A project I’ve been working on with a friend–a project unrelated to this blog– recently required me to think about the definition of bigotry–racism, anti-Semitism, etc.
Here’s what we came up with:
the belief that identity trumps individuality and behavior—the belief that people who share a skin color or religion share essential characteristics that distinguish them from “us.” It is a worldview that fails to see people as people—individuals who deserve to be approached and evaluated as individuals.
I think that description fits more situations than the tribal conflicts our project is addressing. Humans have a deep-seated need to categorize the world, to find shortcuts to understanding our social environment, and when taken too far, those shortcuts all too often harden into stereotypes.
Take the widespread stereotypes of “big business.” Many commenters to this blog clearly accept the notion that the people who manage America’s large corporations are focused on shareholder returns and the bottom line to the exclusion of the common good. There are plenty of reasons for the wide acceptance of that belief, but–just as with other prejudices–it overlooks the complexity and individuality of the group being characterized.
The CEOs started calling before President Trump had even finished speaking. What America’s titans of industry were hearing from the Commander in Chief was sending them into a panic.
It was Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the election, and things weren’t looking good for the incumbent as states continued to count ballots. Trump was eager to seed a different narrative, one with no grounding in reality: “If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” he said from the lectern of the White House Briefing Room. “If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.”
The speech was so dangerously dishonest that within a few minutes, all three broadcast television networks spontaneously stopped airing it. And at his home in Branford, Conn., the iPhone belonging to the Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld began to buzz with calls and texts from some of the nation’s most powerful tycoons.
The CEOs of leading media, financial, pharmaceutical, retail and consulting firms all wanted to talk. By the time Tom Rogers, the founder of CNBC, got to Sonnenfeld, “he had clearly gotten dozens of calls,” Rogers says. “We were saying, ‘This is real—Trump is trying to overturn the election.’ Something had to happen fast.”
The article describes the subsequent deliberations of a group of 45 CEOs representing nearly one-third of Fortune’s 100 largest companies. They heard from a colleague of Sonnenfeld’s, a historian of authoritarianism, who told them that in countries where coups have been attempted, business leaders have been among the most important groups in determining whether such attempts succeeded. “If you are going to defeat a coup, you have to move right away,” he told them. “The timing and the clarity of response are very, very important.
The group agreed on the elements of a statement to be released as soon as media organizations called the election. It would congratulate the winner and laud the unprecedented voter turnout; call for any disputes to be based on evidence and brought through the normal channels; observe that no such evidence had emerged; and insist on an orderly transition. Midday on Nov. 7, when the election was finally called, the BRT immediately released a version of the statement formulated on Zoom. It was followed quickly by other trade groups, corporations and political leaders around the world, all echoing the same clear and decisive language confirming the election result.
Timothy Snider, the authoritarianism scholar , believes the CEOs’ intervention was crucial.
“If business leaders had just drifted along in that moment, or if a few had broken ranks, it might have gone very differently,” he says. “They chose in that moment to see themselves as part of civil society, acting in the defense of democracy for its own sake.”
The issuance of the statement was not a one-off; the group came together again to push back on Trump’s effort to overturn the results from Georgia, and again in the wake of the January 6th insurrection.
The lengthy article is worth reading it its entirety; it provides a nuanced history of business’ relationship with the GOP, and describes the reasons that relationship has been withering. For his part, Sonnenfeld believes a new generation of business leaders understands that doing well requires a stable democratic society; they want to do well by doing good.
Not all businesspeople, of course. But stereotypes rarely, if ever, describe all members of a group–a point worth remembering.