Bigotry must be entering its own kind of cretacious period, because it’s slowly beginning to get harder for dinosaurs to roam the great plains of our most influential industries. While white men still dominate much of politics, mainstream media, technology, entertainment and other key sectors, attitudes of overt exclusion (or worse) toward women and other underrepresented groups are slowly becoming a risk for those who hold power.
As social media users begin to learn what kind of power they hold, too often the risk of bigotry in leadership is quantified in public relations terms. Progress is hollow when things like racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of less-than-human treatment are treated as more “brand” problems (personal or commercial) than, you know, societal ones. Treating bigotry like a PR crisis snuffs out the potential for honest reflection about how it subtly takes shape in our psyches, the harm it causes, and how we might perpetuate it.
While he allegedly dries out, do you think Toronto Mayor Rob Ford will be doing much reflection on the misogynist comments he made about his colleague and competitor Karen Stintz, and how those comments might contribute to a climate where women make up only 33 per cent of Toronto city council (an all-time high)?
Is disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling going to give some serious thought to how his business practices and personal views impact black people, the NBA and America at large?
Is Brendan Eich likely to finally take his colleagues’ concerns about his views on gay marriage to heart and change his tune on the whole thing, now that he’s resigned his position as CEO of Mozilla and disappeared from the public eye?
It is nice to think so. However, a look at recent controversies in the tech and politics sectors sows doubt in that claim. While social media makes it harder to get away with being a misogynist, homophobic or racist leader, the reactions that ultimately removed Eich and Sterling from their thrones are fighting against a tidal wave of opposing reactions that tolerate and justify their bigotry.
Some react with outright dismissal, whether they dismiss the incident’s significance or the whistleblower’s reliability or validity. And usually, dismissing the former also means dismissing the latter. In a recent Silicon Valley example, Julie Ann Horvath says she had to quit her job as a respected programmer at GitHub due to a hostile work culture where gender-based harassment (from sources as far up the chain as a co-founder) was consistent and tolerated.
A month after she aired her allegations, GitHub reported that an “independent third party” investigation “found no evidence to support the claims” against the founder Horvath had named, for any “sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or of a sexist or hostile work environment.” That’s a pretty sweeping statement, especially when they followed it up with, “However, while there may have been no legal wrongdoing, the investigator did find evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment.”
After the resignation of the founder Tom Preston-Werner (despite his implied innocence), prominent investors and influencers in the tech community took to social media to state that they stood firmly behind “both GitHub the company and Tom the person.”
Outright dismissal like this sends the message that no matter how you handle discrimination in your workplace, your voice will be trumped by corporate and legal litany intended to silence, discredit and, frankly, outlast the stamina of any one person seeking change or justice.
Others react with trivialization, insisting the transgressor’s anomalous actions are the exception to the rule of an otherwise tolerant industry and society. Take the case of millionaire tech CEO Gurbaksh Chahal, who vehemently argued on his personal blog that, despite widely reported security camera evidence, he was innocent in brutally hitting and kicking his girlfriend 117 times.
Reader comments on Chahal’s blog range from agreement that this whole thing is a set-up because he is wildly successful, to some variation of “he’s just a human being / it was a misjudgment / pobody’s nerfect.”
This trivialization absolves the perpetrator of accountability by suggesting the victim somehow provoked the reaction (or perhaps ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time). It also snatches these egregiously violent examples from the misogynistic white noise that makes up the broader context of Silicon Valley and, in many subtle ways, encourages its denizens to stand behind their Gurbaksh Chahals.
If commenters are not dismissing or trivializing the incident, they’re often tone-policing those who speak out by labelling them flippant, overly emotional, or “too aggressive” in their complaints (“If you’d just be nice about your oppression…”). Examples of this approach in politics abound, from British Prime Minister David Cameron repeatedly telling MP Angela Eagle to “Calm down, dear” when she responded passionately in the House of Commons; to Calgary Tory Len Webber quitting the Tory caucus earlier this year, citing his official reason being that Alberta Premier Alison Redford wasn’t a “nice lady.”
The tone argument is a form of derailment, a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of its content, and calling sole attention to the tone distracts from the content that begs to be addressed. Furthermore, an angry tone is often a long-simmering response to more nebulous forms of verbal hostility like condescension or passive-aggression. Why are these forms of treatment “fair” but getting angry is not?
We react by getting angry about bigotry, especially among the leaders and decision-makers in fields like politics and technology that build the policies and tools that govern our lives. Bigotry is not a PR problem. It is a deep-rooted societal problem. Bigoted views cannot be simply cordoned off from the rest of a bigot’s life and activities. A private misogynist is simply not capable of making public decisions in the best interest of women.
If we tolerate misogyny, racism, homophobia or any other form of discrimination in our leaders, we embed discrimination directly into the systems that underpin our society. That’s why we won’t hold out until a meteor wipes out the dinosaurs – they’re always hatching eggs anyway, after all.