Commissar Order

Russian Political Commissar, at Soviet-German military parade in Brest-Litovsk, 1939, credit Wikipedia

Commissar Order,
by Bill Hartley

Commissars can be traced back to the Commissaire politique of the Revolutionary Army during the French Revolution. Armies are something of a blunt instrument, a necessary arm of the state but in some countries notoriously unreliable. Having people in the ranks to keep them onside has been considered necessary by various political groups. For example, they were introduced into the Red Army by Leon Trotsky, who was tasked with ensuring that the party could rely on the loyalty of the military.

Commissars served alongside commanding officers exerting ideological control over and being closely involved in command decisions, with the power of veto. Even the Nazi’s were not above taking a leaf from the Soviet book. In the latter stages of the Second World War, when doubts arose about the loyalty of elements of the Wehrmacht, they appointed National Socialist leadership officers.

An article in American Thinker in March of this  year wondered what the difference is between a Soviet political commissar and a diversity officer. The article described the diversity officer as being tasked with enforcing ‘leftist policies in corporations, universities and government agencies’. Although definitions vary somewhat, diversity claims to eradicate prejudice and discrimination.

The Americans had the advantage of an early start in this field. The UK isn’t that far behind though, and for this we have the unintended consequences of the Equalities Act (2010). A piece of legislation which ought to be within the remit of a corporate Human Resources department to manage has become the building block for an exciting new field of employment. Some organisations and businesses seem to have convinced themselves that the only way to avoid criticism or worse is to get with the programme and employ diversity equality and inclusion officers to ensure ideological conformity. Of course, when it’s public money the decision is easier and the NHS isn’t short of diversity officers.

Just what does a diversity officer do? There’s no shortage of information for anyone contemplating a career in this field. He or she starts the day by checking social media to find the latest views and trends. Meetings feature prominently in the working day; diversity officers tend to be in close proximity to people who actually do the work, presumably just like any commissar, to ensure ideological conformity.

Prior to getting into this field of ‘work’, preliminary training is considered important. Some diversity practitioners recommend ‘unconscious bias’ training in order to ‘unpick core beliefs’. The job itself is all about ‘promoting positive attitudes’ and ‘reviewing policies’. Diversity people like finding things to do. One example is the diversity and inclusion survey, to discover how employees ‘feel’ by delving into their comments to gain a deeper perspective. There are organisations which can do this for a company. One advertises this as a way to ‘spark change with actionable diversity and inclusion surveys.’ Another is able advise how to ‘overcome barriers and create a safe space’. Rather dubiously it has been claimed by one source that adopting a diverse and inclusive culture resulted in a ‘19% higher innovation revenue than companies with below average diversity’. This rather obscure term is defined as a way of increasing competitiveness or organisational effectiveness, by listening to employees. Quite how it was measured isn’t stated.

Interestingly one critic from an ethnic minority commented that when it comes to diversity you can never say anything bad about it. He noted that the vocabulary is constantly changing and suggested that this leads to a culture where people are too afraid to say anything. Inclusively has its limits though. Although religion is a protected characteristic under the Act, it is often avoided, since practising Christians may have socially conservative views. This is something surveys steer clear of.

In the relentless drive for diversity, training videos are available. Some of these are both inept and unintentionally funny. One example involves a white middle-aged male (naturally) ‘helping’ a female select a team leader for a project for which she has oversight. The woman proposes a name and the man immediately dismisses him as being too introverted. The individual referred to works in IT and has an Asian name. Inference: racial stereotyping, even though he does elaborate on his view. In contrast, the woman says nothing. She makes no attempt to explain why this individual might be a good choice. As the conversation continues the man insists on talking over the woman, who adopts an expression of saintly fortitude. Another name arises and the man emphasises his familiarity with this individual by using his nickname. He suggests this man is a good candidate, the sort who can quickly get the project underway and enthuse people. Bad manners apart, he at least makes a good case for the candidate, unlike the woman who simply endures his clumsy attempts to help.

Pursuing a career as a diversity practitioner entails coming up with appropriate answers to interview questions. However, help is at hand. One question someone might be asked at an interview is, ‘what would you do if you overhead someone making an inappropriate remark?’ The correct answer is, publicly confront the person immediately and tell them you do not wish to hear that remark again. An alternative answer might be, ‘I need more diversity training so that I can accept people with opinions that diverge from my own’. It calls to mind an imaginary painting in the Socialist Realism style entitled, ‘Challenging the Inappropriate Comment’, featuring a group of people sitting around a conference table, one pointing accusingly at another.

Curiously all of this training seems designed for the office workplace or for what used to be called white collar employment. Manual work doesn’t seem to feature much in the world of diversity training. Challenging an inappropriate remark among, say, a group of scaffolders, would likely be beyond the capacity of even the most dedicated diversity officer.

If blue collar workers aren’t the best choice for expansion then catching them young seems to be the alternative. One organisation tells parents, ‘your child belongs in our circle’ and ‘we commit them for the next step at school and beyond’. Older children should be ‘involved in conversations about fairness and equality’. There are even ‘anti-bias’ lessons available for pre-schoolers.

Diversity is a big business. The afore-mentioned article in American Thinker reported that the average American university now has more than 45 people devoted to promoting diversity on campus, which is a more generous allocation of commissars than a regiment in the Red Army used to receive. A whole career structure has sprung up supported by training and qualifications. Yet it has its critics who will point out that such training isn’t effective. In ‘Diversity Inc.’ subtitled ‘the failed promise of a billion-dollar business’, Pamela Newkirk points out that in the US, whilst diversity targeting is flourishing, diversity is not. She considers it a feel- good exercise and maintains that such initiatives can ironically make matters worse by triggering resentment. Furthermore, organisations who wish to put in place the symbolic structures of diversity don’t bother to test their efficacy. In other words, the diversity apparatus doesn’t have to work it just has to exist. Newkirk concludes that such training can be counterproductive by making stereotypes more prominent and reinforcing them. For companies it may be little more than a box-ticking exercise, helping people answer survey questions in the way that they ‘should’. Even those tasked with managing these training programmes recognise them as ineffective, although in the public sector it would be unwise to voice criticism. Just as soldiers in the Red Army disdained but feared political commissars, today’s employees view them as useless pen pushers but wisely elect to say nothing.

 William Hartley is a Social Historian

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