A Clinical Psychologist Considers Viewpoint Diversity, Illiberalism, and Intolerance within the Dept. of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), like many other organizations, has dedicated significant focus and attention to the topics of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). There are various approaches to DEI and the one most strenuously promoted and advocated for within the VA has its strengths and weaknesses. For instance, we all want to ensure that all is being done to treat all Veterans, staff, and employees fairly and justly. However, one of the concerning weaknesses of the approach taken, other than the underlying ideology, is that there has been a lack of Viewpoint Diversity. My attempt to address this during the first week of February, 2023, was met with an alarming and worrying amount of illiberalism and intolerance.

There are regular meetings that occur across the VA and I join when I am able to. There is a Monthly Psychology Call that is open to all psychologists across the VA. During the DEI portion, there was a mention of different presentations on DEI and I inquired if there would be one for Viewpoint Diversity. Toward the end of the meeting, the presenter responded positively and stated that there would be a range of presentations. I thanked her and noted that I have been tracking Heterodox Academy and would enjoy seeing something along those lines. My comment caught the attention of some colleagues who reached out to me noting that they were glad to see my statements. It turns out, I have not been the only one who felt as if the environment in Veteran Affairs Mental Health has been an environment characterized by ideological conformity. There has been a fear and trepidation to make simple or curious comments such as “maybe we can look at the evidence and data”. In my experience, these suggestions or Socratic questions can elicit accusations, frivolous complaints, claims of lack of sensitivity, and ostracization. Of great concern is that this has come from mental health professionals in the VA.

I was elated to know that others shared similar concerns and saw a need for such important conversations. After some brief brainstorming, one suggestion was to create a SharePoint which is an internet resource in the VA for various topic areas.  I inquired about the process of starting one and my supervisor pointed me in the right direction. It was surprisingly easy because the system had been revamped to streamline functionality. I completed the training and the SharePoint was activated in just a couple of days. The material was plug and play and did not take much time to drag and drop some articles as well as add a couple of links.  

All of the contents were from reputable sources. There were links for organizations such as Heterodox Academy and Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, and two that were not peer-reviewed articles but also from reputable sources with one related to Implicit Bias and Victimhood Mentality. The peer-reviewed articles included topics such as microaggressions, critiques and responses, political diversity, implicit bias, ideological bias, the replication crisis in psychology, the ethics of illiberal acts, and a few others. After setting this up, I shared it with a few friends and colleagues who noted that, after a quick examination, it appeared to be generally “ok”. That is when I decided to seek broader feedback. It was one week after the national meeting and the chat was not being used at the time for a regular presentation so I decided to kindly present the SharePoint and seek feedback from anyone who may have time to check it out. That is when the wheels came off!

At this time, apparently a “trigger warning” may be needed because my comments were cited as a cue for professional psychologists across the VA to seek intervention. This is how I introduced the SharePoint to Monthly Psychology Teams chat:

Dear Colleagues, based on conversations with several friends and colleagues, I have taken the initiative to develop a SharePoint on Viewpoint Diversity. I am not sure how many may see this between regular calls but I would greatly appreciate any feedback or recommendations! I appreciate your time and consideration!

At this point, you may be scratching your head, and you are not alone. The rest of my comments in this chat were largely of the same character. I did include statements such as, “thank you for your time and consideration” on several occasions. There was a psychologist in an upper-level leadership position who offered a comment and my reply is such:

“I was not on the call, so I probably missed something and perhaps context. I have, however, viewed the SharePoint and am very concerned with the content. It seems to be at odds with the core principles of our organization. Agree that context and healthy, informed discussion…”

My response:

“Hello, perhaps it would be good to know how viewpoint diversity is considered “at odds with the core principles of our organization”? Could you let me know exactly how that is the case?”

Maybe it was the content I wrote on the SharePoint itself:

“This SharePoint is designed to promote Viewpoint Diversity, acknowledging that having a breadth of perspectives contributes to a better understanding of the world around us and improves the delivery of best clinical practices to Veterans. Research shows that ideological conformity, biases, and group think can limit one’s vision. The goal is to challenge our potential biases and reduce potential intellectual blind spots!”

I am still waiting for a reply to how this was “at odds with the core principles of the organization”. After all, we all take an oath to protect and defend the constitution when we take a job in the VA. As noted above, all the content was peer-reviewed articles from reputable academic journals and the links above, which are also all reputable organizations. I did expect to have some disagreement, which is anticipated with viewpoint diversity, but I was still surprised at the blatant mischaracterization of the content. I do not think that any objective observer would be able to level such demonstrably untrue statements. That is what I get for thinking.

I did have a lot of great conversations as well with many people reaching out with support and even some reasonable disagreement. Amazingly, some of the people reaching out heard about it by word of mouth from friends and colleagues. One individual who disagreed took my offer to share content and I included it in the relevant folder because this is the heart of true scientific, academic, and reasonable discourse. The voices of support were uplifting as well as saddening. The fact that there were so many dedicated professionals who also recognize the Orwellian environment, coupled with the realistic concern of speaking up publicly, was quite a concerning observation. How can this be the case that the largest health care provider in America, the VA, be so ideologically captured that this could be the case?

It was not long before local and regional leadership were demanding silence, obedience, and removal of the SharePoint. There was nothing specified that had been done wrong. No policies, guidelines, specific comments, or content was identified as justification. The only thing noted was mental health professionals’ emotional reasoning. This is something that we are often helping our clients to overcome so it was startling that this was being used for justification for censorship. Even more troubling that it is from those who are supposed to be mental health professionals! That is when I received notification from our Webmaster that the SharePoint was shut down by an order from local leadership. Soon thereafter, I was notified of a fact-finding investigation of me. It turns out, an official involved in training initiated the complaint, investigated the complaint with no opportunity for response by me, and then signed off on by the same individual, and then justified abruptly ending my supervision of a practicum student. Complainant, judge, jury, and executioner. Textbook abuse of power. A completion of authoritarian, un-American, and unprofessional censorship, and retaliation in both instances. This brings us to the question of what exactly is this ideological narrative that is so threatened by the concept of viewpoint diversity?

That narrative is the approach to DEI influenced by Critical Social Justice (CSJ). There are other approaches to DEI, such as FAIR Diversity and Theory of Enchantment as examples. I have advocated for the discussion and consideration of alternative approaches on multiple occasions and plan to continue to do so. As federal employees, the standard is to be neutral, or at least it had been since I first joined the Army in 1998. Unfortunately, it is the CSJ derived DEI that has been prevalent throughout the VA from what I have observed. The primary elements that lead to the illiberalism and intolerance is the fact that the underlying ideology is derived from cultural Marxism, coupled with postmodern philosophy, and focused on linguistic rhetoric and power dynamics. The essential goal of this combination is to ruthlessly critique every aspect of western society to “dismantle” and destroy it completely. The infusion of postmodernism allows this critique to be free of objectivity, evidence, and reason because truth is claimed as unobtainable so therefore “anything goes” to further a political agenda. The CSJ movement had been prepared to spread like wildfire when an opportunity arises. The combination of media focus on police brutality and the pandemic increasing tensions was the moment it sprang forth. The VA was not immune to this phenomenon.

Systemic racism and other broad claims to see the world through an oppressed/oppressor lens became prevalent. This false dichotomization is clearly just an application of Marxist conflict theory. However, the calls for allyship, advocacy, and activism along the CSJ dictates became prevalent. This took precedent over using basic critical thinking skills to evaluate the claims and encourage, what had been, the proper professional scrutiny that had been the essential principles of our field.  One cannot even question, what systems? Who is in charge of these systems? What about the Civil Rights laws that forbid and take action against discrimination? Are there any other possible explanations for disparities? All of which are attributed to Marxist notions of “structural determinism.”

None of these questions can be presented without fear, intimidation, and retaliation. This inherently interferes with professional standards of our field. Indeed, the APA Ethics Code Principle C: Integrity states,

Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of psychology. In these activities psychologists do not steal, cheat or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact.”

Yet, in the environment of CSJ, encouraging accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science is met with anger, vitriol, ad hominin attacks. In my experience, there have been literal APA ethics code violations of frivolous complaints, seeking of complaints that can likely be refuted with evidence, and misrepresentation of the state of the science. According to CSJ, seeking evidence, using reason, logic, and objectivity are elements of “white supremacy” and therefore justifies any action to stop them, even if it involves ethical violations.

This is Psychological Lysenkoism in action.

Concerns about the ideological and political nature of CSJ, censorship, and ethics violations by DEI committed psychologists have been brought to leadership and, to the best of my knowledge, dismissed or ignored. These concerns have been raised to all levels of leadership, from immediate supervisors, ethics consultation, equal opportunity, and all the way up to the Secretary of the VA. It would appear that this may be the official position of the VA at this time. The DEI application should be based on cultural Marxism, and all white Veterans should be seen through the lens as oppressors. All non-white, or minority, Veterans should be seen through that lens as victims that lack agency to act in their own best interest and bring about meaningful outcomes. This is what our DEI programs are promoting, what our interns and postdoctoral fellows are being taught, and what leadership, via their silence, appears to endorse.

I openly reject Psychological Lysenkoism and all forms of Marxism. There are better ways to achieve progress that include respecting the universal humanity, integrity, culture, and individual dignity of all Veterans. We do not need to impose the most pernicious and destructive ideology in the history of mankind. It is guaranteed not to work and there are 100 million casualties laid at the feet of this ideology in evidence. I have personally seen VA supervisors provide materials to trainees that have a hierarchy of oppression with “straight, white, able-bodied, Christian males” at the top with everyone else listed below. This is otherwise referred to as “intersectionality”. I have been told by providers in other places that mental health professionals have stated, “I could not work with a white conservative”. This is just open racism, bigotry, and is antithetical to sound, ethical clinical orientation. I will ask my brothers and sisters in arms to discuss with their VA providers if they have adopted this ideology. If a white Veteran is seeking treatment, are they being seen in a negative light due to the color of their skin? If a Veteran is not white, are there multicultural assumptions being made, rather than being explored, and are they being seen as inherently a victim without agency? Perhaps a referral to another provider who has not adopted this ideology may be preferred in such instances.

Sunlight is the best remedy. Hold the VA to account and let them know that we expect them to reject this ideology. That we want the VA uphold the oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States just like we did when we took that oath. If we focus on our universal humanity, then we can celebrate our differences. If we focus on our differences, we deny our universal humanity.

E Pluribus Unum.

By Dr. Edward Waldrep, a Veteran of the War in Iraq, Purple Heart recipient, and currently a clinical psychologist for the Department of Veteran Affairs specializing in PTSD. Views expressed here are those of the author and are not the views of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Leave a Reply