“I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, US congressional representative and activist)
Equity is defined as the quality of being fair and impartial (OED). As such it is uncontroversial and clearly a good thing, something we should all aspire to. It is all the more perplexing, therefore, why the advocates of equity as this is being transmitted through the institutional structures of academia, the corporate world and civil society feel the incessant need to invoke it mantra-like and engage in explanatory discourses, almost as if there is some esoteric, hidden aspect. Indeed, there is. Equity, as part of the triumvirate of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) is not what we fondly imagine it to be. In fact, it cleverly taps into our predilection for fairness by a type of misdirection such as practiced by professional magicians, thus covering up its true nature.
Beyond the general definition given above, there are no clear explanations of what the advocates of EDI mean by equity. There is a branch of psychology called Equity Theory going back to the 1960s that looks at the balance of contributions and rewards in personal and professional relationships, according to which equity can be defined as an individual’s perception that the ratio of their inputs and rewards is comparable to that of another (Adams, 1965, cited in Fadil et al, 2005, p.19)1 but what, if any, influence this has had on the development of EDI is unknown. As we shall see, the advocates of EDI seem to take a very different approach and rather than theoretical construct, rely on illustrative analogies. So, this analysis of the particular structure of the concept of equity will begin with a deconstruction of some of the explanatory analogies that are used.
A common one is the image of three people trying to look over a fence at some event – presumably without paying the entrance fee, which we can take as beside the point for this illustration! A variation on this shows three people trying to pick apples. In both examples each stands on a box. But one is tall and can achieve their objective easily, one is of medium height and struggles to achieve it, and one is short and cannot achieve it at all. This is referred to as ‘equality’, presumably equality of opportunity, although this is not specified. A second illustration shows the three boxes redistributed so that all three are able to reach to the same level and can achieve their objective, which is ‘equity’.
One can learn a lot from these examples about hidden assumptions which are masked by the superficial appeal to fairness. In the first case regarding the advantage and disadvantage conferred by different heights (as a stand-in for a range of different benefits, abilities and privileges presumably), there is a noticeable ignoring of human agency and context. To take the illustration at face value, one has to presume that these three individuals are unrelated, because in a familial context, such as parent and child, the parent might simply hoist the youngest onto their shoulders, as happens so often in real life. Whence, therefore, this rather mysterious redistributor of boxes – in some versions a veritable multiplier of boxes? Because equity – that is to say, those promulgating the message of equity – seemingly cannot conceive of the uncontrolled, unsanctioned, spontaneous act of kindness, generosity or unselfishness which has no ulterior justification or is justified by values other than the approved messaging. Instead, equity allots to authority the role of moral arbitration, and to the subjects of such authority adherence and conformity.
Regarding context, there is an assumption there is a single measure of value, in the case under consideration that being height, height symbolising something that the illustrator values in the real world, such as financial reward or social status. In a different context, such as getting under a fence or through a hole in the fence, shortness and smallness could have been an advantage. It is notable that the institutional fields in which EDI is being promulgated most aggressively are those marked by high status and often high or relatively high financial rewards. There is not much of a push for equity among cleaners, bricklayers or plumbers. Yet for each occupation, the rewards, status or respect that come with it are a measure of the unique skills and competence of the worker, a factor significantly overlooked, perhaps deliberately ignored.
Another analogy likens equality to everyone having shoes but equity to everyone having shoes that fit. In this case, different questions come to the fore. Why must everyone have shoes that fit? People often choose shoes that fit badly or are otherwise bad for their feet, because they value style over comfort. That might be a poor choice, but it is their choice. Of course, children should have shoes that fit, which is their parent’s responsibility. Do we need the purveyors of equity to ensure we have shoes that fit and substitute for parental responsibility? An authority that can mandate fittingness, can also mandate non-fittingness as a punitive measure. Anyone familiar with the literature of the gulag will know that ill-fitting clothes and shoes are one of the instruments of dehumanisation and de-individualisation. We can assume, though, that fittingness is an analogy for something else, but what exactly? If it is simply about fairness, do we need ideological overseers to ram the message home? Only if it is about more than fairness or something other than fairness.
Analyses like these only provide a circumstantial case that something is suspect about the notion of equity. The average employee, while perhaps sympathetic to the language of EDI, increasingly finds themselves irritated by the consistently positive and insistent messaging and perhaps concerned by the earnest moralising without being able to put their finger on where the disjuncture lies or appreciating that it might pose a threat. The warning signs are there, though: the suggestion of an unnamed final authority with decision-making power not transparent on any organisational chart; a creeping value monoculture that brooks no dissent stealthily being installed; the re-orientation of moral desert away from the traditionally accepted ones of effort, competence and innovation to those of “identity”. All these strongly suggest the manifestation of institutional capture by an ideology.
To understand this phenomenon better, it is necessary to read more carefully the matrix in which the term equity is embedded. Equity is found to be inseparable from the ideas of diversity and inclusion. If people are asked whether they are in favour of diversity and inclusion, few would disagree, rather as few would disagree with favouring tolerance or generosity, although one might want these things to be contextualised and perhaps to apply the Aristotelian rule that the good is to be found midway between extremes. To the proponents of EDI, however, diversity and inclusion are not generally applicable values, but have specific meaning, a meaning understood in terms of the intersectional scale of postmodern identity politics. Intersectionality maintains primarily, in contradistinction to the humanistic view derived from both the religious and secular traditions of Western civilisation that each person should be treated as an individual and valued for their uniqueness, that each person inhabits one or more collective identities of privilege or victimhood and that their value or moral stature is attributable to where they stand on the intersectional scale, greater stature being accorded if several “victim” identities intersect.
Read the fine print of any document on EDI and we find that equity is not indiscriminately applicable to all, but favours, if it is not exclusively limited to, those with ‘protected characteristics’, and applied selectively and incrementally to those on an intersectional scale of recognised disadvantage, oppression or victimhood.2 This measure has not of course been determined by popular consensus, or voted on in the ballot box, but determined at some point by organisations advocating on behalf of social groups that have been declared “minorities”, those who share an “identity” or are part of a declared “community” who are proclaimed to be excluded or oppressed by definition. By inference, therefore, someone is not only favoured if considered part of an oppressed group but liable to some form of disparagement if they are deemed as belonging to an oppressor group. These identities are entirely unrelated to whether those sharing them have personally experienced oppression or personally committed any wrongs; it rests entirely with the identity they declare or have been assigned on the intersectional scale, which is determined solely by a highly selective reading of history focused entirely on the wrongs of Western nations, ignoring those perpetrated by other cultures, including those being committed in the present.
By sleight of hand we have moved from a reasonable if imperfect system in which individual reward and social benefit are determined by individual merit, to one in which ideological oversight is brought to bear on the distribution of social goods according to the strength of the claimed inability to achieve them by effort alone because of systemic oppression, which can be as simple as someone with ‘protected characteristics’ feeling that they have been slighted.3 Without any evidence whatsoever, it is claimed that this mandated diversity and inclusiveness leads to institutions which are more effective than those based on merit.4
It would be easy to make the assumption that equity is simply a replacement term for equality of outcome because the examples used illustrate equal outcomes. This is a mistake, on several counts. The idea of equality is of great antiquity and arises from a rational consideration of justice and the requirements of a good society. Equity, on the other hand, has emerged from the postmodern rebellion against reason and rationality and the foregrounding of issues of collective “felt” identity and personal “lived” experience. Then, equality of outcome is a rather simple concept, transparent in intention, though its advocates, the Marxist left, have been prepared to use means unacceptable to the overwhelming majority in order to achieve it. Equity is, by contrast, is a much more subtle concept, whose advocates utilise a more politically sophisticated strategy that largely bypasses the notice of the public. Finally, equality of outcome is understood primarily in economic terms, whereas equity has more to do with social status, as befits its championing by the professional classes.
There are, of course, functional similarities between the concepts of equality of outcome and equity, both being strategically deployed by the progressive left, though of different generations ideologically. The first is that of epistemological and moral certainty of those that proclaim these ideas to be irrefutable social goods, the inescapable entailment of being in thrall to a collectivist ideology.5 This has led some to compare both communism and postmodern identitarianism to religions,6 with their strict orthodoxies, irreconcilable schisms and persecution of heretics, although I think it more truthful to describe them as anti-religions that attempt to fill the spiritual gap vacated by mainstream Christianity. Secondly, both are deployed to leverage political, social, economic and cultural power under the guise of a social good. Thirdly, they have both been willing to use coercive means, a consequence of the first two points.
Whereas the old Marxist left were comfortable with the idea of violent revolution and dictatorship to achieve an egalitarian communist world, the postmodern identitarian left clothe the creation of an equitable society in the language of “inclusion”, “diversity”, “safety” and “kindness” and such-like while utilising linguistic and psychological manipulation and the fear of social and professional ostracism rather than physical threat. However, there is no denying their willingness to sanction violence against their political opponents when it furthers their interests.7 More commonly, though, they use the tools of protest and social media threat to directly intimidate those with differing opinions and pressure organisations, institutions and corporations to de-platform, de-monetise or fire them or otherwise force them from their jobs.
Equality, considered in part 1, has always been problematic, but remains, in the restrained form of equality of opportunity, at least something worth working towards, by reducing inequalities of opportunity. Equity in its present form, as it is being mandated throughout organisations as part of equity, diversity and inclusion, acts as a Trojan horse for a radical agenda which is highly regressive, as it dilutes the absolute requirement of competence, introduces unfair practice, is psychologically damaging to individuals by creating hyper-awareness of past wrongs and present slights, and is socially divisive in professional settings by moralising identities. It also has a corrosive effect on fundamental rights such as the right of free expression and the diversity of opinion within organisations. Nevertheless, equity could potentially introduce a refinement to the concept of equality that would be a positive contribution to ideas of the social good if unshackled from the obsessive resentments of the radical left, a point which will be explored in the final part of this essay.
Notes and References
1. Paul A. Fadil, Robert J. Williams, Wanthanee Limpaphayom and Cindi Smatt (2005). Equity or Equality? A Conceptual Examination of the Influence of Individualism/Collectivism on the Cross-Cultural Application of Equity Theory. Cross Cultural Management, Volume 12, Number 4, 2005, pp.17-35.
2. “…inclusive practice means the voices of disadvantaged members of our community will be at the centre of design and planning with the understanding that such an approach results in an overall benefit to everyone.” Quoted from UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Our understanding of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Online: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/mathematical-physical-sciences/equity-edi/our-understanding-equity-diversity-and-inclusion
3. Astonishingly, some of these claims now have backing in law and disagreeing with their premises puts one in danger of violating some law, such as the detested and wholly anti-democratic ‘hate speech’ laws that have been incorporated into Scottish law and seem to have become operative principles of the Crown Prosecution Service and among some English police forces.
4. There is an abundance of research on equity; the problem is separating out advocacy from actual evaluation in part due to the historically short timeline, which does not permit objective longitudinal research. Management consulting companies generally paint a rosy picture but are not forthcoming on the direction of causality. Companies with an enlightened management philosophy are going to be equitable, diverse and inclusive as a matter of course, which does not undermine competence or fair practice. The concern here is with when profiling, moral posturing and ideological compulsion take precedence. See https://www.societalvalues.co.uk/diversity-is-the-answer-whats-your-problem.
7. The independent journalist Andy Ngo has documented the attacks on people and property carried out in the US by the group ‘Antifa’ against those opposing the political positions on identity and other issues advocated by the radical left in the Democratic party. Andy Ngo (2021). Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy. New York: Center Street.