Business is and has always been a reflection of and a transmission vector for the culture of its age. Business in our age is increasingly infected by what the evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad calls “idea pathogens”. If those of us in the world of business don’t dare to speak freely and give expression to heterodox views, then we will have none to blame but ourselves when the genius of our free enterprise system collapses under the relentless and decades-long march of political correctness through our institutions. As a consequence, we will all be poorer in mind, body and spirit.
[ Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
In this article, I want to explore, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests across the world, how one intellectual’s argument made me question the assumptions and received wisdom mounted by that movement. While he made the case about the situation in the USA, in 2007 no less, my point is not really to do with the specifics of this particular moment in history. Instead, I hope to make the more general point that we are better served as a free, democratic and enterprising society when we deeply consider alternate points of view. It requires immense courage to be of independent mind and accept that each of us has agency in how our lives and the lives of those we touch turns out – especially when our times echo those written about by WB Yeats (1865-1939) in his famous poem “The Second Coming”.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
We’re almost halfway through 2020, and so far we’ve had a plague, a deep recession, mass protests, rioting and looting. The pandemic has connected everyone to the zeitgeist in ways we would not have been able to contemplate just six short months ago. I have friends and family on every continent who have experienced a lockdown and been concerned about who this insidious grim reaper will call on next, what will happen to their livelihoods and what will become of our institutions.
Many people I know have lost their jobs or have had to take a cut in pay. Tens of thousands of layoffs have been announced through the media, and we know there is much more to come. Whole sectors, such as aviation, tourism, hospitality and the performing arts have been devastated and will take a very long time coming back. And, we have racked up debt that will take a generation to repay. As I write, the initial optimism around Australia’s very good fortune in containing the virus thus far has been rattled by the growing concern of a significant uptick of infections in Victoria.
Meantime, the politics of grievance is dialed up to eleven, to the extent that many think it mandatory to gather in large crowds in the middle of a global pandemic. With those marches of protest has come a cacophony of claims of group entitlement based on race, gender, ethnic or sexual identity. The idea of taking personal responsibility for our lives has gone out of fashion in direct proportion to the comfort found in investing in intersectional tribal affinities.
The prophets of this movement tell us that our Western worldview is deeply flawed, predicated as it is, supposedly, on the idea that the political, economic and social structures we have historically celebrated are all a function of white male will to power – and must be destroyed before we can all enjoy paradise on earth.
Gramsci’s long march through the institutions has captured academia, the mainstream media, the entertainment industry and the parties of the left. The ideas of diversity, inclusion and equity have penetrated deeply into the corporate sphere. Quotas replace merit, immutable characteristics replace diversity, and equality of outcome replaces equality of opportunity. Everywhere, freedom of speech is in retreat. Remarkable as it seems, thought crimes are back in business. We can no longer hold even the idea that a biological male cannot be a female or that men and women are different, without being sent to the naughty corner.
In the culture wars, we have become so ashamed of our Western Civilisation that for the longest time, a bequest from the estate of the late billionaire Paul Ramsay, to fund a chair in the subject, couldn’t find a university home. Meantime, our academies kowtow to get funding for Confucius Institutes, wholly-owned subsidiaries of the totalitarian Chinese Communist Party.
Gratitude for what we have achieved as a species and as a civilisation is in very short supply. We flick a switch and electricity comes on. We go to the supermarket, and we get our food. We switch on our computers and communicate with the world. We in the West live longer, healthier, more prosperous lives than any generation before us—as does most of the rest of the world. And yet, the theme song seems to be an ongoing amplification of grievance.
I wanted a different point of view, as I got heartily sick of being told about the constraints of the orthodoxy within which I could think and speak. So, I recently watched a video lecture given by Shelby Steele, a conservative black commentator and scholar of racism, multiculturalism and affirmative action. The American experience is not a direct parallel to our Australian one, but the insights he gave helped me understand, with fresh insight, where we are. His argument, distilled to its essence went something like this: the idea of white supremacy was the basis of the history of slavery in the United States. The era of Jim Crow that followed reconstruction was the same idea, but by other means.
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.
The civil rights movement ended the idea of white supremacy and ushered in the fulfilment of the constitutional ideal expressed as: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. This acknowledgement in law of the truth of all men being created equal transformed white supremacy into white guilt. After losing the moral authority that was implicit in the idea of supremacy, what followed was guilt at what was perpetrated under the umbrella of that ideology.
The billions and subsequent trillions of dollars spent on the programs such as the Great Society was a way of expiating that guilt. For whites to liberate themselves from their culpability, Steele argues, they had to dissociate from the very idea of being white. In the endless amplification of their self-serving signals of virtue, their goal has been to reclaim moral authority for themselves by declaring that they are not like those others. Yes, those others, overwhelmingly white, mostly male, who are by virtue of the immutable characteristics of their sex and colour of their skin, assumed to be racist, sexist, homophobe and bigots, wedded to the idea of sustaining power through a toxic hierarchy..
Meantime, Steele argues, the flipside of white guilt became the engine of black power. The more the white was trumpeting his guilt, the more compelling was the stoking of the black sense of grievance and entitlement. Unscrupulous and ideologically possessed self-enriching black demagogues fanned these flames and used the largesse of the state and its various levels of government to create an intergenerational underclass of mendicants—forever married to welfare, mired in poverty and stripped of agency in their own lives. This arrangement, claimed Steele, was the new form of slavery. White guilt was not a personal sense of guilt for a given wrong perpetrated by an individual. It was, and remains, a means, through dissociation from everything ‘white’, by which those who claim their virtue through their group identity can avoid the real work and moral culpability as individuals.
That is, the work of building a society which steers the long march of our Western Civilisation ever closer to its ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Where, in the immortal words of Martin Luther King, we are judged not by the colour of our skin, but by the content of our character.
Steele concluded with the thought that for white America to have achieved the emancipation of the slaves and then the Civil Rights Act to overturn Jim Crow was a cause for celebration. No other nation in history had faced into the evil of what they had done and undertaken to rectify it in pursuit of liberty for all, as per their founding creed. He further strongly makes the point that for black America, the reality of freedom comes with its own burden. If you are free, and you are unable to succeed, then there is no one to blame but yourself. Easier he says it is to continue to blame “the system”than to take on personal responsibility for your own progress. However, he urges both black and white, as equals, to acknowledge the remarkable and unique ability that blacks in America displayed in overcoming the evils of slavery and Jim Crow in realising the ultimate vision of the republic’s founders. The enormity of the black contribution to the politics and culture of the United States , and thereby to the progress of western civilisation, should be used, says Steele, as a solid foundation for addressing today’s significant challenges. But, he reminds us, when it comes to civil rights – “we won!”.
What, then, does all this have to do with the world of business in Australia? None of us are exempt from the cultural mores that govern our lives. At this moment, we watch, feel and experience the slow and steady erosion of the ideas that form the basis of our Western Civilisation. Democratic ideas like freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, equal rights under the law, separation of powers, and free enterprise. I often wonder how we have collectively become so ignorant about how hardwon these freedoms were and how miserable life can be without them. Does it serve us to take our liberties and prosperity for granted and instead invest our energies endlessly complaining that the world will not bend itself to make us happy? Is it the case that all of life is reduced to an endless struggle for power between competing tribes?
We know from as far back as the ancient Greeks of the wisdom of the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage and temperance. And who wouldn’t know the theological virtues of hope, faith and love? I wonder if we couldn’t do a lot better by taking individual responsibility to commit to life-long learning about those virtues and how to live by them. To collectively stop screaming so much and start listening a lot more. To be far more grateful for what we have than to be resentful and envious of those who have more. To feel less guilt about the plight of the collective other and more active in recognising how our pity or resentment robs each and every individual of their agency to carve out a different and better future. We must surely learn anew the power of forgiveness for those who humanly stumble and make mistakes. There are none among us who has not sinned and done and thought evil.
As the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn taught us: ‘If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?’
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[Background image: The Parthenon, Vasilios Muselimis on Unsplash]
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