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The Most Important Thing You Read Today
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The Most Important Thing You Read Today

It’s about diversity training, and it’s not by me.

(Stock photo via Getty Images.)

Imagine for a moment that a crucial part of the American culture war was a battle over Diet Coke. Yes, Diet Coke. On the one side is a cohort of Americans who believe Diet Coke is the devil’s brew. It pretends to be good for you, but it really addicts you to sweetness. It makes you unhealthy. It makes you lethargic. Your slogan is simple and brutal: Diet Coke kills.

On the other side, Americans view Diet Coke as a symbol of freedom and liberty. If a man wears a Diet Coke shirt, you know where he stands. And drinking Diet Coke isn’t just a symbol of defiance, it’s actually good for you. Despite what the lying liberal media tells you, aspartame (the sweetener in Diet Coke) isn’t a gateway drug to sugar, it’s the solution to our sugar crisis, and the solution to the sugar crisis is the solution to America’s health crisis. 

In reality, however, while there is an answer to the question, “Is Diet Coke good for you?” that answer just doesn’t matter much. Many, many other things are far more important to your health than whether you drink Diet Coke. The intensity of my (fake) culture war is way out of proportion to the merits of the underlying dispute.

So it is with many of our real culture wars. The intensity outstrips the impact.

That brings me to the most important thing you’ll read today. It’s not by me. It’s by Jesse Singal, an incredibly sharp writer and podcaster who’s written a number of invaluable pieces (and a book) that take aim at received conventional wisdom and shoddy science. And in his piece today, he takes on diversity training. His thesis is simple—not only does most of it not really work, it sometimes does more harm than good. Here’s Singal:

Over the years, social scientists who have conducted careful reviews of the evidence base for diversity trainings have frequently come to discouraging conclusions. Though diversity trainings have been around in one form or another since at least the 1960s, few of them are ever subjected to rigorous evaluation, and those that are mostly appear to have little or no positive long-term effects. The lack of evidence is “disappointing,” wrote Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton and her co-authors in a 2021 Annual Review of Psychology article, “considering the frequency with which calls for diversity training emerge in the wake of widely publicized instances of discriminatory conduct.”


Other researchers have been similarly unimpressed. “We have been speaking to employers about this research for more than a decade,” wrote the sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in 2018, “with the message that diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around.” 

As Singal notes, while there’s not much evidence mandatory diversity training improves workplace outcomes, there is evidence it can fuel a backlash. And when diversity training emphasizes group blame, it can actually exacerbate biases. 

Confession time. One reason why I found Jesse’s piece so compelling is that he’s echoing arguments I made more than a year ago. (It’s always compelling when people agree with me!) Left and right are tearing at each other over diversity training in part because they’re consumed by a false belief—that the training truly materially impacts individuals’ actions and attitudes. 

I quoted from a 2018 summary of studies by Harvard University professor Frank Dobbin and and Tel Aviv University professor Alexandra Kalev that said, “Hundreds of studies dating back to the 1930s suggest that antibias training does not reduce bias, alter behavior or change the workplace.” 

To put it another way, we fight a tremendous amount over diversity training—even to the point of violating civil rights laws and the First Amendment—to either mandate or prohibit certain forms of DEI instruction when DEI instruction doesn’t impact hearts and minds much at all. It’s Diet Coke. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that just doesn’t deliver what its advocates hope for, nor does it foster identity politics in the way that many of its opponents fear. 

It turns out that people just aren’t that malleable. For good and ill, we’re built of sterner, less flexible stuff, and periodic Corporate PowerPoints or group learning sessions can’t really shape peoples’ lives.

One of the great challenges of life isn’t just discerning what’s right and wrong but also discerning how much something matters. If you think expanded diversity training is a make-or-break movement that can shape American culture, then it’s logical to really care and really pour your energy into the issue. But what if it’s a net zero? Then all the energy and effort is a distraction. It takes you away from the issues that truly matter.

I’m reminded of the firm conviction that many Christian parents have that universities are dangerous to faith—that they’re risking their kids’ immortal souls when they pack them off to godless colleges. Yet the data is overwhelming—college-educated Americans are more likely to be religiously-affiliated and more likely to attend religious services than Americans who didn’t complete a college degree. The gap is narrowing (as church attendance declines across multiple demographics), but it’s real, and it’s been real for decades. 

In other words, colleges are not powerful instruments of secularization. Again, people are not so malleable that even four years of intensive, secular instruction in environments that are quite hostile to their faiths will shake them from their deepest beliefs. Yes, it happens to individuals, but in the aggregate college is not taking people out of church. 

That doesn’t mean that college cultures don’t matter at all. But again, the question is how much do they matter, and which beliefs do they most impact?

No one is denying that people can change and that cultures can change, often dramatically. In fact, one of the most dramatic, universal, and consequential changes of all is the way in which birth rates tend to decline across cultures and political systems as a nation’s economy develops. Prosperous countries have fewer babies, regardless of whether they’re capitalist, socialist, authoritarian, or communist. 

That doesn’t mean that any given policy prescription has no impact, but that impact is muted compared to longer-term, deeper trends that endure across immense cultural, economic, religious, and political differences. As I wrote in 2021:

Nations with generous family leave policies still have low birth rates. Places that pay parents to have kids have low birth rates. Even large-scale efforts in authoritarian countries often have the most modest goals (Putin’s Russia has expanded “maternity capital payments” in an effort to increase the birth rate from 1.5 to 1.7 children per woman). 

Attitudes about race, attitudes about faith, attitudes about family—each of these things is of vital importance to a nation, family, and individual, yet each of them is far less influenced by policy than we might think. We fight and rage about ideas that frequently have little effect—at least little effect compared to the monumentally more important individual circumstances that shape each life, including relationships with parents, spouses, and friends. 

Understanding this reality is both liberating and discouraging. It’s liberating for parents to understand, for example, that their children’s hearts are not really at the mercy of their college lectures or that cultures don’t stand or fall on the basis of a collection of corporate PowerPoints. 

But it can be discouraging to know that big problems aren’t amenable to simple solutions. There isn’t and can’t be a five-point-plan to save faith, to rebuild the family, or to end racial discrimination. The efforts that matter—that really matter—tend to be more individual, more long-term, and more driven by relationships and experience, not by preaching or instruction.

Above all, however, we should be humbled. Too often we attack cultural challenges with a spirit of misplaced certainty. We feel like we know what’s wrong, and we know how to fix it, and when we know we’re right, opposition is frustrating at best and infuriating at worst. The more certain we are, the more likely we are to view opponents not just as wrong, but evil. Do they not want to solve our crises?

Jesse’s piece was about diversity training, but it was also, ultimately, about human nature. It’s a reminder that we often don’t know what we think we know and that people simply aren’t as malleable as we might hope (or fear). It’s hard to know what really matters and what’s just Diet Coke. People do change, but the how or why often defies simple explanation. Understanding those distinctions can and should shape the way we approach the public square. 

One more thing …

It’s been a long time—too long, frankly, since I’ve ended with Ja Morant highlights. But this weekend he had a dunk for the ages, a dunk about which songs will be sung and tales will be told. People will speak about it in hushed tones, overwhelmed by awe. Here it is. Incredible:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.