Billionaire reflects on the negative impacts of DEI in conversation with Professor Patrick Deneen
Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies, delivered a lecture in the Mendoza College of Business on January 23. In his remarks, Thiel argued that the emphasis placed on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in higher education and business has distracted America from the pursuit of more valuable human goods. Patrick Deneen, Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame, arranged Thiel’s visit and hosted a sit-down conversation with the Silicon Valley billionaire following his lecture.
Thiel, who identified himself as an “unreconstructed libertarian” during the event, suggested that “a group of people who look different but think alike” does not constitute real diversity. “Diversity is not just hiring the extras from the space cantina scene in Star Wars,” he quipped.
He also focused on the overlap between the American real estate crisis and the rise of identity politics. The correlation “doesn’t prove that identity politics were a conspiracy by urban slumlords,” Thiel admitted. “But on the other hand—when you have trillions of dollars at stake—I would say it’s always somewhat odd not to ask the question.”
With the 370-seat Jordan Auditorium at full capacity, Thiel opened with a reflection on the college campus dynamics that informed his 1995 book The Diversity Myth, co-written with fellow “PayPal Mafia” member and Stanford alumnus David Sacks. From there, the core of his lecture explored the influence of DEI and “wokeness” on three different domains: economics, science, and religion.
A Marxist perspective shaped Thiel’s first economic critique of the diversity narrative. Identity politics, he claimed, divides and distracts the working class from their real economic interests. The “reactionary” agenda of DEI amounts to “a form of crony capitalism. It’s in roughly the same category as a bank robber or a prostitute or something like that, where you’re just part of an extremely dysfunctional capitalist racket.”
Turning to the diversity narrative’s negative impact on science, Thiel recalled his well-known thesis on technological stagnation. In the past fifty years, he explained, “There has been a narrow cone of progress on bits, computers, the internet, and maybe now AI.” The world of atoms, however, has witnessed a far slower era of innovation.
Thiel suggested that even though the poor condition of the humanities may be apparent to outside observers, the less obvious effects of DEI on science carry far greater negative consequences. To illustrate his point, he contrasted the functionality of government-run entities such as the DMV or the Post Office with the National Security Agency. “The one where you can see the incompetence of the agency is actually the one that has the most integrity,” Thiel said. While the NSA appears to operate smoothly from the outside because of its scientific veneer and crypsis, he suggested that the agency “is probably really, really badly run in a way that is sort of analogous to the science question.”
Relating his argument about the decline of science to Deneen’s own thesis about the failure of liberalism, Thiel asked, “What took so long for liberalism to fail? You have all these contradictions, and they’ve been around for three hundred years. Why wasn’t it obvious already in 1750 that it was on a bad arc and was leading to worse functioning individuals, families, or communities and all these things?” He hypothesized that the progress and steady improvement of people’s material conditions obscured the erosion of other elements necessary for human flourishing chronicled in Deneen’s works.
The final area of Thiel’s lecture focused on diversity as both a distraction from as well as an outgrowth of Christianity. Thiel, who was influenced by Catholic philosopher and anthropologist René Girard as an undergraduate at Stanford, related the biblical insistence on the innocence of the victim to a potential Christian temptation towards wokeness.
Finally, Thiel reoriented his focus back to politics, tracing the origins of the phrase “political correctness” back to Stalinism in the 1950s. In closing, he suggested, “Every time you hear ‘DEI,’ just think CCP.”
Following the end of his lecture, Thiel and Deneen had a conversation about recent political developments. Deneen cited the growing number of prominent voices on the left voicing concerns about diversity programs, including hedge fund manager and longtime Democratic Party donor Bill Ackman, as evidence of a decline in support for DEI initiatives. Thiel responded with optimism that some of the worst aspects of diversity and inclusion programs could potentially be rolled back.
Despite being hosted in the largest lecture hall at the Mendoza College of Business, the event was not sponsored by an academic department. Instead, Deneen arranged the lecture independently after having met Thiel at a dinner party in Washington, D.C. After the two shared a lively conversation in the nation’s capital, the billionaire expressed interest in coming to Notre Dame. In addition to the public lecture, Thiel also spoke to Deneen’s “Liberalism and Its Discontents” seminar the following day.
“I was gratified that many students I spoke with afterwards were deeply impressed by the example of someone who is at once immensely successful but clearly loves the intellectual life,” Deneen stated. “Thiel could have been anywhere on the planet last week, and he chose to spend several days in cold, rainy, icy, dreary South Bend because he wanted to engage with a Notre Dame professor and his students.”
Sophomore Molly Foote echoed Deneen’s sentiment, speaking positively of the billionaire’s visit. “Thiel’s remarks underscored the interconnectedness between economics, business, science, politics, and faith. I’d be happy to welcome him back to Notre Dame.”
Deneen added, “If nothing else, whether people agreed with him or not, I hope his visit served as a reminder of Aristotle’s teaching that money is merely a means—and often a corrupting one—and that the pursuit of wisdom is a main purpose for a flourishing human life.”
PJ Butler is a senior with majors in political science and theology and a minor in constitutional studies. While some would label him as a reprehensible “Disney Adult,” he promises that he only really cares about Walt’s unbuilt EPCOT City and dark rides filled with Audio-Animatronics. To hear why he thinks Bob Iger and Josh D’Amaro should be fired, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Patrick J. Deneen
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