Mandatory Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statements at SPSP
An Email Exchange with Notables from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology
A series of Orwellian emails recently appeared in my inbox. It all started sensibly enough. Much to my surprise, Jonathan Haidt, founder of Heterodox Academy and staunch defender of the type of liberal science advocated by JS Mill, Robert K. Merton, and Jonathan Rauch,1 had emailed a letter to Laura King, President of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP is a high-profile professional society for this group) protesting SPSP’s mandate that its members produce DEI statements if they wish to present at its prestigious and influential annual conference.2
No longer would acceptance of proposals be based exclusively on evaluations of scientific merit. Everyone had to state how their work advanced Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI); and this would be included in evaluations of which proposals SPSP would accept for presentation.
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A strange yet vigorous exchange ensued and is presented below. First, some context. Here is the Order of Events as I experienced them:
SPSP mandates DEI statements for presenting science.
Haidt sends King (and several others, including me) an email objecting to the policy.
A former SPSP representative who requested not to be named or quoted responded in a very respectful tone with some very strange suggestions
I responded to the substance of those very strange suggestions.
Laura King responded with another very respectfully toned email explaining her reasoning for supporting the policy and her understanding of why and how SPSP came to support it.
The substance of her arguments struck me as ranging from bizarre to deeply confused to outright disingenuous, and I stated so in an email reply. I would have welcomed a more harshly toned but more well-reasoned reply. Tone is vastly overrated.
The exchange is presented below.
Haidt and King granted permission to post their emails (with King requesting that I explicitly provide the following caveat: She was writing from her own personal perspective and was not speaking officially as President of SPSP). The former SPSP representative did not provide permission to share the email.
SPSP’s Statements About its Commitment to “Anti-Racism”
To understand the email exchange, some discussion of the context is in order. SPSP’s “Commitment to Anti-Racism” can be found here. It includes these:
Goal 1: Demonstrate that SPSP values diversity and inclusiveness of people and ideas...
The deceptive disingenousness of this goal is discussed below.
Goal 2: Facilitate the development of more anti-racist scholarship in our field (e.g. reduce racist method practices, place equal value on research of minoritized, non-US, or non-WEIRD participants).
There are two plausible interpretations of “anti-racist.” Below, King suggests that all this means is “against racism.” But this simple interpretation is silly. Does SPSP really thinks it has a problem with lots of members being for racism? Regardless, being “against racism” does not require DEI statements, so it fails to justify the policy.
Far more plausible is a second interpretation of Goal 2: Implementation of a far left ideology most closely associated with Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist, even though King denies this in her email.
Goal 3: Increase representation of individuals from diverse and underrepresented groups within our presenters and research teams
I can get on board with this — as long as they also meet universally applied standards for scholarly excellence and if “diverse” and “underrepresented” have their conventional meanings. Which they do not. “Diversity” does not refer to people from many different backgrounds and with many different perspectives; “underrepresented” does not refer to groups whose representation at SPSP is lower than in the population. Instead, they are used in a social justice sense to refer to groups that those on the progressive left believe warrant special protections and treatment.
But let’s put the Orwellian bait and switch aside. If SPSP thinks it has a racism problem with including certain types of people as presenters, all it needs to do is institute blind review. A racist cannot possibly discriminate on the basis of race if that racist does not know the racial identity of a submitter. If SPSP believes the leadership that invites speakers and panels (who therefore may not have to undergo conventional review) is racist, it should do something about that leadership; requiring thousands of powerless academics to submit DEI statements will do nothing to address racism at the top.
If there are inordinate obstacles that fall disproportionately on individuals from certain groups, say they have lower incomes so that paying conference registration fees is a hardship, then providing a program that reduces costs to eliminate such an obstacle would be quite reasonable. However, other than reduced fees for students and travel awards and travel grants for students from “underrepresented” groups3, I found no evidence of such a program anywhere in SPSP’s materials related to DEI or “representation.”
That puts the following email exchange in some context. SO, without further ado, I present the entire exchange, substituting my summary of the SPSP rep’s email main points, rather than the email itself. Emails will be shown in regular font (like this one). Any additional commentary I make beyond the email exchange will appear in italics like this.
The Email Exchange
To: Laura King, President, Society for Personality and Social Psychology
July 19, 2022
I wrote to you on June 29 asking if it was really the policy of SPSP that all proposals for our 2023 conference had to include an explanation of how the submission would “advance the equity, inclusion, and antiracism goals of SPSP.”
You wrote in response:
"We believe that part of that effort should involve amplifying the voices of those who have historically been underrepresented in our field.”
I think that’s great. Do that. I think it’s fine for the program committee to have goals for the conference and to put out special calls, or to preferentially select talks or sessions for that reason. I can support the possibility of giving preference to speakers based on their race or nationality. Those are internal decisions about who and what you want at the conference.
But making all of us say how our work advances a specific ideological agenda? That is entirely different.
You wrote: "I am not super clear on why anti-racism is viewed as problematic….?”
I urge you to read Ibram Kendi’s “How to be an antiracist.” Here are two quotes, from p. 18:
"There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”
This is a bizarre statement. Everything that is not explicitly aligned with his philosophy is racist? If SPSP has a policy about plagiarism that is not antiracist, then it is racist? If a town in Iceland has a policy about speed limits on its roads that is not antiracist, then it is racist? Kendi is an example of the Manichaen binary thinking that I have spent much of my career trying to reduce.
"The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
This statement is breathtaking in both its obvious wrongness (there are plenty of other remedies) and in its moral offensiveness. Those of us raised in the late 20th century who strived to end group-based discrimination are now told we are wrong, that the ONLY way to end group-based discrimination is to do it in reverse? We are told that if our goal is to be non-racist, rather than anti-racist, then that makes us racist?
Antiracism is the most intellectually shallow and morally offensive ideology I have ever seen up close. It’s fine with me for it to be taught in schools as a set of influential ideas, like communism, nazism, or christianity. But if NYC public schools taught communism, nazism, christianity, or antiracism as an official creed, which my kids had to profess or abide by, I would withdraw them from the school system.
If SPSP is now endorsing this ideology, and telling us that we cannot present at the SPSP conference unless we profess antiracism, or at least pay lip service to it by finding some way that our research advances it, then I cannot and will not attend the conference. And if this policy stays in place, then I will have to resign from SPSP, after 31 years of membership.
At the 2011 SPSP conference, I gave a talk on how social psychology was becoming a tribal moral community. It was not a moralistic talk. It was a sociology of science talk making the argument that we had lost almost all of our political diversity, we were creating a hostile climate for non-progressives, and this was harming the quality of our science. The talk was well received. I was not shamed or attacked. I told reporters, for years afterward, that the response was a credit to our field, showing that we were scientists first, not activists. Many social psychologists asked me what we could do to improve, and a group of us later developed the argument into a paper that was published in BBS. (I am copying my co-authors on this email).
The current mandatory antiracism statement is a giant step in the wrong direction. I urge you and the convention committee to reverse it.
Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership
NYU-Stern School of Business
Summary of the Unidentified Former SPSP Rep’s Email
The former SPSP representative who refused permission to post here then responded with an email making two main points:
Everything would be fine if SPSP had changed requiring submitters to state how their work contributed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, to how it contributed to Diversity, Equity, or Inclusion. Change “and” to “or” and everything would be fine, because it was too much of a burden to ask faculty to do all three, but requiring any one was completely reasonable.
SPSP might have reached this more enlightened policy if it only had a bit more viewpoint diversity in its ranks.
Interregnum 1: A Slide
[A slide from my recent talks on the radicalization of academia seems relevant here, although I did not include it in the original email exchange]:
My First Email Response
It was only after seeing Haidt’s email and the Unidentified former SPSP Rep’s email that I responded to the set of issues, starting with the Rep’s (hence referred to as XXXX) ridiculous suggestion that everything would be fine if only “and” was changed to “or.”
Dear Laura & XXXX,
No. Changing "and" to "or" might accomplish what you want, XXXX, but it addresses none of the issues Jon raised. The policy is a disgrace and is part and parcel with the radicalization of the academy that is so justifiably producing its declining credibility in the wider society outside of far left progressive circles. It is also producing a burgeoning and dangerously aggressive and ham-handed response by some Republican politicians.
It is possible that SPSP's use of DEI is so superficially meaningless that anyone can fit it. ECR? [this is short for early career researcher, XXXX’s email referred to career stage as fulfilling the DEI requirement). So if a grad student is part of the team? Inclusion! Got some POC in your lab? Diversity!
I think you see the problem, though I suspect you will both deny it. Robin Di'Angelo's "disagree with me and it proves how racist you are" is not actually completely wrong, it just inverted the dynamic. Woke Fragility is a real thing.** Cross woke academics and all Hell can break loose, including losing your job. See FIRE's Scholars Under Fire Data Base for hundreds of examples.
**Does the term "Woke fragility" piss you off? Then you "get it." And by "get it" I mean you get Jon's point about how ridiculous so much anti-racist ideology is. Woke academics labor under the delusion that, if you are not whole hog with the absurd anti-racist ideology you are not against racism. "Woke Fragility" just puts the shoe on the other foot. Of course you don't like it. Nobody else does either when its done to them. Yes, Virginia, you can be "against racism" and still reject anti-racist ideology. Anti-racist ideology is a cult, as so aptly described in John McWhorter's (who, if you do not know, is both Black and a Democrat):
Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America
If you ever get fed up with having to profess ideological fealty to woke anti-racist ideology, I invite you to join the nascent Society for Open Inquiry in the Behavioral Sciences. No one will ever be compelled to profess such fealty in order to participate in the Society. Our Mission Statement:
We are scholars and practitioners in the behavioral sciences committed to free inquiry and truth seeking. In healthy scientific fields, ideas are debunked rather than censored, and their proponents are debated rather than punished. Increasingly, orthodoxies, sociopolitical dogmas, and ideological norms have captured the behavioral sciences, skewing research, practice, and policy work. We are dedicated to maintaining open inquiry, civil debate, and rigorous standards in the behavioral sciences.
I suspect you both saw that DeSantis ended tenure in Florida. That playbook is likely to now be followed in other places where Republicans have power. I mean, why not? That is how politics is played; if academia is going to be an engine for progressive activism, then, of course, those who oppose progressive activism, will use political power to stop it.
There is an alternative: social psychology could aspire to be a science that prioritizes truth and eschews political activism. But who am I to tell SPSP how to "serve" its constituents? Feel free to oversee the full-throated embrace of woke/progressive/illiberal activism.
You are going to drive us all off a cliff. If you don't turn the car around, the only hope for the rest of us is to jump out.
Laura King, President of SPSP, Replies
Laura King, President of SPSP, then responded, though she asked me to state that she was responding with her personal opinions and views, and was not providing an official position of SPSP.
Dear Jon, et al.,
I appreciate your energetic engagement with our convention guidelines which I am sure arises from your deep dedication to social and personality psychology.
To cut to the chase, the policy, generally, will not change. This policy was recommended by the SPSP Equity and Anti-Racism Task Force and approved by the SPSP Board (which is comprised of individuals elected to their positions by SPSP members).
In my view, much of your concern is rooted in a misunderstanding of the policy. Let me reiterate some points from my initial reply that may not have been seen by everyone cc-d here:
The additions to the submission requirements are not new. They were in place last year.
These are consciousness raising tools.
These requirements are part of, but hardly the central issue in, the evaluation process. They are not a gatekeeping device.
It may be helpful to review SPSP’s position on diversity. You can find it here:
Note that the instructions currently state: “This may include, but is not limited to: The research participants in the sample; the methods used in the research; the members of the research team(s) involved in the work (e.g., background, diversity, career stage, affiliation type); the content of the presentation (e.g., critical theories, prejudice, equity, cross-cultural research).” It is absolutely possible for someone to argue that a presentation represents needed ideological diversity.
Moreover, certainly, one can state that a particular submission does not serve these goals or that the work is irrelevant to them. As a personality psychologist, myself, I was especially concerned that this requirement not discount the vast corpus of work in personality that is largely irrelevant to these goals but is, nevertheless, scientifically sound and important.
In addition, by no means has SPSP signed on to the particular definition of anti-racism that you found so alarming. We have not adopted the specific definition that you shared with me. Consider, instead, the OED definition of anti-racism: “the policy or practice of opposing racism and promoting racial tolerance.” Other common definitions replace “tolerance” with “equality.” I think these definitions fit well with the overarching goals of the society. Based on your email, I will see about having that definition added to the website for greater clarity. Perhaps with this definition in mind, you can better understand my confusion about your concerns.
Finally, I assume that the comparisons you drew in your email were referring to the specific definition of anti-racism that you cited. Of course, SPSP is a private organization not a public school. Further, the consequences associated with these guidelines (which would never be the sole reason a conference submission was rejected—remember that is what we are talking about here), are not remotely on par with the consequences of the sort you imply.
I realize that not changing the policy (or deleting it altogether) is unlikely to be a satisfying outcome to you, even in the context of these clarifications. Certainly, your membership is valued and, of course, I encourage you to remain in the society as an important voice for diversity.
Thank you for sharing your concerns with me.
Laura Laura A. King, Ph.D. (she, her) President, Society for Personality and Social Psychology Curators' Distinguished Professor
Interregnum 2: My Additional Commentary that was not in the Original Exchange
Two additional slides from my recent talks on The Radicalization of Academia may shed some light as to what is going on here, although they were not in the email exchange:
These are data from Nate Honeycutt’s dissertation, the data for which are currently being analyzed. No written report is yet available, though I hope one will be in the not-too-distant future.
Keeping in mind that American professors (the vast majority of the members of SPSP) are overwhelmingly on the American political left, these results are even more striking and probably deserve a stand-alone essay:
I am pretty sure the 43% disagreeing that DEI statements are political litmus tests are implicitly stating that their subjective political opinions, such as endorsing affirmative action and racial preferences, are not subjective political opinions but “just true or right.”
Nassim Taleb makes a related point in Skin in the Game, although again, I did not include it in the original email exchange:
My Second Email Response
I then replied to Laura King’s email:
To quote John McEnroe, "You can't be serious." I note here that he was widely criticized for being a "bad boy" of tennis at the time, but is now widely credited with almost single-handedly dramatically improving the quality of the officiating by holding officials and the professional tennis associations accountable for their errors.
Anti-racism, as you describe it involves "opposing racism and discrimination." Great. Should I submit something to SPSP like this?
"It is the anti-racist policy of my lab to judge people entirely on their merits. Students are admitted to the lab based entirely on their achievements and qualifications, regardless of their racial or other demographic backgrounds. This is transcendantally anti-racist because it makes no important decisions based on race, and focuses like a laser on people's actual or potential contributions. It treats people as individuals, not as category symbols. It is maximally inclusive because it includes anyone qualified to join the lab, regardless of their demograpnics. It maximizes 'equity' by providing opportunities to succeed for all students with sufficient background to join the lab."
What do you think are the odds that this would help or harm the submission?
You deny that the DEI requirement is gatekeeping. How do you know they won't be used as gatekeeping? I propose an adversarial collaboration:
You give several of us access to all SPSP's submissions. We then code them for their commitment to DEI.
Pre-registered prediction 1:
The more anti-racist ideological rhetoric they use, the more likely they will be to be accepted. Corollary: The failure to refer to social justice shibboleths ("George Floyd!" "BLM" "systemic racism!" "whiteness" etc.) will reduce likelihood of acceptance.
Who put SPSP, or its DEI committee, in charge of "consciousness raising"? Regardless, as I wrote earlier, SPSP can do whatever it likes, it is a private organization. But once you acknowledge "consciousness raising" please never deny again anyone who accuses SPSP (and social psych more broadly) of becoming a vehicle for full-throated political activism." You just admitted it although not quite in so many words. It was like saying, "Yes, I shot the loaded gun directly at the victim" without saying "I committed murder" not in the sense of the violence but in the clear implicit acknowledgement of guilt.
We all know how this works, Laura. Its ideological litmus tests all the way down, coupled with denial that they are ideological litmus tests.
Have you actually looked at SPSP's own diversity survey for the % of non-leftists in the organization? Conservatives are the most "underrepresented" of any group SPSP assessed. I use the term "underrepresented" in its statistical sense of "being less represented than in the population.” I do not use it in the social justice sense of "historically oppressed" which is an ideologically Orwellian twisting of the meaning of "underrepresented."
Preregistered prediction 2a:
No one, literally 0, submissions will say "We are advancing equity and inclusion by making sure to include conservatives."
Preregistered prediction 2b:
If 2a is falsified (which it can be by a single exception), literally 0 of those that do say "we advance equity and inclusion by including conservatives" will be accepted by SPSP.
Its ideological litmus tests all the way down, Laura.
I note here that I have probably collaborated with more Black psychologists than most of SPSP's non-Black membership. Past or current collaborations include: Lerita Coleman, Susan Hatter-Kelly, Neil Lewis, John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Romain Walker, Celina Chatman, Jerome Isaacs, Brett Byll. How many of your non-Black members have ever published something in Journal of Black Psychology (as I have)? I am sure its not zero but how many?
SOIBS just launched a new journal, I am chief editor. 2/3 associate editors, who I invited, are Black (Craig Frisby, Wilfred Reilly).
This is not to prove my anti-racist bona fides to you, I could not give a long list of deleted profanity about your opinion of any of this or of me personally. But it is presented here to highlight why I consider your response misguided at best. Its simultaneous denial and implicit acknowledgement of political activism smacks of outright disingenuousness.
[I meant to also point out that transcendant anti-racism — judging people entirely on their merits, as articulated previously — is what produced my long track record of what social justice academics would call “inclusion.” Oh well.]
However, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps there is nothing disingenuous about your response. If so, then let me know when you want me to give a workshop at SPSP on:
"How a laser-like focus on merit maximizes DEI without racial preferences, without social justice dogmas and without grinding a single ideological ax."
After all, you really care about DEI, right? What better way to advance it than to hear about how its done without recourse to cult-like ideological shibboleths and dogmas? It just "opposing racism" right? Its not some sort of toxic ideology, right? This is DEI for everyone, not just for far left progressive activists.
Indeed, although I cannot speak for Jon or anyone else on this chain, I'd bet dollars to donuts that we could pull together a blue ribbon panel on these issues, if you are actually serious.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Except for minor exchanges asking for permissions to post, that ended the discussion on the merits. I sincerely thank both Jon and Laura for granting permission to post their emails here.
I note here that President Laura King did not reply to my questions and did not take me up on my offer for either the adversarial collaboration or to hold a panel on transcendant anti-racism. This is how power works. If you have it, you do not need to engage those who oppose your policies, practices, and rhetorical claims, although in fairness, she did respond to Jon’s email. Also no one is ever under any requirement to respond to anyone else in relatively informal contexts, as here. It is also obvious that almost any response she would have provided (other than inviting the proposed panel on transcendent anti-racism or agreeing to the adversarial collaboration to study how DEI statements are actually used) would likely have only evoked further rejection and criticism, and who needs that?
On JSMill, Robert K. Merton, Jonathan Rauch. Their views are far too rich to review in this blog post. Rauch refers to this approach as “liberal science”; liberal not in the partisan sense of Bernie Sanders or AOC, but in the sense of emphasizing a free and open society, eschewing denunciation and both public and private censorship, and approaching the understanding of what is true through open debate about the nature of evidence. See JSMill’s On Liberty, Merton’s Norms of Science, and Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors and Constitution of Knowledge.
SPSP is one of the main professional organizations for social and personality psychologists, and sponsors a yearly conference where researchers share their findings and ideas. The SPSP conference is a big deal. It is very difficult and competitive to get them to agree to hold a proposed panel or symposium. Such events are prestigious and often widely attended. Individual poster presentations are also competitive, but not quite as difficult (or prestigious or influential) as panels or symposium.
Here is what SPSP says about who qualifies: “Applicants must be a member of an underrepresented group in social/personality psychology (these groups include, but are not necessarily limited to, ethnic and racial minorities; first-generation college students; lesbian, gay and bisexual students; transgender students; and students with a physical disability).” It is clear here that “underrepresented” is being used in the Orwellian manner described in the essay, not to refer to people whose groups are underrepresented at SPSP compared to some benchmark (Census data, nationally representative samples, demographics of people with PhDs in psychology), but in the social justice sense of “oppressed groups.”