✨Opinions are abundant and low-value.✨
_danilo summarizes the co-optation of "diversity" in this Twitter thread: he observes that those who feel "marginalized by those who live in reality" demand inclusion because of "diversity of opinion."
Contorting "diversity" to demand more airtime for already-well-known beliefs relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of diversity. Diversity is a well-intentioned (if flawed) intellectual framework for bringing marginalized beliefs to the center. "Diversity of opinion" is a perversion of these good intentions to reiterate the centering of beliefs that are already centered.
Failure to explicitly define and enforce boundaries about which opinions a community values has the effect of tacitly silencing all but a very narrow range of opinions. That's because speech has effects: voicing an opinion does things to other people, or else you wouldn't bother using your time and voice to do so. (Stanley Fish made this point in his essay "There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing, Too" [PDF link].) Everybody thinks some opinions are harmful and should be suppressed -- invoking "diversity of opinion" is a derailing tactic for disagreements about which opinions those are.
We do not need more opinions. We need more nuanced, empathetic conversations; more explicit distinguishing between fact and opinion; and more respect for everyone's expert status on their own lived experience. People who say they want more opinions actually want fewer opinions, because they are invariably arguing for already-privileged opinions to receive even more exposure. We do not need to value diversity of opinion; there are other values we can center to guide us closer to truth.
Diversity of Opinion Eats ItselfThe concept of "diversity of opinion" relies on a false equivalence between lived experience and abstract beliefs. When we strive to include people who've had a variety of experiences in how they've been (for example) gendered, racialized, abled or disabled, we take steps to correct existing power imbalances: we give voice to people who have traditionally been silenced.
To attribute unequal treatment of people to differences of opinion is a category error. Opinions don't get targeted for violence and discrimination. People do.
The opinion that Black lives matter is held by both Black people and white people, but none of the white people who hold that opinion are going to get rejected from a job because of it; Black people who hold that opinion, on the other hand, experience discrimination because they're Black, not because they have the opinion that Black lives matter. (In fact, expressing that opinion is likely to amplify bias against you if you're Black, while amplifying bias in favor of you if you're white.)
If we fail to see diversity as what it is -- a tactic to advance the values of equality and justice -- then diversity discourse dissolves into a puddle of platitudes. As a tactic for equality, "diversity of opinions" doesn't hold up. While some opinions may be loosely correlated with differences in how people get placed in social power hierarchies, we might as well just look at how people are placed in social power hierarchies -- those factors that shape your life whether you like it or not. The categories you can't escape are not categories based on what opinions you hold, but rather, those based on who you are.
This cartoon (created by Angus Maguire for the Interaction Institute) also illustrates the difference between pushers of "diversity of opinion" and those who want to make normally-silenced people heard.
"Diversity of opinion" means giving everybody a megaphone whether or not their voices are loud enough to reach the back of the room without one, or not, just like the bogus concept of "equality" in the cartoon means giving everybody a box that's the same height. It means hurting everybody's ears when the already-loud people turn their megaphones up to 11. Fairness would lead us to actively work to nurture those with unpopular opinions, and decline to make a special effort to include opinions that we all receive copious exposure to in the mass media and political sphere, like giving different heights of boxes to people of different heights.
So what people really want when they say they want "diversity of opinion" isn't more exposure to others' opinions, but rather a stronger grip on their own power. Their power doesn't reside in the content of their speech, but rather, their ability to dominate a conversation. "I just want diversity of opinion" isn't a request to be heard; it's a demand to control a conversation. The presence of traditionally-marginalized voices is a threat to that control. That's how "diversity of opinion" eats itself: first, by welcoming fascists into the conversation, then, by stepping back while fascists silence everybody else. Fascism wins ideological free-for-alls because it's the ideology favored by people who enter the contest with an unfair advantage. Norms and boundaries -- including boundaries about what opinions are acceptable to express in a community -- can modulate power imbalances and give people who aren't fascists more of a chance.
Diversity of Opinion for Me...Power employs certain opinions to defend itself, and the seemingly tautological idea that "diversity of opinions is good" conceals that truth. Of course we should all be exposed to different opinions, right? It's healthy, like eating a variety of foods. But while people who advocate eating a variety of foods usually draw the line at putting things like nails and ground glass into your body, people who advocating exposing oneself to a variety of opinions rarely distinguish between nourishing ideas and ones that will tear up your insides.
Anytime you hear people putting a lot of energy into saying words that seem tautological, you ought to ask yourself what those words are actually doing -- when people use words that mean nothing, it's a good bet that they are trying to do something with those empty words.
What people who say they want diversity of opinion really mean is that they want to make sure there is plenty of space for opinions that already take up lots of space in the world. And they really mean that they don't want their banal, trite received wisdom challenged.
A categorical difference between opinions and social placements is that the way others place you either amplifies or dampens your power -- but voicing an opinion is an act of power. To opine is a verb; to be gendered or racialized is a modifier. Opining is active; location in a social hierarchy is passive.
Expressing an opinion to other people is different from holding it in the privacy of your own head. The moment you express an opinion, it is possible that you are not just communicating the message "I have power" -- depending on your social position, the content of the opinion, and the context, you may also be exercising power. For example, when you say, "Trans men might have a male gender identity, but biologically they're still female," you cause me to go into fight/flight/freeze mode. You cause specific things to happen in my body, in a way that is no different from the way in which you would cause specific things to happen in my body by hitting me. Voicing your "opinion" can change my heart rate and blood pressure. Likewise, I have the power to state opinions that do the same to other people. But my opinion that trans people are real isn't one of those opinions -- it doesn't have the same effect on cis people as the reverse does on me, because that opinion doesn't signify an existential threat.
Another way people wield power by expressing opinions is by shifting the boundaries of what opinions are mainstream, as Yonatan Zunger wrote about in "Please stop retweeting anti-Semitism".
When images like this are mass-retweeted, people see them in their streams all day. They start to recognize that these are part of the ordinary political discourse. And then it becomes a matter of “fair debate,” just like other forms of racism, and people who would have stayed away from it because it’s just too obviously extreme will instead be willing to accept it."Diversity of opinion" is not a neutral idea, because normalizing ideas about which people are less human than others is the first step towards implementing those ideas.
...But Not for Thee
Opinions can also disrupt and redistribute power, which is why criticism of patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, ageism, heterosexism, and cisnormativity scares privileged people so much. Just as many men experience cognitive distortions that cause them to see groups where women are still a minority as "female-dominated", people with hegemonic belief systems see the presence of any dissenting opinions as a threat to their own free thought, and thus a threat to "diversity of opinions." This is how people can say "we need diversity of opinions" with a straight face when attempting to silence those who they label as "politically correct" or as "social justice warriors."
So "I want diversity of opinions" doesn't really mean "I think all opinions are good." To criticize an opinion is to express an opinion of your own. To suppress criticism, which is the agenda behind the "diversity of opinions" platitude, is to suppress diversity of opinion. It's a neat trick to use words to do work that precisely contradicts the superficial meaning of those words.
If you are so uncomfortable with your learned racism, sexism, (etc.) being challenged that you feel as if any criticism of those ideas literally silences you, then you might indeed interpret increased diversity of opinion as a threat to your own internal conception of "diversity of opinion." You may hold that opinion, but that doesn't automatically make your opinion fact. The fear you experience is real, but that fear isn't a description of reality, but rather, the product of the discomfort you experience when you suspect that what you have been taught may be wrong.
Like many things people say, "I want diversity of opinion" means the opposite in practice. It posits ideas that are actually very strong as fragile -- it excludes criticism of those ideas. Diversity doesn't extend to criticizing received wisdom.
Some Opinions Are BadNobody actually wants diversity of opinion. The vast majority of opinions are garbage. They're wastes of time. Most of that garbage is the contents of your kitchen compost bin, but some of it is radioactive waste with the power to make people sick who don't even touch it. A person is not merely a database of opinions, but rather, a living being with feelings and memories. Every person has value, but it doesn't automatically follow that every opinion everyone's mind produces is valuable, any more than every bodily fluid we secrete from our orifices is valuable to other people.
Consider two opinions: one, "Rape is commonplace and false accusations of rape are extremely rare", and two, "Women who say they were raped are usually lying." These are both opinions. Reporting error means it's impossible to be certain about just how commonplace rape is. But one opinion has the effect of mobilizing an entire set of social structures that are carefully positioned to cause shame and guilt in women who come forward about being raped. Saying that rape is commonplace, on the other hand, summons no such social structures. To think that the person who can shame other people by accusing them of lying about rape has the same amount of power to the person who cannot summon a maelstrom of shame directed at others is magical thinking.
Expressing your opinion can have the power to stop someone else from expressing theirs. Outside the privacy of an individual's mind, nothing is so sacred that it ought not to admit modulation by social norms. So if we accept that some opinions are bad, we have to admit that adding more opinions doesn't necessarily make anything better. In fact, I can't think of a problem that "more opinions" would solve. Overwhelmingly, social problems are caused or worsened by:
- the presence of too many opinions combined with a paucity of facts
- failure to distinguish between fact and opinion
- confusion of personal preference with objective virtue (if you've heard programmers arguing over which text editor is best, then you know what I mean.)
The last example illustrates how diversity of opinion can also be hugely disruptive and time-wasting even when it doesn't cause outright harm: in the context of software design, there's a term for unwanted diversity of opinion, and that term is "bikeshedding". Excessive bikeshedding is toxic behavior because it drains energy and has a disparate impact on people who have more things in the first place sapping the emotional energy they need to do their jobs. Declining to share your opinion is often the most cooperative, mature, pro-social thing you can do.
Opinions that can coexist happily with each other aren't necessarily good, but they're probably not harmful. Opinions that are crafted to destroy other people's freedom to express their opinions need to be kept out of the noosphere to protect diversity of opinion, just like a properly maintained garden needs to exclude weeds.
The idea that diversity of opinion is inherently good has brought us Donald Trump.
Opinions Are Like Assholes
"opinions are like assholes; i dont want to look at yours anymore" -- rare_basementRather than magical thinking, let's strive to be aware of our biases and actively correct for them. Part of that is putting in more effort to expose ourselves to ideas that make us uncomfortable -- that challenge our power -- and less effort to expose ourselves to ideas that make us feel better about having privilege and make us feel more comfortable acting to preserve that privilege.
Here are some things we can value if we don't value diversity of opinion:
- Evidence-based decision making
- Critical thinking
- Being open and up-front about the assumptions you make and the basic values you hold
- Being open about when you do or don't have a stake in a situation you're discussing (following "nothing about us without us")
- Asking other people to clarify the assumptions they're making
- Treating people with dignity (not as objects to do experiments on)
- Safe spaces
To use a technical analogy again, an example of a non-negotiable set of ground rules is a formal semantics for a programming language. Some things are implementation details, but a semantics specifies what about a language is non-negotiable. Everything else, we call "undefined behavior". Likewise, the subjects of debate in a healthy society constitute social "undefined behavior": that which our shared norms don't govern.
The next time someone shames you for your lack of enthusiasm for "diversity of opinion", you can counter the accusation by saying that as with assholes, there are only a limited number of opinions you're interested in seeing.
Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.