Letters To The Editor: 9-26-18

A Proposal to Give Diversity Its Full Meaning at UVA Law

Jacob William Roth ‘19

"A Proposal to Give Diversity Its Full Meaning at UVA Law" 

By Jacob William Roth 


Diversity has two parts. The first is getting people of diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and values in through the door. The second is learning from the beliefs, values, and practices that result from backgrounds different from our own. This does not mean we must agree or refuse to acknowledge our differences. It means understanding differing views so that we disagree with them well. 

UVA Law has focused on the community’s ability to accept diverse people. But diverse people bring with them diverse ideas, and the community’s ability to understand and learn from those ideas is what gives diversity its meaning. The promise and premise of diversity is not only that opportunities are available to those who have not had them previously, it is also that opportunities are available to all people within the community to learn from disagreements and challenges they never would encounter otherwise.  

My experience provides an illustration of the difference between the two parts of diversity. I am an increasingly observant Jew who entered 1L year with a Jewish identity that was only ethnic. My views and values have changed from 1L year as I have studied the faith and become more observant. I was accepted by the entire community for the idea of being a Jew. I still am now, but when my views and values changed due to my study in Judaism, those views and values were mischaracterized, mocked, or dismissed.  The same people who welcomed me into the community and valued the diversity of my Judaism pushed back against that same Judaism in practice when the values I took from it diverged from their own. This was not caused by anti-Semitism or bigotry. Instead, it was because these people could not understand how a person could be both moral and disagree with them on the issues where we diverged. 

The issue is not that my values and beliefs have been contested. I do not want mere agreement or meek avoidance of differences. I already know what I think and how I think it. What I want—and what we all should want (and need)—is disagreement: disagreement that is strong and serious, while in good faith and convincing; disagreement that forces us to be better in how we hold our beliefs or else be forced to change our minds if we cannot meet the challenge.  

We all already have the skill set to have these disagreements. We came here to develop them and have been doing so each day in class. The skills we develop and use in the classroom we often refuse to use outside of it. The tools are in our hands, but we need the instinct and habit to use them. 

It is ironic that we consider the standards and methods that we employ for pursuing truth and persuading our peers—e.g., good faith debate, honest evaluation of evidence, understanding the full strength and accuracy of the other side even as we oppose it—important enough for a case of theft or fraud but not for what we declare to be really important, like abortion, war, racism, or inequality.  

We can only honor and benefit from diversity in its full meaning when we work through our disagreements by first understanding the other’s views as they do, on their terms and as they see them—not as they first appear to us. No lawyer could avoid getting laughed out of court if he did not understand the other side’s brief in its full strength prior to disputing it. So too do real diversity, acceptance, and respect for the humanity of others mean learning to see other’s values and beliefs as they see them. Disagreement will and must happen, but after understanding, for it is prejudice and bigotry if it happens before. 

We are UVA Law. We have a tradition of collegiality and excellence in the craft of principled, fruitful disagreement. We should honor our institution and give credit to our education by bringing our skills out of the classroom and into the halls; for if we brought what we too often practice in the halls into the classrooms instead, we would realize how farcical it is.  

Our natural instinct is to eschew reason, good faith, and understanding when what is right is embattled, but it is precisely for that battle that our craft was developed. The skills and standards we are taught are for finding the truth in things that emotional, moral, and determine the justness of society.  

Tuesday, a vote will be held on a proposal to add a Cultural and Intellectual Diversity subcommittee to SBA’s Diversity Committee. Its purpose will be to help us practice applying our skills outside the classroom, in the emotional, moral cases we dispute in our community. The Cultural and Intellectual Diversity subcommittee will look at the state of diversity at UVA Law. It will find ways to repair dialogue, continuing and expanding the work of programs like Common Law Grounds, so that when we disagree, we do so well and learn from it, just as a diverse community has the power and duty to do. 

Go to the SBA website and contact a representative for SBA to express your interest in “YES” for the Cultural and Intellectual Diversity Subcommittee and honor the promise and meaning of diversity.