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Culture War Roundup for the week of February 13, 2023

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Last week, my company released its 3rd annual DEI report. It consists of a laundry list of DEI achievements, some questionable statistics, and inspiring messages from very well-paid executives.

Performance reviews are another feature of this time of year. Conventional wisdom holds that getting a good review depends on meeting your pseudo-self-defined goals for the year—and, by implication, on setting achievable ones. With that in mind, our executives set measurable, sensible goals with every expectation of meeting them.

That was a joke. The goals were 1/2 women and 1/3 people of color. We were reasonably close on the latter, not that this required any particular change. But our goal for gender parity was hilariously out of line with the ~1/4 we currently have. I could propose various reasons why an engineering- and manufacturing-heavy corporation that makes devices for killing people might not employ so many women, but that’s not really the point. No, this is not a serious goal. It’s advertising.

My company is not particularly woke. It repeats some of the phrases and buys into the aesthetic, but it’s clearly not ideologically captured. If there are true believers, they sure aren’t in charge. DEI is valued insofar as it keeps us from alienating potential talent and potential customers—and no more. At the end of the day it’s not going to shoot itself in the foot in service of equality or equity.

I believe this is true of the vast majority of corporations in the US! Identity politics are a small part of the business signaling that goes on every day. It’s directly proportional to how much the product is a cultural symbol rather than a material good. Apple products or Amazon media or Super Bowl ads are more likely to publicly proclaim their diversity because they’re selling an idea. It does not require true believers, though they help with credibility. The idea itself is what benefits from woke signaling.

This has implications for the trajectory of DEI. Debating whether woke ads are going to increase or alienate support is missing the point. That sort of identity politics is downstream of the culture war, and should not be used to make predictions about “peak woke.” It represents corporate ability to score points off the prevailing winds, not ideologues’ level of infiltration into corporations.

Defense contractors are wildly biased towards veterans. Our hiring is more likely to involve some sort of aggressive patriotism; their scruples are more likely to support selling drones and bombs. Sometimes this even has an advantage of rapport with customers. But this is an end, not a means. It would be a mistake to predict growing evangelism for veterans due to our obvious ideological capture. Likewise, reading DEI reports as a foothold in the culture wars is missing the point. They are a specific form of advertising, and follow the popularity of idpol rather than driving it.

The first generation remembers a time before DEI so they might be able to do it cynically, not make any big changes but just say the slogans and muddle along. The next generation has no memory of anything else. They don't realize that you're not actually supposed to believe that it's feasible to have an engineering department that's 50% women, 30% black and 10% trans. They believe, from the bottom of their hearts, that there are just as many qualified black and women engineers as white and asian men and that it's only sexism and racism that's keeping them out.

And when they try to implement this stuff for real then what can anyone say to stop them? After all, it's right there in mission statement that diversity is a core corporate value, that a diverse company is a more effective company and that it's everyone's responsibility to promote a more equitable society. Anyone who tries to stop them will be not just a racist but also insubordinate.

Your company has AIDS. It's immune system is dead and it's just waiting for pneumonia or strep throat to come in and finish the job.

Your general point is lost on many people. I was talking to my boomer mom about Kanye getting blacklisted for alleged anti-Semitism and her response was basically "I don't see why him getting punished is a big deal, everyone knows the Jews run Hollywood and finance, but everyone also knows it's just not something you're supposed to say in polite company because it's un-PC, so he's an idiot." Except that a lot of my fellow millennials seem to thinking that Jewish overrepresentation is an evil conspiracy theory spread by evil people (I would know, I was one of them). Same goes for the "days of rage" in the 70s.

What "everyone knows" in one generation is often seen as "false" by later generations if it's not allowed to be discussed. I ran into the same things when speaking to Chinese people about the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square. The older folks who were around for those events had nuanced opinions, even the nationalists, while younger people either believe that it "wasn't really that bad, certainly nowhere near as bad as Western propaganda makes it out to be" or they have no opinion at all.

Enforced silence on a topic can be more effective than enforced orthodoxy, since it's so much more subtle.