Middle Aged Men in Suits – Hate Speech and Business

Hate speech is everywhere; From Vladimir Putin on migrants and the death of liberalism, to Boris Johnson’s casual insults of the French , business people and Moslem women, to some of the responses to Mark Field’s abhorrent reaction to an environmental protestor.

Our media machine makes sure there’s always plenty of juicy generalisation and stereotyping for us to tuck into and keep our sense of righteous indignation topped up, with digs about rabbit-farming environmentalists and left-wing media terrorists on one side and demonization of middle aged white men in suits on the other.

Given its relentless rise, it’s worth considering hate speech again, and not least because as business people it’s critical that we are alert to it and can manage its impact in the workplace.

Hate speech is language which demeans or devalues an individual or group by prejudice, association or stereotyping. It attacks people based on who they are, not what they do.

It plays on our fundamental emotions of anger, fear and lust, our drive to survive and protect our pack or tribe by lashing out at any perceived threat.

It disrupts civilisation – the balancing human impulse to work and live together collaboratively and resolve our differences constructively.

Hate speech is the language which demonises all Moslems because of the actions of a few extremists, objectifies women and stereotypes men as inherently misogynist.

Populist politicians use hate speech to attract people who already feel enraged or disenfranchised, and, increasingly, to disrupt reasoned debate, like an aircraft drops metal chaff to confuse radar.

It’s a cynical and effective tactic.

You start by saying something deliberately inflammatory, for example, that you think women in Burkas look like letter boxes.

You’ve instantly won the support of everyone who’s anti-Islam, and it doesn’t matter what you say or do next because it’s that soundbite they’ll remember.

When you’re challenged, you can still apologise for any offence, say that it was taken out of context, and get a few more populist brownie points by saying something on the lines of “I’ll always speak as I find and it’s high time we had a politician who did.”

If you’re blessed with exceptional chutzpah, you might even try to win some liberal credibility by claiming your real point was to criticise the wearing of the Burka for how  it subjugates women.

Meanwhile your political opponents waste emotional energy, time and effort in being outraged by the remark and trying to respond to it head on.

If you’ve outraged them enough, there’s a good chance it will even draw them away from rational argument and into the cycle of corrosive hate speech, which plays into your hands too.

Throwing a milk shake over a far-right politician is hate speech. Regardless of how much we understand and sympathise, the intent is the same ; to demean,  enrage, and foster an escalation of hate speech on both sides.

When someone makes a joke suggesting replacing the milk shake with battery acid, it shows the inevitable and dangerous consequences when hate speech is allowed to take over, and creates an environment that the hate speech initiators love.

Similarly, with the Mark Field incident, whilst responding to one man’s repugnant actions with remarks about ‘typical male rage’ and ‘middle aged men in suits’ is tempting and understandable, it’s still hate speech because it stereotypes a group rather than directly addressing the actions of the individuals.

It takes a huge effort of will to break the cycle because our impulse to get back at someone who has hurt us is always so strong. The worse the hurt, the harder it is to break.

South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a brave and noble attempt to break a cycle of hate, but sadly such attempts are all too rare.

The situation between Israel and Palestine is so ingrained with hate speech on both sides that we struggle to grasp exactly where legitimate criticism of Israeli actions stops and anti-semitism begins.

As business leaders we need to be ready to manage all the different incarnations and impacts of hate speech in the workplace.

Hate speech can even be a deliberate business tactic, although one which must be used sparingly and with eyes wide open.

Early disruptors in the airline business had to break into a market dominated by national flag carrier airlines who could legally fix prices and pay little heed to customer value.

This, along with the inherent discomfort and inconvenience of most air travel, had created a pretty disgruntled customer base who nevertheless still often saw their national flag carrier as something of a sacred cow.

For the disruptors, sprinkling their marketing with a bit of hate speech towards the incumbents worked well because it played on customers’ underlying feelings of dissatisfaction and powerlessness.

Clearly this approach has to be closely managed, especially if it starts to escalate. Knocking copy has its place, but there’s always a risk of the red mist descending so you end up playing the player rather than the ball without realising it.

It’s what some British Airways’ senior managers admit happened in its dealings with Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic in the 1990s, and it’s a path that can easily end up in costly law suits.

I’ve heard some alarming stories from the political sphere that hate speech is eroding the kind of mutual respect which used to mean you could still share a drink after tearing lumps off each other in debate.

Hopefully we haven’t lost that underlying mutual respect in business. If we have, the only ones to win will be the lawyers, yet again.

If you feel you can gain advantage by knocking a competitor, a union, or even your customers, be aware it’s a high risk approach which you must plan and manage objectively, and make sure you have a robust exit strategy.

Beware of emotional responses, no matter how natural they are, and don’t let them influence your actions.

When it comes to dealing with hate speech within our teams, it’s about fulfilling our duty of care to all our stakeholders – staff, customers, shareholders and the wider community – and ensuring that hate speech isn’t allowed to harm team performance.

Mostly this is about doing what we have always done as good managers. Walk the talk from all that good HR training; focus on behaviours, demonstrate and expect respect, be aware of and manage our own unconscious bias, and so on.

But I think we also need to up our game as hate speech becomes more a part of our culture and starts to have even more impact on what goes on at work.

There’s a long-running debate about team banter and how far we should manage it. I think it’s great up to a point for team morale and bonding, but it can easily tip over into behaviour and language which causes offence and friction in the team.

We have to be even more alert to this now, when social media and other external influences can amplify the impact of inappropriate behaviour. In a way, we have all become hyper-sensitised to offence.

We need to be particularly careful about hate speech when there’s a just cause driving it.

For example, I believe any right-minded person would agree that the movement against objectification and demeaning of women is overdue and essential, and that we should support it wholeheartedly, not least in the workplace.

It’s entirely understandable that the movement sometimes gives rise to language which stereotypes or demonises some or all men. However, when it does, it’s still hate speech, so we have to recognise and deal with it as such.

All this means that it is more important than ever before for us to foster working environments based on openness and mutual respect, where we lead from the front in understanding and appreciating our colleagues as complex and valuable individuals, not stereotypes.

We must be alert to the danger of hate speech creeping into any of our working relationships, and make sure we don’t let our own emotions lead our language and responses.

We must be prepared to call out hate speech and stop it whenever we see it, even if we agree with the sentiment behind it, and we must be impervious to  taunts of ‘political correctness gone mad’ when we do.

We’re a long way from the day when hate speech is no longer a part of social and political discourse, but if we do our jobs properly I trust we can at least protect our workplaces from its worst effects.

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