Saturday, January 4, 2014

Scenes from a mob movie (the absurd fire)

     In my Intro course lectures on Free Will, I sometimes imagine a world in which “action events” randomly occur, just as—or so I’m told—electrons suddenly and inexplicably change their energy states down there in atom land. “Why did that happen?”, we ask, only to be told “there is no why. “That’s just the way it is, universe-wise. Shuddup.”
     The point is that such actions, if they were to occur, wouldn’t be “free” any more than a coerced action (“Gimme your money or your life!”) would be free. These action events are absurd, not free.
     On the other hand, I kind of appreciate absurdity, at least up to a point.
     Lately, here at good ol’ IVC, it’s become the land of absurd fire—i.e., the land of getting fired—mysteriously, opaquely, and so on. Perhaps not for those who are actually getting fired—well, we just don’t know about them—but certainly for everyone else, looking and wondering WTF just happened.
     But, of course, these firings are highly non-random. There’s definitely a “why,” but, in this case, we just don’t know what it is. And it’s not because the universe is being weird again; it’s because certain people are determined to keep the cause obscure. Darryl C, we’re told, is required to maintain silence. No doubt the same is true for Helen L.
     But wait a minute. It just won’t do—will it?—this business of harsh things happening to people and then deliberately turning these events, for all observers, into pseudo-action events or electron firings. Among human beings—moral, decent creatures—such brute factual absurdity is at least disconcerting, morally. In the moral universe, we need to know what happens to people, and why it happens to them, so we can know that what's happening to them isn’t wrong.
     The absurd fire. Why do people do such things? And what are the grounds for complaint about them?
     Part of the answer comes up in a piece that appeared two days ago in the NYT: Fired? Speak No Evil. It’s about an editor who is suddenly fired and is told to sign a document—or else no severance:
     What brings me up short is clause No. 12: No Disparagement. “You agree,” it reads, “that you will never make any negative or disparaging statements (orally or in writing) about the Company or its stockholders, directors, officers, employees, products, services or business practices, except as required by law.” If I don’t agree to this nondisparagement clause, I will not receive my severance — in this case, the equivalent of two weeks of pay. Two weeks? Must be hard times out in San Francisco, or otherwise why the dirt parachute — and by the way, is that the sort of remark I won’t be allowed to make if I sign clause No. 12?
. . .
     ...[A]s quaint as this may seem, giving up the right to speak and write freely, even if that means speaking or writing negatively, strikes me as the unholiest of deals for a writer and an editor to accept. Though such clauses don’t technically violate the First Amendment — I’d be explicitly agreeing to forfeit my right to speak freely if I signed clause No. 12 — such a contract has a paralyzing effect on the dissemination of the truth, with all of truth’s caustically cleansing powers. To disparage is but one tool in a writer’s kit, but it’s an essential one. That a company would offer money for my silence, which is what this boils down to — well, I’ve seen many a mob movie about exactly that exchange.
     The increased prevalence of nondisparagement agreements is part of a corporate culture of risk management that would have us say nothing if we can’t say anything nice. And yet it occurs to me that if a company isn’t strong enough to be reproached, then it simply isn’t strong enough, period.
     Mind you, I’m not looking to disparage Byliner. The company has made a few mistakes in my view (firing me perhaps being a relatively minor one), but what fledgling enterprise does not screw up from time to time during its shakedown phase? It’s not that I necessarily want to disparage, but I want the freedom to do so, to be able to criticize, to attack, to carp, to excoriate, if need be. I want to tell the truth, even if it isn’t pretty.
     That’s why I won’t sign clause No. 12. Byliner can keep the money. I’ll keep my self-respect.
     Darryl and Helen aren’t editors or writers, and so I’m not suggesting that they have no self-respect. Just no job.
     But the action, the coercion for silence, demanded by a mob, is about the same.

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