Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: What If We’re Doing It Wrong?
No reasonable person wants anything other than for the United States to benefit from the diversity of its people. To call diversity a strength is more than a pleasant homily; it is a core civic value embraced by large majorities of our people. But what if we’re doing it wrong? And not merely a few degrees right or left of true north, but completely wrong: up-is-down, Bizarro World wrong? What if our well-intended impulses to make a virtue of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) are actually exacerbating the tensions between diverse groups of Americans?
In 2005, Karen Stenner, a political scientist and behavioral economist, published The Authoritarian Dynamic, an eye-opening and sobering work describing the conditions that drive intolerance, including racism and political division. Her work concerns a particular type of person “who cannot treat with natural ease or generosity those who are not his own kindred or kind.” Because of “deep-seated predispositions neither they nor we have much capacity to alter” [emphasis mine] these individuals, who comprise approximately one-third of the population and are predisposed toward authoritarianism. At the opposite pole are those who naturally interact well with all manner of people. “The rest of us fall somewhere in between,” Stenner writes, “not openly averse to other peoples but usually favoring our own.”
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who has collaborated with her, summarized Stenner’s insights thusly: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group.” What activates the authoritarian impulse is what Stenner calls “normative threat,” which she defines as “threats to ‘oneness’ and ‘sameness.’” Normative threat, the authoritarian button on our forehead, in Haidt’s memorable image, is activated by loss of trust and institutions and fear of change and an aversion to complexity.
In our politics, media, culture, but most particularly in our schools, we have made a virtue of diversity, drawing attention to it and celebrating it. This seems an obvious and laudable solution, but paradoxically incorrect when seen through the lens of the authoritarian disposition. “The things that multiculturalists believe will help people appreciate and thrive in democracy—appreciating difference, talking about difference, displaying and applauding difference—are the very conditions that encourage authoritarians not to heights of tolerance, but to their intolerant extremes,” wrote Stenner and Haidt.
Readers will doubtless perceive a moral hazard following this idea where it leads. Ceasing to celebrate diversity in order not to trigger the intolerant carries more than a whiff of enabling or appeasing intolerance, rather than condemning it. However, if any institution in civil society enjoys the permission structure to make a virtue of “oneness and sameness,” it’s the American public school. A fear of factions is a common theme of the nation’s founding generation, and our early thinkers about education in America “thought the school would be the institution that would transform future citizens into loyal Americans,” elaborates E.D. Hirsch, Jr. in How to Educate a Citizen.
If you are an American of a certain age, perhaps 40 or older, you likely grew up and went to school in a vanished era of shared rituals, common culture, and a standard national narrative as a “melting pot.” You stood at your desk with your hand over your heart and recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. You sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” at assemblies and before high school football games. No one should feel nostalgic for a rose-tinted view of history that, whether deliberately or through carelessness, excluded broad swaths of the nation’s citizenry. But for all the lack of nuance in the melting pot as the central metaphor in American life, there’s good reason to valorize the common narratives, symbols, and rituals inherent in its ideal. Moreover, there’s compelling evidence to suggest we made a serious mistake in wholesale repudiation of the impulse to embrace a common identity as Americans. The moral marker set down by the founders, and the work of Karen Stenner in our own time, strongly suggests a mission for public education aimed explicitly at social cohesion.
Most urgently, this may no longer be subject to debate, but a matter of national security. Writing in an essay for the book Can It Happen Here, Stenner and Haidt note that “western liberal democracies have now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate them.” This is a storm warning not just for diversity, equity, and inclusion, but for national stability and even survival. Our schools have no more urgent mission than to prepare our children for productive adult roles in such liberal democracies. That requires that we follow the evidence where it leads, not be guided by impulse or intuition—or worse, where we wish the evidence to lead.
This essay is adapted from Robert Pondiscio’s chapter in the forthcoming book, The Critical Classroom published by the Heritage Foundation.
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