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  • Writer's pictureSavania China

The phrase “Diversity of Opinion” is an Abomination.

The phrase "diversity of opinion" is to DEI work what #AllLivesMatter is to #BlackLivesMatter, a seemingly benign but extremely harmful attempt to obfuscate, devalue, and derail meaningful diversity efforts. It has no place in serious DEI Work.

As a DEI consultant and lead, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “Diversity of Opinion” being thrown around. In my opinion, the term is a lousy, clumsy, ridiculous excuse for justifying having more white men in the room. The phrase is a disservice to the efforts of many courageous people fighting for real Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in society and in workplaces. It has no place on the agenda of anyone who is serious about real diversity. And I will explain why.

I remember the first time I heard the term “Diversity of Opinion”, I was working as an organisational culture lead in the UK government. During a discussion about diversity and inclusion, the Secretary Of State (who is the political leader in charge of a UK Government department) and the Permanent Secretary (who is sort of the Chief Operating Officer of a government department) repeatedly emphasised the need for diversity of opinion. And when the department published their Diversity and Inclusion strategy, the term “diversity of opinion” had become the go-to popular mantra, especially for most of the senior leadership team (who happened to be pre-dominantly male and white).

Also, the D&I lead who was not white kept using the phrase. I noticed that more and more black and brown people were using the term. I would understand later that it was out of a desire to placate the dominant groups, to not appear to bang on about race, something most people of colour are conscious and anxious about, being perceived as always playing the race card.

I was intrigued. And when I started digging around and realised the term was vary popular with senior Conservative leaders in Westminster. Even Boris Johnson used the term when he was Prime Minister. It appeared there was also a pattern with regards to who preferred and used the phrase more. And it got me wondering why? Why was “Diversity of Opinion” suddenly top of the priority when we had hardly addressed the traditional diversity challenges? What did the phrase even mean? And what was the point of it?

Since I did not come up with the phrase, I will explain what I believe is the thinking behind those who use it. The, those who use the term, argue that the way we think of diversity now i.e. skin colour, race, gender, sexual orientation etc can result in people who look different physically or love different but are essentially the same with regards to their backgrounds and how they see the world. When you follow the logic, that means two white men from very different backgrounds can represent better diversity than say a white man and a black man who both attended Eton and Cambridge. On the surface, once could argue that it all sounds reasonable. It’s hard to argue with the literal logic just as it is to argue with the literal logic of those that claim that #AllLivesMatter.

Just in case you are not up to speed, #AllLivesMatter is a right-wing (or alt right) mantra to counter the popular BlackLivesMatter slogan that was used during the popular #BlackLivesMatter movement.

You may be wondering why I am comparing the two phrases? Here is why. First, because they are popular with certain groups (right-wing white men) and most importantly, they have the same goal – to diminish and shut down real efforts and conversations about social inequalities. The proponents of the AllLivesMatter mantra do not deny that black lives matter. The use of the term AllLivesMatter had one purpose, to diminish, devalue, and ultimately shut it down the BlackLivesMatter movement. The logic is simple. If all lives matter, why should anyone go around screaming that BlackLivesMatter. Of course, that’s true that black lives matter, but there is no need to march and scream about the lives of blacks when the lives of everyone (including blacks) matter. That is the same argument the phrase “Diversity of Opinion” puts on the table. If difference in skin colour, gender, sexual orientation etc does not always produce real difference, why should we bang on about it. All that matter is that we have different opinions, even if those who hold those differing opinions look the same.

What that does is to diminish, devalue, and derail real efforts to fix inequalities. And both phrases are often peddled by those who benefit most from maintaining the status quo in society and in the workplace.

The phrase “diversity of opinion” should never come out of the mouth of anyone who truly cares about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). The phrase makes a mockery of DEI. Even if we follow the literal argument for “diversity of opinion”, it does not hold. DEI seeks to address issues arising from characteristics that expose those with those characteristics to discrimination and disadvantage in society and in the workplace. These are not transient characteristics that someone can change wilfully. I am a black man, and I cannot decide to not be a black man tomorrow. These characteristics (called protected characteristics under UK law) are important to people’s identities and are often material to the way they experience life and interact with society. Things like one’s race, sex, gender, sexuality etc are integral to one’s identity.

Do you want to know what isn’t integral to a person’s identity? Opinions. Opinions are like waves. They come and go. They are numerous, transient, and changeable. And every person of every other characteristic has them. So, the notion of “diversity of opinion” as something organisations should thrive for is laughable. It should never be discussed in the same breadth as real Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. For a black person, a woman, a disabled person etc to be able to express a different opinion, they need to be in the room in the first place. If they are not even represented, how do they do that. And without proper DEI, they will not have the same opportunities to be in the room to be able to express their opinions.

I believe true DEI work is about addressing systemic inequalities and biases that result from characteristics that mark others as different. For example, when I am applying for a job, at some point the recruiter will see my name and my brown skin and hear my accent. They can see someone's age (or guess). They can see someone hijab if they are wearing one. These markers are not transient characteristics. They often form a core part of one's proclaimed or assigned identity. And societal attitudes and prejudices about those identities can influence how the recruiter sees me and whether I get the job.

But no one really cares no can see or guess all your opinions. The recruiter will not ask for your opinion on some future unknown project and compare them with whose opinions exactly? We all hold numerous opinions on many subjects. So the “diversity of opinion” phrase is even more absurd than #AllLivesMatter slogan. It is simply an excuse by those who don’t care or don’t grasp the idea of true representation. An excuse whipped up in the absence of genuine diversity to justify inexplicable homogeneity.

The phrase is completely meaningless generally speaking and dangerously misplaced within the broader context of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in society. Do we need varying opinions on projects and issues? Of course, no one is denying that. But it's not appropriate when considering DEI. Just because it's true does not mean it should be applied in all contexts. It's like the #AllLivesMatter slogan. In isolation, it's a great slogan. But within the context of protecting the lives of black people from police brutality, it's besides the point. And those who coined and peddled it knows that. But some who borrow the phrase may use it out of ignorance or laziness.

Imagine someone suggesting that when talking about safeguarding and child protection, we should also focus on the adults because they too need protection. They will be laughed out of the room because within the context of child protection, the talk of protecting adults is irrelevant. The same applies to the idea of “diversity of opinion” within the context of serious DEI.

Clearly, the phrase is mockery of true DEI concerns. I have often heard the phrase from people who complain that we talk too much about race or about feminism. It’s mostly white men asking why everybody (black people, women, etc) are being prioritised, and not them. They want to argue that not all white men are the same. They have different opinions. And they need more diversity of opinion on projects, in boardrooms etcetera. Of course, not all white men are the same. DEI seeks to level the playing field for people with protected characteristics, people who are traditionally and historically disadvantaged. That does not apply to people with “different opinions”.

Also, every person has hundreds if not thousands of opinions. And opinions are transient and changeable. They don’t define a person’s identity. So, the term “diversity of opinion” is, when you look at closely, meaningless. It serves no other purpose besides diminishing and devaluing real conversations and efforts for more diverse, equitable, and inclusive spaces.

Proper DEI means having a diverse range of people with various protected characteristics. Doing so will naturally lead to various opinions and viewpoints because most communities and social groups tend to have overarching influences that directly impact group members’ viewpoints and opinions.

It’s ridiculous and shameful that the phrase has been injected into the DEI lexicon and some leading practitioners use it without stopping to really think about its implications.

If you are DEI expert/practitioner, you should discard the phrase from your vocabulary and literature. If your DEI strategy contains that phrase, rewrite it. The phrase and anyone who perpetuate it only serves to undo real DEI work. You introduce real diverse worldviews by introducing real diversity, and not by perpetuating inequities and hiding behind the claim of “diversity of opinion”.

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