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Diversity workshops perpetuate a religion of civility

in Columns/Opinions/Sticks and Stones by

The first thing I notice when I walk into a cultural diversity workshop is the absence of laughter. The room reminds me of a hospital waiting room with its sterility and blank faces. As we situate ourselves in the chairs arranged in a circle, I begin wondering: for an event designed to promote cultural awareness, where is the culture? What is the point of this? Would anyone do this for fun? Sitting there, among my pale and similarly awkward peers, it hit me: diversity workshops are ritual initiations for minorities into the civic life of America.

Minorities are not naturally a part of what sociologist John M. Cuddihy calls the American “religion of civility” in his book “No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste.” Cuddihy defines the religion of civility as an existential stance in which we choose to be constantly “complexly aware of our religious appearances to others.” Replace the word “religious” with “cultural” — an easy substitution — and that is exactly the purpose of a diversity workshop.

The facilitator is always smooth. He or she can compassionately nod at any experience, walking the workshop’s participants through the discomfort. Rather than the minority student or the student with much to learn about race, the facilitator is the actual biggest beneficiary of the workshop. Who else leaves feeling like they have derived as much moral legitimacy? The facilitator presents him or herself as someone who straddles the worlds of rough cultures and polite institutions, but the mix often comes out wrong. Facilitators frequently think that their purpose is to smooth out the conversation and to navigate it away from any awkwardness. Awkwardness is not celebrated in diversity workshops. It is tolerated — just like everything else.

The awkwardness swept under the rug is at the real heart of the culture, though. Any discussion that skirts around awkwardness, touching only our mentally cached scripts, does not broach any real issues at all. The suppression of “ungainliness” and “bad taste” is the first step towards our conversion about the religion of civility, as Cuddihy points out.

After all, what is religion but 1) ideology, and 2) expression? If the ideology is suppressed under the pretense of fighting privilege, and expression is suppressed for the sake of not coming across as “embarrassingly elitist, ostentatious, and unseemly,” then we have already converted to the religion of civility. This is okay, of course, so long as it is recognized as such.

We don’t recognize our Protestant sensibilities as they are. I sense a doublespeak at diversity workshops. We are asked to share experiences as a part of whatever group we belong to, yet the format — sitting in a circle, checklists and handouts, raising hands — denies the inevitable unseemliness that comes with the exorcism of long-suppressed pain. I have strong emotional reactions when I talk about trauma and insecurities — but who doesn’t? It is an affront to the strength of our experiences and our memories to expect them to fit cordially into the lap of diversity workshop facilitators, cultural group leaders and other people who want to recruit us into the cultural mold. The refrain of “share anything, absolutely anything” is the bait that lures poetry, snaring it in a vicious analysis of prose.

Cuddihy posited that Freud and Marx created their theories out of confusion from the collision between their Jewishness and the religion of civility. Similarly, the poetry of Negritude arose as an attempt to find shared black experience underneath a white hegemony. This is a pattern: any time there is an unmediated clash between cultures, creativity moves to find common ground.

The overwhelming issue on campus is not of red hot oppression, but of a cool, paternalistic condescension. There is only one clash of cultures now, and that is between every other culture and secular Protestantism — which is only a clash in the sense that there is no clash, since civil religion absorbs every other culture with its polite tolerance. The mistake is to believe that ideological asceticism prevents oppression more effectively than a self-reflective culture with humility. Only once we recognize our frailty and the undesirability of the diversity workshop to universalize civil religion, can we then, like english rock band The Who, “get on our knees and pray” that we “won’t get fooled again.”

Sam is a sophomore. You can reach him at szhang1@swarthmore.edu.

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