Unmasking the DEI Paradox

Strategic Ambiguity, the Motte-and-Bailey Fallacy, and the Allure of Simplistic Morality

Who doesn’t support being more tolerant and culturally sensitive? What kind of a monster thinks that Black Lives Don’t matter? Just be kind. Our academic morass starts with some banal platitude, with which almost everyone agrees, but ends with a far more controversial claim, like ‘rationality and hard work are forms of white supremacy’ or ‘sex is a social construct.’

Shifting between an attractive, easily defensible claim and a much more controversial one is known to logicians as a ‘motte-and-bailey fallacy.’ The idea comes from a medieval system of defense in which a nearly impregnable stone tower, the motte, is surrounded by land that is enclosed by a far less defensible obstacle, like a ditch. Although the motte is easy to defend, it is also dark and dreary, and is generally an unpleasant place to live. The lightly defensible bailey, meanwhile, is much more attractive. The tactic therefore is to only defend the bailey when pressed lightly, and to retreat to the motte when the attack becomes more serious or sustained. Eventually, when the attackers give up, the defenders will once again reoccupy the desired territory. At its core, the fallacy is a form of equivocation that undermines productive engagement with complex issues.

In the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies, the motte-and-bailey is a rhetorical gambit in which the speaker initially advances a reasonable and uncontroversial position. For example, a university might institute a policy that helps ensure that hiring practices are fair and inclusive of people from different backgrounds. This is the motte, which, being rooted in basic principles like fairness and equal opportunity, is difficult to dispute. Who would argue against the importance of inclusion, respect for individual experiences and identities, eliminating hatred, or promoting tolerance? This, however, is often used as a Trojan horse for introducing the bailey—the more controversial claim—such as the need for quotas or preferences based on markers of identity like gender or race. It can lead to the proposition that any disagreement with the tenets of DEI constitutes violence against women, or that any challenge to these policies is inherently racist. Indeed, the assertion that such challenges are a form of oppression that serves to reinforce ‘systemic injustice’ becomes integral to the pro-DEI argument. When we finally get to arguments about dismantling white patriarchy (e.g., ‘we must reject all Western knowledge,’ as one of my son’s debate teachers at Berkeley put it), we are dancing on the bailey.

[Related: “Psych! You Don’t Have the Job.”]

A recent Boston Globe editorial titled “DEI Denial is the modern day lynching” by Ya’Ke Smith engages in this kind of sophistry. Smith initially argues that DEI proponents simply want to teach the truth about American history, writing that opponents of DEI, such as Governor DeSantis and the Stop W.O.K.E Act, are “a distraction … that keeps many Americans from understanding the truth of history.” Fair enough. But in the same article, Smith slips in the claim that any disagreement with DEI policies is an act of violence, writing that “modern day attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies in higher education institutions are the equivalent of the tightened rope, and just as suffocating.” By tacking between the reasonable and radical claims, Smith can argue that disputing DEI practices is modern-day lynching without ever having to defend it. If he is skilled enough, he can even exploit his own vagueness by accusing the challenger of being unreasonable or misrepresenting his position.

Indeed, obfuscation is often the point. This can be introduced by using words that are so ambiguous or abstract that they fail to describe anything we can even recognize. By replacing words like ‘torture’ with ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ by calling someone in prison “a person experiencing the criminal-justice system,” or by changing ‘sex changes for children’ to ‘gender-affirming care for minors,’ proponents of these tactics often obsess over semantics. Such abstractions might even be embedded in a vaguely worded slogan, such as ‘Protect Trans Kids.’ Does that mean allowing eight-year-old boys who self-identify as female to have surgery and start taking puberty blockers, or does it mean making sure they are protected from these often irreversible decisions until they are older? As usual, the devil is in the details. Orwell wrote that “The worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them,” and none of this verbal gymnastics makes torture, prison, or surgical mutilation less brutal. Reality has not changed, but language has been altered to distort our grasp of it. Like neatly trimmed lawns, changing these words is our attempt to control the unruliness of nature and alter what makes us uncomfortable about reality. We wish it weren’t true, so we can just say it isn’t.

Indeed, many view reality itself as nothing more than a language game. Again, it starts with the motte—the reasonable, although still scientifically controversial, claim that language affects our beliefs and how we think (see the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). Soon, however, this becomes the idea that everything is socially constructed, including truth. As Foucault succinctly put it, ‘Truth is just power.’ If we can deconstruct the inherent power in language (e.g., saying that trans women are women makes it so) and do away with truth, we can really start to clean house. Now we are really grooving on the bailey.

At my own mandatory DEI training for teaching in North Carolina, we were shown an image of people of different heights trying to watch a baseball game over a fence that only the tallest could see above, with the caption “Equality” underneath it. Next to this image were the same individuals, now standing on footstools of different heights that allowed them to all see the game over the fence, with the caption “Equity below it. That’s not fair; everyone should be able to see the game! Such a simplistic presentation not only leads to multiple interpretations—it may also result in serious miscommunication. I might, for example, be in favor of intellectual diversity or economic diversity, while someone else may have an entirely different idea of what diversity looks like—perhaps a more aesthetic view of diversity, such as a Benetton ad. Soon, however, we had left the motte and were out on the Bailey, learning how our skin color and a range of other cross-sectional identities made many of us racists and made unbiased assessment impossible. The presenters explained to the new teachers how concepts like objectivity, worship of the written word, and an emphasis on the scientific method were attributes of “white culture.” Dialogue suddenly became impossible.

[Related: “Medical Education Is Infected with DEI”]

When I pushed back against some of these ideas, the presenters just retreated to their opening position and asked me if I was against including marginalized groups. Disguising their true position at the outset also undermined their credibility and made an open and honest conversation about these issues virtually impossible. Later, after disputing some of the core principles of critical race theory that had been advanced moments earlier, I was told that I was being paranoid and that the theory was an esoteric academic subfield that did not affect public schools. This type of gaslighting creates a climate of fear, as people become afraid to express their opinions (80% of college students report self-censoring) lest they be seen as racists or bigots.

In the end, motte-and-bailey arguments are intellectually dishonest. They are a form of strategic ambiguity—a clever bait and switch—that undermines issues that are critical for the success of a pluralistic democracy. When everyone has a different understanding of what DEI means—some viewing it as ideologically neutral, such that anyone who supports a diverse and welcoming community should have no objections to it, and others seeing it as a highly ideological practice that presumes some dubious and contested understandings of what the three terms mean and how they should be pursued—an honest and open discussion becomes impossible. My next-door neighbor has a yard sign that says, “Hate has no home here.” In a world where everything is political, it is unclear what this means. To some, it is a simple affirmation of the universal value of love, while, to others, it suggests, “If you like Trump, get the hell off my lawn,” which is not exactly the best way to start a useful conversation.

Lately, however, the often counterproductive, multi-billion-dollar DEI industry that emerged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd is largely corporate virtue-signaling. These policies are fraught with self-congratulatory, and mostly symbolic, feel-good initiatives that do little to improve the conditions of those they purport to help and extend beyond the deliberately obscure language and anti-racist rhetoric of people like Robin DiAngelo, a white woman who is regularly paid in the five figures to lecture white professionals about their supposed fragility. It is, however, the ambiguity surrounding the end goal that helps to explain how this dubious ideology has so firmly taken root in the collective mindset of progressive America. Simply being honest about it would go a long way toward improving the discourse on these critical issues.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Robert Lynch

    Robert Lynch is an evolutionary anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University whose research includes the effect of immigration on social capital, how social isolation promotes populism, and the evolutionary function of laughter. Follow him on Twitter: @Robertflynch.

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7 thoughts on “Unmasking the DEI Paradox

  1. “Who would argue against the importance of inclusion?”

    That’s it exactly. And the answer is or should be: everyone! Everyone should argue against the ‘importance of inclusion’ because no one, actually, believes in it. And no one actually believes in that nonsense concept, inclusion, because it stands always in opposition to what we all most truly want which is Quality.

    I don’t want an ‘inclusive’ cardiac surgery team…I want a Quality Cardiac Surgery Team. I want one filled with highly experienced graduates of the nation’s best cardiac programs. And how do I know they’re the best programs? Because they are the most EXCLUSIVE. They have the highest hurdles which require the best performance on the part of those who wish to hold the top degrees indicating the highest skill levels.

    Inclusion is the opposite of all that.

    Who should play on the school’s football team? The best players? or the most diverse players? Who should sing at my daughter’s wedding? The best singer? Or Aunt Martha who can’t carry a tune (but it certainly would be inclusive to include her!)?

    Quality is built upon merit…and merit is founded on skill leveraged by hard work & dedication. Together this creates a natural…almost Darwinian exclusion. It’s why we all work as hard as we work. It’s why we press on in the face of obstacles, in answer to our failures. We do these things because we want to succeed and we succeed by distinguishing ourselves and our performance from that of our peers. The Sistine Chapel was painted by Michelangelo NOT because the Pope had a quota for Florentines but because he was recognized as the Very Best.

    Inclusion, in short, is death (which is, by the way, 100% inclusive).

    Same for Diversity. Same for Equity.
    No one is equal, each to the other, save before God and the Law. We are born into our unequal lives, the child of unequal parents, living in unequal neighborhoods, carrying seriously unequal sets of genetic luggage. We’re all taller, smarter, thinner, faster, etc than someone else … and equally we’re all shorter, fatter, stupider, and slower than a different set of someone elses. Inequity is Life. None of us would have it any other way.
    We want better lives (unequal lives) for ourselves and our families. And given natural human inequality in skills, talents, and ambitions, then natural inequity is the result.

    God save us from those who would make everything equal, inclusive and appropriately, cosmetically diverse!

  2. I have to shake my head every time I see that image of three people of different heights watching a baseball game over a fence. The solution is not to put the three people on different height boxes so all three can see the game. The correct solution is to build a higher fence so none of them can see the game.

    If you look at the image in the back you will see people in stands watching the game. They paid to get in. Why should the three people, who did not pay anything, be allowed to watch the baseball game at all? That’s not equity, it’s theft.

    And that’s the whole problem with DEI. It’s not about “teaching the real history of America” or about “inclusion”. It’s not even a re-branding of affirmative action. Indeed, it is more insidious than affirmative action. DEI denigrates one race of people to improve the lot of another race of people who have not earned the positions DEI says the deserve. It is marxism designed to destroy what its proponents had no hand in building. It is a cancer that must be cut out if society is to survive.

    But there is light at the end of the tunnel. The economy is slipping into a recession and corporations are starting layoffs. Many started DEI programs after the Floyd death. A recent report says in the last two years one-third of the DEI employees have now been let go. Companies first layoff people who provide the least return on investment; DEI employees return nothing. With the downward trend in enrollments universities will soon have to cut costs. DEI departments will be at the top of the list because they do nothing to bring in more money.

  3. “people of different heights trying to watch a baseball game over a fence that only the tallest could see above, with the caption “Equality” underneath it. Next to this image were the same individuals, now standing on footstools of different heights that allowed them to all see the game over the fence, with the caption “Equity” below it.”

    And the next caption would have someone with an old-fashioned hand auger drilling 3″ holes in the fence, with the word “initiative” under it — although what’s being missed in all of that is that the fence was there to ensure that people who wanted to see the game would buy tickets to do so and hence all of these people were engaged in theft. Not unlike undergrads downloading music, something that seems to totally infuriate the left for reasons that I really can’t understand, as they really don’t have a problem with shoplifting….

    And then there is the UMass solution — light the fence on fire. Little niceties such as laws against arson and destruction of private property don’t matter if your cause is just, and once the fence is gone, everyone will be able to (illegally) watch the game, regardless of height. So what if the team goes bankrupt — everyone can then watch the housing development being built on the ballfield…

    Saying that half in jest, there is a really serious issue about violence in all of this — acceptance of violence from the left and pathological fears of violence coming from the right. In the midst of all of that are the Behavioral Intervention Teams (BITs) that have become the political cudgels that I feared they would be when they were introduced 15 years ago.

    Called by a variety of names — and just about every IHE has one now — the BITs were the response to the Virginia Tech shooting and they are star chambers where students (and now faculty) are both tried and sentenced in absentia. They are that bad, and that scary, but my point involves their concept of cognitive aggression.

    Without going too deeply into the weeds, cognitive aggression is the belief that anyone who does not modify his/her/its views and beliefs to conform to the accepted mantra will inevitably progress to homicidal violence. Initially, I would quote Lillian Hellman’s famous statement about trimming her conscience to fit this fall’s fashions, except those advocating this stuff had no idea who Lillian Hellman even *was*…

    This is where we are getting the references to violence and the implied belief that this purported violence is the equivalent of actual violence — it is, *if* you believe in cognitive aggression theory and believe that speech will inexorably progress to actual violence. Hence Ya’Ke Smith’s statement that “modern day attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies in higher education institutions are the equivalent of the tightened rope, and just as suffocating” actually makes sense — he/she/it/they/them/whatever believing that if the majority isn’t sufficiently oppressed, it will inevitably resort to mass murder.

    They honestly believe this….

    I have tried to figure out *why* they believe it and have looked at what the left has done over the past 55 years, starting with the guns going into Cornell, and how effective violence was (is) for them. Having captured the academy via a violent coup, they fear losing it through another violent coup — and what they fear we would do to them speaks volumes about what they would do to us, if they only could…

    The thing to remember is that we are (small ‘l’) liberals — and they aren’t! We believe that the person is more important than the argument — and they don’t. As a PolSci professor told me decades ago, “they would kill someone for a good cause, while the liberal won’t.”

    In an “ideally balanced” world, Ya’Ke Smith would be balanced by someone calling for him to be lynched (and seriously trying to do so). In an “ideally balanced” world, our 57 genders would be balanced by detachments of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. We would be living in the Wiemar Republic where the various factions were literally shooting at each other, with live ammo, from street corners.

    But the mistake we are making is not calling the left on its violence, and the fortitude we are going to have to have over the next 18 months will be in demanding that the left forego a violent response to things that it does not like. DEI is dying — particularly in states no longer willing to fund it. SCOTUS has sorta restricted Affirmative Retribution — and BAMN like to throw chairs at people. And chanting “We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Coming for Your Children” sorta didn’t impress Middle America….

    40% of Brown University is now non-heterosexual — 50-60 years ago that would have been 40% being “sexually deviant” and involuntarily committed to mental institutions. While I would not have supported that, the fact remains that violence and the threat of violence has worked, and we need to stand up and say NO MAS!

    No Mas — and no more violence….

  4. Not really sure what the author wants. The motte-and-bailey bait and switch rhetorical trick seems to work well for the left — the author calls it “clever” — so I can’t blame them for using it. Then what? The last sentence of the article says “Simply being honest about it would go a long way toward improving the discourse on these critical issues.” Who does the author want to “simply be honest about it”? The left? Good luck with that. The opposition? Will that really have much effect? I think it will take some kind of rhetorical counter-pose, more than just being honest. But I’m really not sure what the author is saying.

    1. Today we have diesel engines powering hydraulic equipment that can do truly amazing things. Want to pull a multi-ton mooring block out of the mud on the harbor bottom, just pull a lever and up she comes. Want to inspect it, you just send a diver down to look at it.

      But they didn’t have that a century ago and when they wanted to move or inspect a mooring block back then, they went out at low tide with a couple of dories lashed together and pulled the mooring chain up tight between them. When the tide came in, raising the water level by 11-13 feet, the dories would lift the mooring block off the bottom.

      They would then pull it towards shore until it bottomed out, wait for low tide and repeat the process. Eventually they would get it above the low tide line where they could then go out at low tide to inspect or replace the chain attached to it.

      I think this is what the author was trying to say — if nothing was done, the mooring block (a multi-ton chunk of granite) would settle back into the mud when the tide went out. Instead the left consolidates its advancements as the tide goes out and then waits for the coming rising tide to further advance its agenda. 30 years ago Rush Limbough was joking about male lesbians — now they are living in sorority houses and winning women’s swim meets.

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