“Viewpoint Diversity” and the Illusion of an Impartial Center

By Postdoctoral Scholar Caroline Jack, Researcher Becca Lewis, and Research Assistant Kinjal Dave

Image via Franck Michel

Workplace diversity has long been a key concept for advocates of racial and gender equity. Yet, recent events in US politics and culture have foregrounded a different conceptualization of diversity: “viewpoint diversity.” The most radical version of this perspective embraces an identity politics that considers white men and political conservatives to be the real oppressed minorities in Western culture. This radical version uses the notion of “viewpoint diversity” as a vehicle to frame misogyny and white supremacy as acceptable political opinions in a democracy.

“Viewpoint diversity” is not solely the province of fringe cultural figures, however. Corporate leaders often espouse a conciliatory version of “viewpoint diversity” which values “balance” and “tolerance” as important principles. This approach is a convenient stance, offering easy responses to recent ideological conflict within their own industries. Yet, even a well-intentioned, seemingly neutral stance can legitimize viewpoints that accept and even celebrate historical patterns of oppression on the basis of race, gender, and other protected categories. This post examines how rhetorics of “viewpoint diversity” redirect the focus of political and organizational goals by strategically claiming impartiality and democratic principle.

A YouTube Star is Born

In February 2018, the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) advised that Google did not violate workplace speech protections when it fired engineer James Damore. Damore’s dismissal in August 2017 came on the heels of his memo. Widely circulated within Google and beyond, his memo framed men as biologically better-suited for engineering jobs and leadership positions than women. Beyond being scientifically inaccurate, Damore’s memo ran afoul of the NLRB by advancing discriminatory stereotypes about women that crossed the line of workplace speech protections.

Regardless of the scientific evidence (or lack thereof) for Damore’s claims, many who rallied around Damore asserted that the former engineer had a right to express discriminatory views in the workplace, contra the NLRB’s finding. Further, some presented his ousting as evidence that big technology firms were biased against conservative employees.

Although Damore lost both his job and his case with the NLRB, he has gone on to a new career path as a public speaker and unofficial spokesperson for viewpoint diversity from within elite and technical workforces. He connects to his 120,000+ twitter followers with retweeted coverage of disruptions at his campus speaking events. His retweets also include workplace climate poll findings that suggest bias against conservatives. Prior to the recent and drastic shifts in American politics, Damore’s views would have been viewed by most as far to the right-of-center in American political discourse. However, Damore describes himself as a “nerd centrist.”

Paradoxically, Damore simultaneously presents as a political centrist and a libertarian-skeptic provocateur who consistently riles up college campus audiences. Given that Damore characterized his own memo as a brave stand against ideological conformity, Damore’s project can be interpreted as an effort to shift the standards of acceptable political opinion.

Inverting and co-opting: How diversity gets adopted, adapted, and spun

In the wake of the controversy, a number of self-described conservative and libertarian online influencers have taken up Damore’s side. Personalities such as Dave Rubin and Stefan Molyneux, who each host Internet-era talk shows on YouTube, have hosted interviews with Damore on their channels, welcoming him as a champion of the “viewpoint diversity” cause. Influencers such as Rubin have suggested that ideological diversity is more important than diversity of gender, race, and other protected identities, which they label as types of faux diversity.” This approach inverts equity-driven conceptualizations of diversity. Thus, this approach dismisses efforts to increase the representation of marginalized groups in tech (and elsewhere) as cosmetic and insincere. In short, Damore’s YouTube influencer allies deploy “viewpoint diversity” as a favored buzzword to legitimize retrogressive gender and racial essentialisms.

Rubin’s and Molyneux’s embrace of Damore could be dismissed as a meeting of fringe thinkers, except similar rhetorics from prominent tech industry leaders preceded Damore’s moment. In 2016, for example, Silicon Valley CEOs adopted “viewpoint diversity” rhetoric in response to statements and actions by Peter Thiel, a billionaire entrepreneur best known for founding highly successful payments, data analytics, and venture capital firms. Amidst an election cycle of unprecedented divisiveness, tech CEOs affiliated with Thiel found themselves under pressure to break ties with the entrepreneur, who supported candidate Trump with high-profile appearances and known monetary contributions of more than one million dollars.

CEOs Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Sam Altman (Y Combinator) justified their ongoing affiliations with Thiel in the name of diversity, claiming that their commitments to diversity obligated them to tolerate support of a candidate whose positions they found objectionable. The motive for defending Thiel may have been related to the outsized power and influence Thiel wields in Silicon Valley, as Wired reporter Davey Alba has pointed out. Regardless of motive, the outcome was that Zuckerberg, Altman, and other tech figures who defended Thiel co-opted the language of diversity that has developed around historical marginalization of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other underrepresented groups. Unlike Molyneux and Rubin, these tech CEOs suggested that “viewpoint diversity” could co-exist with other institutional efforts to increase equity and inclusion for workers with marginalized identities.

Yet, their comments sidestepped a major problem: many of President Trump’s proposed policies placed marginalized groups in the American population at potential risk of further marginalization (or outright exclusion) from civic life — a major challenge to the frame of deliberative democracy that thrives on political differences of opinion. Indeed, Alba concluded that “Zuckerberg’s real struggle is trying to stay neutral when a neutral position doesn’t exist.” Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig has observed a similar dynamic in right-wing and mainstream media. Although there is concern over a lack of ideological diversity in newsrooms, the right-wing media rewards and encourages writing that generates outrage and personal rancor — qualities that, from Bruenig’s perspective, make left-wing writers less likely to embrace such right-wing writers as colleagues.

Whether intentionally or inadvertently, the various defenses of “viewpoint diversity” espoused by social media influencers and Silicon Valley leaders used rhetorics centered on common democratic ideals — but in ways that had the practical outcome of providing political cover for discriminatory or contradictory positions.

“Balance” is both a Democratic Bulwark and a Weapon in the Culture War

Yet, as the political philosopher Tamsin Shaw recently observed, public intellectuals from psychology and law have advocated for “viewpoint diversity” as a means of reducing the risk of political polarization and extremism. For example, Shaw links to a 1999 paper in which legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues for a diversity of viewpoints within limits: “For example,” Sunstein writes, “it would not make sense to say that in a deliberating group attempting to think through issues of affirmative action, it is important to allow exposure to the view that slavery was good and should be restored.” The question, then, is where the limits on reasonability lie.

The idea of admitting a variety of reasonable ideas to the public sphere seems fairly innocuous. Yet, the notion of balance has itself been exploited toward strategic ends. Consider, for example, the Powell Memo, written in 1971 by Lewis Powell shortly before his appointment to the US Supreme Court. Amid an anti-corporate youth culture, a growing movement against industrial pollution, and consumer advocates’ revelations of reckless corporate disregard for public safety, Powell’s memo offered a strategic blueprint for besieged corporate interests to regain power and social legitimacy.

Powell focused on college campuses, where he viewed the most strident anti-corporate critiques found shelter. But attacking academic freedom would be “fatal,” in Powell’s view. Instead, he advocated framing the problem as a lack of balance and representation. And, as scholar of rhetoric Stephen Olbrys observes, “the balance that Powell proposes… excludes as un-American any voice that would critique the enterprise system.”

Sunstein’s argument aims at preventing polarization, but the Powell memo shows how rhetorics of centrism and balance can be mobilized to push the range of legitimate controversy in the direction of one ideological pole, while casting political opponents’ viewpoints as deviant. Two tactics are in play under the surface of viewpoint diversity debates. The first tactic attempts to mobilize widely-held democratic values toward specific ideological, political, or financial ends. The second tactic aims to shift the boundaries of “reasonable” discourse to accommodate views that, until recently, would have been considered unacceptably discriminatory or anti-democratic — especially when these views are held by technically skilled or wealthy white men.

Both of these tactics are finding new expression in the recent debates over “viewpoint diversity.” Tech executives’ defenses of Thiel, for example, demonstrate how commitments to social values such as balance, tolerance, and pluralism can be undermined if power imbalances are excluded from the analysis. Zuckerberg and other tech industry leaders appeared to champion principles of fairness and inclusion. Yet, by defending the right to one’s own opinion, they facilitated Thiel’s efforts to disrupt the boundary of legitimate controversy. The CEOs’ comments reveal a paradox of democratic values: tolerance of opposing viewpoints is a foundational value of democracy, but tolerating intolerant views can threaten democratic principles of inclusion and equality. And some who adopt this rhetoric — including online influencers like Dave Rubin — have exploited this paradox of democratic values, shifting the goalposts of diversity to delegitimize any inclusion efforts except those that tolerate discriminatory viewpoints.


NOTES:

For the text of the Powell Memo itself, along with historical context, see Surbrug, R. (2016). DOMESTIC AFFAIRS: The “Powell Memo”: Attack on the Free Enterprise System. Defining Documents: The 1970S, 148–159; and for rhetorical analysis of the Powell Memo, see Olbrys, S. G. (2006). Dissoi Logoi, Civic Friendship, and the Politics of Education. Communication Education 55:4, 353–369.

Thanks to Matt Goerzen for providing extra resources on Sunstein’s concept of appropriate heterogeneity.

Addendum: On areas of legitimate controversy, see Hallin, D. C. (1986). The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, along with Murray, C., Parry, K., Robinson, P., and Goddard, P. (2008). Reporting Dissent in Wartime: British Press, the Anti-War Movement, and the 2003 Iraq War. European Journal of Communication 23(1), 7–27.