The Clueless Majority

October 26, 2019

It’s been an interesting couple of years for minority-majority relations. So many of the different have/have-not dividing factors in American society — gender, race, wealth, geography, even technical knowledge — seem to be chippier, more emotional, and increasingly called out by people on the less advantaged side. Sometimes it’s because the situation for the people on one side is getting worse, and sometimes it’s just because those people have a means of making the divisions visible, or easier to understand. But either way, there’s huge, multi-factional backlash in almost every power dynamic today, and it has a lot to do with why every issue seems “more polarized”.

It’s always relatively easy to dismiss basically any dividing line you’re on the “right” side, or “easier” side to be on as the result of victimhood culture, or if you’re less inclined, to figure out a way to exclude yourself from the advantaged group. That doesn’t mean there are literally no people who live in artificially generated oppression (there’s basically someone doing this in every office/workplace/organization, right?). But it does mean that when you dismiss or rationalize away a dividing line, as people on the easier side naturally have a tendency to do, more often than not you are missing something.

I read a story about a basement comedy show in New York where a couple of performers felt obligated to call out the fact that Harvey Weinstein was in the audience. He — unsurprisingly — did not like being called out and mocked for the long list of unspeakably despicable acts he’s accused of.

“This scene was uncalled for, downright rude and an example of how due process today is being squashed by the public, trying to take it away in the courtroom too,” the representative said in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter. “Accusations are, in fact, not convictions.”

The Washington Post

To me, this is a great example of why so many of the traditional societal norms we rely on to interact, establish moral authority, and assess situations feel like they are falling apart, or just not working anymore — and despite the histrionics from Weinstein’s rep in that statement to the Hollywood Reporter, they’re not falling apart because a bunch of young, semi-professional comics decided to call out Harvey Weinstein in a bar. To think that they are completely misses the point in a way only people on the right side of social divide can.

Family as micro-society

Humans, like all animals, inevitably deal with the concept of “power”, including who has it and who does not. Some of us are bigger, stronger, smarter, faster, more charismatic, whatever, than others. In life, almost immediately, we create some kind of methodology for dealing with these discrepancies. My daughter is a year and a half older than my son, and (as I write this) they are young enough that it’s a massive physical difference. A very physical three and a half year old has an immediate power advantage over a generally peaceful two year sibling that she has to decide what to do with.

Now, she also has parents, who are both way bigger and more powerful than either her or her brother, and that gives us the ability to build a little society, with rules in it. We inject concepts like fairness into their interactions, and we enforce those concepts with our own power, in an attempt to both (a) create a somewhat equitable little society in our home, and (b) model that kind of society for two little developing citizens.

But, just like in life, our enforcement of these laws has normal biases that determine what the actual society of our home is like, versus the one we think we have. My daughter, for instance, like any smart three year old, has learned that by being older and thus more verbal, she is better at blaming her brother for things than he is at defending himself. She explains her side of the story, her brother can’t, we start to believe her, he gets frustrated and reacts in the only way he can — by hitting her — and he gets dragged off into his room and punished. I know how this works, as I too was a little brother to a smart, verbal sister.

But I had good parents, who were aware of these sorts of in-home biases, and corrected for them pretty well. In the end, we actually had a fairly equitable in home society, and that’s one of the reasons why I have good, open, baggage-free relationships with my parents and my sister. We can laugh about the inequities that existed because my parents did a generally good job at mitigating them (and not letting them create vicious cycles), and because as my sister grew up, she quickly internalized the value of that healthy in-home society and did less and less to sabotage it for personal gain, and more and more to protect it. As the youngest, I had the least amount of ability to do damage, but I too picked up these cues (including when my sister turned down chances to turn her inherent advantages into unfair outcomes that would benefit her) and basically grew up into a decent human being.

Society as a family without parents

When Harvey Weinstein’s camp claims the moral high ground in an encounter like the one in the aforementioned comedy club, they’re framing everything as if it’s happening in an equitable society with consistent elements of individual rights and due process. That assumption is inherently part of the argument, just like it’s part of the Trump administration’s arguments against impeachment.

But the hypocrisy here is immediate. The very nature of what Harvey Weinstein is very, very, very credibly accused of is possible only due to the fact that the people he abused and assaulted did not have their individual rights and due process protected. Weinstein’s message takes umbrage at a lack of societal decorum only when he needs societal decorum to protect him — and for years and years, not only did he not need it, his lifestyle, outlook on life, and day to day routine actively required not respecting societal decorum in any way, at least when it came to limiting his actions or holding him responsible for them. He used his position, power, and wealth to completely circumvent the very idea of societal decorum so he could assault people.

Similarly, the Trump administration is operating in comedically bad faith. They control every lever of law enforcement except one, which is impeachment. And while they visibly enjoy flexing that power at every possible opportunity, with total impunity and 100% self-interest in mind, when it comes to that one other lever, they immediately demand that societal norms — any norms you can think of — limit the power, or even remove the existence, of that lever.

These bad-faith actors are like older siblings in a house with inattentive parents. They are happy to let the law of the jungle define how we interact with each other, until all of a sudden the jungle isn’t favorable to them — that’s when you run to Dad and tell him to stop looking at his phone for a second.

Principles and academic arguments can matter, and we should build a society where they do matter. But that society is not one where those principles and academic arguments are applied only in defense of powerful people who have unexpectedly lost the ability to do whatever they feel like. Very few people are going to have sympathy for Harvey Weinstein receiving a relatively minor extrajudicial slap-on-the-wrist (being mocked at a comedy club) even if (and I know, roll your eyes, I’m rolling them too) he is potentially not guilty, when there are thousands and thousands of people abused, punished, exploited, and effectively tortured extra-judicially by Weinstein and people like him. In other words, you’re not going to be able to successfully argue the relevance of due process to the masses when the masses frequently receive no due process rights from people like you, or the state, at all.

“It’s a meritocracy!” claims are similar. They make sense in theory, and they definitely make sense in certain small social circles. But people aren’t stupid — they are constantly witnessing non-meritocratic outcomes, from family businesses, to legacy admissions at elite schools, to sons of senators becoming senators. They see and experience obviously different criminal justice outcomes, public service outcomes, political outcomes, and even consumer outcomes from various captured markets. They are pounded with more and more examples every day, in their own experiences and in the experiences of other people like them facing similar circumstances. You can make the argument that this is a system people should like — that family businesses and inherited wealth have moral and social benefits that outweigh the benefits of a meritocracy, or that we are safer and happier by (extreme eye rolling) having different criminal justice policies for different kinds of people. But you can’t deliver that second experience, and then retreat to the benefits of meritocracy and equity when people want a version of the world that’s skewed a little bit more towards them instead of you and expect your argument to stick.

In business, this kind of self-serving hypocrisy is best represented by the idea of socialized losses, and privatized gains, and we do it all the time. It sucks, it’s biased for people who have inherited, unearned advantages, and it pisses the average person off. In society, it’s “let me use my power advantage uninhibited until I run out, at which point we should all have equal power”. In meetings at tech companies, it’s “let’s use data until the data says my idea is bad, at which point let’s use vision and experience” (and vice versa — when someone else’s experience trumps yours, all of a sudden this needs to be validated with data).

The view from the top

I am a mid-thirties, married, upper class white male with cute little kids who lives 30 minutes by accessible mass transit from New York City. I grew up in a nice, quiet suburb with two healthy, funny parents with post-graduate educations, and a big extended family that loved me and watched my back. I even work in technology! There are very, very few ways for me to feel like the odds are against me in any way, but even I can feel isolated and weird and unsupported and alone if I try hard enough. (“The business world is biased against introverts! I don’t look good in suits!!! PEOPLE PREFER LIARS!!!!”)

And that’s the challenge, I guess; understanding that in the vast, vast amount of scenarios that exist, the checks and guardrails of society need to be put in place to protect people from me, not to protect me, and that I don’t need to feel attacked or threatened by that. If you’re a dude at a tech company in your 30s, and you have women in your 20s reporting to you, it’s not that much of an imposition to take into account that you have certain levers available to you that others don’t, and to go a little bit out of your way to make sure you don’t push on them. It’s also not that hard to resist taking massive umbrage when, despite your best efforts, you fail, and realize (or are told) that you’ve leaned on one of them. In fact, sometimes people will assume, or “accuse” you of doing that, and they will be wrong, or confused! OH MY GOD WHAT AN INJUSTICE. Just stay calm, be honest, and try to think about the scenario from other perspectives before you immediately declare your corner is under attack.

Ultimately, the problem is that we do live in an inequitable society, and it’s difficult to maintain that unless you install some very real principles (ask the French), or are willing to go full-on, brutal caste system to protect your interests (ask… well, there are lots of places to ask).

I don’t want to do the caste system thing, and “let them eat cake” is demonstrably unsustainable, so I’m voting for “ease off the personal gain throttle a hair” approach, and hoping we can soft-land this thing.