benjamin Klutsey Director of Academic Outreach

In this third installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, sits down with Ilana Redstone to discuss viewpoint diversity, intellectual humility, and critical thinking. Redstone is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work has focused on US legal permanent residents, and she has addressed questions surrounding a variety of dimensions of immigrant adaptation to the United States. She also has worked on issues associated with viewpoint diversity on college campuses.

BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: We continue our conversation about liberalism, what it means to live in a liberal society, challenges to the values of liberalism, and how we can advance a liberal tradition in our society. Today our guest is sociologist Professor Ilana Redstone. She’s a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work has focused on demography, immigration, education, and viewpoint diversity, which is our topic for today. She’s also a faculty fellow at the Heterodox Academy. And she’s the founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting, which helps organizations to develop frameworks to improve communications and mutual understanding within the workplace. Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Redstone.

ILANA REDSTONE: Thanks for having me, Ben. It’s nice to be here. Thank you.

KLUTSEY: Our series, as I mentioned at the top, on liberalism and the different aspects of liberalism, particularly the values that are embedded in this concept, which obviously includes individual autonomy, pluralism, mutual forbearance, toleration, and viewpoint diversity, which we really care about— I’d like to just delve in with this first question, and I’d like your reaction to this quote by John Stuart Mill. And this is from his book on liberty.

He says, “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of this subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.” Now, my question to you is, do we really need to hear every variety of opinion? I mean, there are some vital opinions out there.

REDSTONE: Right. Yeah. It’s always an interesting question. A lot of times what people will bring up with this example are things like, well, do we really need a geography instructor who is a proponent of the flat earth, who belongs to The Flat Earth Society or something? And, of course, the answer is, no, there are limits. But the more interesting question is always, who gets to decide what those limits are?

So, I guess there’s two ways to think about it. One is, of course there are limits. Who gets to decide what those limits are? And also, what happens if those limits are drawn around particular political orientations? Which is, I think, partly where we are now, which is where essentially a lot of those limits have been drawn around one side of the political spectrum—and I’m not talking about extremism. And so that, I think, makes conversation really hard.

But again, it comes back to that same question of who gets to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable? Should we have a requirement for all undergraduates to take a class that studies the paranormal? Okay. Well, probably most people would say, no. But if you really want to include every possible idea, well, that should be on the list. No serious person is really making that argument.

The other thing about Mill’s quote that is interesting is it gets at this almost epistemological question of how we know what we know, which is something that I just personally find interesting and that I talk to students about. That I think is part of what we’re seeing now in this moment are these questions about, well, how do we know and what is truth and what is real, and all of those almost philosophical questions. So, no, we don’t need classes in flat earth or the paranormal. But someone has to make those limits and who does it?

KLUTSEY: Yeah. And Mill, is very, very strong in that view that you have to expose ideas and let people think for themselves and eventually we’ll get to the truth. The correct ideas will emerge. Very, very interesting. I wanted to ask you about your article, or I think it was a blog post, on the Heterodox Academy website. The title is “Preparing Students to be Foxes not Hedgehogs.” So, who are foxes and who are hedgehogs in our society?

REDSTONE: So, it’s interesting. That’s from an Isaiah Berlin essay from 1953. He raises it in a different context, but the idea is that a fox knows many things and a hedgehog knows one big thing. And then that idea was brought out again into the forefront of the conversation in a 2005 book by Philip Tetlock, a professor at Berkeley, at least at the time. He used the framework, and he looked at the ability of experts to predict outcomes. And what he found was that people who fit the characterization of being foxes were better forecasters, in terms of being in their category, being experts, and in terms of their ability to forecast what was coming, that they were better forecasts.

He argues that this is partly due to their stronger ability to be critical thinkers. Critical thinking is one of those terms that I feel gets thrown around all the time. No one actually thinks that they’re not a critical thinker. And no instructor actually thinks that they’re not teaching critical thinking. Yet somehow nobody’s actually doing it. And so, it’s a term that feels almost meaningless, but I don’t have a better one.

The other thing Tetlock says about the foxes is that they possess greater intellectual humility. That idea of intellectual humility is something that I strongly agree with and is near and dear to my heart. I think that the idea of training students to be foxes and not hedgehogs is just: know something about lots of different things. In this case, in this context of viewpoint diversity, that would mean look at a problem from a lot of different angles.

I think in the article I use the example of poverty, which is obviously something that’s discussed in campuses. It’s discussed in a wide range of departments in classes. Seeing poverty as having multiple complex causes and having multiple complicated solutions, rather than where something like oppression is part of that story. But not stopping there, not saying that’s it, that’s where the story starts and ends. That’s a piece of it, and looking at these other things, whether it’s behaviors or all of these things that you’re not supposed to say, and thinking about it that way.

I try to work with students to become foxes, not hedgehogs. The other thing Tetlock says about that comparison is he talks about how the foxes are more skeptical of grand explanations, a grand theory of everything. I think skepticism in general is healthy, and it certainly goes well with critical thinking. So, yeah.

KLUTSEY: I remember a while back when I was in college, I was going to take a certain class, and I wouldn’t say which class it was, but my professor said, “The class touches on everything, basically. It gives you a survey.” He quoted Alexander Pope, and he said, “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or taste not.” He was trying to warn me that, “Don’t take these survey courses. Why don’t you just take something that just takes you deeper and deeper into the subject matter so that you become very knowledgeable about that.” So someone might push back and say, but we need both. We need both foxes, and we need hedgehogs as well.

REDSTONE: Right, right. Yeah. I was thinking about that. I can’t speak for Philip Tetlock obviously, but at least the way I intended, I mean it in a different way. So you could be very focused in one narrow thing, like whether you’re doing your dissertation or whether it’s your major, whatever, and you could still be a fox in that you’re at that from a lot of different perspectives, whatever that narrow, little thing is.

To me, at least in my conceptualization, it’s not that we should all have great breadth and no depth. I don’t think that’s the answer either, but the depths should be more comprehensive. I don’t see those as mutually exclusive, but I understand that someone could try and make that argument. But I guess that would be my response.

KLUTSEY: Right. Right. Now, you mentioned critical thinking earlier, and I just wanted to ask you for your thoughts and what do you think critical thinking is? And how is that different from what others see as critical thinking?

REDSTONE: That’s a fair question. I guess I think of it as questioning the parts of knowledge that we’re not in the habit of questioning, that we don’t teach students to question. And frankly, instructors aren’t always prepared to question it. So when I say critical thinking— I don’t know if we were going to talk about the FIRE [Foundation for Individual Rights in Education] paper, but in the paper that I presented at FIRE in 2019, I talk a little bit about this. I had written about it, and I used the language of modern racism. Colorblind racism is the same idea. Anti-racism is a different variation on the same theme. And the same thing with intersectionality, which is that these are theories. This is the point I make in that paper. These are theoretical perspectives that have ideological underpinnings, and that’s fine.

My position, I feel like, yes, they should be taught. Students should be taught these things. But they should be taught that they’re not truth with a capital— I mean, maybe they’re true. This is the humility part. Maybe that’s actually how the world works, that it’s all determined by power structures or whatever. But we don’t really know. Maybe it’s wrong. As with any other theoretical perspectives, how useful is it? Certainly, in my own discipline of sociology, there’s just not that—

Just circling back to what you said about, what is critical thinking? I’m answering you with an example rather than a definition: to encounter those kinds of ideas or to teach those kinds of ideas and just say, look, this is one way of understanding the world. This wasn’t handed down from on high somewhere. This is just a way of understanding it, and maybe it’s right and maybe it’s wrong. More specifically, what does it mean to tell people that they’re wrong or bad or morally flawed for not thinking that way or for questioning it? And so, when I say critical thinking, that’s what I mean. Does that make sense?

KLUTSEY: Yes, yes, absolutely. Now, I was going to ask you about sociology and that since it studies social change and looks at structure of groups, organizations, and how people interact within these contexts, that’d be a rich tradition in helping students become foxes. Basically, I wanted to welcome you to make a case for sociology as a discipline for developing foxes. But I think from your previous response, maybe not so much.

REDSTONE: I’m sure the potential is there, but I think that the development of foxes—to stick with that metaphor—I don’t think it’s necessarily discipline-specific. I think it’s a way of thinking, and it’s a way of valuing an approach to problem-solving that I think transcends disciplinary divisions. And so, yeah, sociology certainly could do more. I don’t think we’re particularly good at it currently. Going back to the paper for FIRE, we teach conflict theory, really. Yes, we dance around these other things, but mostly that’s what we teach. That is a grand narrative. That’s exactly what Tetlock says that foxes are and should be skeptical of—grand explanations. And sociology, we really like a grand explanation. So, as a discipline, we would have to really back away from that, and there’s all kinds of reasons why that’s unpopular.

KLUTSEY: So, your observation would be that there are a lot more hedgehogs than foxes on campuses these days?

REDSTONE: Certainly, in sociology, I think that’s true. I don’t mean to suggest that that’s a personality flaw or anything like that. And it’s all very well-intentioned. I think that the costs of that approach are much higher than the benefits. And I think that they are much higher than people generally recognize. That’s, I guess, if I can frame it in a cost-benefit way.

KLUTSEY: Now, you have tried to address this challenge by developing a course called The Sociology of Political Polarization: Bigots and Snowflakes. And I wanted to ask you about that. First of all, do you think we’re truly polarized, or is this something that we keep hearing and so we’ve come to believe?

REDSTONE: That’s a really good question. I hate the word polarization. Three words come to mind that I can’t stand because I feel like they’re almost meaningless. One is critical thinking. Two is polarization. And three would probably be the word ideological. These words have just come to mean nothing to me. But I don’t really have better ones, and so I’m stuck with them. But I’ll just go on record saying, I think that they’re not helpful. And so, if someone has better alternatives, I’m open to it.

But polarization—I guess one question is what would you call it? Again, I’ll try and answer that with an example. Recently, since George Floyd’s death at the end of May—and I’m just picking one specific case, and you may or may not already be familiar with this—but there was a journalist at The Intercept, which is Glenn Greenwald’s website. Anyway, the journalist’s name is Lee Fang. The Intercept is largely left-leaning. And Lee Fang posted a video. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but he posted a video.

KLUTSEY: No, I have not.

REDSTONE: He posted a video on Twitter. It’s like a two-minute video. As far as I understand it, if I’m remembering correctly, he’s at a Black Lives Matter rally and he’s doing interviews. And he interviews this guy named Max. Max is of some kind of mixed racial background. I think he is part Indigenous background and is part Black. But he refers to himself as Black, he says, “because that’s how people see me.” So that’s what he looks like. And again, he says that at the beginning of the video.

But Max makes the point that— He’s talking about Black Lives Matter, and he’s there at the rally as a supporter of Black Lives Matter, but he’s saying, why do we only focus on Black lives when a White person takes them? He basically raises this issue of Black-on-Black crime. And he talks about himself and he says, “If I leave here today and I’m killed by a White person,” he’s like, “it’s going to be front-page news.” He says, “If I walk out of here and I’m killed by a Black person,” he’s like, “no one’s going to care.”

So he raises this question, and then there are people who will criticize his argument. But then, even a degree once removed, Lee Fang was then accused of racism for posting the video. He was called out as being racist just for posting this video without stating his own— Now, maybe it’s implied that by posting it, he’s implicitly endorsing it or whatever.

The argument is that by saying those arguments, Max is denying the systemic and structural racism that is truly determining all sorts of disparities, including related to crime, and that he was not accurately portraying, or maybe that he was equating Black-on-Black violence with policing. And so, that would be the argument. So some people would say that that’s racist, where someone else is going to hear that argument and just say, or hear what Max said and just say, “You know what? These seem like relevant facts to be considering. We should be having a conversation about these points that Max raised.”

When you have a situation where you have one group that’s saying, “You can’t even say that because it’s racist,” that’s a pretty strong accusation in this culture. And you have someone else who is saying, “What do you mean that’s racist? He’s making an observation, a true observation, and he’s not even supposed to say it without social penalty?” I don’t know if that’s political polarization, but it’s certainly some kind of dysfunctional breakdown in how we communicate about problems that really matter. Again, I don’t know if political polarization is the right term there, but it certainly seems dysfunctional.

KLUTSEY: Yeah. And it seems as though social media also poses some challenges to this. To avoid these problems, I’ve seen people put on their Twitter accounts that a retweet is not an endorsement. That’s just to clarify.

REDSTONE: Right. I don’t know if anyone actually pays attention to those things.

KLUTSEY: Right. Right.

REDSTONE: But yeah, I’ve seen that too.

KLUTSEY: Now, back to the Bigots and Snowflakes, why did you pick the title in particular?

REDSTONE: So, in what would have been the spring of 2018—because I taught it for the first time in the spring of 2019 and for the second time in spring of 2020—I realized that I wanted to teach this class. I was like, you know what? Might as well just grab the bull by the horns here and just, if I’m going to mix my metaphors here, just dive right in.Ilana Redstone

And so, I was having a conversation with my brother, who is not an academic but he’s just a very smart, thoughtful person. I was talking to my brother about how to name this thing in a way that sounded, sexy is not the right word, but that sounded— I could have called it The Sociology of Higher Education or something, I don’t know. But it’s because that was originally how I was thinking about it. Now, it’s obviously much broader than higher education, and so Bigots and Snowflakes was what we came up with. The course was originally called just Bigots and Snowflakes. And then I think there was a colon, and then, Living in a World Where Everyone Else is Wrong.

Then when I applied to go through the college to get a regular course number, one of the things that they said was, “You need to change the name.” Not because they objected to the name, but they were like, “Students can’t have a course on their transcript where—” because it’s usually just the first part of the course that shows up on their transcript. And they were like, “You can’t have a course that just says Bigots and Snowflakes. Employers or whatever are not going to know, or graduate schools or whatever, they’re not going to know what to do with that.”

So now The Sociology of Political Polarization, which sounds much more dignified, is going to show up on their transcripts, but it’s the same class. Then the Bigots and Snowflakes comes after the colon now.

KLUTSEY: I see. That pushback makes a lot of sense to me.

REDSTONE: Yeah. It seemed like a totally reasonable point. I don’t want to condemn them to having to explain forever what this thing is on their transcript.

KLUTSEY: How do you teach the class?

REDSTONE: I’ve taught it twice, and I’ll teach it for the third time in the spring of 2021, which will be after the election and whatever that is and whatever that looks like. I think it will raise questions for people. And if it’s online, we’ll do it online. Normally, I do it in person, but that’s out of my hands. But how I teach it is, there are a couple of things that I do in that class. One is I ask a lot of questions, just to really try to get students into this way of thinking that is, how do you know? How do you know? “Oh, so you think this person is racist.” It often centers, not always, but it’s often about race. How do you know? Maybe they are, but what if you’re wrong? A lot of those kinds of questions.

The way that will often come up is that I’ll start each class by asking students to talk about, what have you seen out there in the wide world that makes you think of this class? And they’ll bring in examples of, “Well, this person did this on…, and they got canceled.” They’re tapped into a whole world of social media that I know nothing about. Sometimes they bring examples I’ve never heard of. Sometimes they bring things like, “This YouTube person got in trouble.” I have no idea who that is.

But those kinds of conversations and thinking about, what is your response? How do you know? Even questions like, okay, this person did this thing that you think is offensive. What would it take for you to sit down and have dinner with them? What would it take? If the answer is nothing, then what does that mean? And so, a lot of questions. I could pull that one quote from a student that to me was one of the best.

The student wrote it in their reflective paper at the end of the semester, but they said: “The big question in the class was, ‘Well, how do you know?’ In every topic we discussed, Professor Redstone was there to play devil’s advocate. If you jump to conclusions and only see things from one point of view, it is hard to point out flaws in your argument. It’s also easier to make assumptions, but you can’t always assume people’s intentions.” So to me, if I spent 15 weeks and students come out of it at the end going, “Well, how do I know?”—that’s great. That’s wonderful. Yay, more.

To circle back to your question, a lot of it is asking questions and trying to get them to understand through the readings and things that we do, trying to get them to think about moral complexity, for instance. One of the things that I did in the spring of the last time I taught it, in the spring of 2020, and I tried to find an example that— Sometimes it’s helpful to just get away from the identity stuff because it gets tiring to be constantly talking about that for everyone in the class, I think. And so, one of the examples that I’ve used in class is a short story by Ursula Le Guin. Have you ever heard of a story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”?

KLUTSEY: No, I have not.

REDSTONE: It’s great and I think it’s a great teaching tool. It’s a short story. We listen to it in class. There are four-minute audio versions on YouTube that you can listen to people reading it. It’s about this Utopian community. And she says in the story, she’s like, “Make it your own. Whatever you think would be the perfect society, just that’s what it is. Whatever your dream is, that’s what this society is.” But the price for that society is that there’s a child who is essentially kept a prisoner and treated horribly—deprived of any sort of physical contact, deprived of nutrition, just treated horribly. And everybody in this community knows that the child is there, and they know that the child is the price that they have to pay for their Utopian society.

And so, the question is—and I’ll stop; people can listen to the story—but the question is, what would you do? The ones who walk away from Omelas—the village is called Omelas—the ones who walk away are just the people who can’t decide what to do. Because if you free the child, then you have to bear the responsibility that you have ruined the Utopian society for everybody in that community. But you freed the child. And so, can you live with that burden? Can you live with the burden of knowing that this child is being essentially tortured and deprived? And so, the ones who walk away, they just walk away because they can’t—

I’ve used it as a tool for, just sometimes things are complicated. It’s not always easy to know what the right thing to do is. It’s not obvious. So, sometimes I use that as a teaching tool. But it’s over time really trying to get students to think about some of those hard questions. I think that the trust that you build over the course of the semester, I think helps.

KLUTSEY: I guess you’re trying to help them to be a bit more humble about what they think that they know.

REDSTONE: Yeah. At some level. I think we’re terrible at it. I think we’re terrible at humility. And I don’t mean humility in the sense of, “Oh, I understand I’m not the fastest runner or the best chef or the next Rube Goldberg,” or whatever. I mean humility like, I’m not so sure of what I think I know about, “Oh, I saw this interaction between these two people, or with me and somebody else. And I think it’s this, but maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m wrong.” And everybody thinks that they have good reasons for doing what they’re doing. So, it’s like, okay, these situations are actually a lot more complicated than they might first appear and certainly than they appear on Twitter.

KLUTSEY: Certainly. Is that usually the common response? How did they react? Is it mostly feeling like, wow, I’m now asking myself all these questions.

REDSTONE: I think it depends. I think there’s a range. My experience with teaching it twice, unsurprisingly, I think there’s a range of what people get out of it. I think that there are some students who really— I think it really changes how they think. And I think there are some students who probably dig in as much as they did beforehand. I think it would be unrealistic to say it’s going to be a transformative experience for everybody who sets foot in the classroom. That’d be great, but I don’t know that that’s realistic. Is it okay if I read one more quote?

KLUTSEY: Sure, absolutely.

REDSTONE: There’s one more quote from a student. This is also from last semester. He wrote, “This course has been an outstanding exploration of the dichotomy between bigots and snowflakes and between extremes of the political spectrum, as well as—and possibly more importantly—the middle and the gray areas. My biggest takeaways are the importance of humility and admitting when you do not know something; the importance of diversity of opinions and ideas, especially when those ideas are contrary to mainstream thought; and the reinforced understanding that nothing is quite as black and white as it is often made out to be.”

That makes me feel like I didn’t totally waste 15 weeks. But people will get different things out of it. And that’s okay.

KLUTSEY: That’s great. So, if there are, and I think that there will be, some academics and professors who will be listening to this, what would your advice be on how to teach this and how to implement this type of course?

REDSTONE: Would a concrete example help?

KLUTSEY: Sure.

REDSTONE: Okay, so just take an example. I’ll use affirmative action as an example because everyone understands what it is. It requires no explanation. Everybody knows what I’m talking about. So, you want to talk about affirmative action, and you want to talk about different views on affirmative action. I might start with something like, is it possible to be opposed to or question the merits of affirmative action and not be racist? Is it possible? Most people are like, “What? Yeah, I guess it’s possible.” It’s kind of hard to argue that it’s impossible. People could. I haven’t really heard that argument, but it seems like a hard argument to make. And so, I would start with a question like that.

Again, I’m not trying to convince anyone that they should be against affirmative action. That’s never my point, and I’ve made that very clear in class. Just to use that example, I don’t really care if they’re for it or against it. I just care that they are able to have a conversation about it without being emotionally hijacked. So, start out with, is it possible for somebody to be opposed to affirmative action or a particular affirmative action program and not be racist? If you can get them to say, “Yeah, I guess it’s possible,” then you could go on to say something like, “All right, what are the reasons why somebody might oppose affirmative action generally or oppose a particular affirmative action program? Why?”

And I’m usually the first one to put up there, I’m like, “They could be racist. They could just be racist. They could just really resent the people that stand to benefit from those programs. Let’s not pretend that that’s not a real thing.” So, that is Reason #1. Okay, we’ll put that on the board. What are some other reasons? Then let students come up with other reasons like, well, maybe they think that it doesn’t actually benefit people, or maybe they think that it’s not the right way to allocate things in society, or whatever else they come up with. Just let people brainstorm about it.

And so then maybe you have a list of three or four items, or four or five items, or whatever that you’ve gathered. Then you can say, well, how do you know? How do you know? You meet someone and you’ve realized that they’re opposed to affirmative action or they’re opposed to some specific affirmative action program, either one. How do you know which it is? I don’t know how you know, unless you find them in a crowd with a tiki torch or something. It’s not immediately clear to me how you know. And so sometimes people will say, “Well, why would you bend over backward to give them the benefit of the doubt?” I’ve heard people say that. Why would you do that?

I think the answer gets back to this cost and benefit thing. What does it mean? I’ve had this conversation with students—what does it mean to get it wrong? If you care about how people have conversations and how we talk about these complicated issues— Sure, you can say, “Well, he’s probably racist.” Okay, well, what if you’re wrong? And what if you’re wrong repeatedly? And what does that mean?

Coming back to your question of how to do it. That’s a lot of what I try and do, is just come at it with, “Well, what do you think about that? What does that mean? How do you know? Can you see inside their head? And what if you’re wrong?” And so, my hope is that that gets them thinking on their own about, “Okay, well, what does that mean?”

KLUTSEY: I really like your framing and what-if-you’re-wrong question because I think not many people think about it in those terms.Benjamin Klutsey

REDSTONE: But I think it’s different than saying, you are wrong. Maybe you’re right. What do I know? Maybe the person really is racist. How would I know? But you don’t know either. And so, framing it in that way.

KLUTSEY: Now, I imagine that some of these strategies are applicable outside of the classroom. Right?

REDSTONE: Right.

KLUTSEY: Given your experiences studying viewpoint diversity and teaching it, what would be your recommendation for how we discuss some of the difficult public policy conversations taking place related to COVID-19, diversity, and so on to maintain a robust liberal tradition?

REDSTONE: Those sound separate to me. The COVID-19 and diversity sound separate.

KLUTSEY: Sure.

REDSTONE: With respect to the COVID-19, I guess the short answer is, I don’t really know. And the reason that I would say that is because I feel like we missed the boat. I feel like to have a real clear response to COVID-19 we need to have had progress on these conversations beforehand. And COVID-19 hit when we were really coming apart at the seams anyway. So now it’s almost like, well, we can’t go backwards and fix it. Our conversation has already broken down.

You and I, when we talked the other day and I just said, take the mask wearing, for example. Mask wearing or face covering, whatever you want to call it, to me that is the clearest example of what you need a social contract for. I wear my mask because it protects you; you wear your mask because it protects me. That’s a social contract.

We are so far from a place where people feel like—and again, I’m under no illusion that you would ever get 100% of people on board—but we’re so far from a place where people feel like they’re part of a bigger whole. I guess it ties to diversity in a certain way in the sense that if all you do is focus on differences, how can we be surprised that we no longer see what we have in common? I don’t know what you do about that now with respect to COVID. Although, the more serious things get, maybe you cross some threshold where it stops or it becomes less of a political divide because everyone is just forced to realize that yeah, you know what, this is not a liberal hoax or whatever. It’s not.

And then the diversity thing, a couple thoughts. One is that I think the way we think about diversity has to shift in the sense that it has to start to include viewpoint diversity. And by that I mean realizing that and respecting that sometimes people just think completely differently about identity and how they form their own identity, and that that’s part of it.

I guess I would say the other thing is what I said before, not solely focusing on differences, focusing on similarity. And then I guess the last point I would say about the diversity part is that, with all of this stuff—and I’m going to lump together because the latest trend seems to be anti-racism training, which I know is different from diversity training. But we could probably have a separate conversation about how they’re linked. So, I’m going to, just for the purposes of this conversation, link them just briefly.

The idea that if we give everyone the same training—and I’m not even talking about whether you think Robin DiAngelo has the keys to unlock the universe or whatever. But this idea that if everyone has the same information, if we just tell them, if we just show them, if we just turn the lights on and we just show them the way, that people are going to be on the same page about these really complicated and sensitive issues like racism and all of the sensitivity that goes along with it, that strikes me as perhaps one of the most flawed and dangerous assumptions that we make. And at some level, thank God, right? Thank God that people won’t think the same way. How boring would it be if we all had the same information and we thought all it took was having the same information and then we all agreed with each other? That sounds boring.

KLUTSEY: Right. Right. So, on all of these and particularly with COVID-19, do you think that scientists and epidemiologists are asking the what-if-I’m-wrong question enough?

REDSTONE: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Is there enough humility? Probably not. I’d have to think more about it. I would say, probably not, mostly because my sense is that people in general, particularly people that have public platforms, generally don’t ask that question enough—partly because the way you get a public platform is by not asking that question. So, there’s a circularity there. I don’t know. I guess this was certainly true early on in March and April, and maybe it comes back to being true. But the framing is either you care about the economy or you care about grandma. It’s like that’s its own kind of, “Really? Those are my choices?”

So, do they ask the question of what do I know? How sure can I be? I don’t know. I sure hope they are. How sure am I that this is the right way to go? How sure am I that this is the right policy? That shutting down in this way for this long is the right way? I sure hope people are asking those questions for all of our sake. And it doesn’t mean that they won’t get it wrong sometimes. Someone’s got to make the decision.

KLUTSEY: Right. I wanted to touch on your forthcoming book, which is Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education. What is your thesis? And when is it coming out, by the way?

REDSTONE: My coauthor on that is John Villasenor at UCLA. We were actually looking at the website the other day, so that’s through Oxford, and I think it said shipping on Sept. 22nd. So, soon. I have no idea. I don’t have enough experience with Oxford to know if they actually stick to their dates, but if they do, then Sept. 22nd. There you go, so order it.

KLUTSEY: Awesome.

REDSTONE: Yeah. So, that’ll come out soon. The idea in that book is that there are a set of three beliefs that underpin a lot of what goes on in academia. And that is with respect to research, teaching, and, really, in the administrative components of the academic enterprise. We focus on higher education because we’re both professors at large state institutions. But I think that really everything that we say, certainly now even more than when we were doing the bulk of the writing, applies to a lot of our main cultural institutions as well.

And so, those three beliefs that we talk about, we talk about the fact that they’re unacknowledged is problematic, that they are assumed to be just how everyone sees the world. I can tell you what they are. The first is that any action that’s taken to undermine traditional or existing power structures is automatically deemed to be a good thing. We try to be very clear in the book that we’re not defending traditional power structures. We’re not trying to say, “Well, if we could only go back to the good old days.” That’s not the point. The point we’re saying is that this reflexive idea that everything that we do to change that is by definition a good thing, that’s an uncritical way of looking at it, right? If you go back to the critical thinking part. So, that’s the first one.

The second one is that all differences in group outcomes are due entirely to discrimination. And again, because this is so sensitive, I want to be very clear that we don’t say in the book that discrimination is not a part of those differences. It absolutely is. But the belief part of it is that that’s the only part that we talk about, that we’re supposed to talk about. So, that’s the second one.

And then the third is the belief in the primacy of identity along the lines of how we normally think about identity, so along race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, all of the sort of ways that we usually think about identity. This goes back a little bit to what I was saying before with the diversity piece. That is how some people conceptualize their identity. That is not how everybody does. And it’s not even clear that it’s the best way. But it’s one of those things you’re not really supposed to question.

And I think that placing these ideas, or any ideas, really, on a pedestal that says, “We’re going to put these up here on this shelf, and we’re not going to criticize them,” that’s the unassailable ideas part. First of all, it’s antithetical to the idea of higher education, but it’s just not helpful. It’s not helpful. And so, then the social media part of that is that these beliefs or these rules are upheld by indirect and direct effects of social media. So, the direct effects are through this—and I know cancel culture is its own controversial term but—public shaming. And then the indirect effects are the climate that that creates. But that combined, the effects of social media are to really make sure that these stay as a dominant set of beliefs.

KLUTSEY: I’d imagine that social media also does provide some solutions to some of these challenges. You still have multiple voices and people who can challenge ideas and going back to viewpoint diversity because I think there are people still who are trying to do that right now, right?

REDSTONE: Yeah. If you’re looking for personal experience on social media, I am not the expert. I don’t do a lot on social media. It’s very big, partly because of—or maybe largely because of—the nature of the platform. And I guess I’m thinking mostly of Twitter, although that’s not the only one. It’s very hard to go into depth on anything. I mean, yes, I understand people write these long threads, and sometimes they get widely read.

I know that in the few occasions when somebody has reached out to me on Twitter and said something on Twitter, sometimes what I’ll do, if I can find them, is just email them. I can’t get it in 140 characters, whatever it is. I’m not even going to try. And I think it does the whole conversation a disservice. But you’re saying, if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that you think some people are actually navigating this successfully on social media. Is that right?

KLUTSEY: Yeah. I’m just wondering out loud, really.

REDSTONE: Yeah. You might be right. I don’t know. One of the things that’s hard is that a lot of times having these conversations and doing this work, you end up just preaching to people who already agree with you. I’m well aware that there are some people that will never want to listen to me. They will just resent every word that comes out of my mouth, and they will just not want to hear it at all. I get that.

I’m in a very fortunate position in the sense that I’m an academic. I structure my own job. I can spend ridiculous amounts of time thinking about this stuff. I can just sit here and think about it all day. I have that luxury. And so, to the extent that my time can then be of benefit to somebody else who has to spend their time doing and thinking about other things, if that’s helpful, that’s a good thing. But getting out of that trap of only talking to people that already agree with you, it’s hard.

KLUTSEY: Yeah. So, what do you want to be the key takeaway from the book—the action items that you’d like people to take away after reading the book?

REDSTONE: I don’t want to speak for John, but he and I had obviously talked about this. I would like it to be the beginning of a conversation. I don’t think either of us thinks that we have the final word on any magical solution. But I would like it to be the beginning of a conversation about what’s going on, what the problems are, and what the best path forward is. And so, that’s my hope. That’s so specifically within higher education. Outside of higher education, I would hope for the same thing—more honest conversations.

I don’t know if I mentioned this when we talked, but I also have—hopefully in the middle of August—I’ve been working with some people, a wonderful group at the University of Illinois, on a series of videos, short videos about viewpoint diversity. There are seven of them. I think six of them are substantive. I think the longest one might be maybe six or seven minutes. So, they’re short videos. They’re not just me as a talking head; they’re animated. And the people who have been doing the animation are really talented. They’re just doing an amazing job.

Those should be hopefully ready by the middle of August. I bring that up because they will be free and publicly available. It’s my hope that that would be something else that would be a way to start a conversation, both inside academia and out. So, you’re saying, “Where do you hope to go?” It’s how can we start more of these conversations in a way that doesn’t deteriorate into something completely dysfunctional. That’s my goal.

KLUTSEY: Fantastic. And you also founded this firm, Diverse Perspectives Consulting.

REDSTONE: I did.

KLUTSEY: Trying to do some of these things outside of academia.

REDSTONE: Right. Yeah. At the worst timing, but yeah.

KLUTSEY: So, how do you do it? How do you do diversity training and how is what you do different?

REDSTONE: I don’t think I’m necessarily a substitute for more conventional diversity training. I think that what I’m doing is a complement to that. One of the things that I think is easier in some ways—and to be clear, I set up that business about a year ago, just under a year ago. The website is just what you said, diverseperspectivesconsulting.com. The idea was that all of what I’m seeing and what the book is about within higher education is not limited to higher education. One, students don’t stay students forever. And two, the argument is that what goes on in higher education just sits upstream of everything else. It sits upstream of media, and it sits upstream of culture, and all of this. It all just flows. It doesn’t stay within campuses.

This idea that some of what I’m doing and the conversations that I’m trying to engage with, those would be helpful in a way outside of academia—in corporations, in organizations, and in other institutions. The advantage in some ways of that, particularly in corporations, is that there’s a bottom line that everyone gets on board with in a way that’s a little different in the academy. That means that you have a chance—I’m not saying it’s easy—but you have a chance to come up with, for instance, some kind of statement that says what kind of environment, what kind of workplace climate, do we want to create? So that’s where I start.

One example would be, we want an environment with open communication where innovation can thrive. Innovation in particular. Universities value it too, but in a different way. But from a bottom-line perspective, corporations obviously put a high priority on it.

If you get people on board with a general statement about, “What do we want here?”, then you can start to have a conversation about, “All right. What are we doing? How do we handle these sensitive issues, particularly around identity and people being offended, and questions around when does intent matter? When do people’s feelings matter? What do you do if those things conflict?” And you can always go back to that statement about, “This is the climate that we said that we want to create.” If we do this, is that going to get us closer or further to that climate?

And so, you can do that. Again, I’m not saying it’s easy. But I think you have a better chance of doing that in a corporate setting in some ways than you do in higher education because in higher education you can’t get past the argument of what are we trying to do? Or, what kind of climate do you want? You’ll have that argument for the next 10 years, whereas I think you have, at least from what I’ve seen, there’s more of an incentive for everyone to point all the boats in the right direction and the same direction on that kind of thing in the corporate world.

KLUTSEY: Right. As we’re nearing the end here, I just wanted to get you to reflect on the future a little bit. Are you optimistic?

REDSTONE: In the long term, yes. In the medium term, in the long term, I think I am. Yeah, I am optimistic. I don’t know how I feel about the short term. I feel like things could go sideways a while more before we get back on track. And I don’t know what the timeframe is for that. But I think that the moment that we’re in and the awakening that we’re seeing, specifically with respect to race and racism, there’s a lot that’s good in that.

I think that if what happens, and this is the worry in the short term, if the conversation is only about— And I’m sorry, I’m going to use these names because it’s so well-known, and I think it will be clear what I’m referring to. But if it’s all about White fragility and if it’s all about how to be an anti-racist, I don’t think that’s going to work in the long run. I just don’t think it is. I think that there are too many assumptions and beliefs that underpin that way of thinking that people won’t get on board with.

And again, I’m not even saying whether I think it’s right or wrong. Setting that aside for the moment, I just don’t think you’re going to get enough people in the long term to agree that the world is actually so simple that everything is either racist or it’s not. If it’s not anti-racist, then it’s racist, just to use that example. Or that the solution to racism is for White people to be constantly apologizing for it. I don’t think it’s helpful. Maybe I’m overly optimistic there, but I don’t think it’ll last because I don’t think it’s helpful. Ultimately, I don’t think it will win out, but I don’t know. Yeah, that’s my thought. But we could go deeper into the bog before we come out the other side.

KLUTSEY: All right. Well, on that note, thank you so much, Professor Redstone, for taking the time to speak to us. We’re very grateful. Thank you.

REDSTONE: Thanks so much, Ben. Thanks for having me.

Image credit: "The Fox, the Flies, and the Hedgehog," Gustave Doré, French (18321883)/Getty Images

Support Mercatus

Your support allows us to continue bridging the gap between academic ideas and real-world policy solutions.Donate