By Eugène E.
I am currently involved with a local company, a mid-sized Canadian-based business with a pronounced ultraliberal bias. In the spirit of the season last month, the company put together an event program to celebrate those who, in matters of love and sex, default to their own gender. Bankrolled by the enthusiasm and organizational talents of the HR department, the company’s internal communication system was agog with rainbow-friendly emojis and messages; there were thematically appropriate contests and “Pride breakfasts”; and “reply-all” e-mails discussed sensitive ways to join LGBTQ marches downtown that wouldn’t steal the spotlight from those who felt most marginalized. Finally, in what was supposed to be the culmination of the celebrations, an email from the HR department peremptorily announced that a group photo would be taken with all the company’s employees. To that end, each team at the company had been assigned one of the rainbow colors; the employees were requested to wear clothes whose color matched the assigned color of the team on the designated day.
One Christian employee sent a message to the HR department to explain that, as the initiative went against his values, he’d be unable to participate in the photo. He promptly received a reply from the most senior person in the HR department. It was explained him that participation in all such initiatives at the company was never mandatory and that he was free to do as he wished; he was simply requested not to do or say anything that could make others uncomfortable. In a bid to play up the company’s dedication to diversity, the HR executive also noted that the great thing about the company was that it counted voices from the far right as well as the far left on its payroll.
I’ve been made privy to the entire correspondence between the parties involved. The following observations can be made.
1. Although participation was indeed optional (the employees were not forced to pose for the group photo, made on the roof of the office building housing the company’s HQ, and indeed not everyone did), the original e-mail was a clearly formulated request. It’s what the corporate world, with its habitual disregard for linguistic elegance, refers to as an “ask”. There was nothing in the e-mail to suggest that this was merely an invitation issued to those employees who were enamoured with all things rainbow, and there were no disclaimers that made it clear that employees were free to opt out of the group photo. My own personal interaction with at least one employee of the company, who fretted that he did not own a single article of clothing in the color assigned to his team, only confirmed that the message did not make it altogether clear that participation in the group photo was strictly optional. I do not believe that there was any malicious intent behind it; the company’s bien pensants had simply assumed that all employees were ideologically on board. The inappropriateness of such an assumption is staggering.
2. The employee who informed the HR department of his unwillingness to participate was sticking his neck out. It is to the company’s credit that freedom of opinion and belief was upheld, and that the HR department clarified that those with alternative viewpoints were free not to go along with those initiatives than ran contrary to their views. However, the “refusenik” is the odd man out in this situation. In a certain way, he’s a marked man. There’s no way of knowing how many doors might have been permanently closed to him at the company, but it’s probably safe to say that a number of doors have been closed. Whatever the HR department might say, the fact of the matter is that the rainbow crowd at the company is celebrated, while the employee opting out is merely tolerated. “Pride” is normal; everything that finds itself in opposition to it is not.
3. The sentence concluding my second observation is no exaggeration. The employee who did not own any garments in the rainbow color assigned to his team was concerned that he would not be able to be the photo, which would in turn single him out as a possible homophobe. In other words, lack of participation – whatever the reason – can now be interpreted as a hostile statement. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This is totalitarian thinking. By alluding to the far-right-far-left divide, the HR executive responding to the dissenting employee unwittingly confirmed that the employee was out there on the fringes. It is all good and well for democracy that the company brings together people from the remotest corners of the political spectrum, but there’s something unsettling in the meaning implicit in this declaration. Since when is refusal to take part in the Pride carnival a mark of the far right? (Equally, does this suggest that being gay automatically relegates one to the far left?) This is it, then: the dogmatic intolerance of those who proclaim to be tolerant.
4. The dissenting employee was asked not to do or say anything that would make those participating in the Pride festivities feel uncomfortable. Aside from the superfluous nature of the request (the individual had been a long-term employee at the company and had never made anyone feel uncomfortable), this also raises the question of double standards. If the employee, being a Christian, were to flood the company’s internal communication channels with images or pictures of crosses, as was done by the company’s LGBT-oriented staff (only with rainbows), he’d most likely be asked to cease and desist: it is unlikely that some militant atheist at the company would welcome regular bombardments loaded with religious symbols. To the extent that demonstrations of religious affiliation are unacceptable in a work environment in a secular country such as Canada, such objections would be quite understandable. Yet why does a Christian employee living in a country where Christians are still the most numerous religious group, if only nominally, have to be exposed to symbols that extol the virtues of a lifestyle that goes against his Christian beliefs, and in an aggressive manner at that?
5. The group photo that was eventually taken (actually, it was a veritable photo shoot) is a good exhibit of the “totalitarianism and crowds” theme. The employee worried about being sartorially deficient had received a green light from the HR department to wear clothes that were of a color assigned to a different team. As he gleefully told me later, not entirely kidding, that worked out quite well, since the other color was the one worn by the company’s beaming CEO, who occupied a central place in the photo. As for homosexuals, he thinks “they are okay”. They sure are – and if it gets him closer to the C-suite in corporate group photos, they’re even better. Also in the photo was a young woman I once overheard talking disparagingly about a gay coworker, whom she referred to as a “fag”. Standing in the front row in the photos, she was all smiles. As I looked at the employees trying to construct a human rainbow, it occurred to me that had they been living in the 1930s in Nazi Germany, they would have been smiling just as eagerly as they posed with swastika banners. In the former Soviet Union, they would have marched in a sea of red and wept at the death of Stalin. In China, they would have rallied behind Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Not because they would have been convinced Nazis or communists, but because that is what people do: they try to fit in. They may do so out of a desire to belong, out of fear of not belonging, or perhaps because fitting in pays – the exact reason is not all that important and certainly not at all important in comparison to the triumph of ideology over individuals that the photo only reaffirms.
In the remarkably topical essay “There is Simply Too Much to Think About”, written in the early 1990s, Saul Bellow had this to say about the idéologie du jour:
“Perhaps the personal core, or what we are by nature, is becoming aware that what lies behind this drive to revise us is tyranny, that consciousness raising and sensitivity training are meant to force us to be born again without color, without race, sexually neutered, politically purified and with minds shaped and programmed to reject ‘the bad’ and affirm ‘the good’. Will the real human being become persona non grata? No wonder so many of us are in a blue funk.”
In light of the extraordinary ascent of ultraliberalism today, the message has turned out to be strikingly prescient. Only the funk is no longer all that blue; it’s composed of many colors – the colors of the rainbow. A rainbow funk, if you will. Other than that, Bellow’s message is as valid today as it was when he delivered it.