Is unconscious bias training ‘an Orwellian nightmare, unsubstantiated by science’?
In late September, I posted three videos on YouTube. They were the culmination of a growing sense of frustration I experienced, both personal and professional, about the expanding dominion of a rigid and resentment-driven ideology of power, masquerading under the guise of compassion, threatening both the University of Toronto and society beyond academia.
The first video criticized legislation that added the categories of “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the list of group-membership features protected under Canadian law (including the Criminal Code, and defined as hate speech).
The second criticized the university’s HR and equity department’s decision to make “anti-racism and anti-bias” training mandatory. The third criticized the ideological presumptions associated with political correctness, and offered tips for resistance.
The videos produced a firestorm of response in the media and on campus, and the university warned me I was violating university policy and the tenets of the Ontario Human Rights Act.
Most of the attention focused on the first video, where I stated my refusal to accede to the requirement embedded in recent legislation that “preferred pronouns” be used on-demand to address people who requested them. I objected on the grounds of free speech and my strong antipathy to made-up “non-binary” pronouns I regard as the words of politically correct authoritarians.
But it is the issues addressed in the second video that are of central importance to HR.
Several years ago, the HR department at the University of Toronto added “and equity” to their nomenclature. A small change, but words have power and the decision was a major step to the later decision to make political training mandatory for staff — an incursion into private life that organizations engage in at everyone’s peril.
After I made the videos, I was given a copy of the “anti-racism and anti-bias” training material. There were two elements of particular concern. One was the definition of “equity” — a slippery term. There are many values upon which our society is based, such as freedom of religion, association, and speech.
We also hold equality of opportunity in high esteem. This is because the individual and society alike are best served when each person’s unique talents can be expressed in a manner that is of benefit to self and others simultaneously.
When a person seeks, for example, employment, it is not useful (and can be downright harmful) for her potential employer to forfeit the benefit of her skills because she is black, white, short or Catholic because those attributes bear no relationship to her competence. Equality of opportunity is a vitally important principle. But “equity,” defined as it was in the training material, is an entirely different thing — and dangerous beyond easy comprehension.
“Equity” was defined as “equality of outcome.” Here’s the theory: Every strata of every organization should be staffed by people, defined by their group identity, in precise proportion to the representation of that group in the general populations. Since women make up 51 per cent of the general population, then every strata must contain 51 per cent women — or the organization is corrupt and discriminatory and must be reconstructed.
Imagine for a minute what this means. First, the group-identity structure of the general population would have to be accurately and finally assessed. We would have to know, for example, the proportion of each racial or ethnic group. But how many of those are there? Are there Asians, blacks and whites? Do we divide whites (Caucasians) into Northern Europeans, Southern Europeans and people from the Middle East? Do we divide the Middle-Easterners?
And what about religion and nationality? Or what about disability? And how do we count people with multiple identities: Is a gay person (because we also have to take sex, gender identity and gender expression into account) who is female and Catholic gay, female or Catholic?
And are we also supposed to swallow the idea it is only corruption and prejudice that make a given organization differ in makeup from the general population? Female nurses outnumber males by about 20 to one. Male engineers outnumber females by the same margin. But the data from Scandinavian countries — where efforts to make the environment similar for males and females have been pushed very far over the last four decades — indicate these differences emerge primarily because men and women have different intrinsic interests.
These are biologically predicated, and appear associated with degree of prenatal testosterone exposure (among other things). Do we want to forbid our daughters to become psychologists (another woman-dominated career) and require them to lay bricks or install drywall — occupations that are 99.9 per cent male?
HR is seriously overstepping its boundaries. Trained in a manner that is all-too-often both politically correct and historically ill-informed, those who serve in such organizations are increasingly following the dictates of ideologies that had catastrophic effects when instantiated socially.
And the equity issue is only one of multiple dangers. HR is also racing down the road of “unconscious bias training” — a pseudo-educational enterprise based on the misunderstanding of a science that is still in its infancy. The so-called racism, for example, revealed by research lab procedures such as the Implicit Association Tests (IAT), is very difficult to distinguish from familiarity bias or in-group preference.
If you took the IAT, it would reveal people implicitly favour their family and friends. Should that be eradicated? Besides, there is no evidence unconscious bias training programs actually reduce such bias, and some evidence indicates the problem is actually worsened.
So, a word or two of warning to HR from a research psychologist who has made the study of totalitarian ideology his life’s work: Don’t go there. Equity is an idea of almost unparalleled danger. Unconscious bias training is an Orwellian nightmare, unsubstantiated by science. Expanding your job to include the radical transformation of society and the individual is hubristic beyond compare, and it is pride that goes before a fall.
Go back to hiring people according to their competence — and nothing else. Everything else is a nightmare you do not understand, and would not want to experience.
Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and tenured professor at the University of Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com.