#MeToo, Boris, Ken and managing prejudice at work

You don’t need me to tell you that politics of hate is big right now, from Brexit to alleged antisemitism in the UK Labour party, from #MeToo to popularist political movements fuelled by distrust or hatred of other social groups.

There’s been plenty of speculation and debate about the causes, so I’d like to focus on the effects and how we might deal with them.

I believe much of the politics of hate springs from prejudice: reacting to another person or group based on a preconceived view of who they are.

When we allow prejudice to drive our actions it causes damage which can in turn drive more prejudice, continuing and escalating the cycle.

The drivers of prejudice can be very powerful.

Someone raised in a social environment which subjugates or demonises a particular group – women, people of other ethnicities, sexual orientation or physical or mental abilities – ends up with prejudices which can be deeply ingrained.

Prejudice also grows from real and justified hurt and injustice.

Someone who has suffered sexual harassment can become prejudiced against the perpetrator’s entire sex, victims of the atrocities of war may hold prejudices against the aggressor nation for years after the conflict.

So we all have prejudices, which can be deeply ingrained and may be based on justifiable causes. How can we manage these prejudices to minimise their destructive effects? I’m thinking particularly of the workplace here, but I believe the same principles should apply in any environment.

More than half the battle lies in recognising prejudice-based behaviour in ourselves and those around us, and acting appropriately to stop it.

That may sound obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind that we can’t just delete our prejudices, we can only manage them.

When someone says “I’m not prejudiced, but…..” they are deceiving either us or themselves, and generally go on to prove it with what they say next.

Staring at someone wearing a Burka because it doesn’t fit our social norms, making suggestive comments to a stranger because we find them physically attractive, talking down to someone with a speech disability because we associate intellectual capability with the ability to communicate: all of these are examples of unacceptable and damaging behaviour triggered by prejudices which we can’t help having.

Being able to recognise and manage our own prejudices is an essential skill for living in a civilised society.

It’s even more critical in the work environment, particularly for anyone responsible for managing a team or doing anything which gives them authority over others.

For instance, whilst I applaud the idea of redacting personal information from CVs where it could allow prejudice to influence the recruiter, I also believe strongly that anyone trusted with evaluating CVs should have the ability to recognise their own prejudices and be able to stop them influencing their assessment.

When we’ve mastered our own prejudices, we need to know how to spot and deal with prejudiced behaviour from others.

I’ve been reminded of this by some recent examples from our beloved UK politicians. (‘beloved’ is used sarcastically here, which is itself an example of prejudice by stereotyping, but I think our politicians are generally thick-skinned enough to take it).

When Boris Johnson wrote that women wearing Burkas look like letter boxes or burglars it was, for me, quite clearly a damaging, prejudice-based statement.  Regardless of his intent, the main effect of the statement is to cause offence, with very little positive benefit.

Similarly, and in the interest of political balance, I can’t see how Ken Livingstone’s 2016 remark about Hitler could achieve anything apart from perpetuating a spiral of prejudice, even through the words he chose:

“Let’s remember, when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism…”

Saying “Let’s remember…” before quoting an obscure fact which few people will be aware of is a crude and rather childish way to demonstrate your superiority over your audience, which to my mind is itself prejudice based behaviour. He may as well have said “I know this about Hitler and you don’t, so there, nerr!”

So we need to be alert to sarcasm, generalisation, stereotyping and similar behaviours which point to underlying prejudice, as well as to more direct demonstrations of racism, sexism and so on.

When we deal with prejudice in the workplace and elsewhere, we have to be sensitive to where that prejudice has come from, and not to let our own prejudices contaminate our response.

I abhor sexual harassment. I also believe that the sad history of some men’s sexual aggression towards women has created an unhelpful backlash which leads some women to an understandable but potentially counterproductive stereotyping of all men.

In the early days of #MeToo there were concerns expressed about it meaning an end to innocent flirting. One commentator wrote that women didn’t have a problem dealing with this, it was only men who were finding it difficult.

This shows how prejudice can escalate. I was offended (mildly) by the article because it seemed to me to be making a sweeping generalisation about men. If I had let this feeling of offence colour my opinion of women overall, it would have created another layer in a spiral of prejudice.

We need to do our best to neutralise these layers of prejudice, including our own, when dealing with issues of prejudice at work or elsewhere. We should focus on preventing or remedying the real hurt, damage or injustice involved, regardless of those prejudices.

If someone raises a discrimination complaint because they are not allowed to wear a crucifix pendant as a symbol of their faith in a work environment where jewellery is banned, we must understand the wider context and all the elements of prejudice which might be at play.

The immediate social environment is a key element of this context.

As a rule, a positive social environment takes the sting out of prejudice. Building social relationships involves mutual respect, which makes prejudice harder to sustain. It’s important to foster an environment which encourages this in the workplace.

True, some deeply ingrained prejudice can resist this, as in “I’m not prejudiced, in fact some of my best friends are xxxxxxx, but…..”. Sadly we seem to be remarkably good at compartmentalising our stereotypes from our actual experience.

Developing and sustaining a positive relationship means socialising our prejudices. They don’t disappear, because their triggers – sexuality, ethnicity, disability, religious belief – are still there, but socialising them creates a context of mutual respect and humanity. They become aspects to be understood, talked about, celebrated, even joked about.

It is unacceptable for a British non-Muslim to say that women in burkas look like letter boxes because it inflames unsocialised prejudice against Muslims in the UK.

Referring to a Christian minister wearing a dog collar is a small example of a fully socialised prejudice. It may have been insulting once, and it is still regarded as offensive even in some other Christian countries, but the inference is no longer given a moment’s thought in the UK.

Socialising prejudice is about understanding and celebrating our differences. It’s essential in a civilised society if we are to enjoy the full richness of human diversity and avoid the extremes of ‘political correctness gone mad.”

For instance, we socialise physical attraction by talking, flirting, going on dates, and so on.

Within this socialising process, each physical expression of attraction is mutually consented to and desired by both (or all, I don’t judge) parties. Not the catchiest lyric for a love song, and it’s often far from that simple, but that’s the basic process.

For me, one key victory of #MeToo is to destroy the ingrained prejudices which sanction the short-cutting of this process based on power, gender stereotypes, level of inebriation, or any other excuse.

Ultimately, everyone should be able to feel comfortable with what they choose to do with their physicality, without fear of harm from others’ prejudices.

From dressing ‘sexily’ for your own self-esteem, to making a living from how you look; these should be choices anyone is free to make without the burden of stereotyping of what this makes you.

I sympathise with the argument that the burka actually liberates women by freeing them from the burden of male lechery, but the focus should be on removing the lechery, not avoiding it.

#MeToo originated in the workplace, albeit a workplace rife with exploitation and abuse.

A positive working environment is a powerful force in socialising prejudice, but #MeToo has shown how a combination of ingrained prejudice and power can create something poisonous instead.

Abuse in a working or social relationship can be the most damaging because it is a betrayal of the trust created by that relationship.

Mutual respect and understanding is vital in such relationships because it sets the implicit boundaries for acceptable behaviour.

Hugging, suggestive banter, openly discussing someone’s disability, religious faith or sexuality with them – all may or may not be acceptable in a particular social or work environment depending on where these boundaries are set.

Everyone in an ongoing working or social relationship has a responsibility to understand its particular boundaries and make sure they aren’t crossed.

For a work manager, it’s critical to be sensitive to them and manage them within the team and in the wider context.

Explicit racism, sexism or other prejudiced behaviour in a team is always unacceptable. It may be a challenge for the manager to tackle it if everyone in the team shares the same strong ingrained prejudices, but it must still be stopped.

Boundaries may need to be adjusted when someone new joins the team or if something happens externally to affect a team member’s sensitivity to prejudice.

If a team member starts suffering sexual or racial abuse outside work, the boundaries of acceptable behaviour within the team will probably need to change to support that person.

If someone feels hurt or aggrieved by something within or outside the team, they may look to exploit the boundaries to hurt someone else or simply to lash out.

All this needs to be sensitively managed, and needs effective individual engagement with each member of the team. If someone is hurt by prejudiced behaviour in the team, they may suffer in silence rather than risk damaging their working relationships; it’s important to spot this and address the root cause. Equally, someone may choose to use the prejudice card to get back at someone else for something unrelated, so it’s important to understand what’s really going on and act accordingly.

This is a all familiar diversity and inclusion training territory, but I think it’s important to keep coming back to it, when prejudice and the politics of hate threatening to take over.

Whether you’re leading a small team or the Labour party, the defence against prejudice is to be aware of everyone’s prejudices, including your own, to foster an environment of respect and understanding where those prejudices become socialised, and to act firmly when boundaries are breached.


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