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Dissent and diversity

Nemeth (Handout)


Dissent and diversity

Troublemakers of the world, unite

Charlan Nemeth’s In Defense of Troublemakers (Basic, 2018) makes a good point—hearing diverse perspectives makes for better decisions—and makes it again and again, turning what would be a good article into a repetitive book that will have readers at first nodding, and then nodding off to sleep.

Those who keep reading, though, will get to a crucial point: An organization “might want people who vary in age, race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. … There is little evidence that it will improve performance or decision-making by itself.” To get concrete: A liberal college, newsroom, workplace, or board of directors probably will benefit by having racial and ethnic minority representation, but if the chosen members of those minorities also have liberal beliefs, their presence probably will not improve the quality of education, stories, products, or decisions.

Organizations may continue to define “diversity” in the conventional way, but Nemeth notes that one model company “searches for diversity of skill and knowledge rather than readily observable demographics,” and implies that others should do likewise. Bottom line: “The value is found in the persistent expression of a differing view, which stimulates thought about the decision at hand. … The real engine for good decision-making is dissent.” 

Nemeth notes that having someone play “devil’s advocate” is insufficient: The goal of such an exercise “is to get people to consider the downsides as well as the upsides of their preferred position. It appears to do the reverse. Those facing a devil’s advocate seem to be convincing themselves that they were right all along. By contrast, authentic dissent fostered the balance between the pros and cons of a position.”

To find a dollar-and-cents example of the need for troublemakers, look at some state pension funds that are hugely underfunded. In California Dreaming (Independent Institute, 2015), Lawrence McQuillan shows how “state officials have flunked arithmetic when it comes to managing [six] pension funds, and this exposes California residents to extreme risk. … California’s public pensions present overly optimistic conclusions by using rosy assumptions and methodologies that are largely prohibited by law in the private sector and would land private-sector pension administrators behind bars.”

California is in deep, but other states are also attempting to wade in water over their heads. McQuillan reports that “the vast majority of economists believe that the financial methodology used by California’s public pensions (and virtually all public pensions in the country) has been deeply flawed.” Maybe a troublemaker yelling “stop” would have made a difference.

Or, presentation of alternative views might have made no difference, because some elected officials deliberately offered pie in the sky upon retirement as a way of buying votes. Legislators knew they’ll be out of office when the bills come due.


Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage (Thomas Nelson, 2018) is a helpfully troublemaking book that distinguishes between law and wisdom (or what at WORLD we call Class 1/Class 2 rapids and Class 5/Class 6 ones). Leeman notes that churches should be prophetic rather than partisan. He identifies as sub-Biblical both disengagement from the public square (Jonah’s initial resolution) and capitulation to the idolatry within it (as with the Reich Church of the 1930s). 

In The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (Oxford, 2018), Alan Jacobs portrays five Christian and quasi-Christian intellectuals: C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and W.H. Auden. They saw victory in World War II coming, but knew Christians were likely to lose the peace, and Weil knew why: “The errors of our time come from Christianity without the supernatural.”

Some who ignored the supernatural became murderers: In The Italian Executioners (Princeton, 2018) Simon Levis Sullam documents the genocide of the Jews of Italy. Others miss the way faith in Christ changes individuals and neighborhoods: In Uneasy Peace (Norton, 2018), NYU sociology professor Patrick Sharkey emphasizes the importance of community organizations in fighting crime and renewing city life, but he ignores Christian groups. —M.O.