Target Audience: All stakeholders – teachers, parents, students, administrators, citizens
The debate on viewpoint diversity in education has intensified in recent years.
At first glance, this may look like a rehash of the old debate on the role of the teacher – is it just about instilling knowledge or also about teaching values? Sometimes, these two concepts are nearly impossible to separate, in particular when it comes to social sciences.
Indeed, the UK’s Department of Education published guidance in 2014 on how schools should promote British values, such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. The idea behind this initiative was to ensure that young people can leave school prepared for life and resist the temptation of extremist ideologies.
However, these liberal and democratic values are increasingly being challenged. In the United States, a significant number of schools has adopted activist curricula rooted in identity politics despite parental concerns, dividing children by race, ethnicity, religion, and gender. This trend is now arriving in Europe, where the British seaside city of Brighton recently made headlines with a controversial roll-out of “racial literacy” training to schools based on Critical Race Theory.
A very specific and narrow interpretation of social justice is increasingly taught as fact in schools. But does this really prepare young people for life in a democratic society that draws its strength from the diversity of mindsets? This event will allow you to take a step back and explore why and how school communities can promote viewpoint diversity.
This event consists of four sessions:
Cultivating a School Community of Viewpoint Diversity, 1-1.45pm EDT (5-5.45pm GMT)
The panellists will discuss the reasons for their commitment to viewpoint diversity and share their perspective about the best and worst ways of promoting viewpoint diversity in the classroom.
Jessica Minick, English Language Arts Teacher
Erec Smith, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition
Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of History of Education
Moderated by Samantha Hedges
Viewpoint Diversity in Curricula: Introducing Heterodox Perspectives, Critical Thinking, and Art Education, 1.45-2.30pm EDT (5.45-6.30pm GMT)
This session will discuss specific curricula that encourage heterodox perspectives and critical thinking, including interdisciplinary arts education.
Samantha Hedges, Heterodox Academy
Ora Itkin, Piano Teacher to K-12 Students
Erin McLaughlin, Positive-Ed Consulting
Moderated by Jonathan Zimmerman
Discussion: Should teachers advocate for social justice causes in the classroom? 2.30-3.15 pm EDT (6.30-7.15pm GMT)
Classroom advocacy has been increasing in recent years. Two former teachers – Tony Kinnett, and founder of The Chalkboard Review, an education journal, and Garry Mitchell, Harvard PhD Candidate in Education –, will discuss this development and the arguments both for and against it.
Garry Mitchell, Harvard University
Tony Kinnett, The Chalkboard Review
Moderated by Graham Gerst
Community Dialogue, 3.15-4pm EDT (7.15-8pm GMT)
The final session will be a moderated session where the audience can ask questions of the panellists or share their experiences.
A great number of organisations and institutions in the global north, whether they make ice-cream, manufacture pillows or deliver healthcare in warzones, are suddenly making public commitments to rid themselves of racist bias. This raises important questions that have strangely become taboo, such as: Is this our primary charitable purpose? How feasible are our plans? What does success look like? and What will this cost?
To be clear, I do not deny that racism exists and that there are improvements to be made in the sector. I acknowledge that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have been on our agendas for years and that progress has been made. I also recognize that health, economic, academic and social outcomes have complicated underlying causes. These causes include, but are not limited to, race and ethnicity. I also acknowledge that attributing value to the melanin content in someone’s skin is irrational and morally wrong.
But other concerns must be considered alongside the quest for racial progress.
I dislike feeling an obligation to declare that I am female and mixed-race, but unfortunately, this makes a difference in how this contribution will be interpreted. The problem has gone that far. More importantly, I am an experienced humanitarian who is becoming increasingly concerned about anti-racist ideology in the humanitarian, development, and charity sector. The humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence align more strongly with a humanist approach to social justice. Moreover, a liberal and evidence-based approach opens itself up to feedback, resulting in a more effective mechanism for social progress that has less chance of causing negative consequences.
Complex social problems have a range of possible solutions and usually require multiple, varied responses. Broadly speaking, two approaches that aim to address racism seem to be dominating our field. One encourages debate, accepts diverse worldviews, recognises people have autonomy, values science and evidence and focuses on unity and humanistic values. This is called liberal social justice and is responsible for much of the great progress in social justice we have seen over the past few decades. The other approach places society into two broad groups of white and non-white (with some varied terminology: BIPOC, POC, BAME etc.), demands ideological conformity and divides us into simplistic categories of the oppressor and the oppressed. This is called Critical Social Justice (CSJ) and the benefits have not been demonstrated. CSJ is on the rise in the humanitarian, development and charity sector and is being promoted as the best and sometimes the only approach to addressing structural racism.
So, to help highlight some of the problems that might come with the growing influence of CSJ in these sectors, here are six concerns about the CSJ approach to addressing racism in the humanitarian, development, and charity sector:
1. Over-investment in expensive DEI consultancies and training with questionable benefits.
The DEI consultation and training industry is expanding exponentially. It is not regulated. Some trainers have little formal education and experience in their field. Some push a particular overly race-conscious form of anti-racism that is not inclusive of diverse worldviews that exist in the charity sector. Worldviews from culturally and linguistically diverse groups and ethnic minorities can be quite conservative and oppose the CSJ doctrine. There is little evidence that this training changes attitudes or behaviour and there is some question as to whether they may make the problem worse. The ideology underlying some DEI training diminishes ethnic minorities as powerless and lacking in agency so that some minority groups oppose this training. Others object to the exploration of their unconscious mind, a fixation on invisible power systems or the acceptance that discriminating against certain groups is necessary to empower others. The underlying ideology to CSJ originates in Anglo-countries, therefore, the terminology and concepts tend to focus on home societies or global north based HQs. Therefore, their relevance is questionable for international organisations with very diverse workforces.
2. Unsuccessful conversations:
A great deal of time and resources are invested in the struggle to clearly articulate the DEI problem, with a lack of consensus and clear identification of the underlying causes. Lengthy debates focus on term definition, which can at least in part be explained by concept creep. Concepts that were once clear and almost universal like ‘racism’ are losing their meaning as the ground shifts with new terminology rapidly arising (microaggressions, colour-blind racism, dog-whistling) and then there are the new applications of old terms (white supremacy). Adding to this is a form of catastrophization where robust debate is suddenly considered ‘unsafe’ for some, and people refer to threats to their very existence. Emotions are driving much of this discourse whilst our rational minds struggle to catch up with the unfalsifiable doctrine that considers lived experience to be high-level evidence. Many organisations have a culture of diverse thinking, debate and constructive dissent, yet this topic tends to silence even the most outspoken. Some people do not wish to be seen as opposing any DEI efforts (no matter how radical or resource-intensive) whilst others are actively silenced due to their skin colour, or for not fully and immediately subscribing to a specific worldview.
3. Funds being diverted from communities in need and instead used for social problems in HQ.
An inconvenient question: How much donor money is spent cumulatively on DEI and how has it benefited the people you serve? Spending donor money to eliminate the remnants of a bug in human evolutionary psychology seems unwise at best and unethical at worst. With needs being sorely underserved as well as on the rise, aren’t there much better uses for this money that aligns more clearly with our charitable purpose?
4. Racialisation further entrenches perceptions of racism:
Despite heavy investment in DEI, some organisations are finding that staff are increasingly reporting that they feel unheard or discriminated against; these increases cannot be fully explained by the improved reporting mechanisms. Is it possible the racialisation of our sector is encouraging people to feel oppressed, or discriminated against, in a way that cannot be sourced to their objective circumstances? What is the impact of CSJ activities on mental health? Some reputable cognitive psychologists are concerned that the CSJ ideology is encouraging unhealthy thought patterns and can therefore have negative mental health consequences.
5. The evaluation challenge.
With many organisations spending a great deal on DEI plans there is significant confusion regarding how to measure success. HR heads struggle to quantify/qualify progress towards DEI goals and the overall feeling seems to be that it is never enough and never soon enough. In other cases, invalid surveys are developed by inexperienced HR teams uncovering problems that are not well defined or are less significant than the results suggest. Concerns are raised that with increasing awareness of racism, combined with concept creep, and with more DEI activities, more (often nebulous) racism will be uncovered, making the endeavour self-defeating.
6. Public positioning and messaging.
Many charitable organisations attempt to communicate complex social phenomena in social media short form and so it is not surprising they are misleading, inaccurate or attribute undue causation to race. These messages have a divisive effect and are often not helpful or actionable. A few examples: “The COVID19 pandemic is demonstrating what we all know: millennia of patriarchy have resulted in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture, which damages everyone – women, men, girls and boys” (United Nations). “Poverty is an institution of white supremacy. Inequality is an institution of white supremacy. Injustice is an institution of white supremacy”(Oxfam International). These messages fail to recognize multiple complex contributing factors to social outcomes and such simplistic and overly race-conscious narratives can further divide staff, donors and the general public.
The examples and concerns expressed above may or may not be affecting your organisation. However, regardless of the degree to which your organisation is currently affected by these issues, it is important to be aware of the differences in these two main approaches to addressing racism. That way, you may determine what is the best fit for your particular organisation and which best aligns to your charitable purpose, for which you collect funds. Some efforts can make gradual but continual and feasible improvements to organisations and others seek to divide, divert funds and may not contribute to achieving DEI goals- or even damage efforts to do so. It is important to consider the underlying ideology and academic theories of anti-racism and be aware of the risks before making strategic and operational decisions.
Those of us that work in charity perhaps know better than most that the world is not perfect, just like humans are not perfect. We may be especially fearful of being seen as racist or bigoted because it is what we despise most. Yet we also know that funding is tight and spending in one area will mean cuts elsewhere in a context of overwhelming unmet needs. This is our responsibility, and it goes beyond us as individuals and our feelings and personal experiences.
We know that the real suffering in the world occurs in developing countries where people do not have access to healthcare, employment and a level of income that can ensure dignity, education, basic needs and security for their loved ones. There is a need for honest, open conversation about the benefits and risks of various DEI approaches. We need to be humble and realistic and draw some lines in terms of spending limits and feasible outcomes. In doing so, we can continue to make meaningful improvements to organisational culture, while still keeping the lights on for the people we serve.
This piece was written by a qualitative researcher and social scientist committed to intellectual honesty who wishes to remain anonymous.
Uneasy about diversity initiatives? You aren’t alone (or racist…)
There are many justifiable reasons that an individual may object to their employer’s implementation of policies or training programmes that claim to combat racism. But the initial reaction to this objection can sometimes be one of judgement, confusion or perhaps even hostility.
‘How can you be against anti-racism? Doesn’t that make you racist?’
This type of response might prevent you from wanting to speak out. You may fear being branded as racist or bigoted, or indeed, you might fear that you actually are racist or bigoted. These anxieties can be multiplied if you have difficulty articulating your precise concerns to yourself and others.
So, to help you and your organisation see that there are many legitimate reasons a person might object to certain diversity initiatives, we interviewed a few members of the online Counterweight community, some of whom wished to remain anonymous. These individuals spoke with us about their experiences with Critical Social Justice in the workplace and their reasons for pushing back against it.
During these interviews, four key trends of workplace wokeness emerged: demands for conformity, intolerant tolerance, divisiveness and disempowering rhetoric/ideas, and racist anti-racism. Below, our interviewees explain why they found these features of Critical Social Justice to be so objectionable.
1)Demands for conformity
Many employees find that their business’ CSJ initiatives are repressive and demand conformity to a particular ideology.
One employee who spoke up said:
Typically, work is a neutral environment where people of different backgrounds and beliefs come together for a common goal, and you leave politics, religion, and other contentious issues aside. Employers’ dictates are limited to how to do your work. I don’t believe it’s the place of an employer to tell employees how to think or force them to conform to an ideology.
Another employee, Jennifer Friend, who similarly spoke out, had this to say:
The next problem I noticed was the chilling effect CSJ was having on free speech. I repeatedly encountered stories of people who had lost their jobs simply for making a statement or even a casual remark that contradicted CSJ.
We all have differing views over what constitutes, and what means are best used to achieve, a fairer society. Approaches to Social Justice that disregard the staggering variance of viewpoint diversity often feel the need to shame, bully, or censor employees in their pursuit of the ‘common good’. At Counterweight, we feel that this approach can insulate policy from feedback, which prevents the best methods from being utilised to rectify social wrongs. Further, we believe that everyone has the right to their own personal beliefs, including support of Critical Theory, but we do not believe that these viewpoints ought to be forced on people.
The stated goal of diversity initiatives is often to make the work environment more inclusive, welcoming, or tolerant. However, one employee’s experience with Critical Social Justice at work found that the opposite was true. Her organisation had been strictly policing the words and views of their employees, so that – regardless of context – using terms like ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’ on an online platform immediately resulted in a public reprimand:
My employer argued that they were doing this in order to make the workplace “welcoming” for employees and clients of diverse backgrounds. However, I have worked in many different environments where people of very diverse backgrounds have gotten along just fine without any such policies. In fact, the workplace became completely unwelcoming to anyone who didn’t agree with CSJ, or wasn’t comfortable with having their speech policed. I pointed out the way to make everyone feel welcome is precisely not to force issues that have nothing to do with work or privilege certain viewpoints. By doing so, you automatically exclude those who think differently. Keeping things neutral is the way to truly include everyone and allow them to come together around their shared goals.
As well as ostracising those who think differently, anti-racism initiatives often claim to speak for certain groups, but ignore the fact that many people within the identity groups they aim to protect do not actually share their world view or want to be protected:
It flattens people into stereotyped identity groups. By claiming to speak for all people in certain groups, CSJ indulges in stereotyping of the worst sort. There’s no possible way to determine that “all” people in the groups it was claimed the forbidden words offended, would actually find them offensive. I am a woman who has suffered mental health issues, and it would never have occurred to me to find “guys” or “crazy” offensive.
3)Divisiveness and disempowering rhetoric/ideas
Usually, when we imagine a better world, we imagine unity and empowerment. We imagine a world where superficial differences cannot divide us, where we are each strong and capable of facing adversity. There is concern among many who have faced CSJ in their workplace that this ideology is taking us away from those ideals:
CSJ encourages constantly analysing everything for potentially “problematic” connotations, making the worst interpretation of any situation, and taking action on every supposed “problem”, no matter how minor. Its dictates are constantly changing, but it harshly punishes transgressors. It encourages people to be hyper-aware of their differences. It divides them into “victim” groups, who are empowered to be hyper-sensitive to any potential offense, even if unintended; and “oppressor” groups, who must humbly accept any claim of offense, no matter how unreasonable, and be hyper-careful about how they treat “victim” groups. It discourages forgiveness, empathy, grace, and giving the benefit of the doubt. It rejects tolerance, resilience, nuance, differing opinions and a sense of perspective. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of what makes for good relationships and mental health. It’s divisive, and I saw that first-hand.
Harriet Terrill, who refused to undergo unconscious bias training, found that the training materials encouraged her to:
Perceive every interaction through the lens of my group identity. If I am interrupted at work, it must be because I am a woman. If you don’t get on with someone of another race, it must be because of your racism. No room is left for the individual or human autonomy. If I saw the world the way they were suggesting, then evidence of my own oppression would abound. Not only do I not believe that I am oppressed, I do not believe that this is a healthy or empowering perspective to take on the world.
One of the more chilling features of some anti-racism training is that they push ideas that most people would find to be explicitly racist. Jennifer Friend, who encountered this in her workplace, said:
I have always believed that it is morally abhorrent to single out a group of people for criticism on the basis of immutable characteristics. CSJ in my workplace came to an intolerable point of crisis for me when we were instructed to view material on the Equity website. The material included blatantly racist statements against white people. I wrote an email to the superior and teams expressing my concerns and was instructed to report to HR the following week along with the manager and my supervisor to “discuss my communication around the very sensitive issues of race and equity.” Ultimately, I never made it to that meeting because prior to the meeting I read yet even more horribly racist materials on their webpage. I felt morally compelled to voice my concerns to the entire agency which I did in an agency-wide email.
Since Critical Theory defines racism as power and prejudice, it doesn’t acknowledge the contradiction – or irony – of pursuing anti-racism whilst making racist and prejudiced assumptions about non-historically oppressed identity groups. If your organisation has implemented initiatives that tell you all white people are racist and oppressors then this is a genuine cause for concern. At Counterweight, we firmly believe that racism is racism and sexism is sexism, whoever it is being directed at.
So, if your organisation is making changes you aren’t comfortable with, remember, your concerns are shared by many. You have the right to object, to disagree, and to suggest new directions.
To be clear, we recognise that there are many diversity initiatives out there that are reasonable, legitimate, and necessary to ensure our progressive society keeps on progressing. To find out how to differentiate between approaches to Social Justice that are grounded in liberal humanism and those that stem from Critical Theory, you can watch our short video here.
We have become aware of a few situations in which people have responded strongly in opposition to a policy at their work, university or children’s school when it would have been wiser to wait for or ask for more information before responding.
Because people are becoming increasingly aware of buzzwords which can presage the imposition of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) ideas upon an institution – diversity, equity, inclusion, bias, hate speech etc. – it is common for people to fill in the gaps and anticipate (often correctly) that something ideological and authoritarian in the realms of CSJ is incoming.
However, it is important not to jump the gun and assume this until it is stated explicitly. There are reasonable, liberal & ethical policies that institutions can and should adopt to enable them to deal with genuine incidents of prejudice or bullying on the grounds of race, gender or sexuality etc. Sometimes they may use the same language as that used by Critical Social Justice because there is pressure to do so or simply because this is the mainstream language now.
If you receive notification of some kind of policy or program that uses this language but does not explicitly state that it will be using critical race theory, queer theory or decolonial theory, refer to any of the theorists in these fields, make any ideological claims about things like ‘whiteness’ or ‘gender identity’ or refer to the largely discredited ‘Implicit Association Test (IAT)’ or “Unconscious Bias Training (UBT),” the best course of action is to seek more detailed information.
This is the time to ask questions. Reply to the notification expressing your approval of policies to oppose prejudice and bullying and then ask what precisely they mean by the words that have raised red flags in your mind. You can leave it at that or you could be bolder and more specific yourself and say that you are aware that some companies/universities/schools have been using unscientific methods like UBT or controversial and shoddy racial or gender theories that many principled opponents of racism/sexism/transphobia cannot support. You have no reason to suspect your own company/university/school would go down this misguided path but wanted to seek reassurance that this is not what is meant by the communication you have received.
By asking questions in this way and emphasizing your own support of ethical policies against racism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination, you can avoid making unwarranted assumptions while at the same time making your employer/university/children’s school aware that you know about CSJ and will oppose it from a principled standpoint if necessary.
By jumping the gun and objecting to something which may or may not be CSJ, you run the risk of:
Objecting to something that is perfectly ethical that you would actually want to support. (We know employers are setting up policies which deliberately avoid CSJ methods because several have contacted us for advice on how to do this)
Appearing to be reactionary and objecting to any kind of action against prejudice and bullying, thus reducing your own ability to make a credible principled objection to CSJ approaches at a later date, should this be warranted.
Be cautious in your approach and make sure you have all the facts before acting.
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