We live in interesting times. Who could have guessed that the next powerful buzzword after "agile", "big data", and "cloud" will be "diversity" (or, to a full extent: "diversity, equity, and inclusion" - DE&I). Nope, I don't have anything against the values behind these terms - I strongly believe in fairness, equal chances for everyone, and the sense of fighting the bias with the roots in not-so-glorious past.
BUT ... you know how it is with buzzwords: numerous ignorant/malevolent people pick the original term and twist its original meaning, effectively defiling all the prior good intentions. Because of their selfishness (e.g., desire for publicity), hidden reasons (they play their own, parallel game), or simply: stupidity (they don't realize they've crossed the border of being utterly ridiculous).
And that's what's happening (far too often for my taste) with DE&I (IMHO) these days :(
The wrong mission
The fight for DE&I has many forms/narrations - no surprise, as it's targeting various sociological problems/postures - like racism, post-colonial legacy, bias against different sexual orientations, gender stereotypes, etc. This breadth is one of the reasons why it may be tempting to look for some common denominator for all the "battle-fronts" - it has already been found and is typically phrased as "to avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable".
At first glance, it appears a great concept. Like a better reality, the one I'd like to live (and raise my children) within. However, I strongly believe it's not only utopian and unrealistic - the path towards a goal like that has significant negative implications.
And that's what made me write this blog post. Fasten your seatbelt; there'll be controversies.
A tad too far
First of all, let's bring up some examples of how the idea of "not making people feel uncomfortable" goes over the board and ... well, judge them yourself. The list below contains actual recommendations brought up by proponents of DE&I.
Btw., all the cases were either experienced by myself directly or acquired from an external source, but in the latter case, I've made the effort of double-checking its veracity.
- to get rid of "bias-tainted" words and expressions like ... "master branch", "black list", "crazy" (because calling a healthy person this way may offend people with mental issues), "summer" (because it may be summer for you, but someone from another hemisphere may feel excluded), etc.
- to avoid any group topic/activity that resonates primarily with a "privileged majority" and may exclude others - like commenting last football game (because statistically, fewer women are interested in ball kicking and self-declare as dedicated fans)
- to restrain from (even: 1-on-1, backed up with data, not targetted personally) critical comments/opinions as those may be treated as "shaming"
- to censor or even cancel (ref.: cancel culture) movies, books, and other works of art that depict the past times (like the colonial-era United States, feudal Europe) accurately (e.g., exposing social/racial inequalities)
- to express yourself in a way that carefully maneuvers around all gender-specific pronouns because there's a chance you'll address someone in a way that is not in line with their current self-identification ...
I don't think such actions help anyone in any way. The idea that having a "master" branch may trigger trauma in someone whose ancestors were victims of slavery sounds ridiculous. Denying the existence of racial uniformity in Western/Central/Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages won't change history - these are lessons we should be learning from instead of pretending they didn't happen.
Well, but maybe "a bit too much" is in the end far better than "a bit too little"? Perhaps it's a fair price to pay (for solving some deeply rooted cultural problems)?
Frankly, I have mixed feelings.
The role of 'discomfort'
As an Eastern European (yes, the historical context plays some role here), I think we're all getting far too psyched about the 'discomfort' of others. And I blame Americans for that as this trend clearly comes from the other side of the Atlantic. There are numerous proofs that the 'discomfort' is among those few crucial factors that drive us (in both micro- and macro-scale) towards being: stronger, smarter, more resourceful, and capable.
Before I dive deeper, one important disclaimer: by defending "right to make someone feel uncomfortable", I don't mean allowing physical abuse/harassment, mobbing, or denying anyone constitutional rights (s)he has - the proper balance is (as always) essential here.
Additionally: I'm not suggesting anyone should make a deliberate effort to cause (unnecessary) discomfort to others. My point is that the 'social intervention' (like ostracism) is in many cases not needed (as either an over-generalization or using a sledgehammer to crack a nut).
One has to be able to stand for her/himself. It's a crucial skill that can't be learned theoretically.
The history of American immigration has proven that the first 2-3 generations of economic/political immigrants who've started with basically nothing, against all odds, were the most determined, motivated, and growth-oriented when compared with the rest of the population. They were used to the fact that they don't get anything 'for free' (e.g., guaranteed by the state), but they have to fight for it.
No easy mode. What doesn't kill us only makes us stronger. People need hardening as much as steel does.
A simple real-life example: some children I know (family, relatives, close acquaintance) attend the local, private school in the vicinity - they live in some sort of a bubble, where their basic needs are always met, there are no scarce resources (toys, desserts, etc.) - happy times indeed. But these happy times end abruptly once they mix with the rest of the society (e.g. at a holiday camp or a public swimming pool) - they are completely lost and clueless when e.g. some insolent child pushes her/himself into the line in front of them. Life has not prepared them for such a 'discomfort'.
Regardless of how idyllic shape we turn our society into, there will always be bad actors (criminals, thugs, or even street urchins). One shouldn't get so detached from reality that (s)he can't even verbally defend her/himself (because feeling uncomfortable causes so much trauma).
Anyway, let's face the truth:
Competition, conflict - these terms won't disappear. Yes, they can be destructive, but they don't have to. Practically speaking, it's not possible to reshape the world, so it consists only of infinite games. There will always be some zero-sum games as well. And in zero-sum games, sheer potential/power/capability is not everything - psychological warfare plays an equally important role (think: sports, but also - negotiation). Don't you think?
Yes, it's true that some (more fragile) people do have hard times in their lives because of "feeling uncomfortable". Some of them even suffer from depression, low self-esteem, etc. But ... doesn't the discomfort act like bacteria here? As we all know, the absence of any bacteria (over-sterilizing the environment) means that we're not training our immunological system at all, so we're even more prone to potential adverse effects once we're (eventually) attacked.
Doesn't the absence of discomfort cause an analogous effect?
Let's get real
The one unquestioned thing history tells us about all kinds of 'crusades' is that zealotry makes them easily get out of control. That's why it's crucial to avoid that kind of insanity and keep the focus on what's true (not imaginary) problem: addressing REAL racism, misogynism, chauvinism, etc.
Trying to get rid of all the negative interactions in life (by classifying them as some sort of defense of privileged social position) is not only a missed shot. It also provokes additional, completely unnecessary debates that water down the efforts that actually have chances to (at least partially) solve the problem.
To summarize that all with just one sentence: respect others (everyone equally) and treat them as you'd like to be treated yourself. Don't try to be holier than the Pope (sorry, it's a direct translation of a Polish adage). In the vast majority of the cases, communication has two active sides: they both have to be lenient and forgiving for the other side's faux pas - there's always a middle-ground to be found.