On optimism: Adults in the room at Netflix, it doesn't have to be crazy at work, there's cake and comic relief - and after a long winter, Toronto explodes in bloom
In Toronto, one week in May makes all the difference. We go from frigid temperatures, bracing winds, and a bleak cityscape of skyscrapers and naked trees, the threat of one last snowstorm forever hanging over us — to an explosion of lush greenery, cherry blossoms, perfumed lilac, and packed patios, seemingly overnight.
After a long winter and years of rolling lockdowns, this is a welcome development.
To celebrate, I walked to Kensington Market, past dim sum spots, and green grocers, Jamaican patty shops and stalls selling brightly coloured jewelry. Past butchers and cafés and taco stands. The air was warm and fragrant, the sound of steel drums filled the air. People were smiling, and the city felt like it had been shaken awake. I returned home to a party in full swing, my neighbours gathered in the common room of our apartment building, toasting life with mimosas and cake.
I did earlier walk by a Climate Emergency protest at Queen’s Park, though, and observed its requisite drum circle, and alarmist placards, and grim earnestness. I could not help but think: Could we please just have a few days off before we start in on the next ten-alarm fire? I’m all emergencied out at the moment. Toronto has only just taken the masks off. I’d like some time to take in the sweetness. To gaze at the cherry blossoms and eat the cake.
Moving on to the news, and some optimistic developments.
This week, we learned that Netflix has updated its corporate culture policy to include a section on “artistic expression,” emphasizing that the streaming service will not censor its artists — and pointing out that employees that are offended by content on the platform are free to seek employment elsewhere.
Let’s pause to let this line-in-the-sand sink in:
As employees we support the principle that Netflix offers a diversity of stories, even if we find some titles counter to our own personal values. Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.
This is, of course, a response to the Dave Chappelle controversy, which saw a small, vocal group of employees attempt to oust one of the platform’s most popular and profitable stars. But it is also, presumably, a response to Netflix’s plummeting numbers. Could it be that this type of in-house activism is not good for business?
The statement reminds me of a move from a much smaller tech company, which made headlines around this time last year. Two blog posts from Basecamp executives Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson announced the company’s call to halt political discussions on work channels. To quote Hansson:
Basecamp should be a place where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work.
You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or stepping into it means you’re a target. That is difficult enough outside of work, but almost impossible at work.
By trying to have the debates around such incredibly sensitive societal politics inside the company, we’re setting ourselves up for strife, with little chance of actually changing anyone’s mind. These types of discussions are so difficult that even if we were having them at the best of times, together in person, with trust batteries fully charged, we’d struggle. And we have none of those advantages right now, so it’s not a surprise the results have been poor.
We also like to tell ourselves that having these discussions with the whole company is “healthy.” I used to think that too, but I no longer do. I think it’s become ever more stressful, unnerving, and counterproductive. No comment thread on Basecamp is going to close the gap on fundamental philosophical and political differences. And we’re left worse for wear when we try.
This strikes me as sensible. And exactly what one might expect from the pair who published an emperor-has-no-clothes manifesto in 2018, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, calling b.s. on tech’s 24/7 work culture. (Silicon Valley is not that important, they argued. The tech world could drop the grandiosity and build a calm office culture — one in which people’s right to a stress-free life trumped stretch revenue targets and ridiculous messianic rhetoric.)
But back to Basecamp’s edict.
I would bet that the company’s stand on the issue inspired other leaders, who quietly agreed — and have now summoned their own resolve to keep their own companies afloat. Just as Basecamp, in turn, was likely inspired by Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong, who put out with a similar statement in 2020, noting that office activism, while well-intentioned, has “the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.”
Saying no to polarized politics in the workplace prioritizes the “exhausted majority,” the 86 percent of the public that are not on the extreme left or the extreme right, and would very much like to just go about their business without all the drama. And maybe even enjoy a laugh with their coworkers once in a while.
On that note, please enjoy this sketch from Canadian comedians Ryan Long and Danny Polishchuk.
More notes from this week:
Canadian culture writer (and Substacker) Lydia Perović has just published an evocative memoir, Lost in Canada: An Immigrant’s Second Thoughts, which I read this week. It’s about leaving communism to find a feeling of belonging in Canada’s liberal democracy — only to experience, in recent years, increasing alienation. You can read an excerpt of the book here, at the National Post. Here’s a standout quote:
Over the last five years in particular, people running Canadian cultural institutions and media have put all of their chips on irreconcilable differences. There is no Canada for all, no political cause for all, and no arts for all. There is no individual outside ethnic determinism: there are bits and bobs of inter-regional and inter-ethnic resentment. What happens to class analysis under those circumstances? What happens to arts? Art criticism? The possibility of “great solidarity”? Freedom of expression?
McMaster University infectious diseases physician Zain Chagla has penned an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail, “The logic behind vaccine mandates for travellers no longer holds.” Will this be a game-changer? I certainly hope so:
The justification behind vaccine mandates is that they help prevent transmission. But this does not seem to be the case any longer, with the Omicron variant. We know that vaccine efficacy in this regard wanes significantly: Data from the UK Health Security Agency shows the effectiveness of two or three doses of vaccine against spreading the Omicron-variant infection over time approaches zero.
In Canada, the requirements to be deemed fully vaccinated include several World Health Organization-approved vaccines that have even lower efficacy than mRNA vaccines. Furthermore, the efficacy of a prior infection against reinfection approaches that of two doses of vaccines; since many unvaccinated individuals have likely been infected, they may now have a similar level of immunity to their vaccinated peers. Additionally, since Canadians under the age of 12 are not currently required to be vaccinated, unvaccinated individuals have effectively been a part of travel all along – meaning that environments of exclusively vaccinated individuals do not exist. So current mandates are only creating environments in which people who can transmit the virus are alongside people who can transmit the virus, with minimal extra protection.
A big congratulations to Lean Out podcast guest Jamil Jivani, who announced this week that he’s going to Postmedia. Jamil is an independent thinker and an important voice in this country, and we’re all lucky to continue reading him there.
Lastly, I must report how much fun I’m having with the podcast. Thank you to all for listening. In coming weeks, I’ll be speaking with author Meghan Daum, of The Unspeakable podcast, academic Amna Khalid, of the Banished podcast, and philosopher Nina Power, who now writes for Compact Magazine. Plus: Philip Slayton, author of Nothing Left to Lose: An Impolite Report on the State of Freedom in Canada.
In the meantime, I’m off to eat cake.
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