I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most.
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Today's Read: 21 Minutes.
Quick Links & Fresh Thinking
1. How the dream of AC turned into the dark future of climate change. (WaPo)
2. Florida's "war on woke" is spurring a Brain Drain. (Nation)
3. How we farm is bad for the climate. Our solution isn’t much better. (MoJo)
4. As leaders convene, the UN pushes toward its crucial global goals. But progress is lagging. (AP)
5. Tarnished Brand. (Prospect)
Today's Issue. Power. Abuse. Organizations. Terrible People.
Does power corrode? Or is power given to corrosive people? By now, you've heard about yet another scandal. A world-famous star, of stage and screen, Hollywood films, accused of decades of abuse, yet protected and shielded by organizations... again. It's a much, much larger problem than just a star, though, one that's come to afflict our world endemically, like a kind of plague. Why do terrible people get ahead? You can practically feel the angst about this pulsing around the globe. A thousand people a day ask Reddit, a million Twitter, and on and on. It's like some kind of awful curse of modern existence. Terrible People Get Ahead, and there's nothing the rest of us can do, except...watch, in dismay and horror.
Allow me to put my Certified World's Top 50 Thinkers Management Guru hat on for a moment. This is a serious problem. Terrible People Hijacking Our World is a veritable plague upon the 21st century. The latest scandal is just the tip of an iceberg deeper than Elon Musk's pockets. The problem's chronic. Systemic. We're going to go deep—and I mean really deep—into all that. Using the lens of organizational theory to understand why this problem exists, and what we can do about it.
Power. Corrosion, degradation, abuse. Chicken or egg? Perhaps it sounds insoluble, but we have to solve this problem, if we're going to make progress in this troubled age. Demagoguery, fascism, authoritarianism, scandal after scandal, bad actors, bad faith: the abuse of power is spinning out of control. Today, we're going to discuss exactly, precisely why there's a veritable Plague of Terrible People Getting Ahead and thus shredding what's left of our World.
Stage One: Adverse Selection and Toxic Archetypes
What happens, as the very first thing, in our organizations? The very...first...thing? Think about it with me. We have stampedes of people trying to get not even their feet, but just the tip of a toe, in the door. And there, they're met with a wall. It's ten miles high, and then it's covered with another ten miles of barbed wire. The door opens a crack. Gatekeepers beat back the roiling masses. They're looking for...
A certain kind of person. An archetype. Our organizations select, from the very outset, before anything else happens at all, a kind of person. Worse, they don't even know they do it, the people doing the selecting. It's unconscious, but even deeper than bias—more like a dream and a desire. They've been taught an ur-myth of what kind of person it takes to...become successful...get the job done...be a team player...rise to the top...all the rest of the cliched nostrums HR hits us with, over the head, over and over again, like hammers of banality.
The ur-myth of the Archetype our organizations are told they should select for goes like this. We want someone who's "hard-charging," a "bull," maybe even a "maverick." They're looking, and remember, they often don't even know it, for certain traits, yet because they often don't even know it, they can't articulate it, even to themselves, so they won't admit it. Yet they go like this. Aggression. Domination. A little bit of sadism and cruelty. Masked in politesse, of a certain kind. Icy coldness, maybe covered in a glib veneer of false warmth. Calculation, ruthlessness, cunning. The ability to treat others as disposable means to selfish ends. If you don't have these? Good luck ever even getting to...
Now, at this point, you might doubt me, so I'm going to prove it to you. Not with stats—I don't need those, though I'll throw one at you, 70% of people would quit their jobs if they could—but with reality. Think of your typical job interview. What happens? By now, it's an incredible, insoluble labyrinth—three phone interviews, two team interviews, then a presentation, and then more interviews. What's happening here? What's all this really about?
You see, if you just wanted to see if someone could get a job done, you wouldn't need to do all this. Are you kidding me? What a colossal, tremendous, repetitive waste of time, energy, resources, attention, for everyone involved. Something much deeper's going on here, obviously, than what we economists call a mere "matching problem." Something...psychoanalytical. This isn't remotely about merely finding people to do a humdrum job at all. It feels more like an...inquisition. A Kafkaesque one. Organizations are looking for the tiniest reasons to disqualify people, obsessively. They're searching manically for hidden clues.
Clues to what, though, exactly? Again, what's really going on here? This is a hypervigilant, ultra-detailed, forensic examination. For an Archetype. An ideal. It has nothing to do with Real People or Jobs They Can Do whatsoever.
What gives all that away is the hyperfixated, manic, obsessive-paranoid search for hidden clues, which no Real Person can ever really satisfy. The point of all that can only really be to disprove something. To try and find someone who doesn't really exist at all in the first place: an Archetype. Otherwise, why bother with all this? Hence, this process of forensic examination looks, desperately, in the nooks and crannies, of everything—a word, an expression, a movement, a look—for the slightest hint, the tiniest chink, the merest intimation. That this Real Person doesn't have precisely the qualities of The Archetype. It's searching, obsessively, for evidence. To make a case against you. That you're not The Archetype.
Getting a...pretty boring...job...done? You can prove that it in an hour, from coding to engineering to even quantum physics, for Pete's sake. But hours upon hours of this CSI level psychological detective-work? To see if you...crack? Give an inch? If the mask might slip? It's something else. It's a highly detailed forensic crime scene exam for humanity, any form of it, from empathy to imagination to decency to thoughtfulness, all of which is seen a liability. A deal-killing one. Because The Archetype in the ur-myth doesn't have any of that. Only Real People do. And organizations and their gatekeepers fantasy-desire the Archetype, while being primally contemptuous of Real People, though they don't know it, and won't admit it. That's why just "getting a job" is now...like this.
If you doubt me, let's keep thinking. What isn't asked at...any job interview...probably ever? Hey, are you...like...a decent human being? What about...what do you think of history, art, literature, what's your favourite poem, painting, idea? Do you think that demagogues are wonderful people? Do you like truth and justice? How about beauty and goodness? What do those mean to you? What would you do if you were faced with the situation in Camus' Plague—abandon your neighbours, or retain your humanity? Are you kidding me?
None of that's asked, anywhere, ever. Why would it be? It's funny to read, because it's ridiculous to think of such questions being asked. And that's the point. Some things are conspicuous by their absence. And the absence of such basic questions about who a Real Person is tells us something: organizations don't care one bit. They're conducting a forensic crime scene exam to make the case against you. Searching for the smallest clue you might be a full, mature, healthy human being, which rules out you being The Archetype...because what they're really looking for—and worst of all, they still don't even know it—is a narcissistic Machiavellian. To them? Long story short, many of our organizations dream of the Dark Triad. They fantasize that those who are made of it wield Magical Powers.
Strong words. But are they true? If they're not, again, tell me why it is that getting just some boring, pointless, tedious job has become surviving this...ridiculous, even more pointless ordeal? This odyssey? And why is it that it centers not ever around whether you're developed as a human being—but is designed almost purely to sniff out, like some kind of rabid bloodhound, the faintest possible clue that you're not actually completely emotionally deformed, not enough of a hungry, pure, aggressive, cold-blooded predatory narcissist?
When that happens, we all know what it's called. "Sorry, you just weren't a good fit." Good fit. Those words have become notorious in this day and age. They're code. You didn't live up to our ur-myth. The archetype of the ideal form. The certain kind of person we're combing through the rubble of a world on fire for. But who is that person? What are their traits? Aggresion, domination, self-aggrandizement, ruthlessness, cunning, calculation, and the ability to conceal it all well enough, yet reveal just enough it to let them know. This forensic exam that looks desperately for a hole where a human soul should be is designed to weed out everyone, and everything, else, but the Archetype. Why else would it possibly exist? What other purpose could it serve?
In the end, nobody lives up the ideal. But those who come closest to it? Of course, that kind of person is usually a man, of course, of a certain kind. And that brings us back to Brand, a little bit. The first step of the process goes like this. Organizations select for Terrible People, because to them, they're seen as fantasy-desire Archetypes with Magic Powers. That's called, by us economists, "adverse selection," and that just means, in the classic example, that the kind of guy who's going to be selling you a used car salesman probably isn't going to be a saint. But the problem's far, far bigger than that now. Adverse selection is endemic, systemic, and worse, it's the very first thing that happens in most organizations.
—The Visionary Tech Tycoon seizes the future by the neck. We're supposed to respond with awe and gratitude.
—The Corporate Raider goes out and seizes corporations by the throat. We're supposed to respond with fear and obedience.
—The Master of the Universe goes out and seizes control of Wall St and the economy by the balls. We're supposed to respond with admiration and reverence.
—The Wunderkind CEO goes out and seizes Silicon Valley and Manhattan by the eyeballs. We're supposed to respond with acclaim and deference.
—The Lothario goes out and seizes...women. By the...
See how the ur-myth is exactly the same? How closely related the Archetypes are? The Magic Powers? Only the form's changed, and even then, barely—but the story's the same. Here's this hard-charging bull, this potent, unstoppable machine-gun of a man, who goes out and just...seizes what he wants. Through sheer Nietzschean will to power. By the...Wow! Amazing! That's interpreted in different ways: when the Wunderkind CEO does it, it's supposed to be met with awe. The Master of the Universe, with fear and respect. The Corporate Raider, with envy and admiration. And the Lothario? With...laughter.
This is how our organizations really work, and it's practically suicidal, not to mention cringeworthy, at this juncture in human history, because it takes a blowtorch to human possibility before anything's even begun.
Stage Two: Social Scripts and Rituals
Myth. Archetype. See what's happening there? A script's being written. Not just a script for dumb reality TV shows or Hollywood movies. Of a deeper kind. A social script. Composed of archetypes, a story—and our respones. The Tycoon, seizing the world by the...and we're supposed to respond with awe. Or the Lothario going out there, and just...seizing women. Ha-ha! Hilarious. Now, of course, plenty of people are going back and looking at old clips of the figure at the center of the latest scandal, and saying: "what the hell were we thinking? Were we deluded? How was the wool pulled over our eyes?" The answer to that is: a social script was written, and it was followed ritualistically.
And that's what power is.
So. First step: organizations select for Terrible People. They don't even know it—they're unaware of their unconscious desires. The second step, though, is where things begin to get really deadly, dangerous, harmful. Step two: Organizations construct and ritualize social scripts for the rest of us, to respond to Terrible People, in certain prescribed ways. And not to respond to them, either, in proscribed, forbidden ways. To admire them, respect them, fear them, envy them—even laugh alongside them, never to doubt them, question them, even to obey them, so much so, that later, people wonder: what...why...how the hell did we go along with that?
The answer to that is power. Played out enough times, these social scripts, which tell us how to respond, become rituals. A ceremony, with a prescribed order, in which we play our roles, without even thinking—reflexively, autonomically, because that's we're supposed to do. It becomes our duty to respond in certain ways, during this play-act of mythological social scripts, which tell the story of Archetypes with Magic Powers.
So now we have rituals with—all too often—a Terrible Person right at the center of them. Being obeyed, deferred to, looked up to. Because that's our duty, according to the script, which creates immense social pressure to conform, and social proof for all to see, too. And that's not just about film stars—it's in every aspect of life. Superstar CEOs playing out the earnings call ritual with adoring, eager, gullible Wall Street analysts. The pundit, playing out the contrarian ritual. The tech Tycoon, playing out the ritual of waxing breathless over a new technology that's going to "save humanity." The social script, repeated over and over again, becomes ritualized this way.
All this is what celebrity is. Really is. The modern construction of it. Celebrities are our modern secular Apollos and Athenas in this very real sense. We play out rituals devoted to them, performing our assigned roles, as social scripts harden into something closer to ceremonies. In this ritual, the Film Star, we adore, in that one, the Comedian, we laugh, in this one, the Trumpian one, we spite, in that one, the Tycoon, we're awed. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, by the way, even if it's a little creepy—it's just how these things we call societies cohere. But what happens when Terrible People are at the center of this matrix of ritual, taboo, script, and worship? When Terrible People have been selected as the archetypal figures from the beginning, for this matrix to be woven around?
That's how we get to Terrible People Hijacking Our World. So. Stage One. Organizations create these monsters. Two: then they construct scripts for the rest of us, to become attached to them. Think of how that worked in Russell Brand's case, or in any number of other cases, right down to Bernie Madoff. That's not to say he wasn't a creepy guy before he was famous—probably he was. But a social script was created for him, over and again, by multiple organizations, around the world. Look how funny he is. Look how transgressive he is. Look how special. This is a person with Magic Powers, whom you should envy, admire, respect, want to be with. You should respond this way, but never that way. Right down to: this is what humour is. We laugh at people like that, when people like this make jokes about them. And scripts like that, hammered home a thousand times a day, in shows, movies, ads, all kinds of vehicles, thus ritualized, are incredibly powerful. We don't even really see them working away on us, at us, through us, as they tell us how to respond, and how not to, through prescription and proscription, to myths of Archetypes with Magic Powers.
The latest scandal's interesting because you could literally see that social script became a ritual before your eyes, if only you looked. This figure's big break was being chosen as the host of an offshoot of Big Brother. One of the most popular shows—which has also had it's own serious problems of baked-in abuse. Big Brother's there to create scandal, and given that kind of purpose, is it any surprise that a figure like this was chosen? It's a kind of modern day gladiatorial spectacle, and this person was the MC. The social script was already there, thanks to all that: we're supposed to laugh at this. Be outraged by it. Be scandalized. This is what we're here for. Over the years, played out again and again, it became ritualized. A ceremony, in which we'd see who be today's scapegoat. And this form of organizations needs ringleaders of all its toxicity. See what I mean about self-selection? The archetype and the script?But what happens next, as scripts become rituals?
I'm not merely "saying" figures like this are Terrible People, by the way—this isn't about insults, a judgment I'm making. It's not about me. That judgment's made, in the end, by a long, long list of others, notably the very organizations who back them, whose own reputations then stand tarnished. This self-destructive dynamic is what we're trying to understand.
What else do we know about what happens next in any number of these scandals and abuses? There came to be what was described as a "wall of silence." An "open secret." Everybody knew, but nobody was willing to talk. So why was there a "wall of silence" around any number of these Archetypal figures? Why was there an "open secret" regarding their behaviour? Because there was already a social script. A ritualized one. That said the very opposite. This is someone to look up to, admire, want to be with, etcetera. A script of laughter, envy, and desire, ritualized to the point of numb, unquestioning acceptance. Even if later, we look back, and wonder, baffled: were we delusional? What happens there, exactly, in that moment of self-deceit?
Who violates a social script? Almost nobody, ever. Why? Because that's what a taboo literally is. To say what a social script doesn't. To reveal some kind of ugly truth it hides. And what happens to those who break taboos? They become, as the great anthropologist Rene Girard said, scapegoats.
It's one of intellectual history's most elegant and beautiful—if disturbing—theories. Girard proposed that society and culture are built on the ceremony of scapegoating. Was he wrong? Wasn't that what...Big Brother was all about? Isn't it what Trumpism's all about? And if it was what Big Brother was all about...then what was to happen next, or what did it allow and enable?
So who's being symbolically slain in a lot of our rituals? Over and over again? Women. Dignity. Equality. Freedom. Truth. A lot of things, if Girard was still around for us to have asked. The ritual, the symbolic slaying of the victim, the re-enactment of the ceremony—re-establishes community. Tell me that's not exactly what's happening today socioculturally. Terrible People—making more of us Terrible People, too.
The formation of community through scapegoating comes with a price. Taboo. Walls of silence. Ritual power. It wasn't just the power figure you'd be challenging, if you decided to try and break the wall of silence, or the open secret, in other words. It was the social script, its ritual—and all those who were invested in it, protected it, benefited from it, and guarded it like some kind of sacred scroll, because to them it was a cash cow, or a cultural icon, or a totem and instrument of power of their own. That's...a lot of people. In very, very powerful positions. Controlling resources, money, attention, and through all that, the destinies of millions, perhaps. Who'd be foolish enough to try and take all that on? And that's before you get to the more mundane possibility of threats and intimidation. Nobody wants to break a taboo and challenge ritualized power, and that's what repeated social scripts become: sacrosanct. And they make those at their centers untouchable, too.
Have a walk, have a coffee, reflect. Let your brain have a breather. Take 15. Come back tomorrow, even.
Done? OK, here we go.
Stage Three: Abuse of Power and Walls of Silence
Think of the fallout of all this. How many organizations look clueless, culpable, or worse, in on the game. They suffer tremendous reputational hits, not to mention financial ones, that'll endure. So why do all these organizations protect Terrible People? Because they create them, elevate them, construct them, and through all that, play a key role in writing the social script of power that was read from, over and again, ritualistically. About an ur-myth of an Archetype whom we should all respect, envy, want to be with and around, desire. They give them power.
But the kind of person they give power to is all too often a Terrible Person. Because that's what happens from the very beginning. Adverse selection. Organizations select for Terrible People, and they don't even know it, because the ur-myth that shapes their desires is unconscious. But when organizations dream, when they're asleep at night, metaphorically? It's not of just...a good and decent and kind and gentle person. It's of a certain personality, who can aggress and domineer and even transgress their way to power, advancing organizational goals along the way—more money and fame and likes for us. They wake up, and like the rest of us, the dream may be consciously forgotten. But the desire, the need, the want? It's very much there, just buried slightly beneath the surface, quivering with longing.
Stage one. Organizations select for Terrible People. Stage two. Organizations construct social scripts which become rituals, for us to respond to Terrible People with adoration and envy and desire. Stage three. By now it should be obvious, no? Terrible People, finding themselves at the center of this maelstrom, granted ritualized power beyond their wildest dreams...abuse their power.
It's not just that they think they can get away with it, though obviously they do. It's that they begin to appear to believe the social scripts that've been constructed around them, themselves, too. Hey, the script says I'm this amazing, famous, genius, whom everybody should desire, admire, love, adore? And here's everybody, ritualistically acting it out, too. Doesn't that mean...I'm...hmmm....I can think it, even if I can't say it loud? More than the rest of them? Better? Better than human? Let me see if I can just cross this line. Then that one. And then the next one. Meanwhile, the wall of silence forms a magic shield in which this all takes place, deflecting any semblance of reality, let alone consequences, from entering the protective bubble.
And at last, the justification that's always used to rationalize such abuses of power emerges Hey, I'm just giving them what they really want. But see how revealing that really is. At the earlier stage, the audience believes in the social script. But at the later stage, the "celebrity" believes in their own script. And as they do, they come to think they have certain powers and privileges that others don't, or maybe that others aren't really people in the full sense of their own interiority at all, just disposable things for their own entertainment or pleasure.
I was just giving them what they wanted. But the social script? It was just a script. A story, a fairy tale, a fantasy. It wasn't real—or meant to be made real. "Everybody desire this person" shouldn't be "now he can abuse and violate you." And yet that's the line that's crossed as social scripts become the brutal, repellent realities of power. The ritual isn't just symbolic, nor is the myth imaginary, anymore. It's made real, often brutally so.
Stages Four and Five: Downfall and...Repeating the Cycle
Then comes Stage Four. The downfall. The world's a little bit more open, and a touch more enlightened, so, today, downfalls actually happen. Shock ripples around the world. A certain form of drama begins: "I can't believe I didn't see the signs!," say the gatekeepers of power. "How could we have been taken in!," cry well-meaning figures. The celebrity's rejected and shunned—but now, by this time, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, they've already enacted defensive measures, like embracing fanatics and lunatics, who are the last gullible people left to find company in, and an audience of.
What doesn't happen is Stage Five. Where we learn a goddamned thing. About how this all comes to be. Don't mistake the above: I'm not excusing Brand or making any form of apologia for him. Far from it. Just the opposite's the case. Terrible People, remember? Just because I'm talking about organizations, structure, power, social scripts, taboos, rituals—doesn't mean a Terrible Person's not in the middle of it all, conducting it like a maestro.
We don't learn why we have a Plague of Terrible People Getting Ahead. Our organizations go...right back...to selecting for Terrible People. Then, right back to...writing social scripts...for the rest of us to respond to them with desire, admiration, adoration, envy, and so forth. Ritualizing them with power. They sink back into the slumber where they dream of Terrible People, taking charge, making things happen, their magic touch. People and societies go back to reflexively reading out those scripts. Guys, we're supposed to laugh—everyone laugh! We're supposed to cheer—yay. The abuse of power begins, the downfall comes...and the cycle repeats, ad infinitum.
A vicious cycle isn't stopped at the end. Never happens that way. How could it? A vicious cycle's stopped at the beginning. And that means that our organizations have to correct and remedy the mistakes and flaws above. Because they've become systemic. Chronic. Endemic. How often do such scandals happen? Regularly. Not just in the world of film or comedy or entertainment, but everywhere. In every field and domain. Our organizations have to recognize that they don't just have a Terrible People problem, they create, enact, and reproduce a Terrible People over and over again, beginning from the very beginning, the ten-mile high wall of who can even get a foot in the door, proceeding through who gets resources, like money, attention, time, marketing, and culminating in a maelstrom of power amassed by people who were always going to abuse it in terrible and disgusting ways.
Our organizations aren't anywhere close to recognizing the Five Steps of Why Terrible People Get Ahead (and hurt them, in the end, too.) Nor are they close to recognizing that this is a problem of power in a deep sense. It's not just about a few bad apples. It's not even about incentives or the rest of the superficial stuff. It's systemic, and we say that word a lot, but we don't stop to think what it really means. It means: the problem is the system itself.
The Plague of Terrible People Getting Ahead is baked into our systems in these incredibly deep ways, right into their sociopsychological and psychoanalytic fabric. From what they don't even really know dream about, to the desires they don't really know they model for us in turn, to the social scripts they don't comprehend they write and tell people to play out, to the taboos that result in "walls of silence" and "open secrets" when those scripts become sacred totems that can't be smashed. Our organizations pay only the most superficial kind of lip service to this very real and growing problem of Terrible People—they diversity wash it away, but that hardly solves it, and when the downfall happens, of course, they look like complicit, hapless fools, with mud all over their faces. In the end, our organizations haven't figured out that Terrible People Getting Ahead? They do it by exploiting them, too.
All of this is why Terrible People Get Ahead in the world. It's a subtle problem, a complex one. It's an old one, yes, in some ways, but it's also a new one, too. Sure, you can say "men have always misbehaved!," but that's hardly shedding any light on the subject. It's truer to say that we have an egregious Terrible People Getting Ahead Problem, because of course, we should've made more progress than this. It shouldn't be the case that our organizations are foolish, that our societies are this easily played, that our cultures are this manipulable and gullible. "Walls of silence" and "open secrets"? Those are para-organizational phenomena, meaning, what's the point of an organization if it's that easy to exploit? Just to be a lever to the top for...Terrible People?
This is a big problem for that reason. Terrible People. Abusive people. Toxic, hateful, violent, brutal, backwards people. Now think of the long, long list of Terrible People who've manipulated their way to the tops of systems and organizations in recent times. Bernie Madoff, Sam Bankman-Fried, many would put Elon Musk there, the Hollywood creep du jour, from Harvey Weinstein to Danny Masterson, Donald Trump, the demagogues following in his footsetps, from Ron DeSantis onwards—it's a list that just goes on and on.
What happens as our systems are hijacked by Terrible People? Think of what we economists call the "opportunity cost," only this time, for Terrible People, and that just means what a thing costs in terms of lost opportunities. Terrible People suck up all the resources—money, time, attention, effort, endeavour, connections—that we need to change things. And change things must, because I don't know if you've heard, but the world is more or less falling apart. Every Terrible Person that gets the lion's share of resources in a system? Is a hundred, a thousand decent people who don't get any, less than none, in fact, who are traumatized and hurt and maybe even destroyed, and thus, nothing good happens. There's black hole where progress should be when Terrible People hijack a world's institutions and systems. See how the headlines are...never good? This is how we end up in a world where Terrible People Get Ahead. The rest of us...go backwards.
That's why we made this an Issue.
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