More than 300 years ago, humanity emerged from the feudal dark ages and entered the Age of Enlightenment. For the first time in human history, logic, reason, and the concept of individual liberty entered the culture and became the standard orthodoxy of Western democratic society. In the early 21st-century, a new orthodoxy emerged that challenged the legitimacy of Western civilization. While the new orthodoxy has permeated Western culture and its institutions for generations, it came to prominence around 2010 through the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) cultural movement. In the past decade governmental institutions (including public education), corporations, and communities have adopted this new cultural standard: Orthodox Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI). The dogmatic application of ODEI is often referred to as wokism or being woke.
On the face of it, ODEI might sound like a good cause. After all, who doesn’t want to move toward a world that promotes inclusion and diversity? However, over time I started noticing that ODEI was more intent on replacing the pillars of Western civilization than on improving the human condition. Specifically, “diversity” is the replacement for “individualism”, “equity” for “meritocracy”, and “inclusion” for the belief that all humans are created equal. ODEI teachings also proclaim that individualism, meritocracy, and the belief that all are created equal—the pillars of Western civilization—are responsible for upholding white supremacy. Many of these movements initially advocated for a type of liberal humanism (individualism, freedom, and peace) but quickly turned against it. The logic of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structures of inequality.
Not only is ODEI’s epistemological foundation a repudiation of Western civilization, but it also strengthens the neural networks associated with humanity’s most malevolent traits, tendencies, and inclinations. A truth regarding humanity is that within our survival wiring are capacities for prejudice, aggression, cruelty, and a propensity for tribalistic behaviours. These capacities are strengthened when we do not or cannot see others as we see ourselves. A 2010 study by the UK-based Equality and Human Rights Commission found that the psychological basis for prejudice is more likely to develop and persist when people see their identity in terms of belonging to particular groups, groups have different or conflicting key values, people view others as different, and their groups discriminate against others. These developments are the modus operandi of ODEI and illustrate how it cultivates bigotry in the hearts and minds of individuals.
A July 2020 study of three extreme political attitudes shows that those who endorse the dogmatic application of DEI are more likely to have Dark Triad traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. The same study also revealed that the psychological makeup of individuals attached to ODEI is closer to individuals attached to white identitarianism than those attached to liberalism. This gives credence to Nietzsche’s warning: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster; for if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.”
Humans might be hardwired for prejudice, aggression, and cruelty; however, we are also hardwired for altruism, compassion, and empathy. In Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Nicholas A. Christakis describes these evolutionary biological traits as “the social suite”:
At the core of all societies, is the social suite: (1) The capacity to have and recognize individual identity (2) Love for partners and offspring (3) Friendship (4) Social networks (5) Cooperation (6) Preference for one’s own group (that is, in-group bias) (7) Mild hierarchy (that is, relative egalitarianism) (8) Social learning and teaching.
Therefore, we ought to design systems and structures that consider humanity’s “social suite” and strive to cultivate our most positive traits while mitigating the malevolent ones. Examining the negative social-emotional impacts of ODEI on the human experience highlights the need for heterodox solutions. Compassionate Humanism was designed with this in mind and aims to become the new orthodoxy for communities that wish to engage with each other as the unique, conscious beings we are rather than the stereotyped, primitive reductions of our whole selves ODEI offers. Compassionate Humanism prioritizes human dignity over identity by cultivating mindsets of inquiry and compassion over those of fear and judgment by engaging in three Pathways of Practice:
- Practices that build awareness and equanimity. S.N. Goenka states, “The bird of wisdom needs two things to fly. They are awareness and equanimity.” Gaining insight into ourselves, others, and the world around us allows us to choose thoughts and behaviors that best serve us and our communities rather than responding with predictable and often negative evolutionary determinants. Noticing the narratives we create about the world and individuals in it (including ourselves) is an essential awareness practice for mitigating harm and increasing human potential. Equanimous individuals are less likely to harm others and can make informed decisions during chaotic situations. Not only does ODEI not provide practices to mitigate or prevent harmful human behavior, but it also fosters narratives of fear and judgment. Authentically incorporating practices that build awareness and equanimity into daily habits strengthens neural pathways associated with empowerment and resilience.
- Practices that celebrate our common humanity and break the walls of indignity A study on in-group and outgroup behaviors noted, “As soon as you place anyone outside of the circle of ‘us’ the mind/brain automatically begins to devalue that person and justify poor treatment of him.” ODEI scholarship prioritizes intersectional identity over our common humanity. Therefore, ODEI’s modus operandi is institutionalizing and normalizing dehumanization. Celebrating our common humanity is a practice designed to break down the walls of indignity built by ODEI theory and practice. Embracing our common humanity means understanding that pain and failure are unavoidable aspects of our human experience, as are love, joy, and the desire for social connection and friendship. Practices that celebrate our common humanity also include identifying commonalities between individuals rather than driving division. Authentically incorporating practices that celebrate our common humanity and break the walls of indignity into daily habits strengthens the neural pathways that allow us to see each other as we see ourselves rather than cause harm to each other.
- Practices that build kindness and compassion for self and others. Linked to older mammalian systems in the brain related to caregiving, which involves the release of oxytocin and feelings of secure attachment, practicing self-compassion strengthens neural pathways responsible for love, affection and the capacity for emotional awareness, empathy, motivation, and social engagement. ODEI delegitimizes this healthy human need by raising suspicions that kindness and compassion are in fact practices designed to conceal bigotry. Not only does ODEI distance itself from kindness and compassion; it also justifies the mistreatment of individuals according to their assigned group identity. Acts of kindness are large, small, planned, and spontaneous demonstrations of selflessness that can transform individual hearts and minds while connecting communities through empathy and cooperation. Extending kindness to alleviate another individual’s suffering is compassion. Authentically incorporating practices that build kindness and compassion for self and others into daily habits strengthens the neural pathways that allow us to open our hearts and connect in previously unimaginable ways.
At the core of our humanity is the desire to pursue our well-being in our own unique ways. We also share two fundamental drives: to make meaning of our world and to feel a sense of belonging within it. ODEI prohibits individuality and is counterproductive to the intuitive drives of our species. Compassionate Humanism is designed to fortify the individual and inform our fundamental drives by strengthening neural networks linked to compassion and resilience. In the scope of human history, Western democracy is a relatively new concept and has only aligned its theory and practice relatively recently. While no system is perfect, Western democracy has extended individual freedoms and advanced humanity more than any other philosophical/governing system to date.
The health and continuation of Western democratic societies have been dependent on its citizenry challenging the orthodox standards that are contrary to Western democratic philosophy. Over time, this generational obligation has extended human rights, increased innovation, and uplifted the human condition. It is once again time to engage in this generational obligation of abandoning standards counterproductive to Western democratic philosophy while adopting practices that procure and protect individual rights. I hope the Compassionate Humanism framework can serve institutions and individuals interested in fortifying the individual and strengthening our shared humanity by centering human dignity over tribalism, compassion over judgment, and equanimity over fear.
Jason Littlefield is an educator passionate about the health and well-being of individuals and the preservation/restoration of Human Liberalism. He is the Executive Director of EmpowerED Pathways and author of the Compassionate Humanism framework for life, leadership, and learning.