Beyond Cynical Theories • Part 4: Training Ourselves and our Communities in Cynicism

How anti-oppression trainings can help or harm

This is Part 4 of the “All We Are” series. These writings explore theories of ideological conditioning, ideas in the book “Cynical Theories”, the doctrine of “lived experience” (in which I explore my own lived experience of losing a close sibling to a tragic death), and reflections around Dr. Erec Smith’s argument for using empowerment as a basis for teaching, as laid out in his book, “Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: the Semblance of Empowerment”.

The polarities between hope and cynicism, vision and entropy, and privilege and oppression, have been a lifelong interest for me, especially in my profession as an educator in K-12 and college environments.

I’ve worked in the education industry through the years of the No Child Behind Act, the Race to the Top initiative, the decades-long battles around bilingual education, and the never-ending controversies around the value of charter schools, school vouchers, and publicly funded education. Though this series of writings doesn’t specifically revolve around education as a central theme, it’s fair to say that my experiences as an educator from Kindergarten to college factor large in my perspectives around cynical theories and their impact on real human lives.

In 2008, after nearly ten years of experience in public schools in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a graduate degree that focused not only on pedagogy (teaching strategies) but on understanding the educational environments in which that teaching takes place. After a period of rigorous research, I was able to find a program that fit my needs perfectly and was fortunate to be accepted into the University of Massachusetts, Boston, in a program called Learning, Teaching, and Educational Transformation—a program that combines Critical Pedagogy and other practices in Social Justice theory and urban education with the principles of Organizational Change and Leadership Theory.

Without a doubt, my training in this program made me a much more effective educator with a more student-centered foundation, a deeper and more culturally responsive approach to working with students of color, and a greatly expanded understanding around the challenges involved in building strong urban education environments across all grades and in higher education.

After receiving my degree in 2011, I pursued independent scholarship projects and continued on with post-graduate studies in the relationship between the micro-politics of organizational cultures and the impact of those politics on their missions and outcomes. Before long, I realized it would be important for me to put some of the ideas I had been working on into layperson’s terms so that more people could relate to those ideas.

So, in 2014, I rewrote my graduate thesis, taking out—to the best of my ability—academic buzzwords, theoretical language and educational jargon so that the ideas themselves could be more easily translated to average everyday workers.

The result of this revision culminated in the creation of a website called Support Your Mission, which featured the re-design of the workplace model I created for the thesis which I called "Three Supports for Community and Organizational Development”. For a few years, I practiced as a consultant for housing cooperatives, small businesses, and individual educators who were working to create change in their educational institutions.

This work was cut short by a personal tragedy in my life, which I will be sharing in part three of this series of essays. But, the positive vision that I was able to communicate in this model—including the featured post on the main page about an organizational practice called Positive Politics—continues to inform my perspective and my work as a college level instructor, as a colleague, and as a human being.

The main theme that runs through the model of Support Your Mission is the importance of being human in our organizations, which includes the practice of humility and the commitment to treating others fairly and respectfully while also holding for ourselves and our colleagues the highest expectations of excellence.

But, the main thing that is required of us if we wish to succeed in our organization’s mission is to be real.

And, I’d like to be real here.

It’s time to be real about what it takes to make organizations, communities and workplaces welcoming, inclusive, diverse and fair. This requires saying no to bad ideas. Unconscious bias training is a bad idea.

It is essential for all organizations and workplaces to create inclusive environments that provide access to opportunities, advancement, growth and well-being for all people, including women, men, transgender people, people who identify with the gender of their birth, Black people, brown people, white people, LGBTQ+ people, differently abled people, and members of all faiths, creeds, political beliefs, and all walks of life. All people should feel comfortable to be themselves, to pursue success and excellence, and to express their competence within the professional, legal, ethical and mission-based parameters of an organization, and it’s up to the leadership to ensure that this is possible.

It is for this reason that many corporations, non-profits, schools, colleges and government agencies have mandated some form of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training, which is something that is worthy of enthusiastic support and commitment from all stakeholders within an organization. But, something has gone awry in the ways these trainings have been carried out in many places across America, and it needs our careful attention if we are truly sincere about creating harmonious spaces for all people. In recent years, the trainings have begun to take on strong ideological currents, which should be deeply concerning to organizational leaders both on the ethical level as well as on the impact of these ideologically-based trainings on their organizations’ mission and bottom line.

Part of the task in understanding what is going wrong with these trainings is an examination of the legitimacy and outcomes of unconscious bias training.

Although it’s popular in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consulting industry, unconscious bias training is not only based on the harmful foundation of group identity essentialism and its accompanying endorsement of installing social hierarchies in communities in which this training has been introduced, it is largely regarded as unscientific in its findings and unethical in its implementation. 

Journalist Jesse Singal’s comprehensive analysis of the increasingly discredited Implicit Bias Test provides a window into why the idea of unconscious bias continues to be alluring despite its decreasing legitimacy among members of the scientific community. In addition, a 2020 study showed that “White Privilege” training does not significantly increase empathy towards people of color. When this type of training is based on the unfalsifiable presumption of “unconscious bias” in individuals who belong to specific demographic groups, there is not much of an argument for the “added value” of these trainings for companies and organizations. And when we consider that this very same study showed a severe decrease of empathy for poor white people in white participants after white privilege trainings, it’s hard to deny the strong probability that these trainings are actively harmful for all people who participate in them and, by extension, those who have the misfortune of interacting with them now that they have ingested what can reasonably called a mind virus that urges its hosts to presume evil, badness, and bad intentions everywhere, in all people, and in all places. 

More studies are demonstrating the lack of necessity for training programs that are based on presuppositions about the inner lives of individuals who belong to specific demographic groups, regardless of whether these presuppositions are positive or negative. On January 26, 2021, a study was published which revealed a surprising pattern around racial attitudes in white people. It was discovered, implementing the commonly used measuring rubric, the Racial Resentment Scale (RRS) that—contrary to popular conceptions— whites favor Blacks “substantially” more than their own in-group (whites) far more than was previously known. This indicates that more work needs to be done in understanding the complex dynamics of inter-group trust and collaboration and that the “trainings” that are introduced into communities and companies that wish to be seen as addressing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion might need to be integrated with a less ideological stance than the current offerings.

To put it more simply, if research is showing that white workers—especially in largely progressive environments—tend to disfavor their own in-group and “substantially” favor people from the out-groups (people of color), then in the best possible circumstances, these trainings are redundant.

If a workplace wants to be seen as on the cutting edge of being deeply inclusive, diverse and equity oriented, then the organization needs to recognize and integrate the findings of these studies. Being up to date on the research can help organizations to re-evaluate the effectiveness and legitimacy of programs that have been designed to enhance workplaces towards maximum harmony, mutual respect and productivity and away from strife, abuse and breakdown. In doing so, managers and leaders will find that workplace and educational training programs and larger cultural movements that are based on group identity essentialismwith its attendant behavioral attitudes and consequent endorsement of social hierarchies among those who have taken on those essentialist beliefs—are often not only ineffective and unnecessary, but also actively harmful.

It’s the active harm that these training programs can potentially bring to groups of people that needs to be addressed, especially in light of the proliferation of group identity theories in the media, education, government, activist communities, non profit organizations, corporations, and religious communities. With the accompanying spread of group identity essentialism in all these areas of society, the outcomes of these trainings on society as a whole are more deserving of our attention and careful study than ever before. No careful study is complete without an examination of case studies in which this ideology has been installed as the “law of the land” in various communities. 

Evergreen State College: The Cynical and Unethical Outcomes of Applied Group Identity Essentialism

One of the most important case studies available to us is the meltdown that occurred in the spring of 2017 at Evergreen State College, an event that was described in detail in an Aero Magazine article called “Teaching to Transgress: Rage and Entitlement at Evergreen College”, which was published a few months later. This piece was written by the authors of Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, and by Mike Nayna, who also produced a series of documentary videos of these events, which accompanied the article. The series offers a serious and credible warning about what can happen when the most extreme Critical Social Justice ideas become formally implemented in a community and offers a real glimpse into the reasons why thoughtful, compassionate, and ethical people will rightly question their support of the more extreme elements that run through today’s reigning orthodoxy in the realm of social justice academic theory and practice.

Mike Nayna’s coverage of these events is a credible and compact piece of journalism, which explains the connection between Critical Social Justice as theory and Critical Social Justice as practice.

A more comprehensive treatment of the Evergreen State College events (and the ideology that gave birth to it), was released over a two-year period beginning in 2018 in a YouTube documentary series called “The Complete Evergreen Story”, produced by Benjamin A. Boyce, a graduate of the college who attended at the time of the events covered in the documentary. This series includes thousands of hours of footage that includes official Evergreen marketing segments; interviews with students, professors, staff members, and administrators; and news broadcasts of elected officials’ deliberations around funding policies and civil rights policies that directly connect with the events at Evergreen and higher education in general. 

The events that occurred at Evergreen State College were also covered by various academic scholars, including Shaun Cammack, whose comprehensive treatment of the Evergreen State College events became his graduate thesis for his master’s degree in sociology at the University of Chicago.

All of these documents—and more are in the works—should offer compelling enough evidence to persuade institutions and organizations to reject the practices of the more extreme forms of Critical Social Justice, and one can only hope that institutional leaders and corporate heads would consider the obvious moral arguments in making their decisions around whether to embrace CSJ on any level. But given the widely prevalent style of leadership that looks out for short-term gains to serve career goals at the expense of genuine organizational success, the moral argument against a popular, mainstream ideology is unlikely to persuade—especially when there can be material gains in the form of grant money and donations and immediate reputational gain for appearing to be pro-social justice.

Perhaps, then, the most effective argument for keeping extreme ideologies out of organizations is the impact those ideologies have on the bottom line. For colleges and universities, at a time of great industry-wide change, the bottom line of enrollment might offer enough disincentive from taking on CSJ or any other ideology that pits people against one another. The events that took place at Evergreen State College in the Spring of 2017 present a perfect test case for the impact of ideologically induced hostile environments. The years of indoctrination of both students and staff that directly led students to threaten the life of professor Bret Weinstein and to riot against other professors after years of being trained to see classroom instructors as racist white supremacists simply for being white didn’t help enrollment numbers. In fact, the college suffered a catastrophic drop in enrollment over the next three years.

The Wall Street journal reported in January of 2020 that while Evergreen accepted 97% of applications, the enrollment number was just over 2,854 students, down from 3,810 at a time when enrollment was going up at other colleges and universities in the state of Washington. “It turns out”, the paper stated, “that students aren’t clamoring for the privilege of paying for an education in such a hostile environment.”

Unfortunately, hostile environments are becoming more common in educational institutions where the specific ideological positions and practices of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) have been installed as the official policy-making and social change frameworks for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. In 2020 alone, this ideology has driven administration officials of public school districts in Seattle and San Diego to accuse teachers of being complicit in the “spirit murder” of Black children and to make official recommendations for teachers in at least one of those districts to be subjected to antiracist therapy. This ideology has also inspired teenagers to demand and secure concessions from administrators for a complete up-ending of the entire curriculum at an elite United Nations affiliated high school, not through negotiation, and community processing, but through the simple intimidating act of accusing teachers and administrators of “upholding white supremacy”

It’s hard to deny the power of hostile rhetoric in laying out a clear path towards ideological extremism and massive conflict between large groups of people, and this becomes an especially problematic scenario when young people in schools of high visibility and influence have been captured by revolutionary zeal. 

It’s important to understand that when we allow ourselves to become deeply ensconced in an extremely limited language environment (echo chamber) with “thought-terminating” repeated phrases that continually reinforce in our minds the us-against-them mentality—especially when backed up by a sophisticated moral framework that lends legitimacy to this mentality—we are actively sowing the seeds for feelings against other people that can run the span from casual hostility to deep-seated contempt.

This almost never leads to productive outcomes. It is a great irony that the most zealous people who practice and fervently believe in the secular ideology of Critical Social Justice and actively promote the idea that words equal violence do not acknowledge their own shadow in transgressing against their own doctrine—an unexamined part of themselves that they so readily project onto those they have chosen to regard as permanent, contemptible one-dimensional enemies.

Group Identity Essentialism is not the same as Identity Politics

Group identity essentialism is the belief that because we can place individuals who belong to certain groups into fixed categories—we can be assured that we can know another individual’s inner life, desires, needs, beliefs, and moral character simply because the individual belongs to the demographic group that we have organized inside those categorization schemes. It is the belief that we can presume (often negative) character traits to exist in these individuals in accordance with our ideology’s literature.

This is not the same thing as identity politics, which involves a group of individuals coming together in the spirit of positive collective identity to share their lived experiences and to advocate positive social change on behalf of their identity group. Collective action on the behalf of one’s own group (especially if that group has been actively oppressed) is powerful and moral, so it’s important to draw a clear distinctive line between the positive and much-needed civic activity of identity politics and group identity essentialism

Identity politics is a term that was coined by Barbara Smith and other members of the Combahee River Collective Statement in 1977 to encourage international “political movements to understand inequality as a structural and intersectional phenomenon which affects oppressed groups differently”.

To put it simply, identity politics is a good thing and needs to be recognized and supported.

Much positive change has occurred because of the hard and courageous work of people from marginalized and oppressed groups who came together to advocate for themselves and their fellow group members. There is no question that their shared lived experiences, the uniqueness of the oppression faced by certain groups, and the necessity of building group solidarity and collective power has made the world a better place. Over the past few decades, support for gender equality, recognition of transgender identities, and acceptance of same-sex marriage have increased in some regions. In addition, there has been a marked decrease in racist attitudes among the younger generations of America, with sixteen countries reporting a decrease in racism in a global survey as recently as 2014. 

But, there has been a troubling shift that those who wish for societal progress need to be honest about.

We are entering an era in which the identities of both historically marginalized and oppressed groups and those who belong to groups that have been deemed to be normative, privileged or oppressive are being fossilized and positioned against one another. In other words, we are entering an era in which group identity essentialism is becoming widespread and formally legitimized on all sides. This should be greatly concerning for us all.

The stereotyping of entire groups of people has been around for a long time. From Cotton Mather’s widely circulated writings that promoted the belief that Black people had to develop “white souls” in order to gain “Christian” redemption; the age-old trope of the supposedly preternatural greed of the “shifty Jew”; the near timeless treatment of women as property throughout history the world over; today’s fashionable condemnation of “wypipo” as intrinsically wired to exploit and oppress people from other identity groups; and the equally fashionable contempt for men who are stereotyped as “taking up space,” as naturally prone to condescend to women (mansplaining), uniquely given to offering organized online arguments (manthreading) and as reflexively hard-wired to engage in sexual domination and, thus, requiring a program of pre-emptive training and intervention in their younger years.  

Stated frankly, resentment-based or supremacist ideologies have always made themselves available to what Eric Hoffer called the “True Believer”—those whose moral zealotry often masks the underlying ego triumphalism and need for domination that usurps and undermines the high-minded ideals that originally drew them to “the cause” or “the movement”. In the best of scenarios, we can reasonably hope that chaos and violence will not be the outcome when the adoption of extreme belief systems reaches critical mass. And, perhaps we can also rely on the belief that the rule of law, social norms based on human decency, and the legal (and armed) protection of a populace that is relatively non-traumatized by war, poverty and disease will not allow wide-scale chaos, disorder and political violence to happen. But, if history is a guide, it would serve us well to keep in mind how fragile our sense of safety, moral order and societal stability really is.

For all these reasons, it’s important that we question the frameworks and ideologies that we are being asked to adopt uncritically and to put into practice in our schools, governmental organizations and workplaces. If we truly want the world to be a better place, we will need to understand that us-against-them ideologies are deceptive and dangerous precisely because they offer a moral choice that ignores the full dimensionality of human experience and the possibility of badness in ourselves and goodness in our enemies. We must never forget how easy it is to justify the poisoning of our world through the spread of fashionable intellectual theories that give us the permission to indulge in our natural tendencies to shore up our own sense of superiority by dehumanizing and taking action against entire groups of people.

I’m going to end this chapter on the relationship between cynical trainings and group identity essentialism by returning once more to “compassionate antiracism” teacher Chloé Valdary, before delving deeper and further into the world of “Theory” described  in the book Cynical Theories.

In a Boston Globe article that came out in early February of 2021, Valdary argues that we cannot solve the problem of racism or any other form of bigotry or oppression by treating one another as “political abstractions”. The article is appropriately titled “A hole in the heart of antiracism training” and encourages us all to refrain from reducing people from different groups to caricatures and offers probably one of the most important messages of our times.

In this article, Valdary warns that “indulging in racial essentialism, which entails assuming things about the lived experiences of others based upon their skin color” can have negative consequences, not only for black people who die at the hands of police, but for all people who become targets of essentialist beliefs because these beliefs (which are often propagated in the antiracism trainings that are currently imposed in schools and workplaces) “rob us of the nuances of another person’s lived experience.” In the end, Valdary implores us all to abandon “rigid orthodoxy and ideological thinking”.

Reminding us that “we are all assailed by the fear of death, haunted by the specter of insignificance, and tempted by the possibility of attaining unfettered power,” Valdary asks us to consider the reality that we are all “in need of love and belonging, and searching for a sense of worth and meaning” and that “understanding this is the first step toward building and renewing a truly antiracist, multiethnic country.

Towards the end of the article, she implores us to seek a genuinely inclusive world that acknowledges the universality of the human condition, even while respecting the uniqueness of all individuals and groups.

“I believe the key to fostering spaces of diversity and inclusion is to teach people how to make peace with their human condition. This requires a spiritual practice that will help people wrestle with flaws, vulnerability, fear, mortality, and the infinite gifts that human beings bring to bear in the world. It means helping people think in terms of complexity instead of caricature. It means helping people develop a capacity for empathy and compassion for both themselves and their neighbors.”

In other words, it’s time to let go of the cynical and punitive approach to building an inclusive world and embrace the hard work of building a world that works for all of us from a place of hope, good will and sincerity.

Continued in Part 5: Critical Thinking, Critical Theory, and the Episteme