Meaningless grand gestures of tokenism

Avoiding difficult decisions at the expense of long-term interests.
Logistics, COMMENT, Business Trends


Column by Oscar Wendel, conference manager for Logistics Middle East and the Construction Group at ITP Publishing.

It is hard to find anyone who doesn’t support basic human rights, or who is not against the destruction of nature. Yet it is big business to get the public to feel a need to pay for expressing these values through symbolic gestures of tokenism.

Claiming to represent a certain cause is often a disguise and license to do what you otherwise could not justify. This rationale explains initiatives that are logically incompatible. Exotic adventure vacations to environmentally vulnerable areas to raise money to protect rainforests somewhere else entirely, for example. Or loan sharks operating under the guise of being aid workers giving out micro-credits to rural women in third world countries to set up stands to sell Coke and Mars bars. Yet daring to question the moral legitimacy of any of these “feel-good” movements makes you feel evil. This is thanks to the incredible marketing and PR skills that are the core competencies of such organisations.

The latest of these movements now being foisted on the public is represented by Sheryl Sandberg and her book ’Lean In’, which is adorned by her face donning that quintessentially American smile that constantly gives off just one singular ‘non-expression’ that you can read anything into. Her premise for writing the book is her assumption that she represents the highest form of achievement that professional women can, and should, strive towards. What value she has contributed to the world with her work as the COO of Facebook is unclear. But that is unimportant. What seems to matter most to women like Sandberg is the accomplishment of merely having been given a fancy job title by the men she works for.

Token initiatives are acknowledged as being largely ineffective, but are seen to at least serve a purpose by bringing attention to various issues and taking a step in the right direction. Yet to misrepresent why actions are taken, and in whose interests, is usually either counter-productive to the claimed cause or a distraction from the interests that are really being pursued.

Tokenism is the most effective tool for upholding systemic inequalities and deficiencies that favour a group that doesn’t want attention drawn to it. Tokenism is everywhere. The real change Obama delivered was to free people with a credible alibi for denying their true feelings. Eating salad is the most fattening diet in the world, being the prime excuse to eat cookies, muffins and ice-cream freely. Renewable energy resources are the token licence that frees us from that nagging voice in our head while we take that 30-minute hot shower.

My issue with Sandberg’s message is that she is selling bigoted social values and an ideal that is unattainable to all but a handful of women. Like many modern sales organisations, activity is maximised and salaries minimised by carrot dangling of excessive rewards that has all the minions jumping fervently in unison. It works best if it is done by a CEO who climbed to the top from the mail room.

Whether Sandberg is aware of it or not, this is now the role she has been chosen to play on behalf of corporate America for women around the world. They can be like her if they just ’lean in’. This is her code for simply working harder and longer, getting up at 0600 in the morning and continuing on from home until bedtime after a brief dinner. Other than that, her recipe for success in business is mostly about ticking all the right boxes that have to do with formal appearances and getting liked by the right people, in particular the right man to marry.

Any agenda portrayed as motivated by the altruism to forward the interests of a disadvantaged group is rarely as pure as it is made out to be. When we interpret issues as part of a group, our objectivism is handicapped by collective emotion. What appears to matter is not always real, and that which is real gets ignored. We prefer to accept reasoning in line with what the group wants us to believe. Breaking away from these shackles requires actual awareness, which involves seemingly counter-intuitive interpretations of motivating factors.

Engaging in the symbolic gestures of tokenism is our excuse to avoid the unpleasant actions necessary to deal with, or even acknowledge, a problem or situation. Before paying this price of unwittingly relinquishing our interests, first decide on what those interests are, and what they are worth to you.

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