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#291 The Risks of Non-Neutrality

August 19th, 2017

Richard Marker

If there is a time to be outspoken, it is now. For those of you who are not old enough to remember the 60’s, this is your historical moment to not sit on the sidelines. Most of us who do remember are with you and many of us are already out there. One cannot, must not, sit silently as human rights and guarantees are being challenged and eroded. And one must not sit silently as voices of hate – such as the neo-Nazis, the KKK, the Alt-Right, and frighteningly, their heretofore hidden fellow travelers, feel emboldened enough by the one who holds the presidency of the USA – fill our streets and dominate our public consciousness.

My political views are not new or surprising, and I am not sure that I have much to add to the millions of words currently being written and shouted.

I do, though, want to share some thoughts about the professional implications of non-neutrality.

It is gratifying that CEO’s are becoming outspoken on behalf of justice, or more accurately, in rejection of a certain kind of evil. But, if you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, your personal risks are minimal and your golden parachute is always close at hand if necessary.

My very worthy and visionary colleague, Aaron Dorfman the CEO of NCRP, has challenged foundations to not hide behind neutrality at this time. The lines have been drawn and for many there is no viable middle. I agree with him but here too there is little real risk for foundations to take positions. The independence foundations cherish provides a protective moat for risk and reputational challenges.

But if you are an employee or a self-employed professional, you must weigh the very real risks of being outspoken. It takes more thought and courage to do so if you are dependent on the next paycheck or contract to pay your rent or exorbitant medical insurance bill.

A few years ago, following an annual meeting of the National Speakers Association [of which I am a proud, long-time member], there was criticism of one plenary speaker whose views were considered too “political.” [He told his own life story, part of which is of a Japanese American sent to an internment camp during WWII.] I took great exception to their objections, saying that those of us who earn our living with words have an obligation to show how words can help shape learning and public discourse. The NSA told me that they wouldn’t publish my comments on the internal blog of the association since they don’t want to encourage political statements. I am still at a loss of what I said then that was political, but there you go.

In talking to NSA colleagues, many agreed with me, but many more agreed with the NSA, projecting that if they were outspoken in their social and political views, they might lose business.

And it can be true. Indeed, this very summer an invitation to speak was withdrawn when I asked the sponsors about the parameters of what they wanted addressed. Since the talk was to be about the intersection of public policy and private philanthropy, it seemed an apt question. I learned that they were very enthusiastic about addressing this question retrospectively, but it would be too political for their group to speak of that topic in the present. It was easier for them to “rearrange their schedule” than to risk the fallout.

Speaking openly doesn’t always have negative consequences. As a professional speaker, there have certainly been times when my political positions have been positively received, and even commented upon by attendees. I have previously reported on the time when a funder, after listening to my talk at a philanthropy conference, told the CEO of that organization that he didn’t agree with my politics but he could listen to me all day long.

Let it be clear that these choices have been mine, and reflect only personal risks I have been willing to take… at least at this stage of my career when I am self-employed and represent no one but myself.

However, it wasn’t always so. I had never been conscious of any self-censorship in my public presentations, but I must have done so for many years without any self-awareness. When my career evolved from senior executive roles of organizations and a foundation to being self-employed, many who had known me for a very long time told me that they never knew that I felt as strongly as I do. They had assumed that my politics and views were far more mainstream and conventional. [I know that some of that has to do with how I dress, but still…]

If I am comfortable taking professional or financial risks today, it is quite obvious I was risk averse before. In retrospect I wonder: was that necessary to do/keep my job or had I internalized an excessive risk aversion? The relevance of this question is because we are at a moment when there is a screaming need for strong and courageous voices. These voices are needed not only when joining with thousands of others in rallies; there is a kind of safety in that. But in more private settings or in writings, when hearing racism, Islam-hatred, anti-Semitism, should we make our displeasure known even at the risk of social disruption? And what about public endorsements or speaking out in writing?

If one is an employee or leader of a non-profit organization, one risks the wrath of a boss or key funders whose views may be different. If one chooses to keep silent in order to keep a job, is that excessive risk aversion or sane self-preservation? What ethics or best practices should inform work place policies of protecting opinionated speech? And should there be limits – such as insisting that “hate speech” is never welcome?

This is a tumultuous time and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The challenges to our national equilibrium are profound and pervasive. There may have been a time, a time now long gone, when one could restrict one’s views to our news channel choices and our social networking peer group. No more.

There are two places where the spill over takes place: in the public square and in the workplace. The public square is now a potentially dangerous place. Not always, not everywhere, but enough. Most, I think, would still choose to rally and protest, but without any naïve assumption that it will always be safe.

But what about the literal and figurative workplace? Traditionally, political discourse was considered off limits. Debate was discouraged, socially proscribed, and a trespass on the environment where many spend more time than any other place in their lives. Should those limits still apply? Are there new best practices? Are there new guidelines that acknowledge that if the CEO can speak publicly, why shouldn’t line employee?

It is one thing for me, as I am ensconced in the latter stages of my professional life with all the autonomy I could want, to choose to risk losing a speaking gig or a philanthropy advisory contract. Shame on me if I am not willing to take those kinds of risks to speak against hatred and for a just society.

Not everyone is at that stage of life or career. We must find ways to make it safe for others, in this time where everyone is judged and expressing one’s views is not with impunity, to do so safely. Our nation has been put at great risk; it is not the time to withdraw into a protective cocoon. But we need to find ways to make it safe to fly free.

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