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Posts Tagged ‘hypocrisy’

In print, I can rant with the best of them. In person, though, I am usually a broadly tolerant fellow to the point of mildness. My friends range from a Catholic cleric through various ministers to agnostics, and from neo-conservatives to anarchists and Marxist Leninists. My taste in books, music, movies, food, and art covers almost every genre you have heard about (and probably a few that you haven’t). When someone expresses an enthusiasm for the mediocre, I am polite and, if cornered into giving an opinion, I am diplomatic in my expression.

But there is one thing that leaves me feeling like my teeth have slid off tin-foil: the airhead optimism and superficiality of those who believe that all that anyone needs to achieve their goals is to think positively – the attitude, in short, that is peddled by pop-psychologists, psychics, and life coaches, borrowed from people like Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, and promulgated in bits of New Age philosophy such as The Secret.

Why does this feel-good optimism annoy me so much? At first, you might expect it wouldn’t, because I’m a biological optimist, so wired to be upbeat that even trauma can’t keep me down for long. It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that daily heavy exercise keeps me pumped up with adrenalin and endorphins.

However, it is a sign of just how deeply such things irritate me that they can make me react so much against my natural inclinations.

I suppose that part of what irritates me is the methodology, which often seems to revolve around slogans and aphorisms intended to inspire you and reinforce the right attitudes. Being practical, I prefer to receive useful information rather than inspiration, and, as a lifelong student of Orwell, I am immediately suspicious at what looks like the techniques of mind-control – even if it is mind-control done with consent, or even self-inflicted.

But what irritates me most about the slogans is that, when they are based on quotes, they are frequently used out of context or inappropriately.

For instance, when Einstein said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe, he was not expressing a belief in a personal deity who influenced events, but a conviction that there was some principle beyond indeterminacy in subatomic theory – and, so far as we know today, he was wrong.

Similarly, when someone notes that Noah’s ark was built by an amateur and The Titanic by professionals, I can’t help thinking that as a carpenter Noah was a professional, too, and that The Titanic was sunk due to bad luck, not negligence on the part of the builders. I won’t even go into the fact that being mythical limits Noah’s usefulness as role model. But the point is that if you are going to quote or allude when an English major like me is around, you better do so appropriately.

Another reason I dislike this cant is that it is annoyingly over-simple. Yes, having a positive attitude can sometimes help you – but not always. Being cheerful and upbeat is not going to save you from your internal organs failing one day. If you get mugged, you are not going to hurt any less because you are optimistic.

It always seems to me that the positive speakers have either never had any serious trauma in their lives, or else have repressed the memory of any events that were painful or beyond their control. Furthermore, such an attitude is only possible if you are a middle-class member of a modern industrial society who has led a relatively uneventful life. It is the attitude of prolonged adolescence, not of experience, and requires more denial than I can muster or ever hope to maintain. Often, it seems dangerously close to solipsism. At best, it preaches a demonstrably false view of the world that can only leave believers less able to cope.

But the strongest reason why I despise this empty optimism is the hypocrisy behind it. Those who preach it cannot possibly feel it all the time, and there must be occasions when they long for a good mope. But melancholy or depression does not fit with the public image that they have worked so hard to establish, so they must falsify their feeling at least part of the time. Nor, having invested so much in their brand of optimism, can they honestly discuss it. Faced with such doubts, they can only be even more enthusiastically upbeat than before.

The result is that I can rarely relax among the positive thinkers, because it is impossible to be sure when they are genuine or when they are not. When they agree with me, do I really have a meeting of minds, or are they just being positive? I can never be sure.

Too often, everything they do seems exaggerated and false. Their smiles are too broad and last a little too long, and their enthusiasm always seems greater than the situation would justify. If they have any genuine reaction, it is well-hidden.

The uncertainty is greatest when I try to decide whether I have made a genuine connection or not. When they proclaim that they love everyone five minutes after meeting them, and applaude every suggestion as “fabulous,” what vocabulary is left for true enthusiasm? In one case, I thought for years that one of these airhead optimists thought of me as a special friend, only to find that they were simply being insincere.

Long ago, I learned that the people you can actually trust for help are not necessarily those with the strongest protests of friendship and understanding. In fact, one or two of the most supportive people I have known would be dismissed as uncaring and shallow rednecks if you judged them by their casual conversation. By contrast, I have known several positive thinkers whose actions never matched their words in a crisis.

With all this against the positive thinkers, no wonder that I sometimes feel like Don Marquis’ archy, the poet turned cockroach faced with the cheerful cricket – I want to tell them to groan just once before I throw a brick.

Of course, I never do, but the impulse is there. Usually, I simply leave them to their fantasy and walk away as quickly as possible, shaking my head, not at the power of positive thinking, but at the power of self-delusion.

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One of my pet peeves about business is the constant consternation among executives about employees doing personal business on company time. Even if the transgression is just a few minutes browsing on the Internet, it’s viewed with the greatest concern. Business experts talk earnestly about what such loss of productivity might mean to the nation, and devise ways to spy on employees, or to block web sites that employees might like to view. Doing business on company time, they gravely explain, is the worst sin of our secular age – stealing from your employer. What annoys me is that such concerns are a grotesque hypocrisy.

I’m not talking, you understand, about the extreme cases, where a middle manager spends five or six hours a day on a gambling site, or a system administrator watches porn all day. Such behavior is obviously unacceptable to anyone. I’m talking instead of people who take five or ten minutes a couple of times a day to read a news or hobby site, or to dash out on a family errand.

Of course, even this behavior was unacceptable thirty years ago, when people worked regular hours and rarely deviated from them. After all, the lost time quickly adds up.

But the workplace is different today. Instead of receiving an hourly wage, the average office worker is on salary – a ploy that forces them to work hours of unpaid overtime. Especially in high-tech, the norm is to take advantage of this situation, putting heavy pressure on those who leave after eight hours and implying that anyone who doesn’t devote evenings and weekends to the company are not being good team players and letting everyone down. More than once, I’ve encountered supervisors who had a habit of starting meetings ten minutes before the end of the day and forcing people to work overtime, knowing very well that the social pressure would keep most people from objecting.

And only rarely does anyone get a day off to compensate for their extra hours. Rather, unpaid work has become the norm.

Under these circumstances, how dare employers complain about the loss of half an hour or an hour a day when they are averaging twice that in unpaid overtime from their employees? If anything, they ought to be glad that employees are taking short breaks. Otherwise, productivity would decline steadily after about nine hours. By taking those breaks, employees are actually making better use of the time actually spent working, because they are more refreshed than they would otherwise be.

An employer with any knowledge of human nature should be glad that employees know how to pace themselves. Otherwise, employees risk falling into the unproductive habit of a resident doctor I once knew. When I asked how she handled the thirty-six hour shifts that are part of the hazing ritual for new doctors, she explained, “I try to make all my decisions in the first twelve hours. After that, I just try not to make any mistakes.”

Anyway, what choice do employees have except to conduct personal business on company time? When employees are working long days, often the middle of the day is the only time they have for errands or personal business. Very few stores are open at 10PM – assuming that someone staggering home after a fourteen hour day even has the energy to stop to shop.

At any rate, employees are doing nothing that many executives haven’t done for years. Despite all the pep talks about the importance of leadership, the average manager works far less strenuously that the average employee. The exceptions are those who have a hands-on approach, and lend a hand in anything that needs doing, and they are usually in a startup. The average manager thinks nothing of doing exactly the sort of thing that annoys them when employees do them.

And perhaps that’s the problem, Maybe the executives who worry about productivity are simply irked that average employees are claiming perqs that used to be reserved for them alone.

When companies pay overtime or don’t cajole and threaten free work out of their employees, and managers set an example of dedication, then they will have a right to complain about what is done on company time. Until then, so long as employees put in the number of productive hours listed in their contract, they have every right to reclaim some of their free time.

So far as I’m concerned, the employees aren’t the ones who are stealing.

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Recently, I’ve been struggling with the suspicion that my distaste for marketing is hypocrisy.

I’ve been a marketer in a past career incarnation, and a moderately good one, if I say so myself. At Stormix Technologies, I developed the idea of ad campaigns based on different idioms that used the word “storm,” such as storm warning and eye of the storm. Later, at Progeny Linux Systems, I developed a campaign based on the use of a large animal to represent the company, such as a macaw, and a small one to represent the competition, such as a budgie. In the last version of the ad, we used a bull elephant and a toy elephant, under the slogan, “Some companies just toy with open source.”

Even in retrospect, I’m proud of these campaigns, although to be honest the Progeny campaign owed much of its effectiveness to the graphics work done by Rebecca Blake at Lara Kisielewska’s Optimum Design and Consulting in New York. Both campaigns handily accomplished the aim of giving new companies name recognition across North America.

However, it’s nearing five years since I’ve worked as a marketer. At first, I had difficulty finding marketing work in the high-tech recession, and later I found direction as a journalist and stopped looking for marketing work.

Still, given my past, I’m surprised to find myself viewing marketing with increasing distaste. Last year, when I noticed an ex-schoolmate using crudely obvious means to market her company, I told myself that her tactics were reasons to distance myself. More recently, I found myself shaking my head over local bloggers writing about products for money or goods. And when I spent an evening listening to a case study of a guerilla marketing campaign, I found myself thinking the whole idea a waste of creativity. I had a similar reaction when I read a friend’s recent blog enthusing over marketers who organized live roleplaying games to promote their products. I am all for play, since I believe it is important to creativity, but I wondered if marketing wouldn’t sully the whole experience.

The thing is, given my past, what right do I have to look down at marketing? Considering the recession when I tried unsuccessfully to find marketing work, is my reaction just sour grapes? At the very least, I am being inconsistent, and that troubles me, because such inconsistency points to unexamined complexity.

Moreover, I notice that very few people share my attitudes. Many people found the case study I heard clever, and were excited by the possibilities of using real-life games to sell products. I’m next to unique in my moral outrage. That’s fairly common, since I have a strong Puritan streak in me (by which I mean that I’m obsessive about ethics, not that I’m prudish), but righteous outrage, like inconsistency, suggests a complex reaction.

So, what is happening? To answer, I have to fish blindly into the mirky depths of my unconscious, and see what I happen to land.

Part of my reaction, I think, is a reversion to earlier attitudes. I was an academic before I was a marketer, and such dismissals are common to those who have never worked in business. In the last couple of years, I’ve been at a stage in my life when I’ve been reassessing my past through various means – including through this blog – and very likely I’ve made a reconnection that I didn’t realize until now.

Another reason is that I’ve switched sides. Instead of trying to persuade journalists, I am a journalist now. In the last few years, I’ve seen many inept marketers – not least of all those who borrow spammers’ techniques and keep sending information about Windows products to an address that is clearly about GNU/Linux. Because I get forty or more such emails every day, developing a jaundiced view of the marketing profession is only natural. I’ve seen too much of it at its worst.

However, I think the main reason for my disdain is to justify the path I’ve taken. While I could always return to marketing if I was desperate to earn a living, it’s slipped several rankings down in the possibilities. Most likely, I could probably find another gig in free software journalism if I had to. But, as a generalist who believes that “all of the above” is usually the correct choice, I’m obscurely bothered by committing to a single career choice. So, to quieten my misgivings, perhaps I’m hunting for ways of repudiating the possibilities I’ve more or less ruled out.

In other words, my reactions are less about the ethics of marketing in the abstract than about my own decisions about my life. And, having come up with this line of reasoning, I imagine that I can already feel my reaction diminishing. Examining hypocrisy can lead to insights – or so I’ve found in this case.

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