This started out as a response to a thread, but then it morphed into a strange allegory. It's not horribly clever, and is pretty on-the-nose, but it sort of runs through my frustrations over the years.  These sentiments aren't new in the slightest. Many well-intentioned people seem to go through the same struggle because they just weren't fortunate enough to be born more complacent and stupid.

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Let's assume that I am a department manager at a large corporation.  Once upon a time, when I was a shiny, new, young employee, I thought that all my ideas were revolutionary game-changers.  Now I've grown to realize that lots of people have great ideas, and communication and collaboration are important.  I still stand by my own views, but a little humility never hurt either.  Because I value communication and openness to new ideas, on Monday morning at the office, I make available to the employees a suggestion box. I tell my staff that all ideas are welcome, and hope that a pressure free submission format encourages honest input.

Day 1, there's a suggestion in the box! "There should be more women in the work place." I discuss this suggestion briefly with the staff.  It seems to be quite reasonable. I agree to take a look at our department hiring practices to ensure that they respect gender equality.  My finding are that our practices are fair.  In fact, the company overall hires more women, and our own department has only slightly more men.  I pass these finding on to the staff.  

Day 2, a new suggestion. "Still say we need more women.  The women should be young." My first thought is that this is a little inappropriate, but again, I talk it over with the staff briefly. During the discussion, someone brings up the issue of agism. I'm not entirely moved by the argument, but I was the one that encourages suggestions, so I agree to mull it over. I even take some time out of my day to consult with HR.

Day 3: "The women should also be fit, and preferably well-endowed. Women who take pride in their appearance also take pride in their work." Up until this point, I was willing to assume the best, but it seems quite clear what's really going on. I send out a memo to the department reminding the staff of appropriate behavior in the work place and suitable use of the suggestion box.

Day 4: "More boobies in the office because it will make us happier and more productive! Yay boobies!" The suggestion box is removed due to the abuse. I explain to the reason for this to the staff, I still have an open-door policy for thoughtful, professional and legitimate suggestions, but no more anonymous suggestion box.

Day 5: A formal complaint is filed against me by several of my employees. They state that I am only open to ideas that agree with my prejudicial views, that I'm not supportive of more women in the work place like they are, and dub me a suggestion box nazi. I am infuriated, especially by the allegation that I am not supportive of female employees.  It's a total misrepresentation of my views.  I wanted to have a relaxing day of work interspersed with day-dreaming of weekend plans, but instead find myself in mediation with HR and the complainants. HR toes the company line and explains that they have to respond to all complaints. They nod patronizingly as I defend my position, but it is apparent that not a word sinks in. They don't care about the dispute; they just want it dealt with and out the door. Their final suggestion to me is to reinstate the box, to ignore language like 'boobies' and deal with the "spirit of the suggestion". I say that I'd rather just get rid of the suggestion box altogether, but they reply that it sends the wrong message. I was the one that said I was open to ideas and I have to stick to that (even if no one is open to what I'm saying).

I grind my teeth on the weekend. My dentist has pointed pointed out that I do this when I'm stressed.  Started out when I took the manager's position, coincidentally.  I know it would be easier to just play the game and take HR's advice. The problem is the suggestions weren't just juvenile; they were sexist. I can't, in good conscience, ignore sexism. I question my philosophy on openness. It seemed reasonable, but in practice it just didn't work. When something fails in practice, it's either an issue with the execution, or with the supporting theory. In being honest with myself, I come to terms with the fact that openness to ideas needs to have some pragmatic limitations.

Day six, I call a department meeting. I set aside rank, and spoke to my staff not as a manager, but as a human being. I expressed my feelings that some of the behavior format the preceding week was not appropriate. While filing complaints with HR is an important right for staff, it was a low blow considering no one even came to talk to me first. When the suggestion box was implemented, I expected it to be used with a certain level of discipline, maturity, and sincerity. I did not expect men to behave like boys. As a result, there was no way I could reinstate the suggestion box. We tried it out, but all it did was waste everyone's time, and I apologized for my part in that. I explained that while I still valued openness, I had to act like a manager which means rejecting some ideas because they are not appropriate.

Day seven, I got fired. Expressing my honest feelings was, in retrospect, the stupidest thing a person could do in that environment. My (ex-)boss agreed that my judgment on the suggestions box was fair, and also that I was only being honest at that final meeting, but using the term 'boys' was found to be diminutive and discriminatory. He had no choice but to let me go.

 

A year later I find myself working for my own start up company with people I can respect.  Sure, we don't always see eye to eye, but we can talk about it.  My dentist remarks that I don't seem to be grinding my teeth anymore.

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Open-mindedness has become a bit of a bullshit term these days. 'Open-minded' doesn't mean that I agree with everything everyone says or spend all day coddling fragile egos in culture that is petrified of disagreement.  It means I'm willing to listen and entertain arguments beyond or even contrary to my own views. I am still entitled to disagree with them and form my own counter arguments. The thing about arguing is that it requires discipline and integrity. Just saying any random, half-baked shit isn't an argument; it's being a lazy ass. You have to do your best to avoid committing fallacies and employing senseless equivocation just to score points with the imaginary jury. Sure, it can get heated and emotional sometimes, but hopefully that's just a sign that both parties are passionate about their views. It's not necessarily a bad thing, at least not if everyone involved learns how to let go at the end of the debate.

There was a point in time where I simply could not let things go. I was constantly caught between trying to be open-minded and the fact that some people make arguments that I just cannot respect.  Even worse, they refuse to defend their views, and instead wait until your back is turned to strike a blow.  I'm opinionated, and I can be too stubborn, but I do listen to people, and I'm not judgmental of anyone who is being sincere. If someone tells me I'm being closed-minded these days, I might hear out their complaint, but at the end of the day, I'm just not losing any sleep over what other people think.

Twenty years from now, this sentiment will probably be reduced to one of three things.
i) Things are what they are; I am who I am; my views are what they are. No sense getting worked up over arguments.
ii) Fuck everyone; I'm right.
iii) Cats: the only people I can still talk to.

Views: 131

Comment by Cara Coleen on April 21, 2011 at 9:48pm

This is excellent. The injustice and senselessness is maddening. It's not like the scenario you wrote about is fiction! It happens all the time. It's astounding that people can defend something like female circumcision because of the philosophy that all ideas are valid. Relativism is dangerous on so many levels. And people's inability to separate good ideas from bad ones is just as dangerous. What's with the restriction on using our judgment?

This topic is sooo frustrating to me.

Comment by Doug Reardon on April 21, 2011 at 9:50pm
It probably never occurred to you that the suggestion box was seized upon by one of your "loyal" subordinates as an opportunity to stab you in the back and usurp your position. Same sort of thing happened to me.

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