In skepticism of the DEI industry

Fielding Schaefer, Senior

Writer’s note: in the spirit of public engagement, I welcome any criticism of the ideas in this piece. Ridicule on the sole basis that I am indeed a privileged white male may only strengthen the op-ed’s arguments. This is intended, above all, to open up a dialogue that I hope will continue on campus and in our country in coming years.

One month ago, Whitman’s off-campus housing maintenance staff reported certain posters in a private student residence to the college administration. The posters were an ironic form of humor produced by primarily queer, female tenants. With obvious satirical intent, they read: “Reduce the Gay,” “Abolish Short People,” and “Reduce the Snowflake.”

Whitman’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (DI) emailed the students a bias report alleging identity-based discrimination and harassment. The administration kept the students in good disciplinary standing, but such reports produce lingering impacts: the tenants are less likely to express themselves about controversial matters with comfort, even in private settings.

This case is symptomatic of a much larger national trend that accelerated after the 2020 BLM uprisings. We’ve seen an uptick in dialogue regarding race and policing, for which we should be grateful. We’ve also seen, regrettably, an uptick of mob-mentality in left-liberal spaces and a crisis of open discourse prompted by fear of that mob. Lastly, we’ve witnessed the emergence of a multibillion-dollar DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) industry which ensures fidelity to this mob is not only a social necessity, but a job necessity as well. This is in lockstep for a profession originating in corporate HR offices to protect companies from discrimination lawsuits.

I gave a talk at this year’s Power & Privlige Symposium entitled “The Woke Imperium.” In it, I discussed how the U.S. foreign policy establishment now uses the identity politics of the professional liberal class in order to sell to them its wars, meddling and warmongering, as in the cases of Cuba, Bolivia and Iran.

The war establishment is smart to look left. Though dogmatic groupthink pervades both political factions and the tides easily switch, the identity politics “left” currently has a greater societal influence within the media, entertainment industries, academia and corporations. The war state understands better than most that woke culture, an overused but coherent term, demands full, uncompromising group allegiance, or else a person risks social isolation, slander or even firing. The empire has channeled this faction’s demand for allegiance towards supporting their new “intersectional imperialist” agenda. 

They also know that to compete in professional America today, one must ritually virtue signal to their higher-ups with institutionally programmed social justice lingo and viewpoints. Imagine attempting to get a tenure-track job at a U.S. private college today if you don’t use the culturally imperialist term “Latinx.” Perhaps you hold Western aggression responsible for creating, escalating and blocking peace in the Ukraine proxy war. Perhaps you think the U.S. has no concern for Ukrainian suffering and is instead willing to sacrifice countless Ukrainians in an attempt to weaken Russia, effect regime change and prevent the emergence of a more just, multipolar world. At minimum, you’d be less likely to get the job offer. Most likely, you would make the rational decision to self-censor and reintegrate alongside the herd. 

Whitman being the cream of the left-liberal monocrop, I was not surprised when I received an email from the Diversity and Inclusion office stating that my presentation was being reviewed. Though the reactions to these neglected issues in my presentation were mostly positive, students and others on campus complained. Elements of my presentation, they claimed, were “harmful”: a restorative justice buzzword that is now, unfortunately, employed to silence intellectual opponents. The email stated that the situation “may not yet be resolved.”

At first, I viewed the email as a confusing, if not ominous threat against my academic freedom at an allegedly student-run symposium. My P&P mentor, Visiting Professor Matthew Travis Barber, replied on my behalf.

Responding to the accusation of “harm,” he wrote, “It is vital to help students grow into an adulthood of responsibility over their emotions and reactions … The alternative to this is most perilous: accommodating and affirming that one’s sense of being offended carries a moral authority that automatically invalidates someone else’s argument.”

The term “harm” is appropriate for naming oppression in the form of slurs, physical violence and clear targeting, but when people apply the term to ideational content, it fosters a dangerous culture of censorship and surveillance. This culture obtains regulatory power from DEI institutions capable of disciplinary action.

The broader academic community reckoned with this fact this past December, when Hamline University fired an adjunct professor of art history for displaying a painting of the prophet Muhammed, even after providing numerous prior content notices to students. A Muslim student professed “harm” and pressed administrators to act. DEI personnel called the incident “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” and announced that the professor’s contract would not be renewed. This decision was appalling enough for the university’s president to resign. Here at Whitman, concerned faculty and students convened an academic freedom workshop on the incident on February 14, 2023.

As the Hamline incident reveals, defaulting to align with self-proclaimed victims, without accounting for a situation’s nuances, is a dangerous pitfall to which the DEI industry is susceptible. This tendency is too often DEI’s preferred course of action for inclusivity-marketability and appeasing of the loudest students on campus — the so-called social justice warriors. Giving credit where credit is due, the Whitman Diversity and Inclusion administrator who corresponded with me did not follow in Hamline’s footsteps. I personally followed up to meet with this administrator in person, and he/she/they also felt that the allegations did not merit institutional action. 

Regarding the students who disagreed with the positions that I laid out in my presentation, I would have been happy to sit down with them to openly examine the ideas in a private or public setting. Sadly, they did not wish to engage. I will not accept the accusation of “harm,” since it was weaponized to pressure the administration to silence or punish me. 

Though our Diversity and Inclusion staff, at least in my case, engaged thoughtfully with complaints, such departments risk validating and encouraging reports of “harm” and “violence,” terms whose seriousness becomes watered down through overuse and misuse. 

Middle Eastern studies professor Alexander Jabbari at the University of Minnesota wrote in response to the Hamline case, “Rather than improving overall campus climate, institutions like DEI offices wind up cultivating student fragility — something they need to do to justify their continued existence and funding. The more easily students are offended, the more the university needs a robustly funded DEI program to manage them.” 

As Jabbari notes, DEI is an industrial complex. Just as a military-industrial complex must provoke conflict to keep military industries profitable, the DEI-industrial complex must magnify the significance of constant, miniscule micro-conflicts to remain relevant. Obviously, there is real oppression that occurs in various U.S. institutions, but there is a conflict of interest: DEI fully resolving racism, sexism and other forms of oppression would spell its own demise. This calls into question its potential efficacy and its worldview in which, conveniently, oppression is intractable and eternal.

I do believe, however, that the institution has merit and great initiatives. Fly-ins are impactful transitional experiences for students. Affinity groups are a healthy facet of any community. Funding student fellows to host events for underserved groups like the FGWC club, of which I am a part, offers comradery to the disempowered. I am instead critiquing administrative powers that can monitor and police speech and institutionalize a culture in which students and faculty police each other. Such institutions play a regressive role in intellectual progress, even, ironically, within identity politics fields, which would benefit by refining their positions through counterargument.

A whole Pandora’s box of progressive viewpoints criticize the industry. A former DEI director has recently written about being “A Black DEI Director canceled by DEI.” She claims her downfall was presenting her campus a range of theories of race and racism, instead of solely those that conform with the newly sacrosanct Ibram X. Kendi canon. In “A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell,” a Black studies professor has recently recounted his experience teaching an anti-racism summer camp that imploded when other staff questioned his ideological purity. The scholar Norman Finkelstein, who was ranked the fifth most influential political scientist in the world in 2020 and who is a longtime hero of the left, published a book this January. He extensively reviews the most influential texts of identity politics: namely, Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist,” Robin Diangelo’s “White Fragility” and Kimberly Crenshaw’s “On Intersectionality.” Finkelstein’s arguments merit reflection, engagement and critique. He concludes that the above texts are intellectually inconsistent and do not hold up to serious scrutiny, particularly when compared to theorists like W.E.B. Du Bois and MLK Jr. These texts, moreover, have played into the hands of the same forces derailing the left’s class and anti-war politics, an agenda that became manifestly visible in the suppression of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

For perhaps the first time since George Floyd’s murder rocket-launched DEI and this iteration of woke leftism in our society, proponents of DEI will have to begin seriously engaging with criticisms from the progressive left. The industry proliferated on the elite back of the BLM movement; it did not emerge through a public or intellectual examination on whether DEI administrations were the proper mechanism to eradicate oppression. Wisdom of hindsight gained, let’s begin examining now.