More than two dozen students and faculty members attended a special colloquy hosted by the Institute for Ethics in Public Life at Plattsburgh State Wednesday afternoon in Au Sable Hall as part of PSUC’s Diversity Week.
Established in 1999, the Ethics Institute operates with the intention of “creating ethically responsible citizens” by providing fellowships for a handful of faculty members each semester. Recipients spend their time in residence “developing the capabilities to integrate issues of ethics and civic responsibility into their teaching.”
Moderated by Institute Director Dr. Jonathan Slater, the colloquy amounted to a lengthy discussion, among five current and past fellows, a senior scholar and a staff assistant for PSUC Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion, of the “moral dimension of diversity.”
The speakers grounded the largely philosophical discussion in tackling contemporary issues as they relate to an ethical, communal and moral approach to diversity as both a value and practice.
“We have a moral imperative to look at this idea of diversity and to ask how does this term mask structural inequalities that have caused us to see things as being different?” said Dr. Lauren Eastwood, past fellow and chair of the sociology department.
Eastwood dissected the meaning of “difference” as a tool used by the powerful and privileged to set norms in a society and to argue that not all differences are equal in weight, and that further, it’s possible, even likely, to be a member of multiple groups with different levels of power.
Audience member Ha Nguyen, an international student from Vietnam, joined the conversation by talking about identities and argued that in order to be a global citizen, one must erase or change at least some part of his or her cultural identity.
Nguyen explained a specific feeling of a cultural difference, likely lost upon the rest of the gallery: speaking up.
“There must be people who speak up,” Nguyen said. “And speaking up in front of faculty and school administrators [is] not a familiar experience to students in Asia… where we have a kind of hierarchy of power.”
Selective ignorance and inadequate education play roles in the perpetuation of diversity issues, CDPI staff assistant Aaron Schwartz said.
For an example, Schwartz used social studies textbooks, featuring images of “smiling slaves” and “women, excited to line up to vote with zero consequences,” effectively adding to an incomplete revisionist account of history.
And until society invests in an accurate and contextual education system, “some of the things we’re talking about here simply unattainable,” Schwartz said.
English Professor Dr. Tracie Guzzio argued that society needs to first recognize an innate preference in human beings for things similar to oneself, a concept that speaks to “the human animal… trying to protect itself.”
“Start with: we’re different, and why?” Guzzio said.
Starting with analyzing why people act the way they do, as opposed to jumping to correct problematic behaviors, Guzzio said, is crucial to address the heart of diversity issue.
Left alone, the conversation remains superficial, just scratches the surface and offers only a symbolic appearance of unity.
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