Despite the clear benefits of diversity to innovation, the “Theater of Diversity” can generate animosity and resentment that can cause tremendous harm to organizations. How can leaders both encourage diversity without inciting the emotional backlash that often springs up when the “D-word” is mentioned?
The answer lies in the two-season story arc of award winning series South Park.
The 2015 season of South Park centered on a new character “PC (Politically Correct) Principal,” a hyper-masculine fraternity brother that berated and intimidated the students and people of South Park into extreme political correctness. The character satirized “PC Culture,” a movement seen by critics as a collection of over-zealous “Social Justice Warriors” that anti-establishment politicians saw as a threat to free speech and free thought.
The character and story-arc of the season was a critique of how political correctness, when taken to the extreme, can create a hostile environment that discourages the sharing of diverse opinions. For PC Principal, only the most Politically Correct language is acceptable. Any expression of dissent is met with forceful suppression and sometimes violence.
Here is the problem with that strategy: Even if everything PC Principal is arguing is correct, silencing dissent instead of engaging it is perceived as arrogance and ultimately drives feelings of disenfranchisement and anger. No one likes being told they are ignorant and wrong, even if it is the case.
Which leads to the 2016 season of South Park, where an army of marginalized internet trolls disrupt the “Politically Correct” world by attacking celebrities with sexist, racist, and otherwise offensive comments on social media. Ostensibly, the trolls engage in this behavior “because it’s funny,” but it is clear that the internet troll played a far more significant role in the show than just a vessel for more tasteless jokes. The internet troll was a representation of the anti-diversity coalition that has sprung up on internet forums that may increasingly be influencing the national and global dialogue.
Instead of facing the issue head-on by asking “what is driving trolls to wage war,” and working to fix the underlying issue, the Danish Government creates software “Troll Trace,” making everyone’s internet history public – resulting in widespread panic. Apart from being prophetic, the plot twist of trying to fix the anti-diversity movement with Orwellian internet-based “thought police” is almost poetic. Realizing the apocalyptic power of Troll Trace, the machine is ultimately destroyed, taking the internet with it, which is replaced with a “new internet” promising to be better in every way from the cesspool that was the old internet. The two-season story then perfectly denouements with the first email being sent on the “new-internet,” a troll email.
Can we get back to innovation please?
Politics aside, the lesson from South Park is that organizations cannot drive true diversity through the “Theater of Diversity” (i.e. the forceful suppression of insensitive ideas). Though it seems more efficient to have “safe space” trainings and zero tolerance HR policies; if recent geopolitical events have taught us anything it is that these tactics only drive anti-diversity sentiment underground.
So what is the solution?
Readers of this blog should know by now that dramatic innovation springs from busting false contradictions, and at the heart of this issue is a seemingly false contradiction:
- Should diversity be cultivated as an essential resource for innovation?
- Should dissenting opinions, even by anti-diversity activists, be protected?
Applying the formula we get: “How can diversity be cultivated as an essential resource for innovation while protecting dissenting opinions, even by anti-diversity activists?”
The best answer I have seen comes from two places:
The following recent TED talk from Megan Phelps-Roper:
The solution is clear: In order to innovate, your organization needs diversity, and in order to develop true diversity, you need to listen and convert, not subdue and ignore.
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One quick note: it could be misconstrued that I am arguing that extreme examples or racism, sexism, and offensiveness should be excused, and nothing could be further from the truth. Clearly, violence, aggressive intimidation, and institutionalized discrimination have no place in society and should be stamped out. Instead, I am asking diversity advocates to consider a spectrum of anti-diversity activism, and that empathy is often a far more effective tool for influencing a majority of the spectrum, rather than dismissal.