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There’s this idea in office work generally and Silicon Valley particularly that you should be able to “bring your whole self to work.”
I was thinking about it when a co-worker asked my opinion about Coinbase and then Basecamp publicly declared that they’d be dealing with uncomfortable conversations about politics at work by effectively banning them.
I certainly understand the desire higher ups might have to stop employees from spending hours debating Black Lives Matter on Slack instead of working.
But to analyze this trend properly I think we need to have think about what “political” means in the context of office work. Oxford defines “politics” as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”
If we’re talking about politics, we’re necessarily talking about power.
Politics is how we change who has power and what they get to do with it. When we talk about “office politics,” that’s what we mean — who gets what they want and who doesn’t. People who aren’t good at manipulating others tend to dislike office politics because it means decisions are made on the basis of who rather than what. Instead of going with the best idea, a highly political office culture goes with the ideas proffered by who is most liked or most feared.
But what Coinbase and Basecamp are objecting to here isn’t office politics. It’s the combination of national or international politics with office politics. It’s employees taking conversations we’re having outside of work about racism, sexism, transphobia, etc. and applying it to what they’re experiencing at work.
Because politics is how we change who has power and what they get to do with it, reducing or eliminating “politics” will always serve the people who already have power in any institution.
So when Coinbase or Basecamp says “no politics at work,” what they’re also (likely unwittingly) saying is that they don’t want any change to the way power is distributed in their workforces.
Which would be fine if the data showed power is already distributed fairly and efficiently in most workplaces. Unfortunately, that’s definitely not the case. The data is very clear the women, BIPOC, trans workers, etc. are denied power on the basis of their identities in various ways. Women are interrupted and spoken over more often in meetings. BIPOC are denied plum projects and promotions despite being equally or more qualified. Trans workers have to deal with the stress of daily macro and micro-aggressions on top of their workloads.
Banning political discussions at work means workers can’t talk about the ways in which defaults put them at a disadvantage. Which just reinforces those defaults. Not only is this bad for the workers who aren’t advantaged by the defaults, but it’s bad for the businesses too.
Businesses suffer when they stupidly lock portions of their workforce out of opportunities. Businesses suffer when they don’t hear from women. Businesses suffer when their trans workers don’t have as much energy for productivity.
By telling workers not to talk about the ways default power structures disadvantage them businesses are buying the people in power comfort in the short term. But the long-term costs vastly outweigh the benefits.
It’s the “I don’t see race,” of startups. What you’re really saying when you say “I don’t see race” is “I refuse to see racism.” Things don’t go away when you’re not looking, you object-permanence-challenged fuck.
Refusing to see power relations doesn’t erase them. It entrenches them. You cannot solve a problem you refuse to acknowledge.
It’s telling that the guy Basecamp was covering for with their “no politics” rule left of his own accord after the announcement.
The move toward simply banning discussions of power to comfort those in power rather than grappling with the ways in which defaults are fucked up is just one example of the lie behind “bring your whole self to work.”
Look, no one wants me to bring my whole self to work. If I talked about making JOI videos for OnlyFans at lunch it would probably make someone uncomfortable. And if that didn’t do it, my libertarianism would. And if that didn’t work, I could talk about my Evangelical past. I don’t bring my whole self to work because everyone only has so many “make people uncomfortable” points before they get fired. I have to spend so many on my personality that I don’t have enough left over for my hobbies. If I could find a way to leave my personality at home, by God I would.
Bring your whole self to work only works if everyone at work is exactly the same. But if one employee is a Muslim and the other is a MAGA, neither of them wants the other to bring their whole selves to work. Nor should they.
You know who can bring their whole selves to work? People who only offend people with less power than them. Let’s imagine an incredibly far-fetched scenario in which everyone at the top of a company — the board, the executives, the investors — are straight white cishet men. Never happened before, I know.
But for the sake of argument, who in that exceedingly unlikely scenario would be able to bring their full selves to work without getting in any trouble whatsoever? Well, probably a vaguely Christian guy who likes golf and reads Tom Clancy novels. There’s nothing about him that would make anyone in power feel uncomfortable the way, say, a fat Black trans former sex worker might.
Even if Mr. Tom Clancy’s “full self” involves campaigning for Trump in his off hours or misgendering colleagues (again, completely improbable but go with me) he still won’t get in trouble, necessarily. Because while the guys at the top might think his behavior a little boorish, they’re not threatened by it in any way. It certainly doesn’t feel like an existential threat the way it might to, say, a fat Black trans former sex worker. And you don’t get in trouble for making a fat Black trans former sex worker uncomfortable. Because she doesn’t have any power. What might happen, again, very unlikely, but possible: She tells HR that Mr. Tom Clancy made her uncomfortable. They tell management. Management tells her boss. And she gets in trouble for being a troublemaker. Because that’s what people who want to distribute power based on merit are to people who are currently in power. They’re troublemakers.
The only way to create a culture in which all people can bring their whole selves to work without getting in trouble is by ensuring no one currently in power is threatened by the mere existence of people unlike them.
It’s going to be a long time til we get there. But we have to see our own racism in order to become less racist. And we have to see the unfair power structures in our own organizations before we can work to dismantle them. And we’re never going to see the racism, sexism, transphobia, etc. in our own organizations if we continue to dismiss the hard, scary work of bringing attention to them “politics.” If we keep punishing workers for bringing up the injuries they face we will make progress so much more slowly.
What we’re saying when we say “politics” don’t belong at work is: “Leave your understanding of power relations at the door.” And that works great for the people in power. But it does fuck-all for innovation or prosperity.