One of the ongoing challenges facing the diversity and inclusion (D&I) field is the perception that D&I is part of a liberal political agenda. This perception stems from the roots of D&I being firmly planted in the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s. While the social changes pushed by those movements are largely uncontroversial and now heralded as positive by a majority of Americans (including conservatives), this perception is fed by the fact that most D&I champions lean left. As such, they make classic liberal errors that disrupt their effectiveness, such as thinking every problem can be solved with a conversation, and assuming that understanding leads to behavior change.
This penchant for conversation and understanding leads many D&I practitioners to hold another erroneous belief: that the main goal of D&I work is to get “them” (usually straight, White, cisgender men) to see the world like “us” (usually women, LGBTQ and people of color). At its core, this approach is about getting everyone to share a liberal worldview and progressive values. This is a fatal mistake for four reasons. One, diversity plus inclusion is an excellence multiplier regardless of politics. Doing diversity right is like driving a car – you don’t have to know how an engine works, or “believe” in internal combustion for it to get you where you want to go. Two, the goal of D&I (at least the New School way that works) isn’t to get everyone to believe the same, but to do more effective, inclusive behaviors in an environment of mutual respect. Liberal politics are not required to do effective, respectful behaviors. Three, the goal of New School D&I is also not to get everyone to think the same. Converting everyone to a liberal worldview reduces the very diversity that gets better results. Four, conservative thinking has strengths that balance society and can deepen the effectiveness of D&I work.
Curious about the different strengths and weaknesses of liberal and conservative orientations, I created a matrix that describes these, and highlight below a few that are most striking and relevant to D&I. While the following traits don’t apply equally to every individual, they are strengths that conservatives as a cultural group bring to society and the workplace. I draw heavily on the work of George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt, my observations of conservatives and my own experience as a former conservative:
- They place high value on sanctity, loyalty and authority. (By contrast, extreme liberal rejection of authority and overexaggerated inclusiveness is chaotic and ineffective.)
- They possess the ability to juggle five moral values simultaneously (the above three plus fairness and compassion – which are the only two liberals emphasize).
- They are better at creating and maintaining group cohesion, and focus on the well-being of their own group and community. (Liberals care more about a broader sense of “humanity” than their own nation or group, and are better at creating justice within a group than keeping it together. Conservatives are therefore less militant than liberals about the qualifications for group membership and are better at keeping the tribe together. They don’t engage in the level of intragroup criticism, language policing and “cannibalism” the Left does).
- They are better at building up lasting social structures.
- They are better at creating order, predictability, boundaries and stability.
- They are more alert to threat.
- Conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives. This is partly because conservatives must be relatively bicultural since liberals dominate academia, media and entertainment.
It’s troubling that so few liberals are aware of conservatives’ strengths, but it’s understandable. Our current political polarization is an ironic and unfortunate outcome of our prosperity and freedom. No longer do we live in the diverse, close knit communities of yesteryear where we may not have liked or agreed with all our neighbors, but we knew them. Millions of us now have the resources to be able to move to wherever a job, community demographics, political leanings or other characteristic suits our personal preferences, creating what Robert Bellah calls “lifestyle enclaves” that lack diversity by definition. This segregation and extreme individualism is exaggerated by the Internet and social media where not only can we spend even more time only with people and ideas we like, but our existing tendencies are constantly reinforced by powerful algorithms built by people trying to sell us their products or ideas. Since many progressives know few conservatives well, and mostly see extremists in headlines, we get tricked into thinking all conservatives are religious radicals, far-right reactionaries and fake news-spouting fearmongerers.
To be fair, not all conservatives are potential allies to liberals, and the Right must get serious about rejecting the extremists in their ranks that threaten the very survival of conservatism. We must agree on both science and a person’s lived experience as reliable sources of truth. We must agree that climate change is real, racism is real, and women and LGBT people are full human beings that deserve to live free of violence and discrimination. We must also agree that the family is the foundation of society, veterans deserve better treatment and services, and immigration must be fair and limited. Once we agree on such “whats” we can get to the more important, arduous task of figuring out the “hows” together.
Perhaps one solution is to adopt the values and ordered structures that conservatives are good at, and adapt their contents with what liberals are good at. We could celebrate and invest in families, but let go of old notions about the sex, gender, sexual orientation and race of those family members, as well as how many adults and children make a family. We could all learn to value sanctity and purity, but expand the application of those values beyond a narrow focus on sexuality to broader ones like truth, intimacy and the natural world. We might recommit to respect for authority, but recognize as authority figures those who possess wisdom, integrity and intelligence instead of those with only wealth, position, pedigree or loud voices. We could dedicate ourselves to creating order in our homes, shared spaces and parenting practices – but order without control. We might ensure our community and nation are looked after first – without ignoring the larger global context or ostracizing our neighbors. We could revisit our definition of who and what an “American” is – and require newcomers to adopt our language and values without necessarily giving up all of theirs.
Diversity is necessary for human evolution, innovation and effective problem solving, and it’s not easy for humans to do. We didn’t evolve to interact with as many humans, or as much human diversity, as we do today. However, in the process of creating a more inclusive society and workplaces where people can bring their best selves and contribute their gifts for collective benefit, let’s not exclude moderate conservatives. Their ideas are also excellence multipliers, and they are better at keeping us together while we go through profound changes that threaten to tear us apart.