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The Force-Feeding of Will

The Perils of Making Things Mandatory

“He’s got your grandfather’s jawline,” I whisper to my wife as I attempt to deflect my contribution to my son’s obvious stubbornness. For the last 10 minutes, she’s been holding a spoon to his mouth, which he refuses to open. It’s some mash of goodness that we have deemed essential to his ability to grow and thrive. He must eat what is good for him. He simply must.

With his jaw jutting out and lips locked tight and a look that made the cat leave the kitchen, my wife is about to fold. Can we let him win?

But his defiance, and our response to it, reveals an interesting quirk in human behavior. This quirk is called ‘will’ which we lovingly named our little tike. With his middle name of Stanley, Will was named after my father, possibly the most stubborn man to have ever lived. I got my disposition from my mother, but please don’t ask my wife to confirm that.

Having a ‘strong-will’ is one of those double-edged swords. Yes, having a strong will suggests the capacity of dogged determination. Most hard things take determination to accomplish. But it can also mean a certain stiff-headedness, the kind that can prevent progress and change.

And at this very moment, the strength of our collective wills is being challenged. This can get tricky for parents. This little bundle of mostly joy mixed in with diapers whose contents sometimes leak out is in full defiance of the very people who embraced in love two years ago to reproduce him. So this is what our passions produce, huh?

While his mother holds the spoon, I circle, trying to imagine what Will is working out in his not completely developed noodle. Perhaps it is possible he seriously does not like the taste of smashed goodness. It is also possible that he’s taking a stand on principle- ‘I’m tired of being told what to eat and not eat.’ I include ‘not eat’ because Will is willing to put nearly anything within his reach in his mouth at least once. “Will, that slug will not taste good, Will! Will! Eww… Will.”

15 minutes into holding the spoon to Will’s mouth has exhausted my wife. She gives up. It’s my turn. I take the chair, hold the spoon of mixed beans with applesauce with about the same color and texture of his last diaper, and hold it to his mouth. I jut out my jaw and put on a face of defiance just like his. He doesn’t look at me. He’s tough, but I’m tougher-I think.

With Will committed to becoming a senior citizen before eating the spoonful I have in front of him, I decide to try reason. “Will, you want to grow up to be strong and healthy, right? The reason your mother and I make you eat this is for your own good, sweetheart. I’m sorry, but it’s mandatory.” Just as I say the word ‘mandatory,’ Will decides to sucker punch the spoon, sending the contents flying. That was when I introduced him to ‘cancel culture.’ He was to be ‘timed-out’ to his bedroom.

My flush of anger dissipates as I read my email. One email stops me cold. It has the word ‘mandatory’ in it. Mandatory Diversity Training. It was from my employer.

The word ‘mandatory’ has possibly never been used more than today. Some websites keep track of the usage of words and how it changes over time. We have had ‘mandatory lock-downs,’ ‘mandatory school closures,’ mandatory use of masks’- we all know them well. Soon, I’ll be subjected to ‘mandatory diversity training.’

Diversity training is actually not new. It became a thing decades ago when companies were getting sued for discrimination. It was cheaper to show managers how not to discriminate than pay out huge settlements. Corporate diversity training has been around long enough for folks to have studied the effectiveness. But mandatory diversity training is much newer and much different, and we’re likely to see a lot more of it.

I reread the email. There is something about those three words together that demands a cerebral undertaking. I’ll start with ‘mandatory.’

‘Mandatory’ means I am required to do something by force of law, or by the rules, or to keep my job, or to keep from being canceled. If you agree with the stated objectives, mandatory will not offend you. If you are uncertain as to the goals, then it might feel like you are being coerced. If you disagree with the program, or its intent, or your need for it, you’ll feel like son Will. When compliance is only gained by the fear that accompanies the consequences, then resentment is sure to follow. The studies show this.

‘Diversity,’ when placed in the sunlight with ‘mandatory,’ takes on an interesting hue. ‘Mandatory’ suggests you have no choices, but the essence of diversity is choices and variety and opinions. If you have a perspective that you believe is ignored or diminished by your co-workers or fellow citizens, you’ll likely look forward to the training. But if you hold views that are considered mainstream or contrary to the instructor and are told they are the result of some unfair advantage which you have no control over, you’ll likely grow resentful. The studies show this.

The necessity to be trained or educated implies that you have a deficit of knowledge. My employer believes this lack of knowledge is so critical, it must be taught under the threat of punishment. Making diversity training mandatory is undoubtedly a lawful thing for a company, or a local, state, or federal agency, todemand its employees. But is it an intelligent thing to do? The studies say ‘no.’

So what does the research on the effectiveness of mandatory diversity training tell us?

A study by the Harvard Business Review, which analyzed nearly a thousand different studies, concludes that ‘…while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.’

The same Harvard study also made this observation; ‘Another reason is that about three-quarters of firms with training still follow the dated advice of the late diversity guru R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. “If diversity management is strategic to the organization,” he used to say, diversity training must be mandatory, and management has to make it clear that “if you can’t deal with that, then we have to ask you to leave.” But five years after instituting required training for managers, companies saw no improvement in the proportion of white women, black men, and Hispanics in management, and the share of black women actually decreased by 9%, on average, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women shrank by 4% to 5%. Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance — and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.’

Mona S Weissmark Ph.D., a contributor at ‘Psychology Today’ wrote ‘…studies suggest that mandatory diversity programs can trigger bias rather than eliminate it. Laboratory studies show that people become resentful when they are forced to adopt behaviors. Most people resist being told how to think and behave and, therefore, will assert their autonomy.

Bias cannot simply be ordered away. When people are made to feel ashamed or are blamed for “bad” behaviors, they will lose their desire to change.

The shame and blame type of diversity training programs ignore everything social scientists know about the biological need to maintain our individual identities and our preferences for people who are like “us.”

Today, diversity courseware is an amalgamation of various race theories straight from college campuses. This widening orthodoxy is rooted in the notion that it is white hegemony that has kept all others from the wellspring of equity. In the training, you’ll hear much about white supremacy, white privilege, and white fragility (fragile is what whites are when unable to fess up to their inherent racism. According to the theory, whites wilt in the face of the truth).

My son Will taught me that despite my good intentions and honest desire for him to eat good food, I could not force him to. He grew up to eat good food when he fully understood it was his body he was feeding. Gratefully, he also grew up not to resent me.

PS. If you find yourself forced to attend a diversity training camp, read this by Helen Pluckrose and Dr. James Lindsay. They will teach you how to talk to your employer before you agree to open your mouth and eat the smashed goodness.

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