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After Charlottesville

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I never thought I’d have to write this column.

I’ve written about workplace bias before — about racism (for example “The uselessness of race,” InfoWorld, 5/27/2002), and about male/female workplace issues (last week; “A tale of two genders,” Keep the Joint Running, 8/14/2017).

Always, when writing about bias, I assumed that its workplace expression would be limited to inappropriate word choices, tasteless jokes, and ignorant race, ethnicity, or gender-based assumptions about various colleagues’ abilities and contributions.

Speaking as someone whose ethnic heritage includes Kristallnacht, I don’t think we can look at images of a torch-bearing crowd of American Nazis and Klansmen and continue to consider the American workplace safe from bigotry-induced violence. And yes, I do include violence against women in my thinking; in groups like this misogyny is never far from the surface.

As a business manager you have a legal responsibility to your employees, to make sure they don’t in any way experience anything they might reasonably construe to be threatening or harassing based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or, for that matter, anything else. Threats and harassment should have no place in your managerial domain.

What Charlottesville changed for all of us is what a reasonable person might find threatening or harassing. Take, for example, something you might discover in an employee’s cubicle: A small Confederate battle flag.

In the early 1980s, when the Duke brothers of Hazzard, Georgia put a decal of the Confederate battle flag on the roof of their car, it was largely considered cute and innocuous. There are those now who oppose its removal from public places, along with the removal of statues of prominent Confederacy leaders, as an attempt to sanitize history.

But we don’t erect statues, or display flags, or name streets and lakes because we think they teach history. If we did, Hawaii would have statues of Tojo and Hirohito near the Pearl Harbor museum.

Statues, flags and so on aren’t mere historical markers. They state who we admire and what we aspire to.

Before Charlottesville, an employee who displayed a Confederate battle flag might have thought it was Dukes-of-Hazzard cute.

No more. After Charlottesville, a Confederate battle flag or other such symbol of the antebellum South is no different from what displaying a Nazi swastika meant all along (Aztec and Buddhist swastikas are mirror images and are square, not diagonal). The person displaying it is communicating his affinity and affiliation with groups that have an explicit goal of suppressing, denying equality to, and inflicting violence on anyone who isn’t a heterosexual Aryan male.

Charlottesville has upped the ante for workplace management: What once might have been considered harmless looks, in Charlottesville’s aftermath, more like threats and incitement.

If you think that’s too strong, it’s certainly parallel to using one of the many ethnic, racial, sex-, or religion-based pejoratives that were at one time in broad use. Just as those who utter such repulsive phrases gripe about political correctness and excuse their behavior with some variation on the theme of “I didn’t mean anything by it,” so those who display symbols of hostility pretend, in public, that there’s no hostility implied to anyone. In private? There’s plenty of hostility to go around.

As a manager, your own attitudes and beliefs don’t much matter. You might be as certain as certain can be that Aryans are the pinnacle of evolution (although probably not; those who wave the Confederate battle flag are among those least likely to accept Darwin’s theory). Be as certain as you like. Your obligation to your employer is to make sure nobody is creating a hostile or threatening work environment.

So if you see any of these symbols in anyone’s cubicle, insist their owners remove them to more suitable environments, which is to say, places they’re only observable when the employee is acting as a private individual, and isn’t easily associated with the company that employs them.

Count me as a proponent of the idea that our Constitution’s First Amendment only matters if it protects speech we find objectionable. There are, however, boundaries even to this principle. Incitement to violence is one of them.

After Charlottesville, when symbols of Nazi-ism and the Klan are displayed, you must assume the displayer’s intention is to express hostility and encourage violence.

Comments (26)

  • “As a business manager you have a legal responsibility to your employees, to make sure they don’t in any way experience anything they might reasonably construe to be threatening or harassing based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or, for that matter, anything else.”

    A nice sentiment but untrue. An employee boss can legally threaten and harass those who report to him for purposes of wringing more performance from them. Intimidating as that may be it is permitted under law. However this could be changed if we act to effect democracy in the workplace. First we have to recognize this practice exists and is rampant. Something Bob appears to be unaware of. But now he is.

    • Depends on where (and even more interestingly, how) you draw the line separating a manager’s obligation to inform under-performing employees they need to improve … and of the consequences of failing to do so … and “threats and harassment.” Letting someone know they’ll lose their job if they fail to up their game isn’t threatening them. It’s providing important information.

      Screaming the same information from 6 inches away from the employee’s face? That’s threatening and harassing. Also, while there are businesses that tolerate this management style when it delivers the desired results (at least in the short term), there are many more that will terminate a manager who’s guilty of it.

      Certainly, managers may not harass anyone based on their gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or increasingly, sexual orientation. Quite the opposite, they’re held to a higher standard than staff-level employees.

  • Bravo! But so far none of the captains of industry in the Cabinet, and precious few of the cowards in Congress have did any if this as clearly as you. We haven’t heard much from Wall Street either.

  • Well spoken.

  • Thank you for your thoughts on this, Bob. It’s no more acceptable to have these symbols than a nude calendar hanging up in the office where others can see it. The “I don’t mean anything by it” protests are passive-aggressive baloney.

  • Well said!

  • There is a computer newspaper (it’s all online now, so I don’t know what to call it) anyway there is a column where people write in about items that go on in the workplace. It’s mainly how stupid management is. Anyway, one of the people who submitted a picture saying “depression ahead” somehow got turned into a sign that this person claimed that was posted outside his workplace. It was in German, and it (Arbeit macht Frei) but it said the same thing that was put over the entrance way to German Concentration camps. I called him on it saying that was an awful thing to say no matter what the context. He said he thought it was a little too soon after Charlottesville, I came back and said it was never appropriate. People just do not get it.

  • Thanks, Bob, for an excellent and timely column.

  • You do realize which group was carrying flags, and which side was carrying clubs with nails in them. You do know which group was preparing and carrying shit bombs. You know which group brought pepper spray. You know which group used all of these, not only on those who were carrying flags, but also on the press.

    As someone whose heritage includes “Kristallnacht” you should know your history a bit better. Study the Brown Shirts, the para military wing of the NAZI party and their techniques. Compare those to BLM and the Anfifi. Compare the goals of the two groups. You will find that they are like 99% in alignment. The targets are a bit different. But if you want to bring up the NAZIs then you should recognize which group of the two is like them.

    The current left marketing is that the alt-right are NAZIs and Facists. In fact while what much of what they stand for is objectionable, their goals and methods do not match the NAZIs. The BLM and Antifi groups which have the full support of the democratic party like the Brown Shirts had the full support of the NAZis. Both parties claimed that this was just a few and they really were not them. But we know how the reality of the Brown Shirts were. Are we so sure these new actual NAZI are not going to be the same.

    • Ray … I’m concerned you’ve fallen for accusations that have failed the fact checks. Also, in addition to flags, I know which group was carrying semiautomatic weapons.

      I do know my history, including a phrase that became popular among Jews following WWII: “Never again.”

      • a. If you check the group said not to bring such weapons and those bringing them were hanger oners who were asked to leave. And you will notice that nobody was shot.

        b, many people were in fact attacked with the clubs. Which while people are claiming that the white supremicsts had. But these things were if you check the pictures of the claimed attacks by the that group these things were 5 foot or better long. And while there are pictures of the Antifi and BLM groups with such weapons, there is no evidence of the “alt-right” people having such weapons. And it would be pretty hard to hid a bunch of 5 or 6 foot clubs. And the picture you mention with the simiautomatic weapons (many on the left way they were fully auto (how did they know that as remember nobody shot)

        So I think maybe you have fallen for the false accusations. And if you really study the brown shirt period, they engaged in a lot of this exact kind of false accusations of those opposing them. And I am referring to a whole lot more than this one incident. There is a well documented history of these groups behaving in the same manner as the Brown Shirts of the 1930s. There is actually little documentation of this in any recent history of legit conservatives. Who the left is claiming was who they faced in charletteville. As I said much like what the Brown shirts did to the conservatives in Germany in the 1930s.

      • See my other replies, especially regarding the several-years-old photo of a Greek riot labeled as an Antifa clubbing a policeman. The reporting does say some people were seen “clubbing each other” in the street; I doubt Antifa counter-protesters were clubbing each other.

        It’s like this: neo-Nazis consider themselves the spiritual heirs of a group whose legacy was genocide. Klansmen and Confederate sympathizers consider themselves the spiritual heirs of slaveholders, traitors, and lynch mobs. Occam’s razor being what it is, the logical conclusion is that these folks will be as violent as they’re allowed to be.

  • “In the history of the world, no problem has ever been solved by blaming someone.”

    Depends on the problem…if the “problem” is hiding one’s incompetence…

  • I am Jewish too, and I think you are making a giant, and innappropriate leap. What is new or special about the Charlottesville rally? The KKK is 140 years old. There have been American Nazis since before you or I was born. Both have been rallying for as long as they have existed. They are reprehensible, but they always have been The most important thing to note is that their numbers are tiny and shrinking.

    Yes, someone was murdered that day, but that isn’t new either. About a year ago, a maniac took a gun to a Jewish Community Center in Kansas and killed several people, ironically all of them Christian. Then there was the man who stabbed three people, two to death for interceding on behalf of a Muslim woman last month in Washington state. Dylan Roof, Timothy McVeigh, they were a lot more deadly.

    So why is Charlottesville a watershed?

    • Charlottesville is, I think, a watershed because so many more white supremacists participated, did so unashamedly, and did so while armed with semiautomatic weapons.

      Back in the era of National Socialist Party of America v. Skokie, most of us were comfortable that simple ridicule of these bigoted idiots was a sufficient response. I agree that Charlottesville is a marker of a trend that’s been building for some time and not something new. But it put this trend into public view in a way the previous instances you describe did not.

      • While I agree with Bob Lewis, This incident had a lot of variables that started it down the ugly lane it went.
        1. The state OK’d open carry.
        2. The “dishing” of Confederate General statue(s) issue was broadcast far and wide, and the posturing of the KKK and the NAZI people made it all but impossible for anyone to have a not interested in a peaceable rally was part and parcel of the above three items.
        The anti-NAZI, anti-KKK and the anti-white supremacist did not have a clue how violent these people are/were.
        The open carry just emboldened the KKK, NAZI and White Supremacist. They are nobodies unless they can show their superiority and the open carry was an invitation for something to happen. While the “incident” did not involve rifles, it obviously got one or more of their people riled up to the point of doing something.

        What I think that everybody missed was that ISIS and other terrorist organizations have called on their people to use automobiles as weapons.
        In my view, the KKK and the NAZI’s and the White Supremacists ended up being pawns of ISIS.

  • Bob,

    I don’t think it is too strong. I think it’s “bout time”. On the 1st Amendment, I found this article of interest: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2017/08/the_first_and_second_amendments_clashed_in_charlottesville_the_guns_won.html

    Keep up the great work.

    Brgds, Jim

  • Charlottesville is the pinnacle of stupidity. A group of people who don’t know the meaning of the words Aryan, Caucausian, Nazi, … [I just had to look the first one up. I was surprised at what I read.] use them to get a rise out of people and they succeed. They are angry and they want other people to recognize and even honor their anger by being angry. And they succeed.

    I am by all accounts white. Yet the KKK burned crosses on the hill above my ancestors houses because we are Catholic.

    I lost my ancestral heritage on the first day of WWI when all the German street signs and business signs where my ancestors lived were taken down. My ancestors stopped speaking German. I always had thought it was to show patriotism. Recently I learned it was because they were threatened, even thought where they lived, they were the majority.

    I have some descendants who are, by all accounts, not white. Nobody in the family notices or cares. We do notice that the youngest is uncommonly handsome. Partly it is the olive skin and partly it is the red hair. We are enjoying watching him grow up.


    When anger becomes a badge of protest, violence is sure to follow. And reasoned discourse is left in a ditch. From the period of wisdom literature more than two millennia ago, “If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.”


    Here is an interesting conundrum. I live in a place where there is talk of taking down statues by violence. Yet in our midst is a statue of a nasty person who fomented lynching (specific and general) and other violence. The statue is in an exceptionally prominent place. It was placed there by agreement of all the prominent persons of the time. What he said and did has been condemned. He is forgotten. In recent memory, well past the time of the civil rights movement, a prominent newspaper ran an article about him and his statue. The article was ignored. I still have a copy of it.


    The word radical comes from the Latin word meaning root or roots. In our work in IT, we regularly search for the root cause of an issue. It is best done leaving the ego aside. It is best done dispassionately. Would that this could be done in general life. There it would be dismissed as a radical notion.

    peace be with y’all.

  • “There are, however, boundaries even to this principle. Incitement to violence is one of them”… Have you considered the repercussion of such a statement? If someone disagrees with what would otherwise be deemed “free speech”, they only need organize a movement which would incite a riot. Riots lead to violence…remember Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter protest? Unfortunately, in today’s world, many of these protests and reactions to the them are being constructed and organized by opposing political factions.

    We as a nation are on a very slippery slope if we start limiting speech based on induced violent reaction. I sincerely doubt that was the intent of our Nation’s Founding Fathers.

    • And yet, incitement to violence … speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” … is a crime (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brandenburg_v._Ohio ). There’s also the clichéd example of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

      I’m in agreement that when in doubt we should err on the side of free speech. As for the intentions of the Bill of Rights authors, I’m certainly not a scholar in the field. My understanding is that to the extent we know their intent, it was that political speech is what is absolutely protected. To me this means speech intended to change opinions is what’s protected.

      And so, white supremacists are free to try to persuade us that people of African origin are inferior. They are not free to try to persuade us that we should lynch or brutalize them in any way.

      I trust it’s clear that this is not an easy line to draw.

  • You actually have to respect the Israeli understanding of “never again” too many people believe it applies to only jews. There government both in words and actions has said it applies to everyone. They have accepted and rescued a number of nonjewish groups slated for extermination. And they have sent troops in and fought and died to make this happen more than once. One of the more ironic things is that they applied this to the Palestinians in several Arab countries, where the radicals teed off the government and they were getting ready to “eliminate the problem”. The reality is that many if not most current radicals and terrors are in fact those people and their decedents. Without them having applied “never again” to people who even at that time were calling for their extermination, their current problems would likely not exist.

    Also it is important to remember that in the 1930s the Brown Shirts were claiming their actions were justified by the Jewish racism against them. They were also claiming to be anti facist. To me they sound pretty much exactly like the current BLM and especially the current antifi group.

  • One of the claims being made by the left is that besides the simi-automatic rifles, that they claimed were fully automatic, the use of military utilities was total proof that they started things. Not sure how that works. This is especially since the actual group with the court order permit (the court also ordered the mayor to provide police protection) had a web site before the protest I decided to check out since people were saying they were calling for violence on it. Their instructions were to bring no weapons. But they did recommend military utilities because they stated they were expecting “chemical and biological attacks”. Maybe a bit over the top, but there is pretty good proof that the Antifi group did throw balloons and glass bottles of liquified shit at the alt-right protesters. They call that a biological attack. Maybe a bit over the top. On the other hand the police in a number of locations have used this term for people throwing shit on them.

    I can tell you from work experience that military utilities are like uniquely qualified to be worn when you are exposed to shit and other biologicals. I have done work on network trouble shooting for several sewer plants. OK I demand a premium and they are willing to pay it because nobody else who knows their stuff is willing to do it. I have a couple sets of military utilities I wear to these jobs. I also take a water solvable garbage bag. (Yes there are such things, they are medical supplies) and as soon as I am done, I strip out of my utilities totally clean my self, and put the utilities in the bag. I then wash them with special laundry soap certified for this use. But if you check it out, normal clothing will not necessarily become totally clean and will not likely survive the laundering. Military utilities will indeed be “good as new”.

    One other interesting thing to look at is the reported attacks on blacks by the alt-right. Yes some but not all of the attackers are in military utilities. But the weapons used in the attacks are the bats only seen in the pictures of the antifi groups. And the audio has the attackers yelling that the person peed on them. Their utilities are if you look unstained. And while there is good evidence of the shit attacks on the alt-right, there is no claim of attacks by pee. I know if someone threw a combination of pee and shit on me (pee was apparently how they liquefied the shit) I sure as heck would be yelling about the shit and not the pee. So one does have to wonder about these.

    I know that is a lot of comments.

    PS if you are going to go after confederate flags, are you going to also go after mexican flags, also used as a symbol of hate by some groups. How about the black power symbol. How about pictures of Che Guevara.

    • First: Both groups were issued permits. I know President Trump said he wanted to wait until the facts were in and then said the counter-protesters didn’t have a permit. To be kind, he might have waited until the facts were in, but he didn’t avail himself of them. The counter-protesters had a permit.

      Second: I can’t speak to every phony bit of photographic evidence; one of the fact-checking sites tracked down the provenance of a photo of an antifa hitting a policeman with a club. One problem: It was actually a years-old photo taken from a protest in Greece, with the antifa identification photoshopped in.

      I know of no documented evidence of attacks with fecal matter. I do know of an attack with an automobile. And by the way: a person carrying a semiautomatic weapon doesn’t have to make threats to be threatening.

      Having said this, I think the counter-protesters handled the whole thing wrong. To the extent they were violent themselves they certainly shouldn’t have been. And besides, the proper response to neo-Nazis, klansmen, general-purpose white supremacists, and Confederate sympathizers is ridicule, not anger.

      Because at the end of the day, an angry mob marching with Tiki torches is ridiculous. Maybe I’m not being fair, though – it could be they were wielding them because they were afraid of mosquitoes.

  • I was glad to read the post of the Catholic reader who spoke of some of the violence done by the KKK to Catholics, as well as to Jews and to blacks since the late 18th century.

    But then, as I considered the deaths from the Catholic Inquisition, the ethnic cleansing of Christians against Moslem Bosnians, whites against Native Americans, men against women, the Holocaust, etc., I was reminded of 9/11. And, I remembered asking myself, “Why would anyone want to start a war with the US, that they knew they couldn’t win?”

    Events in Charlottesville provides an answer. Some people feel a certain kind of frustration so strongly that they envision being at war group or clan war as the only solution available to them. Their goal is to be at perpetual war, fueled by emotions both deep and only partially perceived, and thus, our actions from those emotions can never be fully controllable. In their vision.

    So, the shared space which is the work place cannot cannot be allowed to play a role in that vision. Even “throwing shade” on co-worker, simply because there is a privilege gap between you and them, can affect the performance of the entire work group, as well as their career and their well-being.

    If you stick to the facts, and not just cherry picking, opinions, humor, and synergy can all contribute to boost performance for all.

    Professional excellence in the workplace can never contribute to the Forever War, desired by a conatively frustrated minority. It will always be dysfunctional for the organization.

  • Excellent post!

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