As concerns about the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 ramped up in early March, I confess thinking that the doom-and-gloom prognostications were way over the top. I am relieved that I maintained enough self-doubt that I kept my skepticism to myself.
I was similarly short-sighted a decade ago in predicting just how pervasive and harmful the Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DIE) infection would be in academia.
Even though I perceived ideological excess in some of the positions I heard advanced under DIE’s umbrella, I thought most of the hyperbole would remain stuck in Faculties of Education and in those disciplines, like Sociology, that had already ceded scholarship to advocacy. In the big picture, I thought, it was just another virus of the month that would ultimately fade away for most of us.
My ostrich position was also motivated, in part, by cowardice. On an already politicized campus, I had a good idea of the pushback that would come were I to raise my head above the ramparts to articulate concern about what was then, in my mind, a problem that would self-correct. Besides, who but a right-wing reprehensible would utter a word of doubt about the self-evident morality in promoting the values embraced by these three words?
At the time, I had little appreciation of how determined the then nascent social justice movement was to attack the very foundations of liberal education. In retrospect, the coopting of the words “social justice” to label a political movement was a clever technique that stuck. Twisting the meaning of words and then selling those novel meanings proved to be a central tactic in the movement’s illiberal march to power. In heterodox social psychologist’s Lee Jussim’s (2019) formulation, language became their Trojan Horse in the battle for the academy. Of all the word meanings successfully manipulated, none were as effectively deployed as those of “Diversity,” “Inclusion,” and “Equity.”
Just a decade ago, most students had heard little about privilege, colonialism, or white supremacy. Their present-day counterparts, by comparison, are bombarded with novel understandings of what such terms mean. Invocations of “check your privilege” have eclipsed the very reasonable desire that those of us who are advantaged should take careful note of our good fortune, to a power play to vilify and silence the views of anyone who cannot claim that they are oppressed. Accusations of colonialism are used to discredit any and all constructs and advances attributable to Western civilization, including, for example, the teaching of physics and, more broadly, all things linked to values of the Enlightenment. And white supremacy, once reserved for association with fringe groups like the Ku Klux Klan, is now casually used to describe the framework within which we all live.
A particularly effective power play has been to exaggerate the vulnerability of members of certain designated groups. Social justice activists are happy to label opinions disagreeable to social justice ideology as hate speech or even as acts of violence. So, when ANTIFA confronts speakers whose views they consider objectionable with acts of real violence, they are not only justified in their own eyes but think themselves acting on a higher moral plane because they are, as the saying goes, “punching up.”
Similar logic is used when attributing deaths of trans-individuals to the words of Jordan Peterson and so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). Because their assertion that we are a sexually dimorphic species constitutes an act of violence, that assertion can lead to suicide. (It is a testament to the poison and illogic of intersectional theory that TERFs occupied, until about five minutes ago, a very high position in the oppression hierarchy).
A striking about-face transformation, required by the identity politics embedded within the social justice movement, is the total reversal of the desired goal of greater racial justice. A foundational goal of the civil rights movement, and most notably espoused by Martin Luther King, was that we strive towards a colour-free society. Despite legitimate qualms about just how achievable such a goal was, this remained a central plank of the political left (and eventually well beyond) right through to, at the very earliest, Barack Obama’s initial presidential inauguration.
It was not long after this point, however, that the rise of identity politics shifted thought away from the “One World-One Race” sentiment to one where racial difference was to be emphasized. This reversal was not missed by all, and all the way back to 1997 Fredrick Lynch commented that “the civil rights movement’s original aspirations to color blindness and its admonition to treat people equally ‘without regard to race, color, or creed,’ are regarded as laughable and delusionary in diversity circles” (p. 33). Twenty-three years later, the pursuit of this longstanding progressive goal is no longer just “laughable” but is increasingly viewed in social justice circles as an act of racism.
So, what do the component words of DIE have to do with the growth of illiberalism in the academy and beyond? One might start by understanding what each of the three means in social justice circles. For starters, “diversity” obviously has nothing to do with variety of viewpoints (quite the opposite is true) but, rather, is embedded within identity politics and refers exclusively to race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity (with some lip service given to the differently abled).
“Inclusion,” at least in part, seems to mean that no demand is too excessive providing the person making it holds a high enough rank in the oppression hierarchy. Consider, for example, the bizarre campaign of predation and harassment maintained by trans-activist Jessica Yaniv, until even Yaniv’s political allies begrudgingly acknowledged that a line had been crossed.
“Equity” has proven to have little to do with equality of opportunity and almost everything to do with equality of outcome. While the liberal value equality is consistent with fairly assigning roles on the basis of competence and merit, the social justice value equity is indifferent or hostile to both fairness and ability.
DIE’s importance to the social justice movement, however, is better understood at a more holistic level. Taken together, the Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity motto serves as branding for the movement and provides the glue by which the disparate positions of the movement stick together. My university’s homepage has an “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Accessibility” portal that leads to the boast that we are “one of 17 universities and colleges from across Canada – and the only Nova Scotia institution – selected to work with the Tri-Agency Dimensions team to foster increased research excellence, innovation and creativity … through increased equity, diversity and inclusion.” (The invocation of DIE as a template to promote excellence, innovation and creativity, and similar laudatory outcomes, is repeated robotically, typically unencumbered by sources of evidence. To ask for proof would be in poor taste indeed!).
DIE, however, goes beyond simple branding and is currently playing out as the mantra of almost all Western universities. Nearing the end of my third term as a university senator, I’ve observed first-hand how the invocation of DIE is central to almost all academic discussion and decision-making. I’ve also observed how this mantra serves as a technique of moral persuasion on the part of administrators and my more polite colleagues in lieu of using more accusatory language about, for example, colonialism and white supremacy. The mantra as code is effective because the potential nay-sayer is reminded of just how close she is to provoking a barrage of invective.
Today’s academy, aided by the DIE mantra, is a place where one can safely express any position, and do so in the absence of evidence or real argument—provided only that the view is approved by social justice ideology. Unapproved positions, on the other hand, may not be articulated or advanced even if one has a strong argument and mounds of evidence. Those who fail to conform, who don’t agree to ask the right questions or to signal that they will provide the correct answers, will have difficulty accessing research funding or may be shut out altogether. If a project with unacceptable arguments or findings happens to be completed, there will be trouble moving it through the peer review process. In some instances, the work may pass peer review but be squashed before going to press. Even then, having slipped past the regular gatekeepers, social justice puritans may still denounce work of which they disapprove and agitate for its retraction. Just ask Rebecca Tuvel or Bruce Gilley.
One crude means to assess the rapid growth of DIE is to count the number of refereed articles and chapters published on the topic over the last decade. In an admittedly imprecise strategy to do just this, I entered the three words into my university library’s search engine and tapped into the nine scholarly databases I considered likely to contain such publications. As can be seen in the figure reproduced below, the first hit showed up in 1994 with only four more publications appearing up until the end of 2006. The real birth of DIE appears to have occurred somewhere between 2007-2013 where my search revealed 36 more hits. It was not until 2014 that the DIE wave really took off, with the count reaching 146 hits last year.
The DIE mantra, and the social justice movement more generally, has enjoyed a very rapid ascendance with relatively little resistance from university faculty. As is usually the case with those who run with unchecked power, the social justice gang has failed to take note that their revolution is nearly complete and that they can stop moving the goalpost. Unsatisfied with allowing the mechanisms already in place to further stifle scholarship, they have moved on to press for McCarthyesque loyalty oaths from faculty and students. Increasingly, potential graduate students and new hires as well as faculty applying for promotion are being asked to submit statements of their plans to advance the university’s diversity, inclusion, and equity goals.
As bad as the McCarthy era oaths were, faculty members could at least know that they were imposed on universities by the government. In the case of the political litmus test being imposed by mandatory DIE statements, it is an attack on the academy coming from within (see Jussim, 1999). Will this latest vulgar attempt to politicize the academy even further prove to be a step too far? What about those tenured professors still teaching who know that the entrenchment of DIE will cause the university to die? Will they finally rouse themselves from their positions of comfort and complacency to take a stand in defense of academic freedom and of the integrity of the university? I won’t be holding my breath.
Cumulative Hits when Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, are Entered into Search Engine for Nine Mainstream Scholarly Databases
- Jussim, L. (2019, February 24). My Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement. Quillette
- Lynch, F. R. (1997). The diversity machine. Society, 34 (5), 32-44.