A wise man once said: "There is a secret song at the center of the world… and its sound is like razors through flesh." By blending private life with our careers, we’ve opened a box that will unleash a vast reservoir of the most vindictive human energies. Far from “optimizing the efficiencies and potentialities of every individual contributor” or some such nonsense, this outpouring will accomplish only one thing—it will tear our souls apart.
What could possess a grown adult to publicly shame a coworker over retweeting a joke? And what possessed The Washington Post to give in and suspend its reporter without pay, instead of demanding the two parties resolve the matter privately? As for the joke in question, if one assumes that all women find certain things equally hurtful, that seems way more sexist than the content of the original post. Do we really want to return to the assumption that women can’t handle bad words or dirty jokes?
Although the tattle-tale wound up getting fired, we should recognize her behavior as symptomatic of the merging of private and professional life. We’ve seen the messaging that promotes this merger. My favorite is the insane idea of “bringing your full self to work.” As Slavoj Žižek has said, “most people are monsters, secretly” and we shouldn’t want them to bring this into the workplace.
The merging of different elements of life has a deadening effect on them. There’s no more satisfaction of “letting your hair down” at the end of the day if it’s always down. Steadily more people are accepting and even embracing the idea of always “being on the clock.” The training materials used at some organizations reinforce this attitude with the hideous notion that your behavior “reflects on the company,” no matter where you are.
Why do people accept this? Because they’ve given into an even more depressing idea, that you should rely on your paycheck job for meaning and purpose. Having a job gives you a certain meta-meaning—a reason to get up, clean up and show up, and provide for yourself and your family. And you may happen to enjoy your work and find it interesting. But the idea that you should rely on the content of the job itself to give your life purpose is so sad.
The exceptions merely prove the rule. I imagine teachers and doctors must find the content of their work meaningful. But what economic purpose do they serve? Teachers prepare future members of the workforce, while doctors perform maintenance on them. These are inherently human professions, as opposed to blue-collar jobs directly involved in production and white-collar jobs that administer it.
It’s also telling that this merging of spheres is most prominent in the corporate sector. It reflects the class position of being a few (or many) clicks above the formal economy of ownership, production and distribution. I don’t like the term “email jobs,” as it flattens distinctions between professions. You need some sort of administration to make production run smoothly and get the word out to prospective customers. But not all of these jobs are equally productive, and there definitely is a sector within a sector that plays an ambiguous economic role.
Even if we accept Marxian notions of alienation, an autoworker can at least point to a car and say, “Hey look, I build those!” As you get further away from this and start creating services to service other services, it becomes harder to feel like you have anything to show for your work. And if you don’t have family life, friendships, hobbies, or other obligations to fall back on—what does that leave you?
This is the reality of a lot of jobs and the economic models we’ve propped up since the 2008 financial crisis. As people become isolated and alienated from each other, sources of meaning outside of work drop off. And one dynamic reinforces the other. The crash and anemic recovery made it hard for Millennials to enter the steady middle class life that allows people to pursue meaning outside of work. If you want to survive and not leech off your parents, work becomes everything. Hobbies? Better monetize them as a side hustle. Some people have even advocated for the monstrous idea of commodifying family life and friendship under that horrific term “emotional labor.”
It partly explains why Millennials and Zoomers tend to be the ones who, when surveyed, say it’s important that their work be “meaningful” and that their employers “take a stand” on important issues. It’s a way of running away from the truth that a lot of jobs aren’t that important economically and don’t provide a lot of professional potential beyond brand building. An environment of personal branding and self-commodification will only breed desperation.
If your role as an economic player is the only thing holding you together, you’re more apt to become an obnoxious busybody who’ll snitch on your co-workers, mount campaigns to get them fired, and turn the workplace into hell. Ryan Grim has shown how this plays out at progressive advocacy organizations. This is perhaps endemic to progressive politics, imbued as it is with radical idealism that’s self-destructive. But imagine if every job and institution was like this. Nothing would work, and society would collapse.
How are companies responding to and reinforcing these dynamics? In the last few years, many big names have chosen to speak out publicly on issues like race relations, climate change and the Ukraine war. For all the talk of challenging the staid status quo, corporate America was knocking at a door that had been blown off its hinges. Most big companies, staffed with people from middle- and upper-middle class suburbs armed with college degrees, could expect an easy consensus on these issues.
But the downfall of Roe v. Wade was different. There’s no such consensus on the morality of elective abortion. And even among those who are pro-choice, there’s a spectrum of beliefs. If companies want to provide some sort of reimbursement for women to travel from states with restrictions to ones that suit their situation, fine. But what’s the practical significance of a company speaking publicly on behalf of all of its employees on an issue? And where does this leave conservative and religious employees (many of whom are not white and not male)?
I’ve heard it said that “companies have more say in America than individuals, so companies should be outspoken!” Let me get this straight. You want to take one of the worst things about America and actively contribute to it. You want to further smother our voices as citizens—and make everything in our lives adjudicated by the titans of capital and mediated by market forces. “But we need to be on the right side of history!” Not everyone agrees on what that means.
It’s all fine so long as you’re on the popular side of the topic. However, there’s no guarantee that any one person at any company will always be on the “right side” of every issue. You might feel a sense of emotional virility at bullying your conservative co-workers into shutting up now, but you don’t know where the ride is taking you. Inevitably, it’ll pass a point that’s too extreme, even for you. You’ll be tempted to say something. But you’ll be alone. Everyone who could’ve supported you has been silenced, resigned or fired. How would you feel about the “company using its voice” then?
What will you say when Israel and Palestine go to war? How could any organization conceivably balance the sentiments of Jewish and Muslim employees, clients and stakeholders? What about doctor-assisted suicide? Will every brand jump to Instagram to encourage people to end it all and stop burdening their families? What if an NGO and a few academics start cranking out bullshit about age-of-consent laws being oppressive? If that sounds like an outlandish straw-man, look no further than French intellectual culture in the 1970s.
As for Ukraine, what good have all the statements and terminations of business been? Russia is winning in the Donbas, Europe faces a crippling energy crisis, thousands of Ukrainians are dying, and the ruble is stronger than it’s been in years. Again, if a company wants to organize a drive to get money to refugees, aid workers and the Red Cross, that’s all to the good. But it should be clear to anyone now that the business world’s posture to the conflict, far from deterring Russian aggression, has only contributed to a culture that stifles dissent and puts a negotiated settlement further out of reach.
What would a Republican version of this look like? We already have historical examples. In the lead up to the Iraq War, mainstream American liberalism broadly supported the Bush administration. Even MSNBC backed the President, to the point that it fired Phil Donahue explicitly because of his anti-war stance, which has since been vindicated. Imagine what 2003 would’ve been like if every major company felt compelled to put out a statement supporting the war. What would they do once it became a disaster?
Or take the case of former pornstars unable to find work or dismissed because of their past. If you think companies should project “corporate values” beyond what good or service they produce, what grounds do you have to condemn these actions against those women (who are left with little recourse but to return to the jobs they were punished for once having)?
I’m broadly pro-choice on the abortion issue. I want Ukraine to be a functioning, independent nation. I think we should convert as much of our power generation to nuclear and hydroelectricity as soon as possible. Violence, sex and profanity in media and entertainment enjoyed by adults doesn’t bother me. But so far as my job is concerned, none of this should matter. And I shouldn’t be in a position to pressure, coerce, or intimidate my co-workers into sharing my views—no one should.
The issue of “who gets to decide” brings us to the cherry on top of this disgusting cake: ESG. Lee Fang recently did a fantastic job reporting on this. Fang summarizes ESG funds as “a catchall term for a system that allows investors to put their money into companies that score as socially responsible by various metrics.” He goes on to describe how “Over $35 trillion in global assets are invested in funds that claim to vet companies using ESG principles, making the label one of the hottest trends in finance.”
Here’s the problem: it’s essentially money laundering in the name of social engineering. Fang interviewed Aswath Damodaran, a professor of finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who stated that “It’s a scam, that’s all it is, a scam… How can you have a measure of goodness? Or let me put it another way: Name me one social factor where we have consensus in society. How the heck are we going to come up with one score?”
Individuals have values. Companies are a conglomeration of individuals, and while they may share political, social, and religious values, this is incidental and says nothing about the company as a company. Companies should demand professional standards of behavior in the workplace. Enacting social pressure on your co-workers in the service of a political project is unprofessional.
Finally, there’s another term that activists never tire of: safety. Don’t underestimate the power and elasticity of this concept. In a cruel ironic twist, “safety” is an unbelievably dangerous weapon for sick people who want to inflict pain on their enemies and rivals. If you disagree with the wrong person, say the wrong phrase around them or on social media, all they have to do is say that you made them “feel unsafe.”
This is coded language for “creating a hostile work environment,” something which HR departments are obligated to take seriously. The complaint might be ridiculous, and beyond actual harassment and intimidation, functioning adults shouldn’t act like spoiled, fragile children. Regardless, your professional life now hinges on an HR manager having a spine or the C-suite being willing to take on the risk of an upheaval.
This must change. We must make it riskier to punish an employee for a non-offense than to give in to the demands of the emotionally incontinent. People say that it’s inevitable that our private and professional lives will become one and the same. This isn’t a foregone conclusion, it’s a choice. And it’s the wrong choice.
How should workplaces treat employees’ social media activity? In the overwhelming majority of cases, they should ignore it. If the employee isn’t committing a crime, trashing the organization, or directly and intentionally harassing someone, it’s of no practical business concern. Unless the activity falls out of these narrowly defined categories, HR departments should be instructed to look the other way. How should businesses respond to political issues? Unless a company’s business is activism, it shouldn’t respond publicly at all. It should seek to discreetly help employees or their families if they’re adversely affected by a particular issue. Corporations have never been, aren’t now, and must never become the arbiters of ethics and morality.
How should individuals approach their professional lives? Generation X had it right, as symbolized by the movie Office Space. Jennifer Aniston’s character, Joanna, works at a Chili’s/Friday’s/Applebees-esque restaurant at which her boss encourages her to wear pins (aka “flair”) to express herself. Far from adding joy and fulfillment to her work, the requirement to add flair just adds to the misery of Joanna’s job. Her outburst at the end of the film reflects what a lot of us wish we could say to the would-be commissars we have to put up with.
As the writer Kat Rosenfield so brilliantly put it, “this is the problem with flair; employers begin to think of you, the worker, as part of the brand, and suddenly they own you outside the office; you can’t have life/work balance if you don’t have life/work boundaries.” Those boundaries need to be as clear, bright and firm as possible.