Send In The Clowns: Woke At Work And Other Gaps

This is a look at the foundations of “woke” beyond its emotional appeal; a reference to free-thinking and practical approaches for business leaders. Second are a few observations about U.S.-China relations in the context of current events. Culture is the thread. Trigger warnings all around…

Successful buffet design is a PsyOp. Front-load the buffet with cheap pasta, dotted by a few colorful veggies and glaze it with a slick of “Italian” dressing from a 5-gallon bucket. Name it something catchy — Pasta Primavera! It’s neither Italian nor faithful to the original recipe but fear not. Diners overwhelmingly consume what is presented first. A majority consume news and information the same way.

The incontrovertibly named Black Lives Matter and other factions of social justice count on this phenomenon. I urge you to read BLM’s What We Believe page (this page was quietly deleted in Sept 2020, probably for the same reason I found it remarkable enough to screen capture when I first read it). From the perspective of alignment there seems to be a disconnect between well-intentioned people in the private & public sectors and the position statement from BLM.

In addition, this interview from 2015 is revealing both for its clear acknowledgement of Marxist foundations and for a question that goes unanswered (as much due to rambling interviewer commentary than avoidance) about heterosexual males being unwelcome in BLM leadership roles. The question is partially answered in the BLM statement linked above.

“We actually do have a ideological frame. Myself and Alicia in particular, we’re trained organizers. We are trained Marxists. We are super versed on, sort of, ideological theories.” — Patrisse Cullors

It’s a struggle to frame “woke” and other aliases of social justice for discussion or examination. It’s a mistake to view BLM or a particular identity group in isolation from the larger context of social justice, cancel culture, grievance studies and biological gender antagonism. It’s myopic to think the current cultural purge, rioting and looting (data & video suggest +/- 50% white) has much at all to do with George Floyd. (update 8/4: body cam footage released and update 8/26: “…Floyd’s fentanyl levels were ‘pretty high’ and potentially fatal.”)

The oversimplified (and mostly unreported) story is a derivative tangle of Marxism, postmodernism, and a swollen branch of social “sciences” that outsources personal agency & responsibility, and anoints feelings as the supreme leader of the individual. Emotional accountability is dispatched indiscriminately. While race is most versatile in the hustler’s toolbox, it’s just one identity marker in competitive intersectionality.

It’s hard to square the appetite for Marxism given its track record but Teen Vogue thought Marx was worthy of a profile in 2018. It’s also hard to square the idea of “decolonizing knowledge.” Postmodernism, Marxism and social sciences have white or “white-passing” and Enlightenment-enabled fingerprints all over them. And if we can’t keep science & mathematics because racism, do we get to keep our iPhones, cars, and planes that actually fly? How about electricity? Are there other ways of knowing that can produce replacements for hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery and psychiatric treatment?

In some ways this is just an extension and evolution of tried-before pieces being patched together in an updated form. Dig just below the surface layers and individual/group names from the 60’s reveal they are still with us. Still, the stitches are crossed in a manner that prevents sense-making. Where politics was the vector before, a more broad-based cultural approach makes today more opaque. A major source of lift that separates this from the 60’s is laid out in this WSJ article by Peter Boghossian (alt link).

Social media adds accelerant in the form of pseudo-anonymity, amplification, and a greater degree of comfort for mobbish behaviors. The list of trendy notions below — I classify them as soft-weaponized — attempt to mollify us. They’ve been re-defined or invented in the social sciences arena and packaged for export. They import with ease to media, marketing and social justice domains where emotional manipulation is the blueprint.

  • storytelling: soap operas, political campaigns, your favorite Netflix series, “documentaries,” movies, cable news, talk radio, advertising… it’s all the same
  • purpose & meaning: positioned as a demand — either employer-provided benefit, or achieved by brand association e.g. Nike, Patagonia,
  • empathy: redefined as “sharing the feelings of another” and relentlessly beaten into our consciousness as an expectation, or as a sales tactic by marketing hustlers
  • vulnerability: empathy-adjacent and also misrepresented as a sales tactic by marketing hustlers when it’s not being forced into service against toxic masculinity
  • anxiety & depression: recurrently normalized as the natural human condition by everyone from Harvard Business Review to Starbucks and their mental health program for “front-line” baristas
  • trauma / traumatized: overused to the point of meaninglessness and expanded to include mental trauma as a result of ideas one finds disagreeable or hurtful
  • ideological safetyism: what seems to have started as “safe spaces” on college campuses is now in full spillover-mode at work, home and out in public
  • micro-aggressions & triggering: a wide open tool set for manufactured offenses
  • social constructs: an effective wildcard for any roadblock created by science, math, reason & logic
The People Doing The Work

I moved back from Asia at the end of 2017. “News” looked and sounded like Oprah or Jerry Springer with a screen crawl. Predictable bias and opposite tellings of the same story was the norm. I started looking for more free-thinkers, contrarians, and people who write but are not necessarily journalists. There are a lot of them, they are generous, they are prolific, and they’ve been sticking their necks out for a long time.

Meghan Daum’s late 2018 article Nuance (not a fan of the personal essay style but it’s a great piece of writing) led to the IDW, led to Glenn Lowry (alt link) and John McWhorter, led to Bret and Eric Weinstein. The story of Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying at Evergreen College seemed like an isolated, if unhinged, incident of a weak administration getting bulldozed. This documentary of the events at Evergreen is cringeworthy but an essential window into the mindset.

The grievance studies hoax, detailed in Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship (long read), pointed to an advanced infection of academic journals and peer review (STEM journals might be even worse). Here’s the thesis of the most shocking example that was accepted, published and well-reviewed:

“…dog parks are rape-condoning spaces and a place of rampant canine rape culture and systemic oppression against “the oppressed dog” through which human attitudes to both problems can be measured. This provides insight into training men out of the sexual violence and bigotry to which they are prone.”

Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian are the badass power trio (think Motörhead but with sharp ******* pencils) behind the the hoax papers. They are also book authors, publishers, scholars, and liberals (in the American usage). They’ve been sounding the alarm about the wider social justice movement and critical theory for years.

This talk by Helen Pluckrose is a good primer. How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained (2017), also Pluckrose, shares similar content if you prefer to read. I’ll warn you in advance that this subject matter gets tedious if you’re just looking for soundbites or simple-minded explanations. If you are a business leader, parent or individual looking for clarity, the links I share here are a start.

Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams have been doing the heavy-lifting of uncomfortable reality, including issues of race and societies, for decades.

“Politically, there are few ideas more potent than the notion that all your problems are caused by other people and their unfairness to you.” — Thomas Sowell

More recently I became aware of Wilfred Reilly via an anonymous letter from a UC Berkley professor.

Melissa Chen is a new follow whose latest, Farewell, dear Hong Kong, mourns the Asian city’s loss of freedom even as a narrow band of entitled Americans blindly fight to forfeit ours.

Matt Taibbi just dropped an unexpected bomb on media lunacy. And there are some unlikely heroes of free thinking like Joe Rogan who, too profane for some, delivers solid, long-form discussions on an endless range of topics. The recent interview with James Lindsay is a good walkthrough of where we are right now. (update: since Rogan moved to Spotify the full episode has been removed from YT – here’s a clip)

There are many more across the political spectrum. None of these people are limited in their knowledge to this set of topics. That’s what makes them both interesting and able to form cohesive thoughts that connect with life beyond Twitter. At first, their connection may seem unclear but a small investment in their work reveals the bigger picture. They are the antithesis of the narrow-band clowns who show up to every discussion with the same 3 flash cards.

Likewise, it may seem a stretch to connect BLM to other SJ groups and the push to sexualize & politicize primary and secondary school curriculums. Or to see how the persistent misrepresentation of the word empathy in media, marketing and woke contexts translates to bestseller baloney like White Fragility (here’s a good takedown of DiAngelo’s ideas: The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility, by John McWhorter). Or how POTUS “resigning immediately” advances police reform. Or how COVID-19, climate change, hurricanes, time, naps, science, math, logic, reason, “intact families,” a “Protestant work ethic,” and delayed gratification are all racist and white. At some point we have to face American demand for self-loathing, anti-capitalism and woke-activism, and acknowledge that the demand is at once manufactured, exaggerated, and aggressively cancerous.

Careful examination reveals connective tissue between adjacent groups including BLM, Antifa, climate fanatics and radical LGBTQ+ factions. Imagine if this decades-long, collective effort were directed at lifting individuals and communities in a manner that could be tested, refined, adapted to regional needs/cultures, and scaled?

What To Do In Business

There’s no universal roadmap but here are some baselines:

  • James Lindsay (again) lays out 4 simple steps in this unrolled Tweet
  • Ask clarifying questions that focus on big picture understanding and common ground.
  • Identify the extent of people’s knowledge of the subject matter and insist on a certain level of competency and shared understanding before entertaining policy discussions.
  • Lean toward questions that point to achievable results within the context of the company. As much as performative social justice might feel good, it’s more likely to distract from meaningful work.
  • Be prepared to take an informed stand against collective blame, group training indoctrination based on complexion, and other meritless trends. See below.

Before you open the door to the critical theory that underlies woke faith, do some research. It doesn’t go anywhere and there’s no end. Within this collection of doctrines, any amount of whiteness or passing for white is irredeemably racist. Trying not to be racist is racist. The motte and bailey fallacy explains more.

Perusing the links here you will find every path dead-ends in the same place. As such, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter people who are either confused or emotionally bought-in but, quite innocently, unaware of what’s beyond the sign-up slogans. That’s a difficult reality for any leader, team or organization.

I’m not suggesting belligerence. Rather, serious, first principles inquiry. The competition for intersectional bingo points, assignation of collective guilt, and truffle-hounding (h/t Wilfred Riley) for thought crimes will destroy teams and sink companies if left unchallenged. Enterprise can absorb this kind of performative disruption. SMBs might not. Prepare for some amount of rebuilding.

None of this means everything in society or your company is hunky dory. If you have clear problems with representation, equal pay, or the classic high performer(s) who also happens to be a toxic asshole, fix it. But resist feel good gesturing and ransom demands. Imposter syndrome made real by diversity & inclusion committees is not a fix. It’s a setback dressed up as progress.

Why Write This?

Because distortion passing for an ideology (too generous a word) based in fear is untenable. Steve Hsu was sacked for asking questions. James Bennett “resigned” because Send In The Military, an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, triggered NYT staff. Bari Weiss followed. And then Andrew Sullivan. Lee Fang was coerced into an apology for covering topics that don’t suit the approved narrative. Emmanuel Cafferty, a Latino, was seemingly duped into self-sacrifice and fired. Here’s a longer list that highlights then number of non-celebrity, working people being targeted.

“I can tell any story with any data.” — Unattributed

The top-line reason is truth. We’re so accustomed to being lied to that the truth doesn’t factor any more. The data don’t support any of the stories we’re being told. If you really want to know, the data are all publicly available. The challenge is interpretation or retraction if outcomes appear unpalatable. You’ve probably heard the terms data-journalism and data-storytelling. Both of those terms are cause for alarm.

Sample, Build, Scale

Ben Horowitz, Shaka Senghor and Terry Brown had a blunt conversation What We Can’t Reveal We Can’t Heal, that digs into the intersection of police & street culture and should be expanded. Peter Boghossian’s WSJ explainer (linked above) briefly summarizes the decades-long build effort behind SJ work. Once again, imagine what could be accomplished with efforts redirected at building ladders instead of digging holes?

Cultural appropriation gets a lot of negative attention but at its best, it’s like sampling in hip-hop — taking snippets of existing music and weaving them together with a beat, vocal, etc. to create something new. Instead of mining grievances, why not do what humans have always done and borrow great ideas. Creativity is usually a remix. Let’s be on the lookout for new ideas instead of new outrage.

Hip-hop culture holds unique power and potential. It’s a global megaphone with street cred, a wealthy funding source, and an entrepreneurial startup frame with a deep bench of business & creative talent. The VC community is another source of funding and talent that know the mechanics and formulas behind proof-of-concept > build > scale. The people, credibility and funding are all there. Hollywood, professional sports, and media can likewise be tapped for their combination of popular credibility, talent, wealth, and relationships to attract more talent and wealth. It’s either not happening or not visible.

Stardom doesn’t scale and neither does storytelling; not for the majority of people trying to improve their lives, anyway. But it can support the creation of cultural infrastructure that does scale. Netflix and Disney “documentaries,” publishing contracts, product endorsement and ad campaigns get tons of feel good press. A few individuals are getting rich but it’s not clear if/what they are building that scales for anyone but them. Are their selfless efforts not being publicized? Is there some hidden reason that wildly successful POC from humble beginnings frequently make heartfelt public statements about POC from humble beginnings being prevented from achievement? None of it tracks.

Cultural Infrastructure

I like the term cultural infrastructure; not in the context of centrally planned buildings or spaces to showcase arts and culture. Instead, I mean purposefully developed and organically evolved cultural infrastructure that serves as a foundation — for a country, a city, an ethnic group or a family.

In my work and travels as a culture enthusiast I’ve learned cultures are the power source of civilization. While this seems obvious to the point of sounding silly, I think it’s hard to grasp for people who wander less. Moving between neighborhoods or between countries, the fundamentals are apparent in the markets and in everyday work & social interactions. People naturally live and work their own culture. The stronger your preference for your own culture, the harder it is to function with people from another. Behavioral markers trump identity markers and so, paradoxically, identity obsession is a giant roadblock to cross-cultural success.

A neighborhood is just one example of cultural infrastructure. In our poorest, we aren’t building cultural infrastructure that scales i.e. education, apprenticeship, relationships beyond its boundaries. Decades of failure is washed away with each new election cycle. The few who have the DNA to achieve despite obstacles, or who find fame & fortune, or whose parents and extended family move them from blighted neighborhoods are the exception. None of these possibilities scales and so the majority of the poor stay that way, regardless of race.

It’s About Cultures, Not Identity

Race and identity is the sideshow because cultures are difficult. They’re messy and emotional and exciting and infuriating. They resist being reduced to trendy soundbites. They’re the definition of diversity. They are invisible and unknowable. Cultures, quite naturally, are so deep in the weeds that hustlers tend toward avoidance. Cultures don’t avail themselves to election-year promises of legislation. We can talk about broken police culture or the go-to “broken systems” but the wrong question about any particular group culture is public suicide.

Hustlers only approach cultures as monoliths e.g. “Black culture.” As if NY’s outer boroughs are all the same. Or the cultures & cultural output of Stax, Blue Note, Motown, and DefJam exist as a static, 60-year block. More laughable is the embarrassing “whiteness” exhibit at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. It didn’t last more than a few days but it’s significant that it went live to begin with.

Chinese culture, characterized in the press as a monolith, is a topical example of our willing ignorance. The complexity of any culture is too great for soundbite news formats and so we get dumbed-down, binary representations. In the case of China, broadly, apologists from the left and detractors from the right. Zoom out a bit and you notice a generations-long pattern of persistent problems e.g. IP theft, forced technology transfer, closed markets, censorship, human rights violations. How is it that these issues, much like the issues of our inner cities, never seems to make any progress?

Egg Rolls & COVID-19

Egg rolls and fortune cookies are not Chinese. Unless you have Chinese friends or travel, most Americans have limited exposure to the culture beyond media generalizations. Estimates from 2005 and 2018 put the number of Americans living in China at +/- 100,000. Still, hard-line opinions about US-China diplomacy or how to deal with trade issues are yours for the asking.

If you’ve ever travelled to Asia for more than a holiday, you may have been armed with a platitude about the culture being “relationship-based.” Having lived & worked full-time in South East Asia for the better part of a decade, I can confirm that observation is both true and oversimplified — just enough to make someone overconfident in his/her abilities.

A westerner armed with this detail draws assumptions about building relationships that arise from his own culture. China And The Truth, in the context of COVID-19, and as a general window into Chinese culture is a must-read. The civilization gap, and difference in the concept of truth, between Chinese and American cultures carries over to building relationships in China and some adjacent countries. I’ve never read a description so frank and useful. Here’s the first paragraph if you’re pressed for time:

“A civilizational gap, it seems is a difficult thing for Americans to admit. When Kiron Skinner, former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, floated the idea that China hailed from a different civilization and that their principles are not our principles, she was promptly attacked. Dangerous idea, said The Washington Post, notwithstanding that Skinner was expressing a “kind of respect” for China in doing so, failing to understand that this is exactly how the Chinese would see things.”

That “dangerous idea,” as The Washington Post calls it, is exactly the reason that Chinatowns around the globe are critical to overseas Chinese populations. They provide cultural infrastructure — services and goods — that meet very specific needs, preferences and norms. (It’s worthwhile to acknowledge a distinction between the CCP, Chinese citizens, Taiwanese, Hongkongers, Singaporeans and global overseas Chinese. Beyond a shared foundational culture, the diversity of ideology and allegiance is mind-boggling.)

Imagine arriving on US soil without language skills, without employment, without a bank account, without credit, without a permanent residence, without markets, without anything familiar from your culture? That might be exciting if you were going on vacation but a fair number of Chinese and other immigrants arrive here with some measure of unknowns.

What’s striking about East/Southeast/South Asian immigrants and immigration in general is the cultural infrastructure that’s in place here. While I’m less aware, the same sort of capacities exist in other cultures and with varying degrees of sophistication. Why can’t we model, sample, borrow, or culturally appropriate in a positive way, ideas from other cultures for Americans who have been here for generations?

Both Foreign And Domestic

The same attributes of our open-society that make the U.S. available to the free creation of cultural infrastructure also make it hackable. The forced closure of the Chinese General Consulate in Houston, followed by revelations of a Singaporean national turned spy both come on the heels of ongoing arrests related to China’s infiltration of American universities and research complex. American citizens with ideological and/or financial motivations pose an equal or greater threat and don’t always fit an assumed racial profile.

Nonetheless, Chinese-Americans are likely to face misplaced scrutiny due to news-cycle amplification. Black Americans will undeservedly absorb the fallout from BLM and Antifa’s anti-family, anti-capitalism, anti-everything agenda (even as the question of universal support falters). It’s worth noting the pattern of palatable slogans in front of dubious agendas: Thousand Talents, Belt & Road, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, Social Justice.

Another effect of American civil unrest is to provide cover for China/CCP, other state-sponsored actors, and domestic groups to sow discord. Social media is fertile hunting ground for impressionable kids who have been raised on a diet of grievance and anti-Americanism. Similarly, BLM and Antifa “leaders” don’t appear smart enough to resist being pwned by America’s adversaries. More likely, it’s part of the plan:

“In 2016, BLM Global Network approached Thousand Currents to create a fiscal sponsorship agreement. Thousand Currents, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organization, provides the legal and administrative framework to enable BLM to fulfill its mission.”

“As of June 2020, the vice chair of Thousand Currents board of directors was Susan Rosenberg, a former member of the Weather Underground and May 19th Communist Organization who spent 16 years in federal prison before having the remainder of her sentence commuted by President Bill Clinton in 2001.”
The Long Game

This is an absolutely fascinating, long read (alt link) on US-China diplomacy going back to the 70’s. Together with the brief article linked above and decades of diplomatic missions, it makes one wonder how U.S. administrations and business leaders seem incapable of understanding the culture of China’s government and largely state-controlled enterprises. Weakness is not rewarded. Neither is shaming. Gamesmanship is.

Modern game theory was pioneered in the U.S. and yet we are unwilling to adapt and apply it. Instead, we chase access to the lucrative Chinese market and feign shock when technology is reverse-engineered or stolen outright — ignoring the fact that our cultural understanding of IP “theft” is their cultural understanding of a legitimate chess move. Truth does not equal racism or absolutism. It just equals the truth.

The call for “transparency” by American definition is never going to happen. Trust is earned/distributed differently. Negotiating the concept of “face” requires almost incomprehensible nuance for Westerners. We do have the competency. Unflatteringly though, too many of our diplomats and talking heads show up like the village idiot. It’s hard to know if it’s performative, and if so, for whom.

Zooming Out And Connecting The Dots

I’ve done some writing on the topic of digital transformation and why popular approaches to business-change fall flat. It’s the same basket of failings, coming from the same Ivy League “thought leaders” who are attempting to inject meritless, woke ideology into business. Tear-down culture dressed in build-culture clothes. A collectivist-culture pill that people don’t trust and have no frame of reference for. Tools and ideology, that almost no one can articulate, over people.

Tear-down culture is easy. And it scales. Build-culture is harder. Can we sample, build, and scale cultural infrastructure with regional & local adaptations? Can we, in the sticky context of empty political promises, veiled agendas, and the certain backfire of race-hustling, even talk about it?

Thomas Irre is the founder of HK5, LLC, Practical Business Technology and Mental Self-Defense for leaders & teams.