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  • Rosslyn Cox

Why pejorative labels hurt diversity

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

There’s a great analogy for diversity in nature. To create the brightest light, you need the full spectrum of colours, each holding their original characteristics, focussed purposefully on a single point, creating something new. Take one or more of those colours away, and you compromise the brightness of your light. Remove the purposeful focus on a single point, and you don’t create anything new.

To ensure that you have as many of the ideas, views and opinions in your workforce represented and focussed purposefully on areas of strategic importance, one of the key measures of your diversity competence is your ability to apply empathy, respect and fairness in encouraging and dealing with dissenting ideas, views and opinions.

When it comes to advocating for diversity we devote much time to increasing the participation of individuals and groups who have been traditionally underrepresented in our tribes, communities and workplaces. And we should. We spend less time however, talking about the importance of how we handle ideas, views and opinions that are different. Particularly ideas, views and opinions that may express a different value or ideology. Different from our values or ideologies. Different from the values or ideologies of our tribe, community or workplace.

A recent scan of news articles and social media posts on emotive topics (think climate change, taxes, educational funding, gay marriage, refugees, even diversity itself) threw up a plethora of pejorative terms and labels. A demeaning jibe about their gender, sexuality, race, age, education level. Seemingly deliberately inserted to discredit not the view or opinion, but the person. In sporting terms, it’s called playing the person, not the ball. For those individuals and groups who have themselves been on the receiving end of these terms and labels, the feeling of prerogative to apply the same treatment to others must be real, perhaps a form of natural justice. But it is no more acceptable for a woman to use a pejorative term against a man than it is for a man to use against a woman.

If we are genuinely interested in building diversity capability in our workplaces, we must advocate for the rights of others to express ideas, views and opinions that differ from ours. Then we must apply empathy, respect and fairness to the way that we discuss and debate those different ideas, views and opinions. Does that mean we must always agree with different ideas, views and opinions? No. Or accept ideas, views and opinions that breach our laws? Absolutely not. But we need to better at playing the ball and not the person.

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