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How to Combat Tribalism on Campus

By Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier:

Thinking recently about the state of debate on college campuses, I was reminded of “The Eleventh Voyage,” a story in the science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem’s 1957 collection The Star Diaries. In it, the space adventurer Ijon Tichy is dispatched to a distant planet and charged with infiltrating its colony of human-hating robots. To pass among them, he dons a robot costume. He lives in terror of being found out, but he soon discovers he’s not the only one in disguise; the iron exteriors of some robots he meets are hiding nervous humans too. Eventually, all the robots turn out to be humans in robot suits, each a victim of an elaborate ruse pitting “us,” the humans, against “them,” the robots. The story ends with Ijon and his fellow Homo sapiens joyfully removing their phony robot heads as it dawns on them that, in reality, there is no “them” — there is only us.

Too many college students, taking cues from the polarized culture around them, are buying into a dichotomy as false as the one in Lem’s tale. Driven by laudable intentions to be on the right side of social and political issues, they are casting certain debates in stark moral terms that pit “us” — those with what they deem as the correct opinion — against “them” — anyone who disagrees. In their zeal, these students rush to judgment, brook no disagreement, and default to moral condemnation in place of argument and persuasion.

This is problematic for two reasons. First, when debate devolves into us-versus-them thinking — what the Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene calls moral tribalism — productive communication ends, along with the learning and understanding that can follow. Second, it can discourage students who are unwilling to brave the intertribal fray from sharing their own opinions.

Read the rest of the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.