2014 BIRTHDAY LECTURE: THE LONG MARCH THROUGH THE HUMAN RESOURCES DEPARTMENT

Note: this is the only lecture so far that has been captured on video. If you’d prefer that, look here.

In early May this year, there was an interesting internet dustup which, among other notable attributes, featured what has to be the first time one of my alma maters, the New School, was discussed in US Weekly, even if it was only the blog. What happened was this: during a panel discussion held at the school on the subject of black feminism, noted transgender activist Janet Mock expressed her admiration for pop superstar Beyonce. This led prominent feminist scholar and panel co-member bell hooks to denounce Beyonce for her cooperation with the juncture between capitalist media production and sexist and racist beauty norms. Hooks, a past master of using pithy and provocative language to get her points across, capped off by calling the performer “a terrorist,” for the harm which she has allegedly visited upon the psyches of black girls. Sort of puts a new spin on the saw about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter.

I’m not going to go into the veracity of hooks’ claim here, both because it strikes me as pointless, and because the discussion of the claim quickly became a discussion of the discussion, as internet arguments tend to do. A generational rift quickly became apparent- younger commentators, based on the cornucopia of blogs dedicated to parsing the intersections between politics and pop culture, did not so much defend Beyonce herself, though expressions of enjoyment for her music and respect for her business acumen abounded. Instead, they criticized her critics – like hooks, mostly older commentators on race and culture – for singling her out and for promulgating a joyless, lifeless politics of austere political combat. Nobody, as I saw, actually trotted out the old Emma Goldman line about it not being her revolution if there was no dancing, but the spirit was there.

Unlike many internet foofaraws that roil the effervescent waters of social justice discourse, the great Beyonce-terrorist dustup ended quickly and was relatively free of acrimony. Some of the main discussants even came to agree with each other publically, a welcome and rare sight. The reason why it struck me as worth noting has to do with the intergenerational quality I mentioned. In short, it was funny to me that these younger social justice bloggers were attacking hooks for opposing the valorization of a pop culture figure, when hooks herself was a key figure in the rise of culture studies, the field which made pop culture a subject of sustained, sympathetic cultural inquiry. Unlike earlier academic critics of pop, who emphasized the potential for their subject to stultify or even control masses of people otherwise alienated by modernity, the culture studies cohort of the eighties and nineties, hooks prominent among them, made much of the subversive capabilities of people’s interaction with and creation of popular media. Selfhood understood as an ongoing act of creative performance – which, if consciously undertaken, could subvert racial, gender, etc. hierarchies – was and is an idea that animates culture studies, and hooks has written numerous works along these themes. Many of the untold number of think-pieces on Beyonce that one can find on the internet, before and after the hooks dustup, use the pop star as an illustration of a black woman in control of her own performance of self, using ideas clearly borrowed from hooks’ wheelhouse, if not citing her work itself. So it was interesting to me to watch the older generation of culture studies visibly lose control of their central idea, and to see younger commentators in the same vein express their incredulity at one of the major figures in their intellectual tradition; a sort of ouroboros moment, the serpent of culture studies eating its own tail.

Indeed, one way in which hooks’ critics paid her homage was in the rhetorical method they used in their attacks. While the Beyonce-terrorist claim is, on a literal level, incorrect enough that critical bloggers typically did take the time to point out the claim’s outlandishness, for the most part the critics argued less that hooks and her defenders were wrong per se, but that they were harmful. By making their arguments, hooks and her defenders were oppressing the critics and at least some of the critics’ readership, they were acting to divert attention from more serious problems, they were reenacting sexist rhetorical practices. More than being factually wrong, hooks was made out to be morally, perhaps existentially wrong. In hooks own writings – at least those I’ve sampled, she has had a long and productive career and has written a lot – her own criticism follows the same lines. People are not merely wrong or incorrect in her world, even people with whom she is sympathetic; they are party to racism, sexism, to oppression in general, they are part of the problem which hooks sees as her job to solve.

Look at the internet and you will see that, despite the presence of a great many nerds and pedants who make the showing up of factual errors a sort of sport, hooks, no matter how much she may alienate some of her intellectual progeny, is assured for the time being her that her legacy will live on. Her practice of treating many, most, perhaps all disagreements as manifestations of deep problems which are at once civilization-wide and profoundly, damnably personal, is quite widespread in what we could call, for lack of a better word, the social justice community, which is not restricted to the internet but which makes some of its more spectacular displays there. The arguments that take place in this conceptual space are part of an ongoing effort to define the relationship between individuals, communities, and moral and ethical imperatives in the context of two overwhelming shadows that loom over our time. The first is the persistence of brutal, deadly social inequalities, especially those along racial and gendered lines; the second is the failure of the Left, especially after its high point of prominence in the 1960s, to follow through on its promises of social transformation and its subsequent long decline. The necessity of hard choices on the part of those committed to social justice in a period of conservative ascendancy, and the choices of those attempting to manage the consequences of social change, together between them condition much of the social justice discourse we see today, for better and for worse.

A brief note on method. Dealing with the history of ideas forces the historian not to forgo value judgments as such, but to look askance at normative explanations for why ideas are adopted or not. It’s useless to say a given idea took hold because it was right or good; people always think that about the ideas they happen to hold. Historians need to know why and how they came to think that about their ideas. So I will be dealing with many ideas and practices here, good, bad, and indifferent, and while usually I have ideas about their value, that isn’t a major part of the story I’d like to tell. Normative judgments can be a use of history, but normative explanations are just shoddy work. So, you know, hard though it is not to lean on such a shining beacon of moral judgment such as myself… don’t.


The collapse of the broad left that emerged through the civil rights and antiwar movements of the ‘60s coincided with the beginning of civil society’s efforts to piece together a response to the imperatives of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While massive resistance to the law gets more attention – rightly so, probably – efforts to comply with the statute evince a pattern we’ll see repeated a few times in this lecture. The Civil Rights Act was very clear in moral intent: the destruction of formal structures of racial discrimination. But it was quite vague in terms of how it meant to bring its imperative about. Particularly challenging was Title VII, which contained those two fateful words: affirmative action.

The phrase “affirmative action” conjures up for many images of government diktats from on high, specifying the racial order hither and yon across the land, but this image is patently false. The affirmative action stipulation in the Civil Rights Act says pretty much nothing about what affirmative action actually is- it just says it needs to happen. Any smart lawyer would be able to recognize this as a golden opportunity for interested parties seeking to define a given a legal space.

As it happens, the interested parties that came to define what constitutes compliance with the mandate to take affirmative action to end discrimination were professionals in the field of human resources and personnel management. A field originally dedicated largely to preventing or defusing labor organization now found itself in a position to define corporate responses to affirmative action mandates. Logically enough, the process began in the companies most dependent on federal largess, notably major defense contractors. What HR professionals were able to convince these companies – not run by the liberally-inclined, by and large – was that it would be much cheaper in the long run to implement programs to monitor and, in the company’s own time, correct racial discrimination in hiring practices than it would be to expose the firm to lawsuits through dilly-dallying. Together, HR people from a number of major corporations defined, piece by piece in a process still ongoing, “best practices” of antidiscrimination policy. These practices in turn were adopted by the courts – in absence of more specific guidance from the federal government – as standards for compliance industry-wide, which other companies would be expected to meet or face potential legal action.

The record gives us little on who, exactly, these HR professionals were, what their stances were on the social justice issues of the day, though we know, like many corporate support professionals, they lamented the tardiness of higher managers to see their work as essential. And, as is definitional to any profession, HR people are produced, as it were, institutionally, by programs in colleges and universities, and kept up to speed by professional journals, associations, conventions and so on. And so, the human resources professionals who would continue to negotiate the implications of civil rights law for corporations (and other big institutions, like schools) and translate the results of these negotiations into policy were produced by institutions which were, themselves, sites of conflict over the legacy of the civil rights movement, its decline, and its offshoots.

Academic history is starting to prod, in its ginger self-conscious way, into the history of the 1970s and 1980s. The history of ideas is typically a bit easier to find sources for than other kinds of history, due to one of the subfields major defects- its focus on people with the time, education, and platform to make their ideas known to the world. And so the history of ideas has been making quicker inroads into the relatively recent past than other subfields, useful as that’s the time that concerns us here. The big conversation piece in recent intellectual history these days is a book by Daniel Rodgers at Princeton, called “Age of Fracture.” While the book as a whole is well worth reading, a lot of the argument is right there in the title. The period roughly from Watergate to 9/11, Rodgers argues, was a time where broadly shared ideas about society in America fractured, and the fractures of those fractures fractured further until we were afflicted with a “contagion of metaphors.” Now, I have a number of criticisms of this thesis as an explanatory rubric for American history in this period, but it appears to be an adequate description of the life of the mind in higher education in the seventies and eighties- the time Rodgers started teaching, notably enough. At one point, before the upheavals of the sixties, the big American research university was held up by some as a model not just for higher education but for society: progressive but orderly, hierarchical in a meritocratic way, moving everyone along serenely toward the same better future. But by the time the seventies came around, universities were in an odd and conflicted place, having digested perhaps more of the changes of the times than much of society – relaxed codes of conduct, ethnic studies departments, enshrinement of the right to protest – while not quite knowing what to do with themselves in the new dispensation. This, combined perhaps with the anxiety of shrinking prestige, gave academic politics of the time a nervous edginess and tendency to fracture it never quite lost.

It’s common for leftists to bemoan some of the fracture points and divisions that arose among leftists and liberals in the seventies, and understandably so, but they came about as a product of real failures of the sixties left. During the sixties, Black groups began to emphasize the necessity of autonomous, self-generated black organizations if Black Power was going to be anything other than a slogan, and other groups followed suit. Discontent with both black and white leftist organizations, which from all accounts were profoundly and often openly sexist, in turn fueled a resurgent women’s movement, which reached similar conclusions about group autonomy. This, in turn, fractured along lines of race, class, and sexuality, along with differences about ideas and strategy. One good thing about the decline of the sixties left, from one perspective, is the plethora of different voices and perspectives that surfaced in no small part in reaction to its failures. It was much like the last Batman movie, in that respect.


For all their differences, these movements and other successors of the sixties moment had a few important structural elements in common. First, terrain: no one, other than in the fever dreams of the far corners of the renascent right, thought that the new movements were really going to overthrow the ruling class tout court, as the New Left – quite grandiosely – thought might or at any rate should happen. The movements were somewhat less marginalized, though, in colleges and universities, though it’s common to overstate their influence – especially as far as administrative decision-making is concerned – even there. Still, it provided a secure perch from which to spread their messages, even if it was largely to sleepy undergrads. Second, the post-sixties left attempted, and to a great degree succeeded, eventually, in turning public attention to politics understood on a smaller scale than the big doings on which the sixties left focused. The politics of domestic life, of small groups, of the local, the psychological, the personal however defined; these weren’t the sole focus of the post-sixties left, but in many respects the attention we pay to them is, in part, their doing. I tend to think there are a few other things at work too, but that’s a lecture for another day. I think it’s fair to say that it was the effervescence of feminist writings especially in the seventies and eighties that did much of the work in illuminating this terrain. Given their involvement in earlier movements whose critique of social structures tended to at best underplay and at worst denigrate women’s issues, and having witnessed the dark side of a revolution in sexual mores which did not place much emphasis on consent, feminists had – and have – a target rich environment in front of them. And, unlike the sixties New Left movements in which many seventies feminists once toiled, the latter proved quite comfortable using the legal means of the system it critiqued.

This turned out to be especially important for the human resources profession’s ongoing negotiation with social change. The civil rights legislation upon which much of affirmative action is predicated includes sex as a category of discrimination as the result of what amounts to sabotage. A southern congressman who opposed the extension of civil rights protection to blacks added sex to the list of things forbidden to discriminate based upon, as both a bitter comment on what he saw as the absurdity of rights legislation and a disincentive to vote for the bill. Well, it didn’t work as the latter, so joke or not, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes language about sex discrimination. Feminist legal scholars and activists would use that opening to advance a broader understanding of the utility of the law in addressing inequality. While hiring, promotion, and pay discrimination along gender lines were and, sadly, are important issues which feminist activists fought against – this is the same period as the fight for an Equal Rights Amendment – the biggest accomplishment of feminist legal activism in this period is probably redefining the discrimination issue away from measurable discrepancies in pay and position and towards the culture of workplaces, most importantly the defining of sexual harassment as a form of legally actionable discrimination. This was first established by court precedent in 1976 and written into EEOC guidelines in 1980, and with it the concept of the hostile work environment, once a feminist theoretical construct, became a legally actionable concept. All made possible, in some small backwards way, to a bigoted congressman trolling his colleagues.

The battle to get sexual harassment recognized as a form of workplace discrimination and thus a violation of civil rights law was a long and arduous one, and while formal recognition has been extended these last thirty years, nobody serious could consider the issue of harassment settled. As with other areas of civil rights law, the powers that be made a clear normative judgment, that harassment is discrimination, but did not make clear what companies and other bodies potentially liable to discrimination lawsuits had to do in order to be compliant with this new mandate. Once again, the profession of human resources was there to fill the gap. HR professionals, as before, took the initiative with their respective organizations to establish procedures to deal with harassment complaints. These procedures, if the pattern held, would go on to become legally recognized best practices, which if followed would act to shield employers from potential liability.

As with racial discrimination, the first tool HR brought to bear on the problem of sexual harassment was the in-house grievance procedure, which was adapted from procedures meant to defuse labor disputes. By and by, though, it became clear that these tools alone would not be sufficient for an environment where the internal power dynamics – or, at any rate, those dynamics that ran along the legally actionable dimensions of civil rights law – and the behaviors and atmospheres those dynamics create were now the subject of actionable scrutiny. Activists and HR professionals alike – many of whom, after all, were produced by the same universities which were often facing similar problems – pointed to the same sorts of problems we can probably all see with an internal grievance based set of procedures. What sort of chance would a plaintiff have for her complaint to be taken seriously if the same sorts of people – sometimes the same exact people – who produced the unsafe work environment were the ones considering her grievance? Especially as the concept of the hostile work environment broadened to include not just sexual but racial and eventually other forms of discrimination, the insufficiencies of a grievance-based approach became ever clearer to HR people and activists alike.

Something like an answer, at least as far as the HR profession was concerned, came due to a case argued before the Supreme Court in 1998, Faragher v City of Boca Raton. There are a lot of ins and outs to this case and I’m no lawyer, but the upshot of it was that it was determined that employers have a responsibility to proactively prevent the creation of hostile work environments- and that they faced potential discrimination lawsuits if they did not. Once again, the courts created a mandate which the human resources profession was poised to fill. The way to shield companies from lawsuits in a situation where liability could literally be distilled out of the noxious cultural atmospheres in many, probably most, perhaps all workplaces, was to allow human resources professionals to create a less hazardous cultural environment through the training of employees. This process would begin when an employee entered the firm, and would be periodically reinforced by training throughout the employee’s time at the company, both to prevent recidivism and because from an HR perspective, what legally constitutes actionable harassment or discrimination is a moving target. One way of looking at is that, in essence, human resources departments in companies across the land used open-ended legal decisions about civil rights law to place themselves in positions where they would be charged with producing and periodically reproducing employees whose conduct would be conducive to a safe working environment- or, more accurately, whose possible misconduct would not be a legal liability for their employers. In a clear adaptation of a radical practice, in this instance the consciousness raising session, a concept popularized by feminists in the sixties and seventies, the preferred tool for this production came to be the harassment workshop, though in a notable deviation from feminist practice these workshops were typically mandatory and led and orchestrated by professionals.

Given what could generously be called the quaint, patchwork quality of the coverage of law and power in this country, not everyone has attended such a workshop; indeed, in the half-dozen odd jobs I’ve held before being a grad student, including some for big companies, I attended none, at best signing a form somewhere that I read a sheet of paper telling me to keep my conduct appropriate. God knows some of those workplaces could’ve used some very thorough policing of how people behaved. More generally, though, I think it’s exactly the patchwork, interstitial, cheesecloth-like quality of organizational life in contemporary America that has made the convergence between post-sixties radical ideas and post-civil-rights management practice both possible and increasingly relevant. Given the lack of viable alternatives, like any really broadly-based leftist organization, grassroots pedagogy now stands at the center of anything even vaguely progressive to such an extent that these is little else visible there. The old joke about it being easier to dissolve and then elect a new people rather than to do the same to the government has actually become true: the logic of social justice discourse is precisely the logic of producing a population capable of living according to their truths, and undertaking this production in really suboptimal conditions. The task – the management of conduct with reference to a constant but somewhat unstable set of moral/legal imperatives – the means – the pedagogy of small groups, where one happens to find them – and the context – spiraling inequality and seemingly no way out – these are things that the social justice community and the contemporary human resources profession share, and I think the two gestated long enough in similar circumstances that it is not always clear, from the perspective of the history of ideas, where the dividing line is.


Perhaps it makes sense to speak of them as a single modality, which is just a fancy word to mean bundle of ideas and practices. The central concern of this modality is the management of moral space in a situation where the source of oppression, and consequently harm and evil, is understood as coming both from unaccountable power and from the internalization of this oppression on the part of those below. The activist, in theory, seeks to end this situation by dismantling and/or redistributing power; the manager, in theory, seeks to manage this situation to avoid liability, but it’s an open question how much these differences of intent matter as far as the articulation of this mode of thought and practice are concerned, or even how different they really are. HR managers are people, after all, and some undoubtedly truly believe that what they’re doing advances social justice. While social justice activists typically look down upon capitalism, they often look down just as much as on anticapitalists, especially considering that the history of the movement – and the history the movement tells to itself – heavily involves remembrance of racism, sexism, and other perfidies on the part of socialists, communists, and others who would overturn management’s applecart once and for all, whether or not said applecart is run by people invested in all the best anti-oppressive causes.

So, where does this leave us? And more importantly for this longsuffering audience, what on Earth has it got to do with the Beyonce dustup with which I began this lecture?

First, an important late development in the story of the social justice modality is the migration of the locus point of its discourse away from universities and small activist groups from marginalized communities – though of course it’s still present there – and towards loosely-knit informal internet communities, or what could just be called “The Internet.” This migration was spurred by the way the internet makes communication easier in both a positive and a negative sense: it enabled the sharing of ideas between social justice proponents, but also brought about an explosion in rampant public displays of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and just general shittiness, that the anonymity and playground ethics prevailing on much of the internet allows and encourages. Especially given the time of the internet’s early development – the nineties, where basic politeness was treated as “politically correct” malarkey, the reactionary jingoism of the Bush years, the explosion of open racism with the election of Obama – it makes sense that many young people would be repulsed and searched for ideas and practices that promised to not only combat the “isms” but would place that combat at or near the center of moral existence.

This shift in the locus of discourse led to some important changes in the way social justice understands the relationship between pedagogy and its moral imperative. Let me use an ecclesiastical metaphor here. The model of pedagogy that obtains in the formal institutional expressions of antidiscrimination – the harassment policy compliance workshop, for example – could be said to operate under a Presbyterian model. A group of people who job it is to parse out the implications of a legal/moral imperative – be it that of social justice or that of an angry Scots God – pass on the word to their respective flocks, and the flocks toe the line, or else they’re out of the congregation and/or the job. This functions to keep the community as a whole on the right side of the ineffable workings of grace and/or discrimination law. What obtains on the internet and in other more loosely-regulated moral communities could be called a Congregational model. The community attempts to steer itself into the port of grace, understood in the Christian or social justice sense, and is in the end only accountable to itself and to the demands of a moral standard which makes much of its own intentional difficulty and lack of comfort. Anyone can theoretically lead the congregation, but anyone, leader or not, could also be given the boot by popular consensus if they threaten the delicate effort to build a righteous community. One trait the more freewheeling internet social justice proponents share with their more staid cousins in managerial professions is that both concern themselves with visible signs of potential liability and/or internalized oppressive attitudes. I think this – along with the fact that people just like talking about celebrities – helps explain why moral/political dissections of pop culture artifacts – and further dissections of the dissections, ad nauseum — have taken on the importance they have in social justice circles. Your attitudes to the pop stars of today can be read as visible signs of your relationship to an overwhelming moral imperative. If this is the case, and if your relationship to the imperative makes up part of the moral space in which we all answer to the imperative, then naturally concerned parties might be less than restrained in attempting to manage your choices and conduct- and will have vastly differing ideas of how this management should go, to boot.

So, what good can come out of thinking about social justice as a modality of management? For me, I tend to think of it in historical terms; it might advance our notions of how the history of ideas works. Pursuant to that, and maybe to throw some bone of judgment to my patient audience, let me say this: we need to think seriously about the implications of using a morality in the place of a politics. Morality and politics don’t exist except with reference to each other. Morality gives politics a purpose – politics is needed to figure out how to apply oneself to this purpose in a world where morality does not always prevail. Social justice discourse uses the techniques developed between activists, academics, and bureaucrats attempting to wrestle with the moral and legal dimensions of social change as its political theory implicitly. When politics becomes solely a question of the possession of moral legitimacy, then when presented with a situation that demands unified action in situations of crisis, what you get instead is infinite regression: debate over the debate over the debate over who can say what when and who decides the deciders. Stained as they are by association with oppressors past, most political theories can be, if the interlocutor so chooses, dismissed out of hand in favor of referring once again to the moral principles of antioppression, thereby surrendering many of the potential ways out of this loop while further reassuring the interlocutor of their own moral purity. Given the long relationship between activist and legal/bureaucratic methods of dealing with the politics of diversity, and given their history of sharing metaphors and practices amongst themselves, I think in the vacuum of a conscious political theory, the politics of the management of moral space developed by human resources will continue to act in a political theory’s place. In the spirit of community self-definition that motivates so much of social justice discourse, I leave to the listeners themselves to decide whether this is a satisfactory state of affairs.

2014 BIRTHDAY LECTURE: THE LONG MARCH THROUGH THE HUMAN RESOURCES DEPARTMENT

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