The Key Words
In 2015 and 2016 I was at Adobe conferences in Las Vegas, London and Singapore. Digital Transformation ran point, of course. Storytelling” and its sub-theme “empathy” were counterpoints in every room I entered. Storytelling was officially the thing.
As software eats the world, software-enabled storytelling eats the humans at great societal cost. Empathy is just one device in the storyteller’s manipulation toolbox that includes vulnerability, purpose, meaning, and an assortment of intersectional mousetraps — all baited with emotional incentives that appeal equally to guilt mechanisms of the non-intersectional.
This proven formula works for marketing, management philosophy, and all manner of public & private sector activism. So well, in fact, that one can hardly draw distinctions. See below: consulting, HR, education, DE&I, politics, and anti-racism merge seamlessly.
Consider the evolution of Change Management into Digital Transformation. They share more similarities than not. “Digital” gets the spotlight because it’s the main revenue driver but changing human habits is the hardest.
Next examine the Diversity & Inclusion category with its recent add-ons, equity and belonging. Subverting “systems of power and oppression” fuels the story and budget negotiations while DE&I teams scramble to create imagery that fits the story.
At this very moment, global warming activism is being folded into “health equity” because that narrative has more woke inertia — and because global lockdowns delivered irresistible reductions in emissions as the COVID panic crippled economies. Ask yourself why the World Economic Forum, deeply involved in climate activism, is suddenly awash in intersectionality as a magical key to “DE&I 4.0.”
They all exist in the realm of storytelling and they all share common components:
- catchy slogans — digital transformation, black lives matter, extinction rebellion
- collectivist thinking — all problems are systemic whether it’s digital adoption, structural racism, or carbon emissions
- group liability — shared responsibility permits “decentralized leadership” and lack of accountability (e.g. digital transformation has been failing for 20 years, racial equality initiatives for 70 years)
- life or death stakes — the company, country or world will die unless…
- buy-in / all or nothing mentality — conform or risk failure, cancellation-by-mob, competitive disadvantage, or environmental calamity
- endless / ongoing work requirements — the “work” is never finished
- blank check mentality — no matter the cost, the cost of doing nothing is immeasurably worse (the fact that it’s “immeasurable” is the trap)
Youth Is Wasted On The Young
Storytelling and snake oil sales are nothing new. We’ve just refined our tools and delivery systems — the internet and social media are the most significant accelerants. The ad-based business model incentivizes outrage & overload. And because humans are unequipped to process modern information loads, we are soft targets with less time for critical thinking.
A friend and I were just discussing the cultish tone of corporate “learning” and its personality assessments, numerology and bug-eyed trainers. BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors was a Jehovah’s Witness. Adherents of wokeness preach the dissolution of relationships with friends & family who resist devotion. This survivor story is astonishing if only for the real, physical danger it puts the author in.
As younger generations in the U.S. adopt ideas like social currency and struggle sessions to become more in-group, they simultaneously identify as the resistance. More than anything this behavior signals deep confusion and desire to belong (purpose & meaning). Social media is a perfect onboarding vector for emotionally groomed young adults entering universities and the workforce.
The 21st century storytelling apparatus applies a simple formula that scales algorithmically. Advance any position with an emotional hook and just wait. Positive or negative comments are equally useful at validating the position as worthy of debate. This is an age-old political trick, too. Advance a position so ridiculous as to provoke a response, and bingo, an untenable proposal is launched into public debate. Ahem…
While this may seem an odd example in the context of a business blog, it’s worth noting that the same players in the digital transformation space also compete for an $8 billion diversity & inclusion market (that pushes way beyond hiring and representation with “equity” and “belonging”). This T-Mobile External Diversity & Inclusion Council looks like one to watch!
Major Stories That Collapsed
I’m not providing links to most of these stories unless there is recent news of the story collapsing. They’re all well-documented and discredited to varying degree. Both fascinating and concerning is this: our stories are framed to fit the bias of an audience, in order to serve advertisers, in order to support the bottom line and/or agenda of the source. Different sources tell different versions of the same story.
I lead with politics because Critical Theory/Critical Race Theory is a political movement at the forefront of business, media, government, faith and private life. This has been the case for some time but the woke just showed their full hand.
A critical aspect of political storytelling today: control the narrative before the facts are revealed (“hands up, don’t shoot”), and control what gets amplified (social & legacy media are both on board in suppressing the Hunter Biden story). Truth doesn’t figure in the equation.
- Hunter Biden: The New York Post, the nation’s 4th largest newspaper, is locked out of its Twitter account (13 days, so far) within 2 weeks of the 2020 presidential election. Twitter & Facebook both suppressed distribution of the story citing evidentiary questions. Media suppression continues as of this writing, including this brain-melter from The Washington Post.
- Russian Collusion: with zero evidence this botched political hit job by the Clinton campaign launched a 3-year investigation and impeachment attempt. Then-President Obama was briefed and took no preventative measure. This dwarfs Watergate in size & scope.
- Cambridge Analytica: a massive story that, at the time, seemed an iron-clad revelation of Facebook’s wholly believable negligence. The recent findings of the investigation reveal this was wildly overblown.
Business 2.0, Industry 4.0, the 4th Industrial Revolution, slogan X, buzzword Y, and jargon Z all prey on leadership fear, job envy and insecurity. They overuse terms like “evidence-based” and “research-backed” to sell multimillion dollar contracts. How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class tells — with The Atlantic‘s signature bias and open disdain for meritocracy — some of the history.
The first 3 categories below have failure rates that make execs seethe and consultants rich. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging will a) backfire with monstrous force at great expense and b) swallow lessons and long-term financial gains that might have been captured from pandemic-related shifts in how we work. Overall, however, they’re all the same program I outlined above.
- Change Management
- Organizational Development
- Digital Transformation
- Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging
- COVID-19: shift to remote / WFH / hybrid
Race & Policing
Police Brutality — in order to frame the “epidemic” of police brutality and killing of unarmed blacks, I looked at the Washington Post Police Shootings Database. I also looked at the number of random lightning strikes that killed citizens (all races) in corresponding years. This comparison infuriates people but it does speak to the slim chance of being shot by police while black and unarmed (before controlling for provocation, violent resistance and narcotics). Also of note is the downward trend of OIS (officer involved shooting) from ’15 – ’20.
- 2015: Black, unarmed, OIS – 38 / Lightning strike fatalities – 28
- 2016: Black, unarmed, OIS – 19 / Lightning strike fatalities – 40
- 2017: Black, unarmed, OIS – 22 / Lightning strike fatalities – 16
- 2018: Black, unarmed, OIS – 23 / Lightning strike fatalities – 21
- 2019: Black, unarmed, OIS – 14 / Lightning strike fatalities – 20
- 2020 YTD: Black, unarmed, OIS – 9 / Lightning strike fatalities – 16
Looking at the full scope of evidence and contributing factors mentioned above (provocation, violent resistance, narcotics), media narratives and eye-witness stories repeatedly collapse along with prosecutions. These cases fall apart under scrutiny:
- George Floyd
- Jacob Blake
- Breonna Taylor (NYTimes – an unexpected level of detail that isn’t part of the public narrative)
- Freddie Gray
- Michael Brown: Both state and federal prosecutors in the Michael Brown case, in 3 separate attempts including this year, found insufficient evidence to support an indictment.
To put 2020 violence into context, Chicago is well-past 500 murders YTD. New York is at over 340 murders YTD. Baltimore 232. Philadelphia 365. It’s hard to argue 9 deaths nationally is an epidemic when 1,437 in just 4 cities is ignorable.
Do you feel way off-topic from anything business-related? I sure do. The workplace is suddenly a public forum for political activism and the airing of grievances.
Race Hoaxes — Wilfred Reilly wrote a full book, appropriately titled Hate Crime Hoax on the subject. (I’ve not yet read it but am a recent fan of Reilly and his common-sense approach to truth and reason with regards to race and other topics). Here’s a recent article that contains links to this list and more.
- NASCAR noose (2020)
- Isaih Martin (2020)
- Althea Bernstein (2020)
- Jussie Smollett (2019)
- Albany Bus Attack (2016)
- UCSD library noose (2010)
- Duke Lacrosse team (2006)
- Tawana Brawley — Al Sharpton’s national coming out hoax (1987)
Health & Wellness
COVID-19 — lockdowns and economic destruction were the most successful aspects of this pandemic. Aside from that a corrupt WHO was exposed (as of October 8, WHO still denied access to mainland China), China/CCP’s deception confirmed, global unpreparedness revealed, and “experts” from around the world served up models and guidance that lay bare their incompetence. It continues, unabated.
Diet/Exercise — body, health & wellness insecurity is an evergreen business category and the most universal. Every item on this list has flip-flopped from good to bad (sometimes back again, more than once). Storytellers include marketers, lobbyists, doctors, counselors, gurus and morning show clowns.
- Real food: eggs, coffee, wine, cheese, meat/protein, butter, carbohydrates
- Fake food: margarine, diet soda, artificial sweeteners, sugar-free snacks, HFCS, industrial vegetable oils, frozen/TV dinners, olestra (remember the “anal seepage” warnings?), Slim-Fast powder
- Marketing scams: low-fat/non-fat, no MSG, organic, gluten-free, non-GMO, natural, superfoods, juice cleanses, low-calorie
- Exercise: low-impact, high-impact, jazzercise, aerobics, hot yoga, pilates, HIIT, resistance training, weight training
While I find the emotional hooks of storytelling as seductive as anyone, I force myself to look at results and information that supports/debunks the story. When the stories, claims, and results don’t add up, I ask questions. I have a lot of questions.
The challenge to leaders is steering away from thought policing & emotional manipulation, and toward a sense-making apparatus that invites questions, free-thinking and different perspectives. Your customers, people and the public are waiting. Empathy is out of stock.
Thomas Irre is the founder of HK5, LLC and an advocate of analog transformation – a common sense approach to sustainable business transformation that emphasizes people & performance first, and arms them with a flexible technology arsenal that aligns to clear-cut business goals.