Ending Discrimination Through Unity: The 2022 Counterweight Conference
Counterweight Conference's mission and the depolarization movement
On Saturday, September 24 at 10am, Eastern Standard Time, a recording of a talk I gave will be broadcast live during the third day of the Counterweight Conference for Liberal Approaches to Diversity and Inclusion followed by a live Q&A with me and the audience. My talk is titled, “Shaping a Workplace Culture: The Fundamentals,” and explores one of the most fundamental attributes of all in a leader who wishes to be authentically influential: the need to acknowledge when they are wrong.
To sign up for my specific talk, please click here. All talks are free for everyone during the conference and for 24 hours after the conference. There are other options for those who wish to access the talks after the conference has ended. The conference links I’ve provided above will let people know what the options are and how to proceed.
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Why was I invited to give a talk at the conference?
I’ve known the founder of Counterweight, Helen Pluckrose, for about seven years now. I was an early supporter of her scholarship and her advocacy for freedom of speech, conscience, thought, and expression from the beginning and especially of her moral courage and unwavering commitment to liberal humanism and the importance of what she calls “evidence-based epistemology”.
As I mentioned in the introduction to “Beyond Cynicism”, Helen Pluckrose asked me to join Counterweight at the beginning of its founding as one of its Academic Affiliates, alongside others she had asked to join, including Iona Italia, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Erec Smith, Eric Kaufmann, Jonathan Church, Lee Jussim, Ayishat Akanbi, Thomas Chatterton Williams, John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Peter Boghossian, Jennifer Friend, and several others.
As an Academic Affiliate, during the first year, I was handed a small caseload in which I advised people who came to Counterweight looking for advice on how to handle difficult situations in their workplaces or communities after group identity theories were formally installed throughout their organizations causing division and open hostility. Throughout this work, my advice has mostly involved providing information about the ideologies themselves and helping the “client” find the right wording to advocate for symmetrical conversations in their workplaces where people can learn to (in the words of Harvard scholar Robert Kegan) “speak across” so that they don’t feel they have to “speak out”.
But this was hard work, and the organization was getting a lot of distressing messages from people across the English-speaking world, so some of Counterweight’s staff had to take a step back and figure out how to proceed in a universe that was fast becoming ideologically entrenched with almost no end in sight. Helen herself advised me on a Zoom call in the winter of 2021 to step back from my own advocacy for more humane approaches to inclusion in the workplace, saying “I’m afraid, Steven, that America is lost for now.”
And she was right.
If the detailed description of some of the beliefs and practices laid out in Erec Smith’s Free Black Thought’s Substack piece Six Unsettling Features of DEI in K-12 doesn’t offer a chilling enough glimpse into where we are finding ourselves in the current cultural zeitgeist, then hopefully we might be persuaded by the writings of Frances Lee, a self-identified transgender nonbinary Asian “intersectional activist” and cultural studies doctoral candidate, who describes the atmosphere of fear and worry that has emerged in recent years in activist spaces (and activist workplaces) that focus on diversity and inclusion in dehumanizing ways.
In “No Justice Without Love: Why Activism Must Be More Generous”, they write:
“After publishing an essay in YES! Magazine about this anxiety I received countless letters from readers around the world expressing similar stories. Many of them identified as former activists and leftists, having been pushed out of activist spaces for ‘not being radical enough’ or ‘being too privileged.’
Some readers relayed that they wept with relief to read that they weren’t the only ones feeling utterly ostracized… Readers who identified as having privilege expressed feeling turned off by the ways they had to perform unquestioning allyship to marginalized people and respond to the guilt by shrinking themselves into nothingness.”
This is something I witnessed as a caseworker for Counterweight and also as a member of a private Heterodox Academy email group for “cancelled” professors who have made the smallest of errors that ran afoul not of any objectively moral code, but of a group identity theory’s most recently designed orthodoxy. Some of these professors are quite well-known, and more than a few of their cases are in court, with some having settled financially with their institutions for some pretty outrageous acts in the name of high ideals.
I have been writing about this topic for a few years now in various places, and most recently on the Ground Experience Substack page in the “All We Are” series of essays. In some ways, what has been emerging in these movements that some call “Ideological DEI” and others call “Critical Social Justice theory (CSJ)” runs counter to the principles I outlined ten years ago for my website, Support Your Mission, which explores what I call the Three Supports for Community and Organizational Development, which includes building agency in those closest to the action, designing a mission-based environment, and nurturing a culture of inquiry and open exchange. The great majority of DEI trainings today and other activist subcultures that are influenced by CSJ group identity theories foster a more authoritarian approach which emphasizes ideological conformity and close-minded opposition to all questioning rather than practices and behaviors that can substantially uplift the groups of people these ideologies have laid sole claim to caring about.
For a more immersive experience of the types of atmospheres that can manifest in organizations that have embraced this approach and why it is absolutely crucial for us to find alternative approaches to diversity and inclusion that are more compassionate and empirically based (rather than ideologically based), I highly recommend Benjamin A. Boyce’s documentary series on the 2017 meltdown of Evergreen State College.
Counterweight Shifts to Depolarization as Central Mission
Fortunately, many of us are learning to adjust to the times and are continuing to evolve in our perspectives and in our advocacy.
After nurturing the mission for two years and desiring a break from public life, Pluckrose stepped down from Counterweight in 2021, and handed the reigns to a new team of energetic social entrepreneurs, Laura Walker-Beaven, Jennifer Richmond, and Harriet Terrill. Since this transition, the organization’s mission has evolved even further, and Counterweight’s main focus now is to discover and promote ways to reduce the political polarization that has been growing in our society, including our political parties, social media spaces, workplaces, and local communities.
In the mission statement, Counterweight identifies “political polarization” as “the meta-problem” we must all work collectively to resolve—a mission similar to Braver Angels, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (F.A.I.R.), the Protopia Lab, and others.
“Division between different political and ideological factions is making it almost impossible for us to agree not only on the solutions to these problems but on the nature of the problems themselves. In fact, it has even become difficult for us to agree on the nature of reality. This is why at Counterweight, we believe political polarisation is the meta-problem we must resolve so we can protect liberal democracy and ensure we have the capability to address all of the other threats we face.”
Although I don’t explicitly address political polarization in my talk at the Counterweight Conference, I do talk about an important “fundamental” that I believe can contribute to depolarization on any scale: humility and “the willingness to be wrong” in front of others.
In the talk, I made the choice to speak plainly in a less academic way, noting that I wanted to leave the more complex ideas and higher-level conceptualizing to the other presenters, as many of their ideas are a direct influence on my own, and I wanted them to speak for themselves.
In fact, two of the presenters I personally recruited for the conference have had a direct influence on my own thinking around racial depolarization: George Yancey and Christine Louis Dit Sully. This summer, I had just read both of their recent books, Yancey’s “Beyond Racial Division” and Dit Sully’s “Transcending Racial Divisions” when I was invited to speak at this conference. I found both of their books very useful for different reasons. Yancey’s book offers a much-needed “middle path” that doesn’t reject the very real challenges faced by people of color in Western societies (which Yancey calls the colorblind approach) and that doesn’t indulge in hatred, hostility, and identity-based separateness (which is deftly called ideological antiracism). And Dit Sully’s book offers a well-researched intricate journey into the history of racialism, race theories advanced by people of all colors through the ages and their damaging impact on societies in the past and present.
The inspiration I personally drew from their writings in both my personal and professional life is the reason why I recruited both of them to present at the Counterweight Conference. How could this conference happen without their voices? And to my great delight, the conferences organizers accepted their late entries into the conference lineup, and at the time of this writing, they have both informed me that they have completed the recording of their talks.
To sign up for George Yancey’s talk, click on this hyperlinked title: Collaborative Conversation as a Solution to Racial Alienation. To sign up for Christine Dit Sully’s talk, click on this hyperlinked title: Transcending Racial Divisions with Humanist and Universalist Politics.
What I like most about George Yancey’s work (please check out his social media page on Collaborative Conversations and Race) and Christine Dit Sully’s rigorous research on the history of racialist theorizing is that they are both naturally oriented towards depolarization without throwing out the need for justice and actual equality for people from marginalized groups. Their participation in the conference is essential, which is why I’m glad they were brought on.
Two other people I advocated for inclusion in the conference bear mentioning, too.
Ye Zhang Pogue is a social psychologist I met in the summer of 2021. She is a prolific writer and a great networker. Her writings for Newsweek and Psychology Today drew me to her work, but it’s her networking that really sealed the deal for me. It if wasn’t for Ye, for example, I would not have heard of the Constructive Ethnic Studies movement. For that, I am eternally grateful, in addition to our recent phone conversations in which she cajoled me to get back to my writing. She’s an energetic, rare precious gift, and I’m very glad that she will be presenting her talk on Common Humanity in DEI Trainings at this conference.
Michel Bauwens, another speaker I recruited for this conference, is the founder of the P2P Foundation, one of the premier organizations dedicated to advancing the “peer to peer” movement—a movement stemming from the broader participative democracy movement, which advances the highest levels of mutual accountability and what Bauwens calls “cosmo-localism”. I highly recommend his Counterweight Conference talk “Cosmo-Localism: Expanding Identities Through Commoning”. Of all the people I personally know in this conference, I can honestly say that Michel is the most prolific when it comes to research and the making of connections between and among many different participative democracy movements. I would have to live another ten lifetimes to take in the breadth of his knowledge in this and other domains.
For the full schedule of speakers that you can sign up for, please click on this hyperlinked title: Schedule of Speakers for the 2022 Counterweight Conference.
How the Depolarization Movement Is Influencing My Work at a Minority Serving Institution
The writings of George Yancey, Christine Louis Dit Sully, and the writings of others at the conference, including Erec Smith, Angel Eduardo, Ian Rowe, Roland Fryer, and Greg Thomas have provided much-needed inspiration for me in my work at a college that serves mostly underserved populations. As the chair of the Faculty Development Committee at the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, I’ve been charged with the responsibility to help organize trainings around diversity and inclusion, and workshops around teaching strategies that can increase access to learning for students with disabilities. Additionally, I have been working with a specialist in trauma on a series of workshops on the creation of trauma-informed environments. So, inclusion and empathy for human beings is on the very top of my list of priorities in my professional life. Thus, a conference like this one could not have been better timed.
It’s quite fascinating to be teaching and leading committees at a college that was founded by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, one of the most famous Founding Fathers and one of only six people who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution bequeathed a sizable sum of his inheritance to the City of Boston to create a technology institute for working tradesmen. With matching funds from Andrew Carnegie and the implementation of a sophisticated investment scheme that Franklin imposed upon the endowment, the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology was founded in 1908.
It’s important to acknowledge that at the time he created this endowment, Franklin stipulated that it was white workers who would be the beneficiaries of his estate. And now, nearly a century and a quarter after its founding, this very same institute is not only led by Dr. Aisha Francis, the first Black woman president in its history but one that serves more than 74 per cent students of color—and is officially designated by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights as a Minority Serving Institution (MSI).
In a sense, we have an opportunity at the college to honor both the traditionally celebrated way-showers from our country’s history (in this case the legacy of Benjamin Franklin, a person of European-American origin) and to forge a path forward for Black and brown workers, leaders and pioneers who can potentially become the captains of industry in the greatly-diversifying fields of technology that Franklin himself could not have dreamed of.
Thus, we have an opportunity at the college to honor both past and future legacies by experimenting with high-resolution, productive, fair, and even healing approaches to increasing the diversity of the workforce and building an inclusive environment on the scale of the college, the city it serves, and even entire fields of technology.
And on a broader scale that is what the Counterweight Conference was created for.
Details About the Counterweight Conference
The conference is an international virtual gathering of educators, scholars, thought leaders, public policy advocates, social workers, and human rights activists who are working to forge a new, more productive path for building a fair and inclusive society, which includes pathways for building fair and inclusive workplaces.
In the press release announcing the event, the organizers of the conference describe the surrounding circumstances that have made such a conference necessary:
“In the past few years, companies and employees have felt increasing pressure to engage with D&I initiative. Some programmes offer useful insights into how we can create more inclusive workplaces. Too often, though, the ways in which people approach D&I come from ideological foundations that are divisive and sectarian in nature. In addition to this, companies continue to spend large sums of money on D&I trainings that simply aren't effective. At Counterweight, we think that D&I is important, but we worry that these ideological and identitarian approaches flatten us as individuals, stripping us of our complexity and nuance. So, we started asking a lot of questions…
In light of these developments, they further ask:
What would a liberal approach to D&I look like?
How can we tackle discrimination and racism through a unifying lens? Do these approaches already exist?
Is there a more unifying way to tackle discrimination and racism than the divisive tactics of many mainstream D&I programmes?
These are very good questions. As I have already explored in my essay on the potential dangers of divisive and ideology-based diversity trainings, there are many unhealthy consequences for the bottom line of the organization’s mission and for the relationships that we count on to deliver the services that the organization was set up for. This is true for just about every type of organization, whether it is for-profit or non-profit, which is why we need to find alternative models.
The alternative models presented by the many speakers at the conference all fall under the larger umbrella of what Counterweight is calling “liberal democracy”. It’s important to note that Counterweight is a British non-profit, and so some of the terminology (and spelling!) will be British in flavor. It’s for this reason that I mentioned during my interview with Lauren Walker-Beaven that she might want to add a brief description of the word liberal which has a different meaning for Americans and perhaps other English-speaking countries. Here is what they came up with for the conference description page:
We use the term 'liberal' to refer to all that is aligned with liberalism, rather than the newer US-meaning of the term connoting left-wing politics. Counterweight is a non-partisan organisation that believes that the binaries of left and right wing politics do little to help the polarised, sectarian world we now find ourselves in. We believe that universal liberal values such as tolerance, critical thinking, individualism and freedom are key to eliminating discrimination and racism. Find out more about Counterweight's mission and values here!
These are values I can get behind, and I’m honored to have been invited. If any readers are interested in seeing my talk, please click on this hyperlinked title: Shaping a Workplace Culture: The Fundamentals. The talk is taking place at 3pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). It will be followed by a live Q & A.
Hope to see you all there.
More Information about the Conference
Below is some more information about the conference.
CONFERENCE PRESENTERS: Jennifer Richmond, Laura Walker-Beaven, Harriet, Terril, Ian Rowe, Eric Kaufmann, Winkfield Twyman, Amiel Handelsman, Will Reusch, Mike Bowen, Wenyuan Wu, Joe Nalvan, Beth Feeley, Mike Yates, Jake Mackey & Mike Major, Isobel Marston & James E. Petts, Angel Eduardo, Ellie Avishai, Val Thomas, Erec S Smith, Rio Veradonir, Brandi Shufutinsky, Sheena Mason, Dina McMillan, Greg Thomas, Jonathan Church & Kai Whiting, Zara Qureshi, Ye Zhang Pogue, Zander Geig, Mike Yates, Christine Louis, Dit Sully, Mark Palmer, George Yancey, Lyell Asher, Steven J. Lawrence, Amna Khalid & Jeff Snyder, Simon Fanshawe, Jason Littlefield, and Roland Fryer.
PRIMARY SPONSORS: Free Black Thought, National Association of Scholars, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, Institute for Liberal Values, Jewish Institute for Liberal Values
Counterweight Conference Press Release
Tackling discrimination through unity:
The Counterweight Conference on Liberal Approaches to Diversity and Inclusion
From the 22nd-25th September, Counterweight will be hosting the online Counterweight Conference on Liberal Approaches to Diversity and Inclusion, featuring pre-recorded talks from over 40 experts.
In the past few years, companies and employees have felt increasing pressure to engage with D&I initiative. Some programmes offer useful insights into how we can create more inclusive workplaces. Too often, though, the ways in which people approach D&I come from ideological foundations that are divisive and sectarian in nature. In addition to this, companies continue to spend large sums of money on D&I trainings that simply aren't effective. At Counterweight, we think that D&I is important, but we worry that these ideological and identitarian approaches flatten us as individuals, stripping us of our complexity and nuance. So, we started asking a lot of questions…
What would a liberal approach to D&I look like? How can we tackle discrimination and racism through a unifying lens? Do these approaches already exist? Is there a more unifying way to tackle discrimination and racism than the divisive tactics of many mainstream D&I programmes?
Throughout the conference, we'll hear from experts in the field of D&I who can answer some of these questions. We hope that you'll come away with an understanding of how important D&I is and how we can approach it in a way that values unity, critical thinking and liberalism.
We believe that D&I is for everyone: individuals, small businesses, community groups, NGOs or big companies alike. For this reason, we will be making the event available for free (for a limited period of time). All-access passes to the event are available for £50. Get your tickets here:
List of Balanced Resources related to
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
‘Diversity Training’ Doesn’t Work. This Might by Musa al-Gharbi and his first part in this series, Diversity is Important. Diversity-Related Training is Terrible.
The Problem with Implicit Bias Training (Scientific American article)
Trauma and Leadership: A Sensitive Subject (Greg Thomas)
It’s time for data-first diversity, equity, and inclusion. Roland Fryer, followed by a Twitter Thread on Free Black Thought that breaks down his main arguments.
AFA Calls for An End to Required Diversity Statements (Academic Freedom Alliance)
The ASCA School Counselor Professional Standards & Competencies (American School Counselor Association)
ASCA Student Standards: Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success (American School Counselor Association)
The Sample Behaviors that Provide Evidence of Career Readiness (National Association of Colleges and Employers)
Are We Career Ready Yet? Updated NACE Competencies and Behaviors Employers Desire in New Graduates (University of Houston Clear Lake)
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