Democracy depends upon diversity

A drawing of a diverse group of people standing in front of a city skyline.

UB philosopher in a Knight Foundation paper says it’s not diversity that divides us; it’s division that divides us

Release Date: August 28, 2018 This content is archived.

Ryan Muldoon.

Ryan Muldoon

“We can’t just look at diversity. We have to consider the spatial arrangement of diversity. The question should not be ‘Is this a diverse city?’ but rather ‘Is this an integrated diverse city?’ The more segregated we become, the lower our social trust.”
Ryan Muldoon, associate professor of philosophy
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Democracy demands a robust contest of ideas to thrive, and diversity is the best way of protecting the democratic foundation of the American experiment, according to a University at Buffalo philosopher.

Diversity inspires new thoughts and ideas while discouraging stagnation and increasing the possibilities of finding better ways to address various issues.

But some scholarship points to ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity as contributing to today’s increasingly caustic political climate where a lack of civility brings confrontation at the expense of compromise.

This view approaches diversity as a problem for democracies to manage, but it’s diversity that saves democracies, says Ryan Muldoon, associate professor of philosophy at UB.

“Diversity is not the problem,” he says. “The problem is segregation.

“We can’t just look at diversity. We have to consider the spatial arrangement of diversity. The question should not be ‘Is this a diverse city?’ but rather ‘Is this an integrated diverse city?’ The more segregated we become, the lower our social trust.”

Muldoon, an expert in social political philosophy, recently worked with the Knight Foundation on its Trust, Media and Democracy initiative.

The foundation promotes excellence in journalism and the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Muldoon is part of the foundation’s panel of specialists in various fields committed to creating more informed and engaged communities.

His white paper exploring the relationship between trust and diversity is available online.

For Muldoon, disagreement is an instrument of social progress.

“Liberalism allows people who disagree to share power,” says Muldoon. “It gives everyone a mechanism to participate so that disagreements don’t become wars.”

But some philosophers, like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, thought that diversity was something to overcome.  On this view, diversity is a primary source of our conflicts, and our institutions are meant to reduce or mitigate the negative effects of diversity.

Others such as John Stewart Mill and John Dewey saw society as more dynamic. They looked at the potential for discovery and better ways of engaging with each other.

These divergent philosophical traditions are present in social science literature as well. There is a body of research suggesting that diversity is causing a loss of faith, creating populations less interested in working together toward common goals, but recent scholarship using better data sets tells a different story.

“I think of disagreements as the way democracies work,” says Muldoon, author the recent book, “Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance” (Routledge).

“Disagreement forces us to question our ideas and to consider if our current way is the best way of thinking about a problem.”

But the interesting feature of this analysis is that it only works if there are ideas from each side.

Segregation blocks that conversation, and Muldoon says it’s a conversation we definitely want to have.

“If you’re around similarly minded people there’s no reason to think that you’ll hear challenging ideas,” says Muldoon. “In the modern context this is doubly problematic because not only have you spatially separated yourself, but now you can turn to news sources that represent that separation, providing what you want to hear with nothing coming from the other side.”

There are steps that can be taken to encourage integration, but Muldoon acknowledges they’re not always easy to accomplish.

“The biggest thing we could do that would be most helpful is take active steps to reverse the damage done by real estate redlining policies that were present in the United States for a long time,” he says. “The mortgage interest deduction on individual tax forms can be based on a sliding scale determined by neighborhood diversity: the more diversity, the bigger the deduction.”

School district boundaries could also be redrawn and expanded to cover wider areas. More unified districts will be more likely to fully encompass residential areas that cross segregation lines.

“These are not easy policies to implement, and that’s one of the reasons we don’t have them,” he says. “But the best way to depolarize ourselves is by increasing our exposure to outside groups.”

Social media platforms can help in this regard.

Instead of popular sites like Facebook and YouTube using algorithms designed to provide more of what users already like, Muldoon says these sites can offer settings that allow visitors to ask for material that falls outside their patterns of interest.

These sites aren’t designed as segregation tools, but they function to isolate users with similarly minded people.

“If we’re exposed to diversity we get to experience different views and how those views arise,” he says.

“Tolerance is a skill we need to acquire. We need to practice. We need to make sure our civic institutions and online institutions take that into account and give us an opportunity to gain that experience.”

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