The Regressive Left applauds when an overwhelmingly privileged “woke” celebrity shames and reports two off-duty service employees after taking offence at their private conversation
Lena Dunham, creator and star of the execrable television series Girls – and now seemingly a full-time social justice warrior – has form when it comes to policing both the internet and the real world for any instances of conservative thoughtcrime or failure to subscribe to the new progressive orthodoxy on various social justice issues.
To summarise: Lena Dunham was walking through the arrivals hall at JFK airport in New York when she allegedly overheard two off-duty American Airlines flight attendants having a private conversation about their views on the issue of transgenderism. During the course of this conversation, the flight attendants apparently agreed with one another that transgenderism is “gross” and that they would “never accept a trans child”.
(Note: Lena Dunham also has form when it comes to telling outright falsehoods, making her account of this supposed conversation immediately questionable).
And so naturally Lena Dunham did what any self-respecting, censorious young social justice warrior with a huge social media presence is honour-bound to do – she tweeted her shock at having heard opinions expressed which contradicted her own, shamed the unknown flight attendants and demanded that American Airlines re-educate their employees to ensure that such spontaneous acts of independent thought never again occur during the course of a private conversation between off-duty employees.
Specifically, Dunham wrote in a direct message to the airline:
“I heard two female attendants walking talking about how trans kids are a trend they’d never accept a trans child and transness is gross. I think it reflects badly on uniformed employees of your company to have that kind of dialogue going on. What if a trans teen was walking behind them? Awareness starts at home but jobs can set standards of practice. Thanks for your consideration!”
First off, this is as blatant an invasion of privacy as one can imagine. While a reasonable person might expect the possibility of being overheard while having a conversation in a public place, there is no reasonable expectation that a sanctimonious “woke” celebrity would rebroadcast their conversation – which again, took place while off duty if it even happened at all – to millions of followers on social media, contact their employer to trigger an investigation and quite possibly precipitate disciplinary action including the loss of their jobs.
Assuming that Lena Dunham isn’t simply lying again, there are multiple ways that she could have handled the situation better, rather than resorting to social media shaming combined with self-aggrandisement and virtue-signalling. The simplest option would have been for Dunham herself to intervene directly and voice her disagreement with the two flight attendants. This was a public place with very little risk of a physical altercation or any of the other reasons which might discourage direct action, so there was no good reason for Dunham not to take up the issue directly with the people allegedly involved, if she was sufficiently offended.
If Dunham lacked the courage to tackle this alleged intolerance in person (which would be a bit rich given that she co-founded Lenny, a website and newsletter almost exclusively dedicated to stridently advancing social justice issues), she could also have taken the matter up with American Airlines management staff while still at JFK airport rather than airily tweeting her allegations from the comfort of home, hours later. And if she was time-pressed and unable to do so, she could still have raised the matter privately with AA and written a more considered take on the situation once the investigation had run its course rather than tweeting about it in real time.
But of course none of these options would have been remotely satisfactory for Lena Dunham, because (more than) half the point of being a social justice warrior is the thrill of wielding power over others by policing language and behaviour, and enforcing your own worldview and etiquette onto other people. Directly confronting the people with whom she had a conflict or raising the issue privately would not have given Dunham the opportunity to flaunt her right-on credentials or display her conspicuous compassion; far better to raise the issue on social media, ostensibly so that it might serve as a “teachable moment” for other corporations and service workers (but really just to maintain her SJW credentials).
Robert Tracinski of The Federalist gets to the heart of the matter:
Saying “I overheard a conversation” but giving no specifics might prompt American Airlines to send out a general notice to its employees to watch what they say while in the terminal—which is a little unsettling in itself. But giving specific information only has one purpose: to help the airline locate, identify, and punish these specific employees for holding politically incorrect views.
It’s the hashtag #acrossfromthewinebar that sent chills down my spine. Dunham is acting like an informant working for a totalitarian police state—but boastfully, in public, on social media. With a hashtag.
Undoubtedly, someone will point out that this isn’t really totalitarianism because these are all voluntary actions by private citizens and organizations, not the government. Dunham isn’t a paid stooge of the police, but a citizen acting on her own initiative. American Airlines isn’t doing this because the government told them to, but because they’re terrified of bad press. (Which they are still going to get, but from the other side.)
Yet somehow this makes it all worse, because it implies we are being trained to internalize the ethos of the police state—and to enact it voluntarily, on our own initiative, without having to be coerced. We’re building a self-enforcing police state.
Equally concerning is the fact that Lena Dunham and her SJW colleagues feel it is in any way appropriate for corporations to take it upon themselves to “train” their employees in matters outside the skills required to successfully perform the job, particularly hot-button social issues. Whereas a decade ago one could reliably find leftists railing against the power of corporations and the supposedly unfair, coercive power balance between employer and employee, now those very same leftists are screeching that big corporations are not doing enough to indoctrinate their employees with the new social justice dogma.
Of course, vesting corporations with such power is in fact highly dangerous and quite likely unconstitutional, particularly when lawsuits start to emerge where employees allege that their employer has pressured them to violate their own conscience when it comes to matters outside the workplace. Already we see this coercive behaviour taking place in some large organisations, most recently the UK’s National Trust charity and the latest scandal to envelope Google.
Conor Friedersdorf also makes this point very eloquently in The Atlantic:
I suppose it was theoretically conceivable that Dunham’s public complaint about insensitivity by low-level staffers would prompt the multinational airline to put the offending employees—or all employees—through training in “awareness” or “love and inclusivity.” But I am doubtful that it would be a good thing, on the whole, if corporations began punishing workers for what they say off-duty, or aggressively regulating or engineering not just how employees treat colleagues and customers, but their every belief. Corporations are institutions driven by profit, not moral rectitude; many often do what is good for shareholders and bad for employees or the public. Trusting them as a reliable mechanism for positive social change is short-sighted.
Not that I presume that even earnest, right-thinking corporate altruism would necessarily bear fruit. Think of your attitudes toward trans people. Would your employer be able to fundamentally change your views, whatever they are, with compulsory education? I suspect the very people with animus of a sort that does harm would be least likely to be swayed and most likely to double down on their beliefs.
And in response to this incident, or a rising tide of working-class people being reported to corporate employers for expressing beliefs that a lurking celebrity or journalist calls out, I can imagine the imposition of new, onerous, generally applied restrictions on where uniformed flight attendants can socialize with one another in airports, or whether uniformed retail employees are allowed a quick cell-phone conversation inside the mall while on break. Asking myself who that new regime would most harm, the answer is marginalized people; pondering who would find it easiest to navigate, the answer is creative professionals like Lena Dunham and me; we attended colleges that prepared us to navigate the elite’s social norms, and we don’t wear uniforms in public that identify our corporate bosses to eavesdropping strangers.
Ultimately this speaks to the paternalistic role that the progressive Left envisage for government and anyone else in positions of authority. First, these key institutions are to be fully captured by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, and then they are to be leveraged to enforce the same uniform dogma relating to sexuality, gender theory and everything else.
Rod Dreher has also sounded the alarm about this phenomenon:
I know a man who is a senior manager at a major corporation. He is also a Christian. Every year during Pride Month, for the past few years, the human resources department at the firm has been after employees to declare themselves “allies” of the LGBT cause. This man has never done so, because he would consider it a violation of his conscience. He is scrupulously fair in his dealings with his employees, both gay and straight, and would also consider it a violation of his conscience to discriminate in the workplace against his gay employees. He is afraid that the day will come when his refusal to declare himself on the LGBT issue will be viewed negatively within the corporation, and it will damage or end his career there.
This is not paranoia. McCarthyism did not end with McCarthy.
The very real danger is that within a relatively short space of time, it may become impossible for people to avoid withholding their most deeply held personal and religious beliefs from their employer, precisely because people like Lena Dunham insist that corporations act as a co-equal auxiliary parent, together with the state, to both educate their employees in the ways of progressive dogma and then to secure their active participation in advancing the agenda.
If you think that this is ridiculous conservative scaremongering, just take a quick peek inside the mind of someone who occupies a senior position in the entrepreneurial-tech world:
Fortunately, Joshua McKenty’s vision of a “directory of known misogynists and racists, used to avoid hiring or contracting” would likely fall foul of the US constitution. But you can be sure that McKenty’s fellow ideologues will push in that direction as far as the law will possibly allow, given half the chance. And what of those of us who do not live in the United States under the protection of the US Constitution? What is to stop multinational firms with offices in Britain, where there is no written constitution, from demanding positive affirmation of progressive social policies from their employees?
And so what starts as just another Twitter-based hissy fit from Lena Dunham is in fact only the tip of the iceberg. It certainly doesn’t help when “woke” celebrities abuse their vast social media platforms to shame working and middle class service workers who dare to express outdated or unfashionable opinions, but that is not the real threat.
The real danger comes when corporations and private citizens no longer have to be bullied by the likes of Lena Dunham into acting as enforcers of the social justice movement, because they choose to do so willingly.
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Sorry – but Ican’t or won’t spend another second of my life considering or commenting on this matter! And what is “woke”anyway? No Sam, don’t bother telling me -just more wasted seconds of my life.
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It basically means “socially aware”, with a particular emphasis on being fully accepting of everything spewed out by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. There’s a fairly decent (if tedious) definition in this New York Magazine piece:
Happy days 🙂
When you get a moment go to Dr Google and look up Polia Nikolaenko – she was known as the Denunciatrix of Kiev during Stalin’s purges.
I do get the sense that the toleration of these Polia types is no mistake. There does seem to be a purge going on of any one who dares to challenge the selfish narcissism of the SJWs.
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Thanks, I’ll be sure to take a read this evening. Worrying when citizens (and corporations) begin voluntarily enforcing social justice dogma. I see that Google have fired the author of that memo.
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I have to disagree with you here. If you’re wearing a uniform, you’re representing the organisation, so your conversation is never entirely “private” – I’ve had that drilled into me so many times in previous roles. If you believe there should be a stronger public/private distinction in this situation, I would argue that is partly a problem with the working culture of the service industry as much as with your pet millennial bugbears.
Moving on from the question over whether this was a public/private conversation, I think it’s worth questioning what we mean by “opinion” here too. On the one hand, there are opinions such as thinking marmite is great (which it is and I’ll fight you if you disagree). On the other hand, if marmite-haters were routinely at risk of violence, were overwhelmingly more likely to be a victim of murder, and likely to suffer from poor mental health as well, I might think twice about expressing negative views about them in a public place. I wouldn’t want to be part of a culture which makes it actively dangerous for some people simply to exist in a way which makes them happy without actually hurting anyone else.
Yes, Lena Dunham was virtue-signalling, tiresomely, but in a way so are you. Language and behaviour is routinely policed. That is, after all, exactly what this blog post is doing: policing behaviour and examining/criticising how language is used. I don’t believe that Lena Dunham necessarily went about it the right way, but then again I don’t agree with your libertarian defence of people’s rights to be inconsiderate and hurtful. It may well have been unintentional, but surely that would only be an argument in favour of having these prominent conversations about how to handle sensitive issues in public?
As for “skills required for the role” – I would argue (again, from experience) that being able to avoid discussing difficult and emotive opinions while obviously representing an organisation is a crucial skill for those working in public-facing / service roles. And again, while it may not be required in your libertarian utopia, it is widely expected in the service industry in general. I can’t help wondering when these outraged columnists last had to don a uniform and face the public; something tells me it wasn’t all that recently…
As for the national trust… I’ll leave that for another day, when I’m not sitting up in bed typing on my phone… 😉
You are aware that Lena Dunham has previous form on denouncing people falsely?
I am. And, as you may have noticed, I disagreed with her handling of the situation. I also disagreed with many of the points made by Sam in this post. I see no reason why Lena Dunham’s past form has anything to do with the points I made, unless you haven’t actually read them and are just assuming that I’ve rushed to her defence. All the assumptions I’ve worked with in my comment we’re present in the blog post.
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OK – in terms of your assumptions people in uniform are entitled to private conversations.
If you don’t believe that go and talk to soldiers who have been on the front line.
Yes, they are entitled to private conversations – but when they’re in public, wearing a uniform, they’re representing the organisation which gave them that uniform. I’m not even actually agreeing with that state of affairs, merely observing that this is the case (I’ve had to do a lot of really crappy uniformed jobs in my life). Basically, if you’re in uniform, in a public place, you can expect people to bring anything they overhear to the organisation your employer represents. Your example of the soldiers is about the least applicable to this situation as is possible to find, but I understand why you made it, if you think this is a battle for the right to have private conversations.