I was waiting in the foyer of a multinational oil and gas company’s Australian headquarters, the twenty-seventh floor of a high-rise in Brisbane. There was plenty to look at while I waited. Artful displays of early-era petrol bowsers acknowledged the past, and a scale-model of their most recent floating LNG plant was a nod to the present.
And what of the future? A banner supporting ‘women in energy’ programs beside another banner supporting LGBTI professionals, plus rainbow flags on their disposable coffee cups and the access-card holders around everyone’s necks. I remember being angered by it. How dare they force me to wear a rainbow around their office? I never consented to be a canvass for their banner, a vehicle for their cause.
The diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) agenda had landed there with full-force.
Until then, I hadn’t encountered much corporate wokeness. But there was more to come; soon an email from Engineers Australia announced that a new Diversity and Inclusion Committee was being formed, would I like to apply? Within a year my own employer formed an Inclusivity Committee, which began organising events for NAIDOC week, St Patricks day (for some reason or other) and encouraged everyone to wear purple on pride day. Several meetings have since commenced with an acknowledgement of country, which we never used to do. Suddenly there’s a lot of ambient ideology getting around.
To some extent, I don’t mind. I want people at work to feel included. I want to get to know my colleagues. We also had a morning tea where everyone brought food that was traditional to their national origins, which was great. It’s the virtue signalling, the display of banners, the requirement to express “solidarity” that irks me.
And it feels like there is something increasingly demanding about it all. The DEI ideology is being presented as a collective obligation. The company should acknowledge country, it should celebrate pride month, it should celebrate international women’s day… How soon before the collective obligation is reinterpreted as an individual obligation? After all, that is the logical conclusion. What validity can the collective claim to be ‘for something’ have while any individual is against it?
Some claim that corporate woke-ness is an exercise in appeasement: mercenary executives are just keeping the activists off their back. But in my experience, that is not true. It’s a growing secular religion. It has many, many genuine adherents, especially among university graduates. It is the natural progression from what I was actively taught at school back in the nineties. It’s had decades to saturate society.
An important test of any ideology is how it treats those who disagree with it. Are they tolerated? Respected? Or silenced, ostracised, demonised? Or even, ‘corrected’? We live in something that is rare on the pages of history, a pluralistic society. That is, we have believed that viewpoint diversity must be tolerated and respected.
This plurality always had boundaries, of course – you can have whatever opinion you like about politics and the existence of God – but you can’t have whatever opinion you like about murder or rape, for instance. There is indeed a common value system to which we must adhere. But those common values were minimalist. They were reduced to matters of harm; we deferred to liberty in all else. It was, “Think what you will, but harm nobody”.
The DEI ideology has the word “diversity” in it. So surely it also embraces pluralism? Unfortunately, no. That is not the tendency at all. Ideological purges are becoming more common. The firing of Israel Folau is an obvious example. He stated a belief that did not align with his boss’ notion of their ‘collective’ belief, for which he was fired.
The firing of James Damore from Google was another example.
The treatment of J K Rowling after she posted an anti-rapist tweet, which is being called an anti-trans tweet, is a recent example. The reaction to her was not respectful disagreement, but an attempt to remove her entirely.
Last year, my niece was severely harassed at school and called ‘homophobic’ for not joining an LGBTI diversity club (in year 7!). She was not expected to declare herself to be L, B or T, but she was expected to declare herself “open to the possibility” or at least an “ally”, by her peers who had apparently discovered their own non-conforming sexualities (in year 7!).
Why is the DEI agenda so intolerant in the name of tolerance? The emergence of ideological purging can partly be understood by an expansion of the definition of harm into the emotional realm. Stating a traditional Christian moral position is considered to “harm” LGBTI people. Misgendering a trans person “harms” them. If anyone feels threatened by any ideas that conflict with their core values, then they must silence those ideas to prevent “harm” to their inner self.
But it goes beyond this notion of harm. You increasingly hear people speak of the world that they “deserve” to live in. I “deserve” a world that accepts me for who I am, that never makes me feel uncomfortable. Who hasn’t seen self-help memes recommending that you “remove toxic people from your life.” The message is: other people should either embrace your own self-determined notion of who you think you’re meant to be… or they should just get the hell off your planet.
Recently, my employer began formalising our company’s values, vision, mission and all that sort of thing. They came up with a chart showing the dimensions of our company – industries, capabilities, clients, etc. At the bottom of the chart—and we were told it is at the bottom because it holds up the rest—was “culture”. Whatever that is.
If culture – whatever that is – is truly holding up the rest, then it is, logically, something that no-one can opt out of. If I wish to disassociate from the culture then I would be undermining what is now viewed as the foundation of the whole. This is the most recent, subtle step I’ve observed in the trajectory.
It’s a trajectory towards upholding the values of diversity, inclusivity and equity as so ubiquitous and foundational, essential to the world that they believe they are creating, that to disagree is to be a ‘wrecker’. It won’t be enough to do your own thing, if you aren’t carrying the rainbow flag, if you won’t acknowledge the spiritual connection of first nation elders past, present and future… then you are not part of the project.
If you are resistant, then you are ‘backward’, you’re on the wrong side of history, and demonstrating a feebleness of mind that is akin to being uneducated. Perhaps you’re even evil – filled with racist, sexist, homophobic hatred. Deplorable.
Am I projecting this too far? It may never get that bad in everyday, corporate Australia. I hope not, but let’s not deceive ourselves it hasn’t happened before. The Bolsheviks required political purity and frequently imprisoned or shot those who they discovered were secretly ‘wreckers’ trying to ruin the project. Though they couldn’t acknowledge it, their communist project was a war against reality itself and hence doomed to failure; the repeated inevitable failures then created mounting desperation to identify who was ‘wrecking’ their efforts! Finding wreckers was the only alternative to admitting they were wrong.
The DEI agenda, especially E for equity, is also a war against reality and is also doomed to failure. That failure already generates desperation… despite continuous and growing effort, for example, male and female incomes are still not equal! Who is to blame, if the ideology itself cannot be admitted to be wrong?
Let’s also not deceive ourselves that we don’t see this type of thinking all around us. The Covid-19 pandemic illustrated how people with differing opinions can be persistently incapable of seeing eye to eye on issues, and those intelligent and independent-minded thinkers who might bring some rationality to the table are doxxed the moment they do. Many have been fired, without caring whether they might be able to get a job somewhere else or not.
“Really, they’re asking for it, who cares what happens to them?”
One motive for the religious discrimination bill is to document our nation’s commitment to pluralism, which is to be commended. Nevertheless, I have mixed views about the bill. Will it achieve what it is setting out to do? Will it curb this instinct for ideological purging?
I am sceptical that it will provide lasting defence, for three reasons.
Firstly, religious freedom, as already stated, is limited by the ‘harm’ principal. If the practice of a religion required the murdering of children, for instance (rather uncommon, these days)—that would not be permitted; the criminal law outlawing murder would prevent the exercise of religious freedom. And so it should.
However, as the definition of ‘harm’ is broadened, how likely is it that religious freedom would be prioritised above the risk of ‘mental harm’ to those who are offended by it? The bill already denies protection of statements of belief that, “a reasonable person would consider would… harass or vilify a person or group”. How liberally will we define what would “harass” a “group”?
Secondly, the Bill applies to religion only, not ideologies in general. James Damore and J.K. Rowling, for instance, would not have been protected by this bill. Their opinions were scientific, not religious. Why is it that we are only protecting freedom of religious thought, and not freedom of all thought? Who will decide that a certain belief is a ‘religious’ one?
Thirdly, I don’t believe these cultural conflicts can really be won on the pages of an act of parliament.
In general, I’m not a fan of the anti-discrimination framework in Australia. Consider the racial discrimination bill. What does it really achieve? Where is the fictional employer who was planning on hiring a white applicant without even looking at the other resumes when he heard in the news that they’d passed the racial discrimination act, and, “O darn! I’m not allowed to be racist anymore. I guess I’ll go and look at that Chinaman’s CV”?
What racist person would change their mind just because a law is introduced? Similarly, if there are people who have a strong ideological commitment to DEI and they feel compelled to cancel any who disagree… will a law change their minds?
Ideological purges are a growing risk, but they are still (currently) rare. If we wish to recover ground, if we wish to preserve a respect for plurality of world-views, it will require us, Australians, to boldly voice and defend our views, to exemplify the respect and tolerance that we wish would be granted to us, and to actively defend others who are targeted by cancel culture.
An important test of an ideology is how it treats those who disagree with it. Ironically, we can’t force a pluralistic mindset without being totalitarian ourselves. But if we persistently defend and demonstrate the objective goodness of “loving your enemies”, perhaps it’ll catch on.
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Nick Kastelein is a South Australian writer. He writes about politics, philosophy and current events, with an emphasis on applying a Christian worldview, and finding the simplest, truest perspective. You can find more of his past writing at NPKastelein.com.
Nick is also a professional mechanical engineer with extensive experience in the energy sector, and especially in design of natural gas pipelines. He is a contributor to Australian Standard AS/NZS 2885.1, and lead author of Fracture Control – A code of practice for the Australian pipeline industry.