China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution took place from 1966 to 1976, led by a woman (Mao's wife) and comprised mostly of idealistic youth lacking in wisdom and judgment but overflowing with sophomoric bromides about social relations and social justice.
Woe to anyone who didn't go along with the contradictions, inconsistencies, and group-think of the revolutionaries, especially older people in positions of authority and intellectuals on the wrong side of the movement. The mildest punishments meted out to heretics were public shaming and being removed from positions of authority. Punishments got progressively worse after that, as is typical of movements based on imagined moral superiority.
There are striking parallels between China's former cultural revolutionaries and America's current social-justice idealists in business, media and academia, where virtue-signaling has become more important than competence—and where those in authority are cowed into going along with the crowd or be shamed or fired. The only difference is that punishments don't get progressively worse in America, due to the restraints of the rule of law and the Bill of Rights—at least for now.
An overwrought assessment? Hardly. The idealists exhibit the same fervor, fanaticism, zealotry, and thoughtlessness that idealists on moral missions have exhibited throughout history. Just because their goals sound noble doesn't make the idealists or their methods noble. After all, the worst evils in history were committed for stated noble goals. The Bolsheviks, for example, didn't say that their goals were to starve millions of Ukrainians and to send millions of Russians to the gulag in Siberia. Rather, their goals were to overturn the privileged and powerful one percent at the top of the Czarist government and society, so that the proletariat could finally realize justice, fairness, equality, and the fruits of their labor.
Today, if anyone dares to express a counterthought on the me-too movement, on the diversity movement, on the LGBT movement, on the movement to end sexual harassment, or on the movement to have boards of directors that exactly mirror the racial and gender makeup of society, the person is branded as a sexist, racist, misogynist or some other "ist." Shunned and ridiculed, the reprobates' careers are over. Consequently, to protect themselves from the madness of mobs, people in authority make sure that they signal the correct virtues.
For example, the president of the University of Arizona recently engaged in virtue-signaling. He emailed a communique to alumni and current students on how he and other university officials "stand with transsexuals," whatever that means. Maybe it means standing at the urinal.
Corporate CEOs have made similar hollow statements to their employees on in-house electronic message boards.
Well, I've got 'em beat in virtue-signaling. I kneel, genuflect and prostrate myself in front of transsexuals.
Actually, in the mid-1980s, long before transsexuality and other sexual orientations became a new civil-rights cause, I stood with a transsexual, in the symbolic meaning of the word. A male member of my department had begun dressing as a woman and was planning to undergo hormone treatments. I met with him to see how he wanted to be addressed and treated, and what restroom he wanted to use. I then informed the CEO and asked other department members to continue accepting him as part of the team or incur my wrath.
No big deal. No need for government involvement. No virtue-signaling. No heroic or noteworthy efforts on my part. It was just the right thing to do for the individual and the company.
Later, in a regular meeting of a consortium of other large companies, I asked my peers how they would've handled the situation if they were me. They all said they would've handled it the same way—and some had actually handled similar situations the same way. No big deal.
Now it's a big deal. Now, if a university president or corporate CEO doesn't send the right signals, as endorsed by some faceless but fierce Cultural Revolutionary Committee, located in some echo chamber somewhere, the chieftain will be pecked mercilessly by unthinking, closeminded parrots, who repeat clichés, pieties, nostrums and canards—and whose thinking is about as deep as the dry Rillito River that runs near the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Saying the right thing has become more important than saying nothing but doing the right thing. But eventually, the phoniness backfires.
It recently backfired on self-righteous, arrogant, smug Google, to my schadenfreude delight.
Google has always said the right thing for the finely-tuned ears of those great moral philosophers in its workforce. That would be the legions of software coders and engineers, who live in a binary digital world and project this to the larger world, which they think operates on an on-off basis, where one can only be good or bad, pro or con, or left or right. To these great minds, there can be no in-between position—no nuances, no grays, no extenuating circumstances.
In spite of the company always saying the right thing, the philosophers recently walked off the job to express their displeasure with the company's handling of sexual harassment issues and its heavy-handed personnel policy of requiring new employees to sign an agreement to take their employment issues to arbitration instead of the courts.
Even mobs are sometimes right. In this case, the company deserved the lambasting from its employees. On the other hand . . .
There is something just not quite right about Google's employees. Somehow, they've convinced themselves that they and Google are on a sacred mission, when in reality they work for a company with a core business of eavesdropping on people in order to sell advertising. To this point, the Wall Street Journal, in its coverage of the employee walkout, quoted a software engineer who said there is a sense among employees that they work at a special place with a mission to change the world, but that there was widespread frustration and deep-seated anger in the ranks.
One wonders if Google employees will ever make it to adulthood.
Free advice: Steer clear of people on missions, especially those who want to change the world.
Please don't think that what I'm going to say next is virtue-signaling.
I was at the vanguard of the equal rights movement in corporations and have extensive experience in dealing with sexual harassment. Chances are, I've fired more men for sexual harassment than any of the great moral philosophers who walked off the job at Google. In one case, with the CEO's backing, I traveled to a remote facility of an industrial company and fired the executive in charge and told him to pack his belongings and leave the premises. He got no severance. However, the CEO and I got a lot of grief from other executives who thought the harasser was a great guy. No big deal. Nothing virtuous about what I did. It came with the job.
Sexual harassment and sexual misbehavior come in various forms and nuances, and should be dealt with accordingly. But flexibility and common sense are unacceptable to cultural cadres who have never managed anyone and have trouble managing their own emotions.
In terms of nuance and flexibility, consider the loudmouthed jerk who made off-color comments at a company event. Instead of being fired, he got a stern written warning and was taken out of the promotional queue for lacking in judgment. Or consider a woman who wore a revealing, slinky outfit and behaved seductively at the same event and was known to flaunt her sexuality on the job. She was taken aside and told to knock it off. Then there were the old-guard male managers who reported to me and went out of town on company business with a female manager. They went to a strip club one evening instead of a place where the female could have joined them. They were reprimanded, not for sexual harassment, but for insensitivity, poor judgment, and not changing with the times.
It's no surprise that Google embarrassed itself, given that it had hired a supposed human resources hotshot earlier in the year to ensure that the company did the right thing. Deferring to human resources is a surefire sign that a company's leaders are namby-pambies and aren't setting the right example or exercising proper leadership. They, not HR, should be kicking jerks in the butt and kicking them out of the company when appropriate. (One of my seven Wall Street Journal commentaries years ago was about too much power shifting to HR. The problem has gotten far worse over the intervening years.)
Just as in China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, America's cultural revolutionists don't want strong, principled leaders, for such leaders would stand up to them and would do the right thing, even at the risk of public shaming and losing their job.
This explains why there is a shortage of strong, principled leaders in business, academia, media and politics, but an oversupply of fraidy-cats who engage in kowtowing and virtue-signaling. The problem will only get worse as young idealists who want to change the world rise to management positions without growing up, acquiring wisdom, and realizing that human relations aren't binary.