Those people in the corridor and the cafeteria are very good, and successful, at saying, very vocally: ‘we will never change, we are too bureaucratic, too much of an engineering culture, we have little hope’. Nobody says much. One person says, I agree. About five are nodding. About ten or so seem to be talking about this, and more nodding. Nobody seems to disagree.
Those two managers have just said: ‘Culture of safety? My eye! Tell that to my boss; tell him that safety is before profits, and before meeting targets! Nice talk from the guys at the top, nobody believes it’. And people hearing that, the next table in the company canteen, are a mixture of nodding and getting on with the spaghetti. Certainly nobody challenges that.
That Director has, again, referred to a female colleague in a derogatory, sexist way. Not terrible, not outrageous, very ‘consistent with the (macho) culture’, and, for sure, for sure, for sure, with no bad intentions. Because he is a nice guy. So he would say that. It’s not the first time. People around smile and raise some eyebrows. Some seem embarrassed and look away. Others laugh . ‘He is so straight and politically incorrect!’, somebody says. ‘That’s Jim, he is how he is’.
These three vignettes are not theoretical. It’s daily life. Daily life and daily behaviours that remain unchallenged. If anything, in behavioural terms, constantly reinforced by the nodding, the smiling, the silent approval. That’s why they scale up all the time.
How outrageous, untrue, painful or ‘unacceptable’ do these have to be in order to be challenged? How ‘big’ for people to stop them right away: ‘excuse me…’. How bad?
The power of those ‘innocent comments’, ‘expressions of (free) opinion’, friendly-smart-sexist remarks, and other similar situations lie in their apparent benign nature. So people can get away with it. So we continue with our business. ‘Battles not worth fighting’, a senior female journalist from the Daily Mail, a British right-wing tabloid, said recently on prime time television, responding to another female journalist who took issue with sexist remarks on social media.
Why do silent majorities remain silent when silent minorities are offended? How many years have to elapse before we say enough is enough? A ‘No Irish, no dogs’ sign was common in Britain not many years ago. How many generations were needed to declare that insane? Was it ever, ever, funny?
I am not speaking from a position of moral authority. I have had my fair contribution to nodding and silence. But I regret every one of them.
In the sixties, my late father was very close to emigrating to Germany. Spanish workers then were treated there as second class human beings. Progressively, they worked harder than anybody else, made money, brought property, became middle class, and passed the baton to the Turkish. The cycle started again.
Yes, I am sure there are also excesses in political correctness. Some sound silly. But what is the threshold between silliness and denigration of a human being? Between a joke and an insult? Between thin skin and emotionally hurt?
Those little epidemics of negativity and benign nastiness can only be tackled by a counter-epidemic of people speaking up. Stop it and challenge it. You may be surprised how many people may follow. Silence is not an option.