I’m no fan of Kevin Roberts. He’s a tireless self-promoter whose talent for bullshit is breathtaking even by advertising industry standards. But the extraordinary furore over his comments on gender diversity illustrates the dangerous extent to which business is now held hostage by the po-faced forces of political correctness.
Roberts, the executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, has been asked to take leave of absence for saying, in quite mild and unexceptionable terms, that the debate over gender diversity in the advertising business is over.
It seems that in business these days, you’re allowed to express an opinion only if it’s the right one.
We know that the enforcers of political correctness are intolerant of any departure from ideological orthodoxy. That’s been the case for a long time. What’s relatively new, and frightening, is that business leaders are now so intimidated that they capitulate without firing a shot.
The lesson is clear. Roberts has been hung out to dry as a lesson to anyone else who might be tempted to express a legitimate opinion. And there’s another, even more potent, lesson here: no one is too big to be safe. Even Roberts’ rarefied status in the advertising world wasn’t enough to protect him once the Harpies had him in their sights.
Loyalty? Forget about it.
The irony is that Roberts may not have been downplaying women’s legitimate career ambitions at all, but instead was wondering aloud whether there were better options for women than relentlessly pursuing advancement as men do. That was the interpretation placed on his remarks in a discussion (between women, as it happened) that I heard on the BBC.
Not that it matters. Men are not permitted to discuss such things. As columnist Grace Dent put it in Britain’s Independent, Roberts has been escorted to “Shamed Man Gulag #231, policed by a number of perma-furious turquoise-haired fourth-wave feminists”.
New Zealanders should recognise this pattern of events, because we’ve been here before. In 2011, Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association head Alasdair Thompson was publicly crucified for suggesting that menstruation caused women to take sick leave. Shamefully, he lost his job as a result.
Thompson was thrown to the wolves by the very people who should have supported him and now Roberts has suffered a similar fate. Clearly, no one should expect the gutless business sector to stand up for people’s right to free speech.
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.