By Michael Stuber
The beauty – and challenge – of diversity means that we are still faced with provocative fundamental questions, such as, ‘should diversity include people that explicitly reject some key aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion – in order to be credibly inclusive’? A discussion of ‘diversity of opinion’ requires DEI practitioners to reconfirm or reconsider basic values to find answers.
Should we use a broad definition of diversity that also works globally or a selected one that focuses on business needs? Experience shows that a focus on race, gender or LGBT can create resistance from people who claim that society is no longer biased against marginalized people and that this focus resulted in reverse discrimination. People who advocate for the importance of ‘diverse opinions,’ often want to be included in DEI while rejecting such DEI concepts as the self-determination of identities or the prevalence of discriminatory patterns. This article discusses the substantial threat such narratives present and how to react.
It started with ‘Diversity of Thought’
When ‘diversity of thought’ was added to the traditional DEI portfolio – the idea that people don’t need to be of the same race, ethnicity or gender, to bring diverse viewpoints to the table – many felt as if this had been the missing piece to encourage everyone to embrace diversity. Many stakeholders supported ‘diversity of thought’ as it is more obviously inclusive or neutral than race or gender where a preference for under-represented subgroups seems to be embedded. The endorsement of ‘diversity of thought,’ however, included a potential avoidance of hard conversations about systemic bias and other issues. Data and incidents, however, show that marginalization related to personal demographics continues to be an issue in many areas – unless someone rejects the evidence altogether.
The evil brother ‘Diversity of Opinion’
This dismissive approach was introduced with another diversity facet that seemed close to ‘diversity of thought’ – ‘diversity of opinion.’ People who believe in ‘diversity of opinion’ want to be explicitly included in DEI although they do not agree with core elements of DEI or that underrepresented groups are excluded or disadvantaged. Such disagreements would not be an issue if it did not extend to the expectation that an entire company or country should adopt the very same narrative.
“In my perception, recent events at Twitter mirror the same discrepancy: Elon Musk claimed wanting to reinstall freedom of speech and started to do so by firing, among others, the Director who was in charge of fighting hate speech (on his first day) and later tried to block critical journalists. How can one not see the irony?”– Michael Stuber
The Nasty Narrative of Negation
Another claim raises even bigger worries: The allegation that overall, discrimination has been resolved and today’s policies and processes are equitable and meritocratic. The rise of individual women or people of color into positions of leadership is used to prove the point. Reports and data showing the marginalization of some people are disbelieved and dismissed. The potential influence of gender or appearance is negated. We should be alarmed as this is an attack on core DEI concerns: biases in our structures, processes and cultures that were fostered over centuries did not disappear the day before yesterday.
Solution 1: Insisting on Values
Depending on the context (societal/political or organizational) shared values can be an effective way to discuss different perceptions (e.g. of workplace realities) and interpretations (e.g. of engagement data). Inevitably, the interpretation of situations and data varies, and ideally leads to a discussion of underlying assumptions and values. The process of identifying overlap makes this exercise enriching and contributes to forming a shared identity foundation. This can be complex in a society. However, in a company mandatory policies can be established and a designated space can be created where values shall be applicable. This is also the place where we insist that individual freedom (including diversity of opinion or freedom of speech) ends where someone else’s dignity or identity are concerned.
In an earlier column, I had already predicted a polarization that materialized only one year later: http://en.diversitymine.eu/diversity-of-values-increasing-tension-moreconflict-and-why-are-all-responsible/.
Solution 2: Insisting on Reciprocity
One approach that changed the course of the dynamics at Twitter can be applied to ‘diversity of opinion’ in DEI: Insisting on reciprocity can show, as a first step, that whenever you request your opinion to be heard – and accepted – you will have to do the same with others. This, however, may not be the only motivation of ‘diversity of opinion’ as described above. ‘Diversity of opinion’ has been used as a vehicle to remove unpopular (or hated?) aspects from the DEI context, especially for people who do not want to be confronted with notions of colorism, sexism, ableism or same-sex attraction. Advocating against these topics are also at the core of most Nationalist movements.
The following statement made at the Cologne Pride Gala 2022 for me is to the point:
“None of us is entitled to a repressive ‘opinion’ over the self-determination of others. It is not for any of us to (…) decide for (others) how they should live. That is not freedom, that is hate. And hate is not an opinion!”– Birgit Bungarten
She not only illustrates the red line of invading someone else’s space, she also refers to the value side of the issue mentioned before.
Why do we have a ‘diversity of opinion’ issue?
Solutions that involve everyone and aim at defining common ground should be supported as win-win – so, why do we still experience the destructive dynamics of ‘diversity of opinion’? In previous analyses, I showed that, over many years, DEI was implemented in a way that felt normative (‘language policing’) and prescriptive (dos and don’ts) to many people. Dominant/ privileged groups did not feel included in the concept, the storyline or the initiatives. ‘Getting men on board with gender diversity’ or ‘letting white people be actively involved in racial equity’ was much proclaimed but didn’t always materialize.
Respective privileged groups have been more actively included as allies in some groups such as the LGBT community. Although these individuals may well have been in favor of DEI prior to the program launch, their engagement, nonetheless, increases credibility and outreach. However, one swallow does not make a summer, as it is said, and we do experience an overall polarizing dynamic in DEI.
This is why one key lesson from the very difficult and threatening ‘diversity of opinion’ story must be that DEI should be more self-critical when it comes to proclaimed goals and make sure that they are effectively pursued with existing activities. We should use more analytical evidence to evaluate our messages and the impact of our activities.
For example, you can use my non-empirical yet valuable checklist on my DEI KnowledgeBlog http://en.diversitymine.eu to kick-start an assessment. There are also further readings on the topics raised in this paragraph.
‘Diversity of opinion’ is not an innocent addition to broaden the spectrum of DEI, just as ‘diversity of thought’ has never been the silver bullet to integrate personal demographics and business needs. In a complex and at the same time polarized world, DEI can only be successful if it is perceived and experienced to be both:
- inclusive of subordinate AND dominant groups and
- flagging and addressing personal and systemic biases, regardless of their root causes.
A strong foundation of shared values serves as the most robust base for a truly inclusive and equitable approach to DEI. These values must be vividly discussed by all and brought to life in a way that everyone experiences them positively, every day.
Michael Stuber is The Global DEI Engineer, an EMEA level pioneer of 25 years and a frequent contributor to PDJ. His work combines rigorous research and diagnostics, innovative activist- style thinking and contextualized change strategy design to create progress supported by all.