Thinking About What Diversity Really Means



On April 10, students and professors engaged in a stirring conversation about race, racial justice and the sensitivity that surrounds these topics. It’s an excellent moment for the college, as it suggests that “diversity” is for effect, not just evocation.

Dr. Charles W. Mills, professor of moral and intellectual philosophy at Northwestern University, led the discussion. The Center for Ethics co-sponsored the lecture, which was also this year’s Aquinas Lecture.

This moment gave us the space and opportunity to sensibly yet passionately express the frustrations that emerge when people get together and connect progessivist ideas. It’s the type of things that make colleges and universities flourish because a term like “diversity” is unfolded, its denotations and connotations seriously considered. And not just by professors, but also by the students that are largely implicated in “diversity.”

The Center for Ethics, which is co-directed by philosophy professor Dr. Mitchell Aboulafia and associate business professor Dr. Michael Judiesch, creates these opportunities by applying ethics to various components on as well as beyond campus. The Center thinks about the ways in which ethics relates to the different disciplines on campus, how professors ethically engage their material in classrooms and what goes on out there, in the so-called “real world.”

At the Aquinas lecture, Mills discussed how problems inherent in the definition of “liberalism,” a worldview that favors individualism, egalitarianism and universalism, shapes the “real world.” He presented his paper—which is rhythmically entitled, “Liberalizing Illiberal Liberalism”—and put forth a set of criteria that aims to liberate illiberal liberalism.

While the alliteration rolls off the tongue easily (or not), Mills’ ideas are really rather rich.

In a liberalist society, a man or woman is an individual relating to his or her surrounding society. In turn, these relations evoke the individual’s so called moral primacy as well as the moral connections between many individuals and the overall ability for things—social institutions, traditions and beliefs—to get better.  This definition, according to Mills, is complicated by the fact that we all have different ideas about how the quality of peoples should be fully realized. Individualism, too, doesn’t give us a clear definition. Who is the individual determining these universalizing ideas about equality? Better yet, how can there be liberalism when so many instances of illiberalism—sexism, racism, classism and various other malignant “isms”—shape parts of today’s culture?

Mills proposes that we think of “reconstructed radical liberalism,” a brand of liberalism that he argues will liberate illiberalism, or “conservative liberalism.” He adopts the frame of racial justice to argue for this radicalization of liberalism. In short, Mills’ paper challenges us to think about various complexities—the ways in which history shapes our understanding, the tensions between individuals and their societies—but the central concern is “diversity.” His ideas allow us to ponder: what does diversity really mean?

This, of course, recalls some of the words and ideas that color Manhattan’s campus. Mission Month. Lasallian. Social Justice. Ethical Conduct. These concepts certainly figure on our campus, but their vagueness often points to other equally vague concepts. It’s as if we’re stuck in our language, uses words to stand in for the actual thing itself. This begins with words that breed more and more ideas, but it has no conclusion—liberalism, after all, implies the ability to improve, to better and grow.

Mills’ talk, of course, succeeds because it makes us qualify the ways in which we use diversity.  Linking diversity to conservations with words like racial justice, racial disrespect and the social contract—words that are elemental to Mills’ ideas—allows us to start realizing the “betterment” in our campus and urban culture.