The following letter to the editor addresses issues raised in the
Summer/Fall 2002 St. Lawrence, whose theme was “The Difference
That Difference Makes.” An abridged version appears in the print
version of the Winter 2003 magazine.
To the Editor:
After reading the Summer/Fall issue of St. Lawrence, I was half inclined
to write a letter to President Sullivan to demand my parents’ money
back. I went to St. Lawrence in the pre-difference days (1979-83),
so if difference really makes the sort of difference that the authors
indicate, then my St. Lawrence education was seriously defective. To
be honest, though, I feel like I got a pretty good education, or at
least its defects had nothing to do with a lack of difference. But
as I reflect back on my experiences as a student, I wonder whether
my spontaneous encounters with difference, and difference’s encounters
with me, were not in fact more genuine and felt precisely because they
were not mediated by an elaborate discourse of difference.
There are many aspects of the articles by Lisa Cania and Joseph Kling
that I really cannot understand. It seems hard to believe that the
Hewlett Foundation and Christine Zimmerman would have funded such an
extensive project whose only goal seems to have been to vindicate the
truth of a platitude, “we are all different.” Cania claims
that "if a society is truly diverse, the distinction of group
identity is critical, and should be promoted rather than denied.” How
is that statement consistent with what she says almost immediately
afterwards: “All members of a society, then, are different.” How
can we speak about group identity if we consider all members of a society
to be different? Would it not be the case that if we were to designate
one group as "culturally dominant," and another as not, then
we have denied to the members of both groups (if such groupings are
even possible in the first place) precisely the thing we seek to promote
Cania also claims that “diversity is described by attitude,” but
then goes on to say that the “predominant descriptors of diversity” are
gender, race and class. Do these “predominant descriptors” suggest
attitudinal differences within these groupings or between them? Do
we not deny difference by using abstract categories like gender, race
and class to classify attitudinal differences? Why only these descriptors
and not others?
The audits seem to say that St. Lawrence has a lot of work to do to
promote difference on campus. The data indicate, for example, that
a concerted effort needs to be made to attract and retain more men,
more conservative students, and especially more conservative women.
Will St. Lawrence undertake a serious effort to create a community
that includes conservative women? Will St. Lawrence make the recruitment
and retention of conservative students and faculty not just a primary
but an over-riding policy goal? If not, why not?
Cania's use of the term “Caucasian” is instructive since,
at least in the way it was originally conceived, this category would
include such people as Adolph Hitler, Mother Theresa, Joseph Stalin,
Jimmy Carter, Gloria Steinem, Cleopatra, Yasir Arafat, Ariel Sharon,
Fidel Castro, Joan of Arc, Osama Bin Laden, and Albert Einstein, among
others. If the “Caucasian” category can encompass such
diversity, can it have any real meaning? If the category was created
by those who deny difference, then can it be usefully employed by those
who claim to promote it? Or is the anti-difference bias an inherent
feature of the category? Is it an inherent feature of any such category?
Kling says his purpose, and one assumes the purpose of the Hewlett
committee, is to overturn “the biases of an entire culture.” I
could not help but wonder whether this claim is consistent with President
Sullivan's claim that diversity and inclusiveness are “aspirations
embedded in the American creed.” (p.73). In any case, the question
of overturning biases makes me wonder if Kling claims a privileged
perspective as a basis to pursue his revolutionary purpose. How were
you able to transcend the biases of your culture? Do you advocate replacing
one set of biases with another, or do you claim an unbiased perspective?
Is not the very idea of an unbiased perspective part of the cultural
matrix you seek to overturn? Have you not simply replaced one “mythical
norm” with another, one that merely reflects your own biases?
Kling has more difference categories than Ms. Cania, including “race,
color, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and
those who are physically challenged.” What about regional differences,
or type of community (urban, suburban, rural)? Or body type, IQ, handedness
or diet (flesh-eating, vegetarian, vegan, etc.)? Why do Kling and Cania
privilege some difference categories while ignoring others?
Kling goes on to make the startling claim that for the work of the
Hewlett committee to be successful, “’difference’ has
to be recognized as including white people.” What is “white”?
Does this designation fall under race or color? Who created this category
in the first place and then decided who belongs to it? Is this category
socially constructed or grounded in nature? Is not this category riven
with differences of color, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual
orientation, and those who are physically challenged, etc.? Does not
this category then disintegrate into multiple differences and therefore
cease to be meaningful? Can there be such a thing as “we” versus “they” if
there is no singular “we”? Does not the very use of “white” elide
all the differences of those who are assigned to that group, and is
doing that not contrary to a recognition of difference?
President Sullivan remarks that "diversity education is not about
the inculcation of ideology." (p.72). I take it that the necessity
of including this disclaimer means that there is some concern that
difference has become an ideology. I think that is wrong, but there
is a good reason why a person of modest means like me could be confused.
In most ideologies, Nazism, Communism, feminism, for example, one
can expect a high degree of internal consistency. This is because ideologies
seek to reduce the diversity of human life down to a single category
or principle, race, class, or gender, for example, and then use that
as the basis to create an elaborate conceptual structure that seeks
to explain the totality of our existence. An important feature of such
structures is a struggle narrative derived from the base category:
Aryan versus Jew, Bourgeoisie versus Proletariat, male versus female.
The struggle narrative is necessary to justify trying to force a recalcitrant
reality to conform to the strictures of the ideology. The point, to
paraphrase Marx, is not simply to understand the world, but to change
From what little I can tell, “difference,” as articulated
by Kling and Cania, does not seek such a reduction since it does not
claim a single category as its own. It claims all categories apparently
on an equal basis! We might think of difference as constituting a principle,
but because it has no specific content, it cannot work as the foundation
of an ideology. Difference discourse, then, cannot be an ideology,
at least not in a strict sense. So why the confusion?
Instead of thinking of “difference” discourse as an ideology,
maybe we should think of it as a story, a narrative, that purports
to encompass all of us. The pretense of providing a total account is
one reason for the confusion. In addition, for some reason, Kling and
Cania seem compelled to try and derive a struggle narrative from their
difference principle. Of their many categories, race, class, gender,
etc., they seem to privilege race (or is it color?) by way of making
this connection. In my view, however, these categories are all antithetical
to the difference principle so that any connection to the struggle
narrative can only be rhetorical.
Kling and Cania present us with a grand narrative, “Other versus
White,” that essentializes both these groups, thus denying to
each what it is they, Kling and Cania, claim to advocate – “difference.” The “mythical
norm” is itself a myth, a corollary to the grand narrative, whose
purpose is to create a fictional enemy, bleached and brittle, and set
up to be consumed in a revolutionary conflagration of otherness. It's
quite a tale!
The issue is not so much that St. Lawrence students will be inculcated
with an ideology, but that they will be inculcated with incoherence.
Kling's resigned tone in his “Where Do We Go From Here?” comments
suggests to me that many St. Lawrence students understand the problematic
character of the difference narrative. That most keep their reservations
to themselves is probably rooted in the misperception that difference
is an ideology whose struggle narrative will define critics and dissenters
as enemies, bigots, counter-revolutionaries, and chauvinists.
Since the flaw is in the narrative itself, whatever institutional
forms or programs are created based on that narrative, will be fatally
compromised. In my view, that is not necessarily a bad thing. I do
wonder, though, whether such an extraordinary amount of time, effort,
and resources could not be better deployed.
Before concluding, let me make a preemptive strike against those who
would claim that I am being ahistorical, that the struggle narrative
is an obvious fact of history. The “facts” of history are
rendered meaningful by the biases we bring with us when we look at
the past. A communist will see the class struggle as a fact, every
bit as much as a difference narrator might see “White versus
Other” as a fact. There is no unbiased perspective, so there
are no meaningful facts separate from the conceptual structures through
which we view the world.
When I graduated from St. Lawrence, I looked forward to the possibility
that my diploma would appreciate in value, that my college would become
more competitive in the years after I left. From what I can tell, that
has not happened.
For me it remains a source of deep concern that St. Lawrence, which
has such potential, seems to settle for so much less. Imposing a difference
regime on campus is not going to improve the education that St. Lawrence
offers its students, nor will it enable St. Lawrence to compete with
other small liberal arts colleges for the best students. Most of these
other colleges are also partisans of difference, but what many of them
also have is a curriculum of genuine depth and breadth, a truly skilled
and knowledgeable faculty, and staff, and a commitment to excellence
throughout the institution. Many of them can afford to dabble in difference
rhetoric, experiment with new institutional structures and programs,
and, in general, keep up with the latest fads in higher education.
St. Lawrence cannot afford to do that.
James Costopoulos '83
Poughkeepsie, New York