In 2018, Andrew Sullivan lamented: “We all live on campus now.” He felt that important liberal norms were being undermined by “an identity-based ‘social justice’ movement” that had successfully migrated from college campuses into the real world.
Sullivan’s dictum feels even more true today. Indeed, I would propose a new corollary: we all work at the New York Times now.
The Times has been lurching from crisis to crisis over the past two years: a period bracketed by two high profile resignations (of James Bennet and Donald McNeil, Jr.) that seem to have been compelled by staff mutinies.
But the Times is more harbinger than outlier. There have been staff revolts over issues of racial and social justice in a broad swath of organizations, including Teen Vogue, Bon Appetit, adidas, the Museum of Modern Art and Planned Parenthood.
So are we in the midst of what Wesley Yang has labelled an ideological succession, in which old-school, big-tent liberalism is giving way to something more radical and illiberal? Have some of our most important institutions lost their moorings?
Many believe so and blame feckless administrators, who have allowed themselves to be dictated to by the loudest voices on social media.
But while there have been failures of leadership, many of those charged with leading our beleaguered institutions are doing the best they can under extremely trying circumstances.
John O’Sullivan has argued that “all organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.” The Ford Foundation is the paradigmatic example of this: founded by the head of one of the most successful capitalist enterprises in the world, it has become the leading voice of social justice globally.
But an inexorable pull to the left isn’t the only thing that today’s leaders have to contend with. As Jerry Pournelle has suggested, every organization contains two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. The second type of person, Pournelle argues, will always ultimately gain control. This dynamic can be seen at many American non-profit organizations, which are spending increasing amounts of time and energy on caring for their staff, rather than accomplishing their missions.
Three chaotic forces have exacerbated the tendencies identified by Pournelle and O’Sullivan: social media, the Covid pandemic and Donald Trump. Social media has incentivized outrage and made it easier than ever before to organize the aggrieved. The pandemic, and the resulting move to Zoom and other virtual forums, has made it more difficult for leaders to make a human connection with their teams. And much of the staff unrest, particularly in the US, has been a displaced resistance to the Trump presidency—a way of registering dissent at a moment when it seemed that Trump was beyond the reach of mortal intervention.
Up until last year, I was the executive director of a large non-profit organization. I struggled mightily—and not always successfully—to create an environment that welcomed ideological diversity. What is currently happening within American institutions seems to be less an abdication of leadership than an example of administrators responding on the fly to the urgently expressed needs and desires of their employees. In many cases, they are simply making pragmatic decisions in order to protect their agencies from losing the support of staff and key constituents.
So what is to be done if you find yourself at the helm of an organization plagued by internal unrest over issues of social justice? One answer is simply to bide your time. The Trump presidency is over. The free-floating outrage that the former president engendered is likely to dissipate over time, helping to lower the temperature.
Another approach is to allow for multiple perspectives on controversial issues. The days in which organizations spoke with a single voice may be over—the issues that confront us these days are simply too complex and our polity too fractured. Even as leaders issue official statements on behalf of their agencies, they would be wise to allow for minority reports by staff who disagree with the position the organization has taken. This would bolster institutional legitimacy at a moment when many are seeking increased transparency. Perhaps the Times could have avoided letting Bennet and McNeil go, if dissidents had been allowed to voice their displeasure in a formal minority report.
The challenge is to avoid both knee-jerk capitulation to the demands of the most radical staffers and symbolic battles that will only drain the energy and diminish the effectiveness of agencies. This kind of patient, tactical approach to managing institutional tensions might seem cowardly and insufficient to those anti-woke advocates who seek the catharsis of confrontation. But leaders can only govern with the consent of the governed and few people are interested in being martyrs for abstract causes like free speech or due process.
Running an organization is hard work even at the best of times. It has become even more challenging of late. All those dunking on the Times on Twitter should take heed: what has happened at the Times will soon happen at their organizations—if it hasn’t already.