A subject that has been in the news quite a lot lately as a political issue is diversity, equity, and inclusion, and this is a topic that’s dear to my heart as a philosophy professor. I have taught at 12 different universities over the course of my career. At first, when I started teaching as an adjunct, I did it as a sideline to my working as a contract technical writer. So, I moved around a lot, and I would contact the local school, and say, oh hey, do you need a philosophy lecturer? They said, oh yeah, please come. I did that for a few years, and I’ve taught at a large number of schools, from rural community colleges to big state universities to private urban universities.
I’ve now taught at universities in three different countries—the United States, England, and the Czech Republic—and I’ve really come to appreciate and understand the value of diversity, especially diversity. And if you embrace diversity, then you almost automatically will understand the need for inclusion and equity within diversity. So, they do go together, diversity, equity, and inclusion. This issue is bothersome to me because I am a philosophy professor who understands vividly in my profession the need to get beneath the surface, go beyond the superficial to the real heart of the issue, the core of the issue, and listen to different voices and different perspectives.
Understanding all of that, I understand how important diversity, equity, and inclusion are in education and in life. It’s a political issue because a lot of right-wingers in the United States and elsewhere are wanting to reverse gains in diversity, equity, and inclusion. I want to talk a bit about why it is important, how I have come to my perspective on DEI, and why I think it’s so important, and why it is a political issue, and why it kind of shouldn’t be a political issue.
What Do We Mean by Diversity?
First off, diversity is about the traits and characteristics and experiences that make people the individual, unique people that they are. Everyone is an individual. You either accept that reality or you don’t. That’s really so much at the heart of the issue here.
Do you accept and understand that every person is an individual person who has a set of unique traits, unique characteristics, and unique set of experiences that make them who they are? And, of course, do you accept that every person has free will to make choices, to judge their own experiences, to make their own ethical and personal judgments and actions? Do you accept that or do you not?
Well, if you accept that people are individuals, then how can you not accept the basic principle that diversity is valuable? It is fair to say that throughout the history of humanity, we’re not picking on any particular culture here, but humanity as a whole, there is a very strong history of exclusion, of not wanting there to be diversity within a society. I’m not going to name any particular examples. We can all think of them.
We all understand that there are certain minority groups based upon ethnicity, skin color, religion, gender, language, on and on who have been excluded from society because their diversity is not accepted by the larger society. It is a fact of history that certain groups of people and certain individuals have been marginalized by their society that does not accept the basic principle of diversity, which does not accept that being an individual means being different, having unique traits, experiences, is a valuable part of their society.
I should perhaps amend my earlier statement about understanding that everyone is unique means that you’re going to accept diversity. That’s because some people do understand that other people are different and then reject that difference. That’s where the inclusion comes in and equity comes in. Even if you accept that those people over there, they’re different from me, there may be that fear of difference, the fear of the other that prohibits them or hinders them from accepting those diverse people as being equal with me or inclusion in my society.
Why DEI Initiatives?
This history of exclusion, this history of marginalization of peoples and individuals who are different for whatever reason, has meant the need for there to be DEI initiatives, and DEI initiatives are simply trying to rectify a problem in society.
On the one hand, DEI is a political issue because it is attempting to carve a path to social change. It’s people who are marginalized wanting to no longer be marginalized, to be recognized by society as being the unique individuals that they are, who deserve to be valued for being the unique individuals that they are. On the other hand, DEI is a political issue because it is a path to social change and there are certain people who do not want social change.
DEI fundamentally is about social change. Do you want social change or do you not? Do you want to continue the long tradition of marginalization of people who are different, or do you want to change that and bring all individuals, all groups despite their diversity, to a place where they are included in society, where their unique behaviors, their unique characteristics, their unique experiences are valued and welcomed, recognized for who they are.
There is a strong movement within the right wing to eliminate, to stop, this social change. Social change has been happening for decades now. We have seen an increase in the inclusion of marginalized groups, the recognition of marginalized groups, the recognition that there is such a thing as marginalized groups legally, socially, ethically. There have been decades of efforts to try to increase the recognition and acknowledgment and valuing of diversity, of trying to bring inclusion into all areas of society.
I’m an educator, and education, especially higher education, is one of the fields where this political struggle has been most verulent, and most problematic in various ways. As a philosophy professor, I am well aware of the history of political power, social power, and how power has been misused and abused in order to marginalize people and suppress individuality and suppress diversity. I’m also very well aware of how philosophy has been used to try to rebel against existing structures of power and politics, and aware of how philosophy can be used for these purposes, to continue to give voices to those who are marginalized, to accept and understand diversity, to accept and understand the positives of diversity and inclusion of diverse peoples. Obviously, since philosophy is hand in hand with ethics, equity, freedom, and agency being given to all people is a value within philosophy.
Now, of course, people can respond correctly that philosophy has been used and misused and abused to marginalize people, to suppress people. Very true. Understandable. But philosophy is something that can be used to rectify these problems. Without philosophy, there is really no easy path to bringing people into society, to putting our values, good values, in society. Philosophy is a way to do that. It’s a tool. It’s a method. It’s a lifestyle.
As a philosopher, and as a philosophy professor, teaching how this struggle has taken place throughout history, both within philosophy and within the larger society, is a really important aspect of our larger world history. When I teach philosophy, I teach this history of philosophy, this history of the world, and teach how philosophy is a tool, a method, a lifestyle by which we can be open and more appreciative of different perspectives, different experiences, and just difference itself—diversity itself.
Therefore, as a professor who has this experience, has this awareness, and does this for a living, I am very concerned about the political efforts to reverse diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in higher education. Plus, I am also aware of how part of that backlash from the right wing to DEI initiatives is a response to excesses and abuses from people who are wanting, or at least on the surface wanting, to increase DEI. I’ll talk about both sides of this now.
What Is the Purpose of Education?
For me, the question behind DEI is the question of what the purpose of education is Education, like any other manifestation of human society, is, yes, a manifestation of that society. The values of a society will be reflected in everything that it does, and that includes education. One of the subversive aspects of education, and Paulo Freire will definitely side with this idea, is that you are opening people’s minds, you are showing them how things really are, and this is a threat to certain people.
What is the purpose of education? Is it to build up individuals, to help them hone their skills at their own perceptions and understanding their own experiences, of becoming a valuable part of society as an individual? Or is the purpose of education simply to mold students into a conformity to say to them this is what our society wants you to think, wants you to feel, wants you to do, that this is the set of what those social norms are, and you are to follow them?
If it is the former, the purpose of education is to bring out the individual, to hone the individual; then you’re open to DEI. If it’s the latter, if you think the purpose of education is to just create new cogs in the machine, better workers in the factory, then you’re against DEI. I hesitate to make it sound that simple, but it’s hard for me to not admit that it kind of is that simple at the core issue.
What is the purpose of education? Are we dealing with individuals? Are we trying to celebrate individuality to help a person? Or are we trying to remove their individuality, remove their distinctiveness? Certain people have, including certain philosophers, to be fair, have thought that the best way to have a society run smoothly is to train people to behave in particular ways so they can conform to the overall system.
For those people, the purpose of education is to make sure that that comes about. Plato talked about that, and it’s been a thread within philosophical thought ever since. Plato didn’t invent this idea. It’s a nonphilosophical idea, even though he put it into philosophical terms. Society runs best when you have standardization of humanity. It’s like a manufacturing process. We want everything to be standardized, and then everything is predictable, and everything is controllable. Then the quality level, if you will, is a very specific set of data parameters. If you run a society that way, then you have predictability of how people are going to behave, how they’re going to react, and that brings us peace. Society in human history has never been completely that way, but it’s fair to say it has been predominantly that. All cultures throughout all areas of the planet, throughout all eras of human history.
The subversive acts of philosophy and education have said, no, there are also these other ideas. Philosophy has spurred social change by having new ideas, new perspectives, celebrating and propagating new perspectives. Philosophy has hardly been perfect in all of this; I’ll never deny that. But philosophy has been a big part of this social change.
The Question of DEI
The question of DEI is, “Do we want social change?” Do we or do we not? Do we want to continue with a society in which the individual is not celebrated, in which there are groups and individuals who are permanently marginalized, whose contributions to society are minimized or completely excluded? Or do we want a society that truly lives up to its ideals of equity, freedom, and democracy? Because if you want those values, you have to be open to all individuals, not just some.
So, the core issue for DEI, and this is where it becomes a very strong political sense, is decolonizing or dismantling hierarchical structures and paradigms that perpetuate systems of exclusion, nonequity, and nondiversity.
As a number of philosophers have pointed out over the centuries, education has been used as a tool for perpetuating those hierarchical structures and paradigms that marginalized groups and marginalized individuals, that suppress individuality. That thought may quite correctly lead you to think of Karl Marx, but Karl Marx was hardly the only one who observed this basic reality of how power operates and how education is a part of this. Marx didn’t invent this idea.
If the core issue of DEI is dismantling these hierarchical structures, of reversing the damage that these structures and their marginalization of peoples have done to our society, how do we do that? This is where the other side of it gets tricky and problematic.
The idea of diversity, equity, and inclusion has been around for a long time. I mentioned Karl Marx because one of the difficulties that this initiative has is that it is too closely associated at times with Marxist ideology, not fairly but associatively, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because Marxism, or at least a basic crude misunderstanding of Marxism, is going the other direction of diversity and inclusion. Instead, the idea is that we dismantle all the hierarchical structures, and then we impose a new brand of conformity. That’s true in certain Bolsheviky type people today, that that’s what they’re looking for. That’s not necessarily what Marx was looking for, but it has kind of become that in certain circles.
Therefore, people who are against DEI dismiss it as Marxism. The right wing uses that dog whistle to say, “Oh, you want, you want diversity and inclusion? Then you’re a Marxist,” and Marxism is this, that and the other thing, and it’s the death of freedom and all the propaganda that goes with that.
I know some dyed-in-the-wool Marxists. I have talked with them, I have listened to them, I have sat at the same table with them. I know what makes them tick, and I kind of know how they feel about things. These true red-blooded Marxists are not the people behind DEI initiatives in higher education, despite what the right-wingers want to say in their propaganda.
What Is the Problem with DEI initiatives, in My Opinion?
My experience of being a professor for 20 years is that these are people who are well meaning but fixated on a very simplistic idea of what diversity and inclusion mean. What do I mean by that?
Remember, one of the first things that I said is that diversity refers to the traits and characteristics that make every single individual person the single unique individual person that they are. Exclusion and antidiversity and antiequity deny the value of unique individuals. Too many DEI initiatives are not reaching out to the level of honoring unique individuals. They look only at groups, making the exact same mistake that the antidiversity, anti-inclusion movement within society has been making from the very beginning.
The marginalization of people is based upon an idea of thought and emotion of subsuming the individual to group labels, group characteristics, group traits, and then group identities that stereotype and relegate the individual to a certain status. If DEI is just flipping the categories while maintaining the categories saying, “This group is at the top of the hierarchy, these groups are at the bottom of the hierarchy, we keep all the groups and we just pretend to remove the hierarchy,” you’re still ignoring the individual. You’re still not practicing diversity. Some people would say, well, that’s a necessary step toward greater diversity. Maybe that’s true, but that’s not the endgame.
I sit down and talk with people who are sincere about wanting to dismantle hierarchical structures, but then they’re setting up new hierarchical structures in the name of diversity and inclusion, and it doesn’t quite work. Worse, that opens up room for the right-wingers to come back with the nonsense and propaganda that they do. Well, what do I mean here?
If we want to really be devoted to diversity and inclusion, we need to avoid seeing bigots everywhere. Yes, the B word: Bigotry. Bigotry is caused by fear. Fear of difference.
There are bigots in society. There is bigotry in society. There is oppression and marginalization within society. But acknowledging that society is hierarchical is not the same as taking the further step that declares that all people within that society are inherently determined by that hierarchical structure. That attitude there is the exact same attitude, the exact same emotional and ethical movement that you are supposedly against when you say you want to increase diversity and inclusion, you want to make people more equal.
The reason why people aren’t included, the reason why there isn’t diversity within society and equity within society is because people are labeling people. Society is labeling people, marginalizing people under those labels, under those stereotypes of what those people are like, therefore, we have to treat them in a certain way, and we need not discuss it. That attitude is not seeing people as individuals; it’s not seeing them as unique. It’s denying diversity.
If you see society as completely hierarchical, and you see everyone within that society as being determined by the hierarchy, not just influenced but determined by the hierarchy, then you’re making the exact same mistake that causes injustice and hierarchical structures and paradigms.
What true diversity, equity, and inclusion need to do is acknowledge that the society is hierarchical, yes, acknowledge that that hierarchical structure and paradigms within it influence people’s behavior, but also acknowledge that every individual within society is a unique individual. Not every individual within a society is unable to think, will, and act contrary to that hierarchy. When you deny individuality, when you deny individual free will, you are cutting at the very heart of DEI. You are making it impossible to achieve.
Those people on the Right who want to kill DEI, who want to stop social change, who want to stop freedom and liberation of society, who want to reinsert and strengthen hierarchical structures in the marginalization of communities and individuals, those people can latch on to those people who claim to be for DEI, but are in fact just perpetuating the hierarchical mistake of denying individuality. That’s because the right-wingers, they love stereotypes. They just want their version of the stereotypes. If it becomes an argument over which version of stereotypes do we prefer, we’re not getting anywhere. We’re going to be in this endless struggle of “my stereotypes are better than your stereotypes.” That’s the political struggle going on right now.
DEI Initiatives Must Go Further
The answer, of course, is to acknowledge the individual, to acknowledge the uniqueness of individuals. That includes, especially, the unique experiences of every person within marginalized communities. Listening to people in marginalized communities. What have you experienced? What has happened to you? What are your thoughts? What are your feelings? What do you want? What do you think? What do you feel? Diversity requires us to acknowledge that individuality. DEI needs to bring in the experiences, the lived experiences, of individuals from marginalized communities.
Education is often giving only lip service to DEI. Here’s the other problem with it. It’s not so much a problem of the people involved in DEI who want to actually do social change, to make social change happen, but it’s a problem of how it’s covered up. It’s a problem of how it is suppressed in a backdoor way.
How many universities and institutions, educational or not, have some sort of DEI initiative? It’s a new corporate buzzword, isn’t it? There’s a cottage industry of “we do DEI programs; we do DEI training.” Yes, they “do” DEI, but DEI cannot be achieved through death by administration.
As a professor, I know about death by administration, and any other professor out there who’s been around at all and paying attention at all knows what I mean. Death by administration is when you strangle DEI by appointing, say, a vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and they form a committee or a focus group or research group or something. Then the school can effectively tie up the DEI initiative in committees and report endlessly making suggestions, coming up with little buzzwords—the seven pillars of diversity, the road map for inclusion—which are produced after.
Months. Years of people talking. The report is produced. The report lands on the desk of the board of trustees or the president, and maybe some cosmetic things take place, but it’s tied up in the administration. It’s difficult and takes time, the administration says.
I’m not dismissing the fact that change is difficult within an organization and within society as a whole. But death by administration is making sure, maybe even subconsciously making sure, that this change never happens. Then the politicians come along and say you haven’t done anything.
We’ve poured this money into this, we hired an administrator, we hired a committee, we hired a consulting team, we put all these hours into producing these reports, and nothing has been accomplished. So, let’s just can DEI, let’s remove the funding because it’s not working. Well, maybe it was never meant to work.
Do we need DEI programs? Absolutely! But we don’t need a program so much as we need to talk about the underlying issues. My opinion, as a scholar and an educator, is that we need to rethink how we do education, rethink how we do society, rethink how we do being human.
As I’ve suggested before, the core issue is do we acknowledge individual uniqueness within individual people or not? Do we want social change or not? We can’t go to the other extreme of, well, everyone gets to dictate to others what their individual views are. There needs to be a balance, but we need to find what that balance is. It’s a complicated issue, but it needs to be discussed openly by everyone, not shunted off to a committee or dismantled entirely.
There are hierarchical structures that cause injustice. We need to acknowledge these facts, and we need to listen to people from marginalized communities, listen to people and learn from their experiences. In an earlier article, I talked about Paulo Freire, and I talked about education, what’s wrong with education and how there are answers to that? There have been answers sitting out there for a long time. We need to stop ignoring these answers.