I was 15 years old when my math teacher called me a wop, day after day, in class. I was 32 years old when, in a room full of men from a PR agency, after I questioned their recommendations over a process I controlled, my boss said to me, "Damn it, Mary, we’re going to do this like white people."
Like a lot of other people, I learned that there are no guarantees, even in a society designed to protect every individual. A group of young women just got the very same lesson, 3,000 miles away. Having to rise above the baser side of human nature is an inevitable chore of life. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Etc.
In the case at hand, the nasty remarks were only the most recent in a string of defamatory jokes on a program that is entertaining and thought-provoking without them. If NBC/MSNBC and WFAN had given producers firmer boundaries months ago, the program — broadcast via radio, television and the internet — might have become an example of how to be funny without being mean. Of course, the newsrooms wouldn’t be able to hash and re-hash the incident and its aftermath 24/7 as they have since it happened, inviting all of us to rubber-neck the collision so they can report higher numbers to the advertisers.
And if my boss’s partners and HR minions had acted years ago to punish my boss — for that remark, a bunch of others he made and actions he took — perhaps that man would not be insidiously promoting his "not our kind, dear" attitudes via his position on several Silicon Valley public company boards or his association with one of the country’s premier ethics institutes. Yes, an ethics institute.
The math teacher was called on the carpet, but he was a bully until the first day of summer. He just found other ways to be himself.
So what does all this have to do with branding and market engagement?
I know I believe that the best products and services are built from a foundation of respect for challenging questions and doubting Thomases, no matter how much they bruise the egos of inventors and managers. The most successful businesses invite all their people to the table. The only camps that matter are who lobbies for what product feature and what will sell.
I suppose you could say that something’s working for this particular program, since it gets such high viewer numbers. I’d rather think that people are holding their noses during the bad parts while they wait for the meaningful discussions with guests. Maybe that’s a pipe dream.
If this program does remain on the airwaves, I hope this episode really does signal a change in how funny is defined. And it would be great if all the people involved in producing it understand that they have not just disrespected the people they demeaned, they disrespected all of us. They disrespected our laws, even if they didn’t break them. I’d sure hate to see free speech become a dusty theory just because we don’t know how to honor it or the spirit in which it became part of our cultural legacy.
In the meantime, I hope all of us have more than enough support and appreciation, every day, to counteract the bitterness and hard edges that can form after an encounter with a bully. That would be a triumph.