Recently, our local television news reported on a professor’s office décor. The story, which dubbed David “Stormy” Williams “The Professor of Profanity,” concerned a group of inflatable dolls and a series of posters that Williams displayed in his office.
Williams calls the dolls his “executive team.” The posters satirize the all-too-common features of many offices: the faux inspirational mantras and clip images exhorting workers to work harder, faster, stronger to achieve . . . what? The posters in Williams’ office acknowledge a harsh reality of business: “Keep buying shit or we’re all fucked.”
Discussions of academic freedom aside (exactly where the television reporter left them), I’m a tad puzzled. Where’s the offense?
The language? These words, while vulgar, cross no lines of religious sensibility. They’re not sexist, ageist, or racist. Indeed, they’re amongst the oldest words in the English language, some predating the Norman Conquest.
The dolls? While they clearly owe a debt to inflatable sex dolls, these figures have no orifices and display no “nudity.” Their mouths do not open, and their clothes mimic traditional office attire, albeit painted on.
Further, Williams did not design or manufacture these items. He bought them from businesses. And now, he’s fucked.
Williams has been accused of creating a hostile workplace, yet what is more hostile than the forcible redesign of one’s workspace according to some ersatz and sanitized notion of corporate culture?
In an earlier post, I discussed people who, while capable of acts of economic and military obscenity, cannot bring themselves to use certain words – a strange and misplaced prudishness in light of the destruction unleashed upon us by men like Mitt Romney and Donald Rumsfeld.
Sadly, Williams has fallen victim to this same misplaced and misinformed sense of delicacy that focuses more on our words than on our actions.
When I taught university-level introductory English literature courses, I insisted my students read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Swift’s satirical attack on the feeble attempts to help impoverished Irish Catholics — with its outrage-inspiring suggestion that these people could raise their children for meat — continues to inspire essayists and activists. Because of that legacy, I felt the essay was important for students to confront, consider, and understand as an example of satirical power. And, as the popularity of Stephen Colbert and Rick Mercer suggests, we still appreciate sharp satire.
One way I approached the essay was to have students evaluate Swift’s project as a business plan, a familiar approach since so many of them embrace the argument that the sole virtue of their education lay in their improved ability to earn an income that would allow for unfettered consumption of market goods. Thus, they focussed on the economic benefits of Swift’s plan: the generation of revenue alongside the reduction of the taxes for publicly funded support services.
Swift’s seeming proposal is obscene, yet his writing does not stray beyond the pale of gentility (and he did have access to some lovely swear words, trust me). In the classroom, I noted Swift’s wielding of the power of numbers, reflected in the ease with which students accepted numbers and projections without question. Some students got it.
In later years, I developed my own Swiftian approaches in teaching business students, to suggest that while capitalism is a lovely system, it’s not a universally beneficial or even suitable mode of evaluation for all life’s activities.
Want to make a lot of money? Crystal meth crystallizes (pun intended) many of the desirable qualities of an ideal commodity: plentiful demand, flexible supply, competitive market, and generous profit margins. What’s the problem? Social degradation? Collateral damage? The law? Doesn’t business cross those lines — indeed, redraws those lines — on a daily basis? Now who’s being naïve?
Of course, I imagine few business professors engage in such discussions. In other disciplines, and not strictly those in the liberal arts, students are encouraged to reflect upon the history and consequences of the subject matter they study, to think about what is not illuminated or revealed by traditional approaches. By contrast, many of the business students I know study in a vacuum, in which history does not exist (unless in an elective course), and business is a matter of axiomatic good.
Business faculty trot out Enron, of course, and some even discuss the global collapse of 2008. Yet, most treat these as isolated incidents and not as predictable outcomes. Perhaps if business schools offered a critical view of business history, we might never have to fear yet another cycle of boom-and-bust. Of course, if business and business schools had learned anything since the tulip craze of seventeenth-century Holland, we would likely not have undergone either Enron or 2008.
But that, as my students remind me, is history – and they didn’t sign up for a history class.
In the same building as Stormy’s office, students are taught that their only responsibility is to the bottom line. Faculty can talk at length about a datum from their research, but have no expressed opinion on issues such as predatory marketing and sales practices. The college espouses a vision of itself as a creator of nations, yet continues to express itself through clichés of business as violent and combative.
Although Williams may not have read Swift’s proposal, his office represents an oasis of morality, a voice in the wilderness suggesting that all might not be well with business, a suggestion of a satiric norm. And like the light-seeker in Plato’s cave analogy, he’s suffering for speaking the truth.
In other words, if we don’t keep buying stuff, somebody’s fucked.