A Support Group for the Unwoke

A group called Counterweight assists people who feel that their bosses and co-workers are forcing them to endorse social-justice beliefs.

A circle of chairs representing a support group set around a "no" symbol
Getty / The Atlantic

Helen Pluckrose is a former academic who became famous for pranking the academy. Three years ago Pluckrose, who previously researched medieval religious writing, joined with the scholars James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian to concoct some fake scientific studies on outlandish topics, such as rape culture among dogs. They loaded the papers with phrasing such as “because of my own situatedness as a human, rather than as a dog,” and submitted them to peer-reviewed journals. Seven of the papers were accepted for publication. The exercise had its critics, but to the hoaxers, the stunt suggested that journals in the humanities are so blinded by ideology that they’ll publish anything that confirms their worldview.

In the years since, Pluckrose has become a kind of dark-web Sheryl Sandberg, helping people lean out of diversity training and pronoun sharing. She recently launched Counterweight, a support group for people who feel that they are being pressured to endorse what she calls “critical social justice.” Pluckrose told me that she hears from three or four people a day who have “been disciplined, or [are] being forced to affirm beliefs that they don’t have about race or about gender.” About two-thirds of Counterweight’s clients are Americans, and the rest are a mix of Brits, Canadians, and Australians.

Mostly, Pluckrose said, Counterweight offers moral support and help with “strategic negotiation” with employers. The group might advise a client to, for example, affirm their opposition to racism and then proceed gingerly when asking to opt out of a process they disagree with. It took one client eight months of careful negotiation to get her company’s diversity training made voluntary, for example. Sometimes, Counterweight writes letters of support to the employers of people who feel they’ve been wronged by wokeness. The service is free and runs on donations, as well as revenue from forthcoming books. (Counterweight is creating a guide for workers tentatively titled So You’re About to Be Canceled.) Pluckrose told me that she doesn’t take a salary.

Calls to Counterweight exploded in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, which in one survey half of all U.S. workers said their company responded to in some way. Two weeks after Floyd’s murder, searches for diversity officer and implicit bias training reached a peak, according to PBS, and companies staffed up on equity-and-inclusion managers. In May, some anti-racism educators told reporters that they had done more corporate trainings in the past year than they had in decades. Some of these diversity-trained employees, it seems, did not like what they heard.

The Counterweight clients I spoke with felt that everyone was against them. Even as workplaces and other institutions have become more equitable, they’ve largely failed to offer people a legitimate way to air their hurt feelings, to get help navigating tricky situations, or to understand the difference between persecution and feedback. In the absence of better avenues to discuss uncomfortable grievances, some will inevitably retreat to an underground network. Some will turn to Counterweight.

Pluckrose’s hoaxer past might raise doubts about the earnestness of her new endeavors in anti-wokeness. In her methodical, polite way, she presented Counterweight as simply a place for people to go when, say, their bosses are forcing them to agree that all white people are inherently racist. But are its clients legitimate victims of workplace overreaction, or have they provoked their colleagues and faced predictable consequences? Are they getting needed guidance, or affirmation that they were right all along?

One of the calls to Counterweight in the months after Floyd’s murder was from Jennifer Friend, a white social worker in Northern Virginia who said her employer, Fairfax County, was holding discussion groups and had created websites that implied that police “are the enemy.” According to Friend, the county’s new anti-racism website linked to articles and podcasts that called white women “Beckys” and “Karens” and said that “white women’s weapons are microaggressions and a direct line to the police murder hotline.” (I couldn’t find evidence of these articles on the county’s website. The Fairfax County government declined to comment.) “It was just article after article that, to me, were very divisive and degrading,” Friend told me.

Friend approached Counterweight, which offered her some emotional support and a free legal consultation. When Counterweight realized that Friend was a therapist, the group enlisted her help with its other clients. Friend quit her job with Fairfax County, and she now splits her time between a traditional private practice and counseling people Counterweight sends her way. One recent client was a filmmaker, Travis Brown, who was suffering from anxiety because he worried that his documentary series critiquing “woke ideology” would cause someone to dox or attack him.

Friend said she is now more satisfied with her career than ever before. “Counterweight clients are some of the nicest people I’ve met in my entire life,” she told me. “They are all so ethical and principled. And very much not racist.”

Many Counterweight clients seem to feel like they’re back in middle school, exiled to a solitary lunch table. One client, a research analyst who requested anonymity, declined to share his pronouns with his colleagues, so he was banned from team meetings, he told me. Pluckrose “gave me some sample scripts to adhere to when communicating with my employer to make sure I remain diplomatic while also being heard,” he said via email. Elizabeth Spievak, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University, in Massachusetts, reached out to Counterweight when her research sparked an uproar on campus. As part of a study meant to assess whether language could influence people’s response to perceived threats, she and her co-authors showed dozens of people a statement that compared Black Lives Matter to “an open wound” or a “wild beast.” Someone tweeted a screenshot of the question, prompting the university to apologize for it and promise to reform the Institutional Review Board, of which Spievak is the chair. (Karim Ismaili, Bridgewater’s provost, told me that there won’t be any changes to Spievak’s job as a result of the incident, but that the university wants to add more staff, advisers, and professional development to the IRB.) Counterweight connected Spievak with like-minded academics, she told me, as well as some people who were willing to “just listen.” Spievak added: “Counterweight has renewed my confidence and ability to defend my liberal values without constant fear.”

Perhaps surprisingly, some of Counterweight’s clients aren’t white—they’re people of color who don’t think they’re marginalized. Colin Williams, a Black consultant engineer, felt he was being “forced to go on mandatory unconscious bias training, and that the training assumed that because of my race I was a certain way,” he told me. Counterweight helped him prepare for conversations about the training with his managers, and he was able to avoid the requirement. But shortly after he contacted me, he resigned from his job. (His company told me that it did indeed roll out mandatory unconscious-bias training to all managers, and that it has received “positive feedback from a vast majority” of them.) Another engineer, who is from the Middle East and asked to remain anonymous because he fears retaliation at his job, asked Counterweight for help formulating an answer to a diversity-and-inclusion question during a job interview.

The most obvious argument against Counterweight is that experiencing racism is worse than having to sit through a Robin DiAngelo seminar, and that, in general, work involves a lot of stuff that one may not particularly like but that one has to do anyway.

That is like saying “Having cancer is worse than having bad treatments for cancer,” Pluckrose told me. In general, diversity training seems to have a weak impact on employees’ behavior. In some cases, it can elicit backlash, actually decreasing diversity and inclusion. Still, Counterweight does support some diversity trainings, such as the Theory of Enchantment and the OpenMind platform.

To proponents of racial-justice education in the workplace, Counterweight fans are missing the point entirely. “I think there’s an assumption that the culture is neutral, and that you’re introducing a particular ideology,” Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility and a diversity consultant, told me. In other words, Counterweight is trying to keep things the same, but “the same” is already tilted toward white people. Grappling with how you might be complicit in racism is supposed to be uncomfortable, DiAngelo said. “It is really difficult to look at these issues and to connect ourselves to them.” She gets that some people might need support in thinking about anti-racism, but draws the line at a group that seems to help people dismiss it entirely.

In addition to working with the clients who contact them, Counterweight runs a Discord server that now has about 1,000 members, and that Pluckrose and her team wouldn’t let me see. I started to worry: Chattering among themselves in a private forum, might these avowedly not-racist iconoclasts start to talk themselves into white supremacy?

Pluckrose assured me that Counterweight opposes discrimination and turns away people who espouse openly racist views. For instance, she said, the group ignored a man who thought white people were literally superior to everyone else, a woman who wanted to kick a trans person out of her place of worship, and a woman who wanted a colleague to stop using her pronouns in her email signature.

I asked Pluckrose if her organization would help someone who, say, touched a Black person’s hair without their consent. If someone did this and was fired with no warning and no past history of racism, Pluckrose said, “we might help them write a letter saying this was a disproportionate response and they now knew the behavior was inappropriate and would not do it again. If they simply received a warning, this would be an appropriate response and we’d ask them to accept it.”

Of course, she added, “sometimes on looking into a situation where someone is being bullied at work, it turns out that there is not an ideological reason for this, but just an unpleasant individual.”

Some of Counterweight’s clients do seem to have made their own situations worse—not by standing up to wokeness, but by being off-putting and angry. Their situations have less to do with ideological diversity and more to do with whether people who exhibit poor emotional regulation deserve to have jobs.

In June 2020, the Black and Asian Network of the Suffolk County Council, on the east coast of England, sent out an email newsletter that said that the death of George Floyd was “the f​​inal straw where we say ‘enough is enough … being Black must not be a daily or deadly hazard.’” It also said that the Network would work with the “Corporate Leadership Team in addressing race inequalities.”

The council is in charge of the local fire department, and Evan Heasley, a 50-year-old white firefighter, sent a series of emails asking for examples of the hazards of being Black and of racial inequalities embedded in the Suffolk County Council’s policies. Heasley told me he was trying to be polite, but his emails read as chippy and condescending. (“Could you please inform me of what your plans are to deal with these major issues.”) If it’s so bad, he seemed to be saying, prove it.

The Network responded, sending a Guardian opinion article about racial inequality in the U.K. Heasley replied that he was “disappointed” by the response, and pressed further. Then he sent them two more emails.

Why not just stop at one or two emails? It was too important, Heasley said. To him, the newsletter was another sign of the rise of critical race theory, which he defines as the notion that laws and institutions are biased against people of color. “We’ve got to draw back from this, because we’re sitting on a precipice,” he told me.

He said the fire department investigated him and convicted him of, among other things, failing to adhere to the county council’s code of conduct and of behavior that could be considered harassment. (The county council declined to comment.) But where things really went awry is that in a meeting with his boss, Heasley said “I want to punch the little cunt,” referring to the person who led the internal investigation.

“I’m a bit fiery,” he admitted sheepishly on our Zoom call. Though he said he’s no longer a party member, 11 years ago, Heasley ran for Parliament representing the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, and he once wrote a book called Immigration: A Study in Arrogance and Ignorance.

After yet another meeting, Heasley told me, he head-butted a locker. He was suspended, and began to think that he would be fired. Heasley heard about Counterweight from another firefighter who was in a similar situation, and Counterweight sent a letter to the council on Heasley’s behalf.

Pluckrose told me she chose to support Heasley because he said he had just been venting when he said he wanted to punch someone—akin to saying “I want to strangle my mother-in-law”—and that he later regretted it. Besides, he’s a firefighter, not a gender-studies professor. “The kind of psychology that lends itself to acting quickly and risking your life to save other people is often accompanied by plain and not particularly diplomatic speaking,” Pluckrose wrote to me in an email. She thinks he was unfairly maligned for his political views, which, though she doesn’t share them, she said he’s entitled to.

As Heasley’s case demonstrates, Counterweight’s clients are a mixed bag. Some were mentally spiraling after being unfairly punished at work. Others could have just let something go, but instead made their co-workers feel uncomfortable. Counterweight’s embrace of both kinds of people reveals a central tension of the cancel-culture debate: Everyone interprets each of these episodes differently. Society has not established exactly which kinds of speech should cost a person their job. Even people who think Elizabeth Spievak’s psychology survey wasn’t a big deal might draw the line at actions like Heasley’s.

Some commentators have suggested that governments should put stricter legal limits on companies’ abilities to fire people for unpopular speech. I asked Pluckrose whether she thinks that sort of solution would make sense, and she didn’t have a clear-cut answer. A janitor at a Jewish school who called Jews “Satanic termites” on social media could be fired, Pluckrose said; an accountant who tweeted that she doesn’t believe in “the concept of gender” shouldn’t get the ax. She seemed to be trying to assess whether the hypothetical employees’ views made them unfit for their job. Even that bright line quickly gets blurred, though: People will inevitably disagree on which views make someone unfit.

Though Counterweight is unlikely to save his job, Heasley has enjoyed talking with Pluckrose. “It’s knowing you’ve got someone there,” he said. Pluckrose, who was an aide for the elderly before she became a writer, has exhibited remarkable compassion for him, Heasley said.

Many Counterweight clients told me something similar: That more than the letters to their employers or the anti-woke talking points, they appreciated the chance to talk with people who heard them, who agreed with them, who assured them that they are not crazy and not racist. Everyone, it seems, needs a safe space sometimes.