I’m writing about something a little different this week: a big change during the past decade in the way workplaces function. I’ve a lot to say about this, so this article is going to be split in two. The second instalment will be next week, or shortly after if something else intervenes.
My thoughts on this are informed by my own observations, and dozens of stories told to me in confidence, not just by journalists but by people working in schools and universities, charities, professional-services firms, the civil service, publishing and multinationals. What brought it to the front of my mind, however, was a spate of articles and podcasts revealing an astonishing degree of dysfunction in companies that have been captured by “American liberal” ideas and attitudes. These can make organisations unbearable for everyone except a small minority of employees who want to spend their days agitating for radical changes in mission and management, policing their colleagues’ utterances for wrongspeak and generally making it impossible to get any work done.
First, the amazing public meltdown at the Washington Post after a staff journalist, Dave Weigel, retweeted this: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.” A colleague, Felicia Sonmez, quote-tweeted: “Fantastic to work at a news outlet where retweets like this are allowed.”
Weigel apologised, undid his retweet and accepted a month’s suspension without pay. But Somnez—who has form in complaining about co-workers on social media—kept going, tweeting again and again about Weigel’s and WaPo’s alleged sexism. Colleagues started to defend Weigel and ask Somnez to drop it. Instead she broadened her complaints to claims of systemic bias and maltreatment. Senior staff at the paper issued statements calling for its journalists to behave professionally on social media, and for in-house complaints to be kept in-house. But to no avail. On June 9th, about a week after Weigel’s original retweet, Somnez was fired “for misconduct that includes insubordination, maligning your co-workers online, and violating The Post’s standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity”.
Second, if you have time (it’s really long), is an article in The Intercept by Ryan Grim entitled “Elephant in the Zoom: Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History”. Some of the details are astonishing, and I think anyone who has personal experience of this sort of workplace will find the article cathartic. Or you can read a good shorter take, “Workplace and Hellscape: How Wokism Stunted the Non-profit World”, on Sarah Haider’s Substack, Hold that Thought. It uses Grimm’s piece as a jumping-off point and offers tips for employers who haven’t yet suffered a woke meltdown, and would really rather not in future.
Third is a story in Episode 120 of “Blocked and Reported”, Jesse Singal’s and Katie Herzog’s podcast, about Mina’s World, a coffee shop in Philadelphia. An avowedly “queer-friendly” space, it paid a living wage, sourced sustainable coffee, gave away food to locals in need and generally tried to do good in a very 21st-century coastal-American way. But everything went wrong after it brought in a group called the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative to do staff training—after which the staff collectivised and demanded that the entire business be handed over to them in the name of social justice. Rather quixotically, they set up a GoFundMe to try to buy out the building’s owner, who was the mother of one of the managers—and had been subsidising day-to-day operations. She put the building on the market, the shop closed and all the employees lost their jobs.
Last (I was a little late to this one) is the story of cryptocurrency exchange Kraken, where the boss, Jesse Powell, published a memo setting out Kraken’s mission (sound money without government control—the dream of every technolibertarian), and his lack of interest in speech codes, preferred pronouns and the policing of microaggressions. Any staff who didn’t like this he said, could leave with a pay-off of four months’ salary in return for a promise never to apply to work at the firm again. “If nobody is ever offended, we either don’t have enough diversity of thought or we don’t have enough transparency in communication,” he wrote. “While it is not our goal to offend people, we recognise that it’s inevitable in a global organisation that is optimising for team outcomes above individual feelings…there is no time to spend sugarcoating every interaction…The ideal Krakenite is both thick skinned, and well intentioned.”
You can listen to a short and informative interview with Powell on the Unherd podcast. Or you can read a less sympathetic take from the New York Times. The first suggests that a small number of employees were causing friction by picking endless fights on the company’s Slack channels about micro-aggressions, pronouns, Black Lives Matter and the like. According to the second, Powell started a “culture crusade” to get rid of some workers cheaply because of the recent crypto downturn.
There is so much to say about all these stories, and so much that has been said— about young people’s changing attitudes to work, about political polarisation, about the impact of social media, about “The Coddling of the American Mind”. And I don’t think we can ignore the impact of economic change: it’s hardly surprising if many young people feel less company loyalty in a job market (and indeed a housing market, and entire economy) that feels rigged against them. In some ways employers are cossetting their younger employees, who are assumed to understand the internet and the zeitgeist. But at the same time they are making those younger employees’ lives more precarious, demanding unpaid internships and offering short-term contracts with little or nothing in the way of pensions.
All this is particularly true in the creative industries and academia, which have an outsize impact on what everyone else thinks and says. Universities are semi-employing an army of doctorate-holders in their 30s, who work on termly contracts for peanuts in the forlorn hope of one day getting a lectureship. Freelance rates in journalism are lower now—in nominal terms, that is, pound for pound—than two decades ago. You are unlikely ever to work in music, publishing, the arts or film-making without doing several unpaid internships.
But something more than the raw deal we are giving young people was at play in the stories with which I started this article. Felicia Somnez had one of journalism’s dream jobs; Mina’s World seems to have offered pay and conditions that are highly unusual for a coffee shop. And in each an employee caused the sort of institution-wide meltdown that previously would have been possible only for someone in senior management—someone like a company owner who made a catastrophic purchase, or a senior manager who plundered the pension fund. Let’s call it the phenomenon of the “toxic underling”, a newly emerging counterpoint to the familiar “toxic boss”.
Some bosses get to the top by hard work and natural brilliance. But others advance by bullying and manipulation, or by taking advantage of the old boys’ network. Psychopathic traits can be a help in getting ahead—I keep meaning to read a book about this with a particularly excellent title: “Snakes in Suits”.
If the wrong person ends up in charge, they can wreck an entire company with grandiose decisions—foolish takeovers or expansions, for example. They can also destroy a company’s culture singlehandedly: if the boss is a groper or tyrant these tendencies will be licensed all the way down the corporate ladder. It’s a truism of management theory that bad behaviour at the top is a big reason for high staff turnover: people “join companies but leave bosses”.
Bosses encapsulate both the virtues and vices of conservatism, in other words. The political right valorises order, obedience and discipline; it respects experience and the visible trappings of status. A good boss will have some or all of these traits—but a bad one is able to do harm precisely because of the deference of others. The very values that enable effective leadership make companies vulnerable to hijacking from the top.
But what societies value is not set in stone. Until relatively recently in human history, many societies were what sociologists call “honour cultures”, in which status came from strength, and slights were punished with violence. Justice was swift and personal; mercy was contemptible. This was the culture of the Wild West, where there were no sheriffs and a claim-jumper either got what he wanted or was successfully fought off. In such a culture, to step away from a challenge is to be dishonoured. The result is vigilantism and blood feuds.
As the rule of law spread, however, honour culture started to give way to a dignity-based system of morality: one which valorised self-control and turning the other cheek. Taking the law into your own hands ceased to be acceptable. Redress or revenge were now to be had via bureaucratic means: legal complaints, policing and the courts. In such a culture, status comes from being able to afford to be magnanimous, and from formal status markers such as aristocratic titles, government jobs or academic qualifications, which not only gained you the admiration of others, but meant that if you had need to complain to the authorities, you would be listened to.
This cultural substitution was not complete. Honour culture lives on in countries and sub-cultures where the rule of law is weak or non-existent—in the Mafia and among Mexican drug-traffickers, in street gangs and on poorly supervised playgrounds. And now, some sociologists contend, we’re witnessing the birth of a new system of morality to challenge these older ones: a culture of victimhood.
In “The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars”, published in 2018, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue that a major moral shift is now under way. It started in ultra-progressive spaces such as liberal American campuses and is spreading. According to this system, virtue comes from being oppressed or attacked by people with greater “privilege”. Hence the endless call-outs, in which a person who is marginalised (preferably “intersectionally”, that is, in several ways) draws attention to the harms (“literal violence”) they suffer from “micro-aggressions”—minor slights, often unintentional. The purpose of this behaviour, Campbell and Manning explain, is to call attention to what the person doing the calling out sees as deviant behaviour. This positions that person as a victim, raising their status and lowering that of whoever they are calling out.
This sort of “social justice”, as adherents of this new morality would label their behaviour, doesn’t just flatten established hierarchies; it reverses them. In an honour culture it’s the strong and brutal who are valorised. In a dignity culture it’s those with self-control and social capital. In both cases they are likely to be prominent figures in their society: chieftains, capos, senior managers and so on. In victimhood culture, by contrast, such publicly recognised indications of status are actively harmful to one’s status. Paradoxically, the high-status individuals are those who lack “privilege”—non-men; queer, non-binary and trans folx; BIPOCs; people who claim ultra-rare and eye-catching mental diagnoses such as multiple-personality disorder.
This higher moral status is becoming formalised in the allocation of many goods, in particular educational and employment opportunities. Many American universities preferentially admit people from certain racial groups, as do some employers, although being too obvious about it can cause difficulties within a legal code that harks back to dignity culture, in which such a hand-up would be understood as discriminatory and degrading. I understand the argument that these preferences function as a thumb on a scale that has long been unfairly weighted against certain groups; my point is that they can also be seen as formal recognition of the higher status that now comes from being an underdog.
The same is true of much social-justice speak—catch-phrases like “Listen to black trans women” (not coincidentally the group regarded as the most oppressed ever). There’s the germ of a serious argument in here, too—oppressors rarely think or understand much about oppressed groups, because they don’t have to, whereas the oppressed must perforce understand their oppressors. But you only have to observe the hand-waving and finger-clicking that accompany the call-and-response chants which such injunctions often feature—so reminiscent of a particularly lively evangelical service—to see that what is being made is not merely a claim of superior knowledge, but of superior virtue.
And now, inside many companies, you have dignity culture and victimhood culture fighting an undeclared war. Each group thinks the other is not just wrong, but bad. Each interprets the same facts in different ways. And each has a completely different idea of what constitutes a good life—and a good person. In other words, what you have is a culture war.
Which brings us back to the toxic underling: a person who claims virtue according to victimhood, and weaponises claims of harm to elevate their status at the expense of others. That’s what Somnez was doing when she took offence at that bipolar/bisexual joke: presenting herself not just as a victim, but as thereby virtuous. Her bosses’ attempts to get her to stop trashing the paper’s reputation were a plea to the values of dignity: restraint, collegiality and forgiveness. But to Somnez they were just another proof that she was coming under attack by people with “power” and “privilege”.
This despite her being a woman with an enviable job at one of the world’s great publications—someone sufficiently powerful to be able to get a colleague suspended for a month without pay by making a petty complaint. But she is blind to her own privilege, in this sense. That her complaint was successful, and that Weigel apologised, are both irrelevant. What matters is the micro-aggression, which makes the Post and Weigel vicious, and her virtuous.
More in next week’s issue of Joyce Activated!