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2013 Spring Issue 2 (April 19, 2013)

Empathy and Reason: A Response to Pedro Fernandez

April 23, 2013
By Ben Stroup

It’s quite fashionable these days to attack “diversity” as an empty phrase, signifying nothing but the unthinking, bleeding-heart liberalism of an elementary school textbook. It is derided as meaningless newspeak, useful only to directors of HR giving an infinite series of powerpoint presentations. What’s worst is, it’s assumed that the end of “diversity” is just that: a diverse group of faces.

This is so far from the truth it baffles me that a senior Carleton student (let alone a double major in Philosophy and English) could accept it to be the case. Pedro Fernandez’s article last week was a jumble of complaints, often contradictory, that took that assumption and juxtaposed it with praise of constant, unfailing “inquiry.”

Though stuffed with tempting sidebars on topics as diverse as pedagogy, positivism, and public radio platitudes, Fernandez’s piece was driven by a suspicion that liberal culture uses “diversity” as a security blanket. He argues in favor of inquiry and self-awareness; that if we looked deeply into ourselves, we would discover that we don’t really want diversity, we just want a pat on the back.

Fernandez, though, doesn’t reach this conclusion through reasoned inquiry or any internal debate—he reaches it through vindictive dismissal of the complaints of others. In his mind, he may be called disgustingly cynical or problematic, but that’s only because those poor feeble students have not looked into themselves the way they should--the way he has! They only dismiss him to keep him quiet, because his truth irritates the lies their souls have housed for their entire lives! They should be thanking him instead!

Before he wrote this indulgent and self-congratulatory article, did Fernandez sit down and examine why diversity is so highly praised? Diversity is valuable because it fosters empathy. When you see and meet and grow to love people who are different from you, either in race or class or gender or ideology, you start to understand the unique qualities in your own life. You become more able to identify other people as outside your realm of experiences. Through this understanding of the humanity of others we begin to treat them as we would treat ourselves. We become kind instead of nice. Diversity in schools, workplaces, friendships, and states is valuable not because it allows us to stop caring, but because it forces us to care. Empathy is an extraordinary tool in a society beset by centuries of racism, class war, gender, sex-based oppression, and violence in general.

How predictable, then, that someone decrying a cultural fixation on a tool to elicit empathy shows so little empathy himself. Fernandez assumes that the only reason why people are so keen on diversity is that they’re stupid. They’re parrots, mimicking the words of their betters without understanding the meaning. Fernandez assumes that these students’ beliefs about white hegemony and “problematic” thought come from gut reactions as opposed to clear, bold reason. He assumes the worst of others: they cannot possibly be as inwardly driven as he, anything they say that may happen to line up with clichés about social good is proof enough that they are not really thinking. Brushing off other opinions as irrational or unfounded is quite closed minded behavior, no? And to do so not out of a place of goodness and hope for human love and respect, but out of a place of pessimism and disgust? That’s not how philosophers behave—that’s how cartoon villains do.

Which brings me to what I found most disturbing in this piece: not the rambling structure or the petty attacks against former antagonists, or even the dismissal of the concept of diversity. What most affected me was the profound sadness. Fernandez’s attack on “Diversity” in the name of ceaseless inquiry and reason is not built on inquiry and reason at all. It does not make me imagine him, as he might like, as a grand philosopher à la Nietzsche, but as an old fool foaming and spitting against imagined enemies. “There’s Old Man Fernandez, sitting on his porch, whittling and cussing at passers-by. He may have been quite rational once, but time hasn’t been too good to him…” The fact that a man could write such dismissive, misanthropic garbage and think himself the enlightened one is truly pathetic. Imagining a generation of scholars so spiteful and blind to themselves is horrifying.

I regret to inform Mr. Fernandez that philosophy does not necessarily require being a jerk. So if you’re really keen on developing a “lifelong relationship with others, indeed with otherness itself, through the infinitely intricate prism of oneself,” start by considering more the others, and less the prism.

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