What Might a Liberal Diversity Training Programme Look Like?

by Helen Pluckrose

Essay originally from Counterweight.

I am often asked if I know of any liberal diversity training programmes or whether I could develop one. I know of some excellent programmes to address diversity issues that are compatible with liberalism. See here, here and here, for example. But I don’t know of any specifically liberal diversity training programmes. And there’s a good reason for that.

Liberals don’t tend to train people in what they should think.

Liberalism is committed to the freedom of the individual including their freedom of belief. It also values pluralism: the position that many different moral frameworks and belief systems can and should exist and that this is beneficial to the development of knowledge and moral progress. This is often referred to as ‘viewpoint diversity’ or ‘the Marketplace of Ideas.’ Therefore, there could not really be a liberal training session in ethics because it is not liberal to train people to have (or pretend to have) any specific moral, political, religious, or philosophical views. There could, however, be a liberal discussion group.

In places of employment, it is utterly reasonable and, indeed, necessary for there to be rules against displaying prejudice or hostility to people or discriminating against them because of their race, sex, sexuality, nationality, religion (or lack of religion), gender identity, disability, weight, etc. It is also entirely in keeping with liberalism to see this as something that is important enough to have a meeting or series of meetings about because prejudice and discrimination are illiberal. There is nothing illiberal in an employer making sure that everybody knows it is unacceptable to behave in prejudiced ways or in encouraging them to give thought to how they can contribute to fostering an inclusive and friendly working environment.

What might such a meeting or series of meetings look like? I will suggest one way this could work. First, they would be led by a facilitator in a liberal fashion.

Time could be set aside for the workforce to get together as a whole or in groups to discuss how to achieve and maintain an inclusive working environment. It would thus begin with the assumption that racism and other forms of bigotry are unacceptable in the workplace and must be combatted. It would also begin with the assumption that there are many moral frameworks from which it is possible to oppose bigotry and that a large part of diversity is the diversity of viewpoints. It would understand that inclusion requires the consideration of all viewpoints, whether they are held by the majority or the minority.

The facilitator of the discussion group could begin by asking people how they understood a certain issue. For this hypothetical scenario, we will take racism as the issue. Everybody would be encouraged to contribute their own definition of racism. People would also be free not to share their views on it because it is illiberal for an employer to demand to know the inner values, thoughts, and beliefs of their employees. The individual may consider their own religious, political, or ethical views to be private or they may not have any well-thought-through positions on these issues and therefore would not feel confident articulating their views.

These definitions could then be written up on a board and members of the group invited to discuss the pros and cons of each one. Realistically, the strongest difference of opinion is likely to be over whether racism consists in individual prejudice on the grounds of race or in a largely hidden system of oppressive power that operates throughout society along the lines of race. The merits of these two definitions could be discussed with the aim of finding some common ground or overlap. For example, some people who believe racism to be an individual attitude may concede that such attitudes can create systems of power that disadvantage racial minorities. Others who believe racism to be a system of power may concede that individuals do have some agency to reject racist ideas. But nobody should be compelled to concede either of those and it would be accepted that different ideas about how racism works exist among the group. Anyone who asserted that different opinions should not be permitted to exist would simply have that belief added to the list of different opinions but would not be allowed to derail the meeting.

The meeting could then move on to inviting members of the groups to describe the ethical framework from which they oppose racism. A liberal might say that evaluating people by their racial category rather than as individuals is likely to result in both factual error and illiberal stereotyping. They may also say that the best way to combat racism is simply by opposing judgements based on race. A Marxist, on the other hand, might say that social class is the major cause of inequality. They may argue that a primary focus on race divides the working class and makes remedying class-caused disparities harder. A Social Justice advocate would be likely to say that opposing racism requires all of society to become aware of the unconscious racial biases that they believe we are all socialised into and that we should work to dismantle them.

Meanwhile, a conservative or libertarian might argue that people need to take personal responsibility not only to treat all races equally but also for much of their own success and that placing too much responsibility on society is disempowering to individuals. Somebody whose primary ethical framework is religious might argue that racism is wrong because we are all God’s creations or draw on theological texts from their specific faith tradition as grounds for opposing racism. It is likely that most people would simply say that racism is stupid and hurtful and that we should be thoughtful and kind to our fellow humans generally, not only our work colleagues. The facilitator could write up the key points made by each person and then brainstorm the pros and cons of each approach.

There are many such questions that could be asked and a skilled facilitator would be able to encourage and moderate civil discussion and disagreement about the points raised, thus enabling employees to think about racism in ways they had not done before. This would not be a training session but an opportunity to think more deeply about race and racism by learning more about the diversity of views around racism. Anybody unable to express disagreement civilly would need to be asked to leave.

There would, of course, be some people who did not wish to take the opportunity to learn more about diverse viewpoints around racism and may, in fact, have ethical objections to being required to do so. Some of the objectors would likely be Social Justice advocates who believe that all but one viewpoint on racism is racist and also that having to hear other views is harmful to non-white people and makes them feel unsafe. Others might object from the position that there is already far too much talk about race and that racism is most likely to be overcome by ceasing to talk about it. These people could be encouraged to come along and make this case but if they repeated their objection on ethical grounds, it would be illiberal to force them to do so. Instead, they could be presented with a simple policy against exhibiting racial hostility, prejudice, or discrimination at work and required to commit to not behaving in that way.

This hypothetical liberal discussion programme sounds very simple and that’s because it is. However, there is a difference between simple and easy. In our current climate, it is unlikely that these kinds of sessions would proceed easily. It is much more likely that the very suggestion of holding meetings to discuss a variety of ways to understand racism and a range of frameworks from which to oppose it would provoke outrage. The existence of such sessions could even be asserted to be evidence that the company believes that the humanity of people of colour is up for debate even though the beginning assumption is that racism is unacceptable, and the purpose is to discuss ways to oppose it. Given the negative reception these sessions may produce, employers will need to be extremely brave to implement them and facilitators will need to be psychologically hardy individuals highly skilled in diplomacy and negotiation. I hope some will rise to the challenge.

Helen Pluckrose is the Founder of Counterweight and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.

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