The Necessity of Common Language
In this article, I will explore the history of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and how this distillation of a widespread social justice down to a Corporate speak acronym, combined with the American media machine, has made it unsafe for us to advocate for our own self-interest. As a business leader, it’s important for you to understand this nuance, especially as you look to create sustainability for the next generation of workers who care more about people than profits, and definitely more than any political agenda.
One of the challenges in any community is that common language is required for cooperation. We need our words to carry weight and share meaning in order for communication to be effective. And to that end, we need all parties to feel empowered to use their words and speak their truth without fear of retribution. This is why the weaponization of language can become so dangerous.
The Evolution of DEI
Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), or really DEI, is not new. I’ve said this frequently on social channels and speaking about the recent backlash towards programming labeled as “DEI”.
It far predates the 2020 racial reckoning or the murder of George Floyd. Those events only highlighted how disengaged the majority of Americans have been in the national conversation about and upholding of unalienable rights. Social justice and the call for diversity, equity, and inclusion have their roots in the 1960s civil rights movement, during the push to desegregate schools and fight for equitable treatment in the workplace. All of these ideas are born out of grassroots social justice movements led by activists who truly felt that the human condition has inalienable rights. When those rights are not honored through our social and political systems, we, as the people, have a responsibility to speak up. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that the idea of DEI started being used as a catch-all in corporate American spaces, with business leaders seeing an opportunity to capture untapped market share by diversifying their marketing efforts and positioning themselves as advocates for the causes of many people, instead of the privileged few.
The Commercialization of Social Justice
For those of us working in human resources and specifically learning and development, or in spaces impacting organizational development and culture, it becomes difficult to separate the intention of social justice from the commercialization it has become. In the years following George Floyd’s murder, we saw many companies publicly announce their commitment to social justice and change, only to find that a few short years later, they had done little more than create a PR campaign. Were they motivated solely by capturing hearts and minds, or the fear of losing out to the competition? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: the American media machine has taken the opportunity to contort the message.
The Weaponization of Language
A recent article on Lit Hub said that the first time language was weaponized in this way was when Richard Nixon secured his nomination on the vice-presidential ticket with the “Checkers” speech. It became apparent that mass media has a way of falsifying reality, and in this way, language can erode. In response to Nixon’s ability to complete reverse a narrative is something that Mary McCarthy referred to a blatant manipulation of the truth saying
“people are influenced, not by their passions or interests, but by advertising techniques, i.e., by mass-conditioning,“
Mc Carthy further explains that “objective fact became replaced with alternative narratives among which, it was implied, one could freely choose.” Does that sound familiar? Does that not sound like the concept of “alternative facts”? How can we move forward as a community when we cannot agree on objective truths?
Words can somehow now take on the opposite of their intended meaning. How else could we explain a world where state governors say that inclusion equals exclusion, or that DEI is a narrative grounded in bureaucracy and reverse discrimination? Ron DeSantis as he moved to ban DEI from the state of Florida stated that DEI promotes “dangerous social activism”.
And because social media allows people with alternative facts to have broad reaching platforms, these ideas have more capacity than ever to influence the general public:
Embracing Facts and History
Those of us who practice critical thinking, and perhaps even owned an encyclopedia or two not that long ago, know that facts don’t lie and history is not something to be afraid of, but rather something to be reckoned with. When we refuse to name a thing for what it is, or allow the media to appropriate language and turn narratives on their head, we lose our power that comes innately from speaking our truth.
Truth is the Path to Reconciliation
And yet, while so many seem to be content to put their metaphorical fingers in their ears to deny the hard truths of the history of social injustices in America, there are 46 other countries that have taken the opposite approach. By engaging in active truth and reconciliation processes, other governments have conducted years-long conversations to intentionally hear firsthand accounts of the harms that social and political systems have enacted on their own people. And by witnessing their collective truth, and in fact speaking it out loud, three things are able to occur:
- Community empowerment through a shared understanding of the truth
- Structural remediation is possible
- Financial support and structures can be put in place to rectify the wrongs that have been exposed.
It is these three elements that are critical for healing and, for most Americans, when we refuse to use words that make folks uncomfortable, we are skipping steps 1 in the process. By submitting to the idea that “DEI” is to be avoided we succumb to the narrative that the truth is “too hard” to talk about. It is only through facing the truth that reconciliation becomes possible at all.
Encouraging Honest Communication
So, what does this mean for business leaders? As leaders, we cannot be afraid of saying hard things. And leaders also get to model that as we invite others to do the same. Just because someone’s truth makes you uncomfortable doesn’t make it any less their truth.
What could truth and reconciliation look like at your workplace? I have a few ideas:
- Empower direct conversations – Use concise and direct language. Utilize regular check-ins and feedback conversations to deepen understanding of employee perspectives.
- Advocate for ongoing education and awareness. – Create safe learning spaces for people to unlearn old ideas and get comfortable with new ones, thereby creating opportunities for new shared vocabulary and understanding.
- Build and reference context in decision making – Incorporate history grounded in fact in everyday conversations, including feedback between managers and reports.
Poor communication and miscommunication costs companies millions of dollars each year. And this becomes even more important as we look to build bench strength with the next generation of workers
Direct Communication with Generation Z
Generation Z is the first “internet generation”. They care about direct communication, they are hypercognitive (fast processors) and they value social causes. More than ever, the next generation prioritizes the very social causes that the movements in the 60s were built on: healthcare for all, mental well-being, racial equity, the environment, and access to higher education. We cannot act like equity is something to be afraid of, or that talking about it makes us pariahs. Quite the opposite.
Truth and transparency is their love language. Saying a hard truth kindly is far better than obfuscating it with vagaries or jargon.
Say “DEI” in Your Workplace
Consider what the current connotation of “DEI” is in your workplace. Where does it come from? What facts inform it? What’s the context your organization has built around it? And once the language is established, how are you moving conversations forward? Not just through mere words, but through relationships, behaviors and systems.
If you find yourself in a workplace where people are backtracking away from DEI, busy renaming departments, or freezing salaries due to some unfounded fear of being attacked by the government, consider who benefits from those fear-based actions.
Invitation for Further Discussion
It’s never too late to revise your strategy for creating an intentional company culture. If you need support in navigating that space, consider taking High Tides Inclusive Leader Assessment or reaching out to our team for an Intentional Company Culture Discovery call.