When Mary, a licensed counselor, sat at her kitchen table to take a required virtual training, she never thought that she would be forced to violate her conscience before going for her next cup of coffee. Here is what she read: “True or False: ‘To be culturally proficient means we are able to see each belief system as equal to each other (meaning that no one belief system is any better than any other).’”

This was a problem for Mary because, according to her belief system, racism, Nazism, Fascism and criminal thinking are examples of belief systems she considers pernicious and destructive to society. She could not agree that these belief systems are “equal” to any other belief system, as for example, the Golden Rule, peaceful resistance, the Ten Commandments or other systems that uphold virtues such as love, justice, compassion and forgiveness. However, when Mary answered this question according to her conscience, her answer was graded “wrong.” In fact, she was only allowed to proceed with the training when she changed her response and answered “True”!

How can this be? If “no one belief system is any better than any other,” why is Mary’s belief that there are important differences between such systems marked as “wrong”? Is her view not “equal to any other belief system”? The position expressed in the training statement was self-contradictory.

It is possible that the writers of this training were implicitly referring to “religious” belief systems and aiming at fostering love and mutual respect among people of different faiths. This aim is laudable, but I believe it would still miss the target. I cannot agree that the religious belief systems associated with mass suicide in Guyana or genocide in Bosnia can in any way be construed as equal to the belief system that energized Mother Theresa to tend the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.

This example demonstrates the danger of people in positions of authority trying to compel others to think and behave according to a certain ideology. It is likely that these writers believe they do not subscribe to any particular belief system (i.e., they believe they are philosophically neutral). However, this belief in neutrality is in itself a belief, and therefore a part of a particular belief system. In Mary’s example, the person who wrote this training item is using a dichotomous question to force people into either confessing an agreement against their own conscience or accepting a fallacy uncritically.

I suggest that people in positions of leadership do some very hard thinking about their role in society. It is easy to perpetrate coercion in the name of cultural tolerance and inclusiveness. There is a critical difference between educating people to respectfully consider different points of view and affirm the equal value of those with whom they disagree and imposing a paradoxical belief system as superior to all others.

Here is my suggested revision for the question in this training: “True or False: ‘To be culturally proficient means we are able to accept and respect every person, irrespective of their belief system (meaning that no person is inferior to any other person).’” Instead of teaching the fallacy that all ideas have the same value, now the question upholds the value of all human beings, even if they do not agree with each other.