This weekend, I discovered an amusing little thing floating around my Twitter feed. When I thought about it, this image, which seemed pretty inconsequential at first, actually reflects a very deep problem in our society. And speaking as someone at the start of building a career in professional communications, it also reflects an issue at the heart of the ethical practice of public relations.
The Joke Is On You
I discovered this gem on Twitter this weekend. It started as a joke post on the Facebook page Liberty Memes. Liberty Memes is a place where libertarians can go to trade jokes. The image highlights a short quotation from Friedrich Hayek, the grandfather of modern libertarianism and the co-founder of the Mt. Pelerin network of think tanks around the globe that have shaped modern neoliberal economic and political policies.
|Yeah, sure. Misandry. Fuck.|
The quote appears on a picture of Salma Hayek, a Mexican-American actress with the same last name. It’s a typical example of the funny misquote, like images of Abraham Lincoln reminding us not to trust everything you read in an internet meme.
Fake quotes became a cultural joke after a phrase, misattributed to Martin Luther King Jr, blew up online, as one woman’s eloquent response to Osama Bin Laden’s extra-judicial killing by US Navy Seals was attributed to the most famous martyr of the American Civil Rights Movement.
So the combination of a Salma Hayek image with a Friedrich Hayek quote is funny on the face of it, at least good for a chuckle, especially thanks to the extra wink of the attribution, Hayek.
Then some of the group members took it to a whole other level, which reveals quite a lot about the trend of reactionary Twitter activism that pollutes the internet with sexist, racist, horrifying bile every day.
When a Man Hates and Fears Women
The Friedrich Hayek quote in the image reads, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” He’s talking about his own mission as a philosopher of economics, showing the limits of humans to realize their dreams of a perfect society.
Hayek’s era was dominated by political figures who had visions of the perfect society, utopian dreamers whose political movements hijacked the military and police machinery of the state to erect those societies within a generation. States built complex mechanisms of oppression to force unified, simple visions on society.
They usually killed and severely oppressed millions of people to do this. And they always failed. Hayek had a sensible core to his critique of using the state to build a perfect society by design: the world is always more complicated than human intelligence can account for, so every human attempt at absolute control of all the economic forces and processes in a country or the world will collapse and cause abject misery on the way. This quote states his philosophical mission of cognitive correction.
But when these folks at Liberty Memes saw the quote apparently coming from Salma Hayek, they presumed she was attacking men as a gender. Not, as Friedrich wrote in the style of the 1940s, referring to humanity in general. They thought this image was another example of a powerful woman in the media using her position to encourage the marginalization and oppression of men.
Why Do People Say Stupid Things?
So we have a moment where the overlap between right-wing arch-individualist conservatism and the rabid, raging sexism and persecution complex of online anti-feminism and the Men’s Rights Movement becomes clear. No matter what conceptual distinctions you can make between libertarian principles considered in abstract, and actual online harassment of women, if you believe one, you likely believe the other.
|I was originally going to post a picture of Zoe Quinn,|
the woman whose resentful ex-boyfriend started a
massive harassment campaign against her, sparking
one of the largest reactionary movements in the West.
But I was disgusted by how many images I found on
Google of Quinn photoshopped onto horrifyingly
strange and degrading pornographics. So here's a
promo image of her award-winning game
Depression Quest and a link to buy it.
But I’m not here to make a nuanced ideological analysis of how these intersect. I want instead to focus on how dumb these commenters are. When you go back to the photo at Liberty Memes, the most offensive comments have been removed, but I’ll trust that this image captured them faithfully as they appeared.
The commenters seem to have no idea how memes are actually made, talking as though Salma Hayek (or her staff) actually manufactured this meme: “It’s ironic she feels the need to bash men while she shows plenty of cleavage to reel them in.”
Consider the total lack of logic in the argument: “Dear Selma;* If men designed the world we live in today (which we did as a sex, by the way) and you claim we know so very little it goes to show how absolutely awesome men are . . . you bitch.”
* He also misspells her first name.
Or one commenter’s moronic rage: “Well then she needs to just GIVE UP all the things in her spoiled little existence that she takes so for granted that MEN have DESIGNED!! Otherwise she can just SHUT HER PRETTY LITTLE PIE HOLE and be far more THANKFUL MEN EXIST!! DAMNED FEMINIST BIGOT!!”
These are people writing on a comment thread, but these words are violent. They’re the words of online harassment, creating a web space where women know they will not be allowed to express themselves, or even take part at all. They're representative of one of the largest reactionary activist movements in the world, and many seem to be incredibly stupid.
What This Has to Do With Public Relations
The profession of public relations and corporate communications more generally is already a female-dominated industry, not without controversy. A textbook from my own PR program describes the worries among the top tier of the field that more women working in it would lower the field’s prestige or average incomes.
Thankfully, these sexist old men have retired or died, and the men who do choose communications for a career are more open to having female superiors at work. Or else they think that a business where more women are in charge makes for genuine social progress. Such men are intelligent, reasonable, and enlightened.
The exact opposite of the type of men on display in this sad example of pop-libertarian sexist, violent stupidity. So as members of a profession that has prospered as it has become female-dominated, I wonder if public relations as a professional community has an obligation to combat sexism in the public sphere.
One of the recurring ethical problems of public relations is that agencies are client-serving companies, and many of us who choose the agency route for our careers will often work toward solving problems for companies whose own activities we oppose.
|Some potential clients are a bridge too far for anyone.|
Imagine an environmentalist working for an agency that assigns her to work on a campaign to build support for a crude pipeline running through ecologically sensitive areas. My own program’s “Ethics of PR” class often examined how best we can “sleep at night,” given how uncomfortable we might be with some of our clients.
No matter the reputation the public relations industry has for a mercenary attitude (and no matter how much some industry leaders may deserve it), there are limits. Navigator’s mission statement basically is, “No matter how awful you are, we’ll spin for you.” And they still dropped Jian Ghomeshi.
A Duty Beyond the Contract
The truth is, if you’re a woman who holds any kind of position of power, you’re open to having an army of sexist trolls unleashed on you. No matter how many interns you can employ as your anti-cyberbullying army, the fact that you might have to organize one for yourself shouldn’t be tolerated.
I don’t think PR agencies should choose to work for client organizations or individuals with sexist or racist goals. Ghomeshi didn’t deserve a PR professional’s help. Roosh, the National Coalition for Men, and a Gamergate crowd-fund don’t deserve it either. I at least think it’s an urgent conversation for the industry to have, given the prominence of sexist online harassment in the public sphere today.
Maybe PR professionals should go beyond even this, or at least encourage each other when we do. PR professionals could, in their private lives or their non-billable hours, become online activists. Agencies could lend a few staffers pro bono to work as advocates for equality causes. Agencies led by women or members of other marginalized groups would be especially effective here, because of the rhetorical weight of their identities.
It’s easy for me to say something so provocative and controversial because I’m a recent graduate just starting his career. I have little invested so far in the public relations sector aside from my student loan for taking the program. But it could also be a mistake for me to say what I’ve said because I'm a recent graduate just starting his career.
But I’m still a professional. I have a part-time position and am looking for more permanent work in the communications field. I still have my blog and my public social media accounts. If my personal brand says anything, it’s that I’m dedicated to my beliefs. If anyone wants to hire someone like that, I’d be glad to work with them.