The Value of DiversityProvoked by the New York Encounter dialogue on diversity, some friends continued the conversation in the following months and share here their attempt to judge DEI.
In recent years, the push to promote and/or enforce diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has gained momentum in public discourse, academic milieus, and corporate environments. DEI has also been highly politicized: an initiative aimed at fostering acceptance and tolerance has often become a hatchet that splits two seemingly irreconcilable worldviews.
Some find themselves under pressure, afraid of being singled out when their Zoom box is the only one that does not list their pronouns or perplexed at the suggestion to edit an OBGYN medical paper substituting ‘mothers’ with ‘pregnant persons’ (who are rigorously referred to as ‘they/them’ and not she/her). Others proudly display their pronouns of choice on their Zoom boxes, initiate public presentations noting the position of privilege from which they speak and acknowledging the oppression suffered by various ‘communities’, conglomerated around one or more identity markers, mainly sexual or racial.
These experiences can become twisted to fit our prejudices or preconceived ideas, becoming polarizing positions at a personal and political level, and in the midst of this polarization, reasonable common discourse is nearly impossible. In this climate, neither position serves the common good because both obscure the merit that the other holds in relation to the truth, exclude the possibility of a civil conversation, and exacerbate self-righteousness. Annihilation of the opponent either by physical or legislative violence or public pressure remains the only possible outcome. And, perhaps even more tragically, starting from either position does not lead us on a path to discover anything new.
At the 2023 New York Encounter, Justin Giboney and Chloé Valdary started a conversation that attempts to move beyond these reductions. We have taken their invitation seriously and started to follow their leads, with the desire to discover what is at stake for us.
First, we understood that we cannot dismiss the historical origin of DEI initiatives. As Giboney explained, DEI began as the answer to the call to respond to and grapple with the history of racial injustice of our country. This origin is true and also resonates with the invitation of Bryan Stevenson at the 2022 NYE to engage with our past, because without truth there is no reconciliation. The ideological or violent actualizations of certain DEI initiatives cannot erase the authentic need of this origin. Too often we fall into one of two camps: either the history of America is entirely and systemically racist, or it is completely resolved, and slavery and racism are wrongs we have righted and overcome and therefore to examine anything from the perspective of race is perceived as automatically ideological. The painstaking work of looking at the details of our history requires the intellectual honesty of dealing with a picture that is complex and that poses unrelenting questions over the consequences of past actions. Yet, even in the clear complexity of this work, we desire to be free and creatively participate in the construction of our society in the present.
DEI trainings can be perceived as a violent imposition that wants to police behavior and language, or as the ultimate solution to build a perfect society. Valdary, introducing the framework she developed with the Theory of Enchantment, suggested a more personal approach: the relationship with the other, she said, is the mirror of the relationship with myself. Any serious attempt at welcoming what is other than me, therefore, requires the personal, and sometimes uncomfortable, work of accepting myself. We find this observation particularly interesting because it forces us to recognize how we cannot skip the step of accepting and loving ourselves. And we realize that, ultimately, self-acceptance happens not because of a training, but because of an encounter with Another.
Trainings that stop at the surface of the issue will provide only behavioral patches that at best will prevent discomfort, but will rarely engage in the discovery of oneself. The latter requires not only a human dimension, but also a transcendent dimension that is the object of a life-long education, cultivated within a community that embraces me, loving my destiny. “We need the moral imagination to see human dignity in the ugliest manifestations of human brokenness,” said Giboney. This affirmation of human dignity, rooted in the fact that each person is made in the image and likeness of God, allows us to remain open to the totality of ourselves and the totality of the other. As fellow NYE 23 speaker Bishop Varden said in a recent letter with his brother Nordic Bishops, “The journey to self-acceptance passes through engagement with what is real. The reality of our lives embraces contradictions and wounds”.
Belonging is another loaded term in the context of DEI. We hear and use unsparingly the word ‘community’ to identify groups of people who share one or more markers that allegedly make up their identity, leading to a view of identity that one constructs rather than discovers. In this somewhat distilled version of self-discovery, racial and sexual-orientation markers are the most common builders of identity. As much as it is debatable whether these are the most significant characteristics that determine one’s self-awareness, they are undeniably the most common topics of these conversations. Giboney acutely observed that “everyone has their own identity and experience” since the process of identification with one’s particular self-awareness can only be the work of a subject, but this “does not mean that they are justified by their identity and experience”. In the promoted justification of any self-determined identity lies a relativistic drift that ends up obscuring real diversity because it makes everything the same, instead of promoting an encounter that fosters a dialogue with someone who is truly other. The Church is home and safeguard of true diversity precisely because in her we discover our most fundamental identity as persons: that we, made in God’s image, are sons and daughters, and therefore brothers and sisters. It is this common identity that makes evident the dignity of every human being, necessitating the respect due to everyone. This common identity allows for dialogue and exalts and embraces diversity, up to the point of discovering it as communion, and strives for equity, up to the point of calling it charity. As the bishops’ letter on sexuality says: “In the Church’s hospitable fellowship, there is room for all”.
Lastly, Giboney spoke of civic engagement. “Intellectual humility and fraternal charity” are the two pillars over which he invites everyone to engage in the public sphere with conviction and compassion. “Jesus didn’t coddle. He loved.” If the starting point of our engagement is love, and not violent opposition, then the other is someone that I want to encounter, to know, and to appreciate for the truth they might bring while reciprocating by offering what I see as true. The other is not a potential threat to defuse with the use of inclusive language. The other is an infinite mystery, a good given to me that I do not yet know. In the process of encountering the other, we will discover a lot of “power, poison, pain and joy”, as Valdary said quoting lyrics by Kendrick Lamar, but we will also help each other, as Giboney encouraged, by leading bad ideas to “a public death” while retaining what is good.
We think that by freely putting on the table all of our human complexity of thought and experience, we can begin the hard work of engaging the other, and can participate in the construction of our society in the present. This engagement helps us to resist the power of polarization and the temptation to hold fast to our own convictions, without risking to verify them again and again. Giboney’s proposal to welcome all ideas in the public square for the purpose of critical engagement so that bad ideas can die a public death follows what St. Paul proposes: "Test everything; retain what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). This challenge cannot be fulfilled alone, but in communion, in relationships, and in civic engagement.
Amy, Angelo, Carlo, Desa, Hannah and Stephen