The dangers of letting it all hang out

There’ve been two acutely embarrassing blunders recently, from entirely different walks of life, but united in the way that, momentarily, they have drawn aside the thin veil that usually separates our real thoughts from how we publicly present them. United, too, in desperate attempts to put the genie back in its bottle by means of an outpouring of hypocrisy and po-faced seriousness. The first, and it has to be said the more amusing of the two, was the advertisement for a Liverpool hospital anaesthetist which was signed off with all the “usual rubbish about equal opportunities employer, etc.” The second, and more cruel, was an alleged email from the Chief Executive of Manchester City Football Club to one of the club’s player’s mother and agent who is suffering from cancer.

Both have precipitated a great and morally outraged hoo-ha as much driven by schadenfreude as by concern for the principles. And both have seen the authors or their representatives turn cartwheels, in the hospital case, of extravagant and humourless apology, or in the footballing case, of denial and shifting the blame onto unnamed minions. What the cases have in common is their eliciting of the pretence that somehow or another the blunders are evidence of almost unbelievable and entirely exceptional callousness or cynicism. This pretence seeks to comfort us all, and make us feel that we would never be guilty of such ghastliness. The official responses collude with this sanitised view of humanity, expressing breathless incredulity that such heinous acts are even possible, and setting forth the existence of a great and uncrossable gulf between the evil momentarily displayed, and the organisations’ real purity. They would never do such things, and they can’t believe that anyone else would either. Poppycock.

Those of us who work in organisations that recruit staff all know that the great long lists of commitments to equality between ever increasing and exotic sub-divisions of humanity are largely worthless. At the best they are expressions of vague goodwill to all, well, men, obviously not excluding women or those of uncertain or changed gender. At worst they are hypocritical formulae that are there to provide a gloss of equality over a substrate of indifference. Anyone of us, in our more honest moments, might have scribbled an instruction to “add the usual equal opps rubbish” to our HR departments, with the not unreasonable expectation that someone would translate this rather than transliterate it. It would express not cynicism about the principles of equality in employment, but rather a weary acknowledgement that such outcomes are a lot more difficult to achieve than is the attaching of hopeful and codified postscripts to advertisements.

The Manchester City chief executive of course denies sending the offending email at all. At the risk of a libel case, let me just say that his explanation of a hacked email account sounds a lot less than convincing. The club is in dispute with the player in question, and with that player’s agent who happens to be his own mother. The CE is writing, not to the mother, but to a colleague who is fronting the negotiations. The club is apparently not entirely convinced by the agent’s protestations of cancer. The email is written within that context, and jokingly accuses the club administrator of being heartless. I have no knowledge of the facts in the case, and make no judgement about the cancer sufferer nor how “ravaged” or otherwise she might be. The true blunder is in including the agent on the list of recipients, more than in the content of the email. It’s one of those ghastly occasions when a private and almost scatological “joke” becomes open to the butt of it. Appallingly embarrassing. Proof of exceptional and callous inhumanity? Of course not.

When we get all worked up and exercised about these sorts of events, it generally indicates one of two things. And maybe both. We are unspeakable hypocrites who see only the mote in others’ eyes whilst remaining relentlessly blind to the planks in our own. Or we’ve got an axe to grind, a political point to make, or an enemy to embarrass. It doesn’t generally indicate that a new and hitherto unplumbed depth of human depravity has suddenly been reached. So perhaps we could all calm down and carry on.

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