Incivility and “deplorables”

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, law school dean Blake Morant (George Washington U.) recalled a speaking appearance in which he was verbally challenged by a man who called himself a “deplorable”:

One month before the 2016 presidential election, I spoke on a panel in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the topic of campus speech. The audience was generally enthusiastic and engaged. A tense moment arrived, however, when one individual, who identified himself as a “deplorable,” took issue with the composition of the panel (two white women and myself, an African American male). He explained that the panel in his view was slanted, did not represent a more conservative position, and that I, as an African American, represented so much of why he as a working-class white male struggles in this economy.

Morant wrote that he tried to engage the man in a conversation, but that his efforts failed. He added that he has been haunted by the exchange, asking himself if he could’ve responded to the man in a more constructive way. He used the story of the incident to call for more civility in our civic discourse.

The backstory

But there’s a catch here that Morant didn’t mention. The term “deplorables,” in this context, traces back to a Hillary Clinton speech at a fundraising event during the 2016 presidential campaign. Here’s what happened, per this report for Time magazine that includes the full transcript of her remarks:

Speaking at a fundraiser in New York City on Friday, Hillary Clinton said half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views.

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

She said the other half of Trump’s supporters “feel that the government has let them down” and are “desperate for change.”

I remember feeling my heart sink when I read the news reports. Of course, I knew it would become a campaign issue, and that was enough to cause despair. Boiled to its essence, Clinton had just called millions of likely Trump voters “deplorables.”

And that, indeed, is how it was reported in the popular media. Clinton’s reference to the other half of his supporters who felt let down by the system was largely ignored.

In response, lots of Trump supporters, playing on Clinton’s remark, began to identify themselves as “deplorables.” They co-opted and claimed the insult.

And so that is why Dean Morant’s unhappy panel discussion attendee announced himself as a “deplorable.”

Civility, opinion, and judging

I voted for Hillary Clinton without reservation, largely because I found her opponent’s worldview and behavior to be alarming and disturbing.

But I voted for Clinton also without enthusiasm, in part because of her “deplorables” comment. It reflected an elitist attitude that is entrenched in powerful circles, and that includes a certain cohort within the left-of-center. 

It may be a fine line, but there’s a critical difference between calling someone’s opinions or conduct deplorable and calling that person a deplorable.

At times, I’m guilty of taking the latter approach. Instead of characterizing viewpoints I find deeply objectionable, I label the person.

Nevertheless, the world would be better off if we kept those judgments to a minimum and gave people the benefit of the doubt, at least when it comes to avoiding blanket condemnations. (There are exceptions, of course, and I admit that I apply one to America’s current president.)

Incivility, like bullying and abuse, often runs in cycles. Once it starts, it can be hard to stop. We’re seeing an ugly, destructive ramping up of that dynamic in our civic life today. As these divisions deepen, they will become harder to dissolve.

In praise of thoughtful dissenters

(image courtesy of quote fancy.com)

In a 1954 broadcast critical of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, celebrated journalist Edward R. Murrow urged upon his listeners that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” Given today’s often poisonous political and social atmosphere, buttressed by bad leaders fueling these dynamics, Murrow’s words continue to ring very true.

And if you’re looking for some contemporary commentary about the importance of dissent in our institutions, workplaces, and civic life, then I’m pleased to recommend a new title by social psychologist Charlan Nemeth (UC-Berkeley), In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (2018). In her book, Dr. Nemeth poses a challenge to leaders and institutions that drive us toward consensus, without leaving room for thoughtful dissent and questioning. Here’s a description, drawn from her website:

Good decision making requires divergent thinking, an unbiased search for information on all sides of the issue, a consideration of multiple alternatives, the weighing of the cons as well as the pros of any given position etc. Regardless of good intentions or even education and training, we don’t do this. We are subject to biases and most social processes conspire to narrow the range of considerations. Consensus and the seeking of it are culprits, not because we follow the consensus right or wrong, but because we think about the issue from that perspective.

By contrast, dissent opens the mind and actually stimulates divergent thinking. It not only challenges and breaks the hold of the majority, it stimulates the information search and consideration of alternatives; it widens the strategies used in problem solving and increases the originality of thought. This is true even when the dissenter is wrong. It is true even when we vigorously dislike the dissenter and her ideas.

The take-home of this book is two-fold. There are perils in consensus and there is value in dissent.

Okay, I hear you: Isn’t reaching consensus a good thing? Don’t we all want to “get to ‘yes'”?, to paraphrase the title of a popular conflict resolution book. Obviously decisions have to be made, for in their absence, things can grind to a halt. Nemeth is not advocating for such outcomes or calling for people to be knee-jerk naysayers. Instead, she’s saying that when decisions result from weighing differences of opinion, the outcomes are often better.

There are lessons in this book for everyone. For example, when I’m in leadership roles or in the classroom, I can be welcoming of differing points of view. However, when I feel very strongly that I’m right, I can get impatient, especially when I perceive that other comments are not well reasoned. Nemeth understands that dissenting opinions — even ultimately erroneous ones — can slow down the process, but she urges their importance nevertheless.

Believe me, I’ve been in academic workplaces long enough to see the damage wrought by marginalizing and even squelching dissenting voices. Organizations that do not encourage genuine input often pay for their insularity. Sadly, their leaders rarely comprehend or admit those costs, instead preferring to bumble along with a top-down approach. Inclusive leadership, bolstered by the confidence to encourage thoughtful dissent, is the better way to go.

In the news

It has been a year of prominent news stories related to the workplace, especially the avalanche of accounts concerning sexual harassment. Here are many of the 2017 news stories in which I’ve been quoted or where my work has been discussed:

Can an employer fire a publicly-avowed white supremacist?

Screenshot of rally photo from Huffington Post

While following developments concerning the horrific white supremacist/neo-Nazi/KKK rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, I asked myself, how would I like to be working with one of these lovely individuals? I then thought, if I was a manager, could I simply fire a white supremacist for participating in the rally?

The answer to the first question is easy and purely personal: No way would I want to share office space, a cubicle area, an office suite, a store floor, or a factory floor with one of these folks. And as an Asian American, I assume they’d feel the same way towards me.

The answer to the second question is more objective, complicated, and nuanced: Yes, in many instances the law would allow a manager to terminate a white supremacist for participating in the rally, but there are potential exceptions and twists, especially for unionized and/or public employees. Without pretending to be exhaustive on the topic, here’s a brief lowdown of relevant legal rules:

  • In the U.S., the rule of at-will employment is the presumptive legal hiring relationship. Among other things, it means that an employer can hire or fire someone for any reason or no reason at all, so long as it does not violate existing legal protections or obligations.
  • Fair or not, the rule of at-will employment allows employers to make hiring and termination decisions based even on many types of off-site, non-work-related activities.
  • Employment discrimination law prohibits discrimination against or harassing of other employees on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, and disability. This would be especially relevant if someone took their white supremacist messages into the workplace.
  • For private-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections do not apply to their jobs.
  • For public-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections may apply if they are speaking out on matters of public concern in ways that aren’t related to or internally disruptive of their work. (Yes, as noxious as it may be to some of us, it is arguable that a public-sector worker participating in this rally would be protected from termination under this set of legal rules.)
  • For unionized workers, collective bargaining agreements may provide additional substantive and procedural safeguards for wrongful termination, which may cover off-site conduct.
  • A minority of employees have individual employment contracts with so-called morals clauses that may be relevant in these situations. 
  • State law can matter in these situations. Connecticut, for example, has a broad employee free speech law that covers both private and public sector workers. California has a law that protects employees’ right to political expression.
  • If an employee engaged in violent behavior, especially that leading to a criminal conviction, their potential legal protections against wrongful termination would severely diminish.

Taking all these points into consideration, what does this mean for whether employers could fire workers for participating in one of these rallies on their own time? Bottom line is that many private-sector employees could probably be terminated without much risk of liability, but that public-sector workers may be able to raise constitutional free-speech protections. However — and here’s my lawyer’s analytical caution entering the picture — each situation would have to be evaluated individually. There’s no sweeping, catch-all rule that answers this question as yes or no for every situation.

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August 14 update: This topic has gained relevance due to efforts by certain civil rights/social media activists to “out” white supremacist protesters who are appearing in published photographs of the Charlottesville rally. Apparently the first protester to lose his job is a young man who worked at a fast food eatery, Top Dog, in Berkeley, California, per this piece in the UC-Berkeley student newspaper. 

If readers detect some ambivalence on my part on the use of such tactics, then their perceptions are accurate. I abhor and detest these white supremacists and their worldview. But I also have concerns over how social media can be used to go after anyone in ways that have significant consequences. I think we need to be very careful about determining one’s suitability for employment based on off-site conduct that, while deeply objectionable, may be legal. 

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Though slightly dated, the legal discussion in my 1998 law review article on the free speech rights of private-sector employees, “Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial Workplace” (Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law), remains largely intact today. You may access it without charge here.

Tolerance and acceptance at work

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Journalist Joanne Richard kindly interviewed me for a Monster Canada piece on tolerance at work, timed to coincide with the United Nations’ International Tolerance Day on November 16. Here are some of my comments:

Workplaces have become more inclusive and tolerant in the past five decades, says Dr. David Yamada, internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and employment discrimination. “More enlightened social attitudes and the messaging roles of employment discrimination laws have contributed to this progress.”

But recent divisive political antics may have set us back: “Survey data from the American Psychological Association indicate that the U.S. presidential election has had a negative effect on workplace conversations and that workers are divided by gender and generation, all to the detriment of overall productivity,” says Yamada, law professor and director of New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

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Incivility, ostracism, bullying, and harassment remain serious problems in less-than-wonderful workplaces, says Yamada. “Of course, external individual events may fuel intolerance in the workplace as well. These range from the seemingly trivial, such as sports rivalries, to the more serious, such as politics, religion, and major public events,” he says.

Bad behaviour takes its toll, including increased interpersonal conflicts, greater stress and anxiety, and drops in individual and organizational productivity, he adds.

I gave these three suggestions for creating more tolerant, inclusive workplaces:

  • “Let’s give each other some room to express our differences, to vent, and to have a bad day.”
  • “Play and work by the Golden Rule.”
  • “Contribute to building organizational cultures of acceptance and individual dignity.”

Tolerance, acceptance, and taking a stand

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the term “tolerance” in these contexts. When I think of the word, it means a sort of grudging, teeth-gritting exercise of breathing deep and keeping your mouth shut when something rubs you the wrong way, a sort of coping in relative silence for some greater good. I should know, as I’ve been there and sometimes go back there!

Acceptance of differences is a much more splendored next level. All things being equal, a live-and-let-live attitude is better for everyone. When I’m in that place, I can practically feel my blood pressure lowering.

However, I know that all things are not equal, which is why a pie-in-the-sky, happily ignorant form of acceptance won’t work for me. Among other things, working toward acceptance does not mean tolerating (or, heaven forbid, accepting) the intolerable or intolerant. Sometimes we must take a stand, hopefully in the most effective way possible.

Here in the U.S., we’re struggling with this in the aftermath of the presidential election. This struggle is manifesting itself in our workplaces, communities, and circles of friends and family. I have a feeling we’re in for a very bumpy ride, and the ways in which we relate to one another individually will make a big difference.

 

Disney fires, then rehires, intern who shared alligator directive

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Weeks after a toddler was dragged into the water and killed at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, a Disney manager posted this sign for its employees and interns:

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As reported by Travis M. Andrews for the Washington Post, Disney college intern Shannon Sullivan faced a crisis of conscience: “Sullivan thought the world should know, both about potential threats and about the company asking her and her colleagues to deny them.”

She shared her objections with others, though the story does not explain how she did so. Apparently stymied, she posted the picture above on Twitter, realizing that she was jeopardizing her place in a highly sought-after internship program.

Her supervisor soon learned of her tweet. Sullivan was fired from her internship and led off the premises.

When the Orlando Sentinel became aware of Sullivan’s termination, it contacted Disney management for comments. Andrews reports on what happened next:

The next morning, Magic Kingdom Vice President Dan Cockerell visited Sullivan himself to offer her internship back, which she accepted.

Disney removed the offending sign, claiming it was never authorized, the Associated Press reported.

So how about some lessons from this little story?

First, bravo to Shannon Sullivan for her courageous decision to speak out. True, we don’t know how she effectively expressed her concerns within the organization before going public with her tweet. Nevertheless, she was willing to sacrifice a plum internship for the sake of honoring her sense of right and wrong.

Second, a jeer and a partial nod to Disney for its handling of the situation. Clearly some manager at Magic Kingdom screwed up badly by posting a sign that valued superficial customer relations over guest safety. But at least a Disney exec, after the company was contacted by a newspaper, made the right decision and handled it personally.

Third, kudos to the Orlando Sentinel for showing us once again the power of the press. It’s not the biggest story to hit the media, but it’s important enough to get some coverage.

Non-conformists as change agents

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ProPublica, the non-profit public interest news organization, recently did a neat little feature on Dr. Adam Grant’s (U.Penn/Wharton) new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016). Here’s the lede by Cynthia Gordy:

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers and groundbreaking ideas. Throughout Originals, the Wharton School of Business professor shares stories from the fields of business, politics and sports, and his chapter exploring the psychology of speaking truth to power – whether it be federal whistleblowers, or a middle-level employee with an innovative idea – holds several lessons for investigative journalists and the people on which they report.

The feature includes a podcast with Dr. Grant interviewed by ProPublica reporter David Epstein. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On lower-level workers facing backlash for making suggestions: “People often confuse power and status, but power is about being able to influence others. . . . You see a really strong backlash when people try to assert their authority when they haven’t yet earned respect.”
  • On whistleblowers using internal channels: “We need much better internal channels that make it safe for people to blow the whistle. One of the most important steps that you can take is to model openness to that kind of information, and I think that means whistleblowers sometimes need to be called out and recognized for having the courage to speak even if they end up being wrong.”
  • On advocating for change internally vs. externally: “This is a tightrope walk. If you refuse to conform at all and you don’t buy into the system, it’s really hard to get taken seriously. . . . On the other hand, if you adapt too much to the world, then you never change it.”

Impossible

Okay folks, it’s impossible for me to be objective on this topic. I naturally identify with the role of non-conformist and have done so for as long as I can remember. In years past, this role was all too often accompanied by attitudinal rebelliousness. I am not completely free from such instincts, but I think I am much more constructive and mature about it than I was before.

Grant’s characterization of the “tightrope walk” specially resonates with me. It overlaps with the idea of what author and coach Judi Neal calls the “edgewalker,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way.

Of course, it’s not all about starry-eyed idealism. As Grant’s work suggests, non-conformists can pay a price for being out front, with ridicule, pushback, and retaliation being among the costs. For this reason and others, I’m looking forward to spending some time with his book. I hope it will yield some lessons on how to be an “Original” as smartly, safely, and effectively as possible.

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