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Why diversity shouldn’t be punitive

Celebrating all aspects of diversity and inclusion, and promoting tolerance
Diversity, training
Diversity programs should never be punitive or try to make people feel guilty simply for being who they are. Shutterstock

By Brian Kreissl

There is no doubt society and politics are becoming increasingly polarized between right and left. Extreme political correctness has taken hold in some elements of society, especially in academia, while the pushback against such measures is becoming increasingly stronger elsewhere.

While some people argue against what they see as excessive political correctness being the antithesis of free speech, there is no question the alt-right has been emboldened by the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and other right-wing populist politicians. Some politicians and many commentators in the alt-right media now openly espouse views or employ “dog whistle” tactics that would have been considered abhorrent and completely unacceptable not so very long ago.

Right wing memes shared on social media openly spread lies, half-truths, propaganda and “fake news.” Meanwhile, xenophobia seems to be spreading (witness the furor over the Trudeau government’s decision to allow 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country). I personally know at least 10 people who believe the narrative that the current government only cares about other countries and has no concerns for the welfare of “real” Canadians.

Reasonable dialogue about diversity and inclusion

I don’t believe everyone who worries about what they see as the erosion of free speech and fears the encroachment of extreme political correctness into government, academia and corporations is a racist, sexist or homophobe. I truly believe that decent and tolerant people of good faith can have disagreements on matters relating to diversity and inclusion, and it is important to have reasonable dialogue about some of these issues even when people don’t necessarily buy into them.

While constitutional guarantees of free speech don’t generally apply to employers, I believe organizations should tolerate some level of healthy debate and even disagreement about these types of issues. As long as no one is promoting hatred and the debate remains polite and civil, I believe a truly diverse environment should allow for diversity of thought, opinions and beliefs among individuals.

If corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives go too far down the road towards extreme political correctness (as some of the debates have in many universities recently), the backlash against such programs could swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Therefore, diversity programs should never be punitive or try to make people feel guilty simply for being who they are.

As a white, straight, cisgendered, middle class, university-educated male, I undoubtedly have many privileges other people don’t enjoy, and I should be aware of them, but I’m not about to apologize simply for the fact I exist or sacrifice my own career in the interests of diversity. The honest truth is most employers understand this and don’t try to make people feel guilty or force them to be “re-educated” based on their own private thoughts and beliefs.

Done right, diversity initiatives should recognize and celebrate all types of diversity and inclusion. This includes not only the prohibited grounds of discrimination or the designated groups under employment equity legislation, but also with respect to diversity of thought, opinion, belief, political persuasion, philosophy, social class, thinking style, education and professional background.

Political correctness, cultural appropriation and unconscious bias training

As mentioned, many people dislike “political correctness.” Yet, political correctness is often about just being respectful and inclusive and treating people the way they want to be treated.

If someone prefers to be referred to as Indigenous as opposed to Aboriginal or South Asian rather than East Indian, their wishes should be respected. However, aside from actual racial slurs I don’t believe people should be punished for not using the most current terminology — especially when their intentions are positive.

Similarly, there’s a lot of furor over cultural appropriation, which is generally about mocking, ridiculing, stereotyping or belittling another culture. But taking a yoga class, eating sushi or attending a pow wow isn’t cultural appropriation. Enjoying and celebrating other people’s cultures should be encouraged, not condemned.

Many organizations offer unconscious bias training to employees. However, some critics argue such training isn’t scientifically valid and can amount to punishing people for “thought crimes.”

I personally think we should all be aware of our biases and prejudices, and unconscious bias training can be helpful. It is one thing to understand these things and keep them in the back of our minds — it’s totally different if our employers try to force us to think a certain way or use such training as a punitive measure.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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