Can’t Beat the Real Thing: Why Liberalism is the Key to Authentic Workplace Diversity

by Mike Young

Essay originally from Counterweight.

When I was a child, I used to like watching my mom bake cookies. One day as I was watching her bake, I asked if I could help. She said yes, and so I went about getting ingredients and mixing them as she instructed. Unfortunately, I mistook the flour for powdered sugar, and as a result added extra flour to the dough, while leaving out the powdered sugar entirely. I proceeded to mix as she had taught me, and then put the cookies on the pan to bake. When they came out of the pan, they were bitter, could not hold together, and crumbled. The result was not good because ingredients matter and getting them right is important; the fact that two things look similar does not mean we can replace one for the other.

Diversity and tolerance are like this. If you replace them with something that looks similar but is not made of the same stuff, your organizational relationships will not hold together and the whole thing will crumble.

In an increasingly interconnected world, it is imperative that people of different backgrounds understand how to communicate and get along even though this will require crossing all manner of cultural lines. This has led many organizations to require some kind of diversity training. The trouble arises when selecting diversity training that is influenced and informed by an ideology called Critical Social Justice (CSJ). Picking the wrong kind of diversity training can produce results that are, in fact, antithetical to good and charitable communication. Unlike typical diversity training that focuses on understanding, unity, tolerance, empathy, cross-cultural communication, conflict resolution, and other strategies to make a diverse organization better functioning, CSJ diversity training has a different set of assumptions that yield a very different result.

Liberal diversity training programs utilize methods that respect people as individuals. These types of training courses are based on liberal ethical principles regarding freedom and harm. They uplift individuals by giving them tools to navigate and thrive in a diverse workplace, without hurting others. Further, they use scientifically valid techniques to ethically teach the strategies, ideas, concepts and actions that make this possible and avoid moral, political, or ideological indoctrination by appealing to broadly humanistic ethics. To wit, liberal diversity training programs give people who hold different values the ability to work with each other, while recognizing the vast moral differences that may exist between them–so long as the people in question are willing to work together and co-operate.[1]

Diversity training programs informed by CSJ do not operate in this way.

CSJ-based diversity training programs operate according to a theory of the world that rests on very different assumptions. The assumptions of CSJ are that people are programmed by systems of power in the form of discourses. Those discourses condition us to think about the world and our place in it according to the tenets of that particular discourse. This means all the ideas, concepts, beliefs, art, education, media, politics, and discussion in our society form a stew of discourse that we marinate in. According to CSJ, this shapes everything about us, including how we see and think about the world. Further, the discourse sets the tone for what people believe and sets the limits of socially acceptable opinion.

As a result, CSJ sorts people into groups based on traits such as race, disability status, gender, ethnicity, body type and sexual orientation on the grounds that people are oppressed by systems of racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism, and fatphobia.

CSJ thinks the solution to all of this is to train people to be able to see all these systems so they can change their thinking and deconstruct and dismantle the stew of ideas.

CSJ also says that members of each group share a perspective with all the others; all the women have a shared experience, the men have a shared experience, black people have a shared experience, and so on and so forth. Further, the subjective experiences of oppressed groups are supposed to provide privileged access to truths, which are to be the starting point for understanding how society works.

The result is that CSJ diversity training makes several mistakes as a result of a misplaced focus, while failing to focus on badly needed ideas. Much like my sugarless cookies, CSJ diversity training mixes in the wrong ingredients. Let’s look at how this works.

The first mistake that CSJ makes is to use implicit bias training based on the implicit association test.

CSJ says we have been programmed by the discourses of society to hold various bigotries and prejudices even if we don’t know it. To rectify this, we must be tested for “implicit bias” and trained out of such biases. However, there are two main problems associated with the IAT test. The first is its dubious construct validity, and the second is that it has failed to establish a strong link between “bias” and behavior.

    1. Let’s start by getting clear about what “construct validity” is and why it matters here.

Simply put, construct validity is the degree to which a test actually measures what it claims to be measuring. So, in this case we would ask: does the IAT measure what it says it is measuring? If it does not, then the IAT lacks construct validity. The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g. good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g. athletic, clumsy). For example, if someone associates “white people” with the category “good” more strongly than they associate “black people” with the category “good” then they implicitly associate whiteness with goodness, and blackness with badness. The test is measuring how strongly people associate categories with each other, it does not measure bias, bigotry or prejudice.

People can associate words and concepts together (or not) for reasons that have nothing to do with bias, bigotry, or prejudice. For example, I might have a very strong association between the word “gay people” and the word “athlete,” but that does not mean I am buying into a stereotype about gay athletes, it might just be that my best friend is gay and an athlete. It is a mistake to assume that if someone associate’s two ideas they are doing so because of an unconscious bias. In the example I gave, someone may have an athletic friend who is gay and that may be the reason they associate “athlete” with “gay person”; bigotry, bias, prejudice and stereotypes have nothing to do with it. I should note that the chance of such associations being the result of random personal experiences is diminished when general trends emerge for large groups of people taking the IAT. However, the point that is salient here is that the IAT does not show why those associations exist. The explanation that the strength or weakness of associations are the result of bias, prejudice, or bigotry is taken for granted by many CSJ activists.

    1. Now, let’s look at the link between bias–as measured by the IAT–and behavior.

When you train people until they associate “whiteness” and “blackness” equally with “goodness” and “badness,” there is no measurable change in behavior. This is likely due to the fact that the link between implicit association and how people behave is tenuous at best. If there are bigoted, biased or prejudiced people within an organization, implicit bias training will not solve this. As such, a focus on implicit bias will take time and resources while failing to solve the problem for which it is used.

The second problem that CSJ diversity training suffers from is that it teaches a particular ideology about society which it thinks can be applied to every area of life.

This is bad for any organization seeking diversity training for two reasons:

    1. Forcing people to accept any particular political ideology or belief system to join an organization violates the ethical principle of freedom of conscience and should be avoided.

The liberal notion of freedom of association and freedom of expression go hand and hand with freedom of conscience, not just to restrain the hand of government, but because they are Enlightenment liberal values. The reason for this is that the Enlightenment liberal view of the world views rational debate as the best tool for finding truth.

Once someone resorts to the exercise of power to resolve a debate about the truth of a claim, they are abandoning the very mechanisms of rational debate that produces and validates truth claims. Using force to resolve a debate poisons the well. For this reason, forcing someone to accept a claim against their will violates not only the norms against the use of force, but also cuts against the liberal conception regarding how truth is discovered to begin with. In other words, that is, we arrive at truth using reason, not power.

    1. The CSJ belief system is deeply flawed.

CSJ is put together using concepts taken from philosophical postmodernism, and academic Critical Theory, neither of which have universal acceptance. In fact, there is a large body of scholarship which would argue that Enlightenment liberalism, with its use of rigorous academic methods, is vastly superior to postmodernism and Critical Theory. However, CSJ uses the methods prescribed by postmodernism and Critical Theory to conclude that such things as racism, sexism, and homophobia are baked into our society. They then argue that we have to pick apart all the ideas of our society so we can get rid of all the racism, sexism, and homophobia.

CSJ follows this line of thinking to the point of absurdity. For example, the University of South Carolina mandated that every student in the Women’s Studies program take a class that required them to acknowledge and believe several tenets of Social Justice. In another example, New York City’s education department mandated Social Justice training which taught that individuality and objectivity are both part of “White Supremacy.” Obviously, these are particularly ridiculous examples of this phenomenon, but they underline the point that CSJ diversity training is based on and teaches the most potent and radical vision of diversity training that is available.

The result of all this is that if you use CSJ diversity training in your organization you will end up bringing in a version of diversity training that is both radical and ineffective. Further, given the curriculum taught within these diversity trainings, they are more likely to create CSJ activists than to create a tolerant, diverse, and effective organization.

While I can’t give you a full guide here, I think there are a couple of things you can do to ensure that you get a liberal version of diversity training rather than the CSJ alternative. As a note: the easy tells are the linguistic sign posts of CSJ and the heavy use of academic sounding jargon.

Critical Social Justice diversity training will:

  • Focus on “systemic” versions of power, sexism, racism, and homophobia.
  • Have a very heavy focus on how language makes us think.
  • Employ implicit-bias or implicit association tests.
  • Will make use of academic jargon including but not limited to: white fragility, white ignorance, implicit racism, patriarchy, cisheteronormativity, deconstruction, complicity, discourse analysis, structural inequality.
  • Will focus on “equity” instead of “equality”.
  • Will place heavy emphasis on how people are different and how they disagree or see the world differently.

Liberal diversity training will:

  • Emphasize that we are responsible for our actions.
  • Treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups.
  • Seek to see the best in people.
  • Teach tools and give practical training for conflict resolution.
  • Emphasize shared humanity rather than emphasize difference and disagreement.

CSJ diversity training dresses itself up as an authentic way to create a tolerant and harmonious working environment but fails to use the frameworks, methods, practices, and ideas that might lead to one. I hope it is clear that CSJ diversity training ought to be put aside in favor of a liberal version of diversity training. It may be difficult to tell the powdered sugar of liberal diversity training apart from the flour of CSJ diversity training, but with careful examination it is possible to ensure that you select an appropriate diversity training for your organization.

Mike Young is a Canadian thinker, writer and essayist. Follow him on twitter at:

  1. An example of this is Chloe Valdary’s Theory of Enchantment training which teaches self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. 
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