Subtitle

The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Corporate Culture Porn

I used to work for one of the big Silicon Valley tech companies, specifically I worked for a company that produced hard drives and other such storage devices. One day, while walking to my desk, I caught site of a flyer that had been posted on the wall. The flyer advertised an upcoming seminar (which we would all, inceidentally, be required to attend) on the conflict-resolution skills of the people of the island nation of Mauritius. The people of Mauritius, the flyer informed the casual reader, were comprised of five different religions, multiple ethncities, and had an economy that, like others of Africa, was often tumultuous - and yet they managed to all live together in complete happiness with no of ethnic or religious division or tension, no xenophobia, and no real conflict.

I was skeptical, but realized that, as we were all required to attend the seminar*, I would see soon enough what was up.

When the appointed day came, the human resources people all rounded us up and led us to the corral...err...meeting room. We sat down, and the presentation began. Over the course of the next hour, we watched a video produced by a company that sells products intended to increase workplace morale. In the course of watching this video, we were informed that the people of Mauritius are the ever-so-nicest people ever who completely accept each other despite religious, ethnic, and language differences, and gosh don't you know that in Mauritius there isn't ever any form of prejudice or bigotry because we are all ever-so-happy being one big family, and isn't it so great and makes you feel so warm and fuzzy seeing this so why don't you apply all of these ever-so-special and sugary sweet lessons to your job and have the ever-so-bestest work place ever!

Hmmmm....perhaps I should insert more "ever-so's" into the above paragraph...nahhh...

When the video was done, the human resources overlord who was running the show turned a whiteboard around to face the captive audience, and on it were printed three questions. I don't recall questions #2 or #3, but questions #1 was:

What do you most admire about the people of Mauritius?

It was at this moment that I came up with the term Culture Porn. The producers of this video had clearly taken another culture, stripped it of its complexities and vitality, denied the real hardships and hence the acomplishments of the people of the culture, and packaged it as a consumer product to sell to corporate managers who were more interested in placating their employees than solving the real problems within their own corporate culture. I was thoroughly disgusted.

We had been shown a completely false image of Mauritius. In truth, there is much to admire about the people and the culture (or rather cultures) that they had developed. There was also much to be wary of. Like any nation, Mauritius has both admirable and damnable qualities. Within a year of sitting through this indoctrination session, I had re-entered the world of anthropology, and learned that, Mauritius did indeed have high rates of literacy and education, that it did function remarkably well as a civil society despite many economic and social problems, and all of this was certainly remarkable and well worth taking note of. At the same time, the claim that the island was free of prejudices and bigotries was an outright lie - ethnic and religious prejudices play a significant role in Mauritian politics, for example. Likewise, like many other physically constrained societies, the compact population leads to a society in which one is not exactly free to puruse ones own interests when they don't mesh with the often irrational prejudices of those around you.

In other words, Mauritus is, in many respects, a remarkable place, and it has a compelling story that is of value and interest to the outside world. However, to deny its problems is to deny the realities of life there, and also to deny the adversities that the people of the island have had to overcome, and is to cheapen the truth of their lives in favor of creating a consumer product.

To make matters worse, the entire presentation was rather disturbingly reminiscent of the racist "happy savage" stereotype that had been very much a part of 19th century colonial discourse.

Which brought us back to the question that had been scrawled on the white board.

What do you most admire about the people of Mauritius?

I was at this point so disgusted that I decided to speak my mind about this. I commented to the room that the image that had been portrayed was obviously false, that it was quite offensive and borderline racist, and that it was impossible from such a false image to say if I admired the people, much less what I admired about them.

The HR people looked surprised, then annoyed that I had commented as I had. A few minutes later we were dismissed without further question. A few other employees thanked me for expressing sentiments that were, apparently, also on their minds.






*Like most large companies, the one for which I worked had developed a number of strategies to try to increase the morale of the work force, and as simple things like being honest with the employees regarding whether or not they would be laid off right before Christmas was apparently off the table, they did all manner of rather weird things instead. Amongst these were requiring us to read a book about finding happiness at work even if your job is a drag and makes you long for the sweet release of death (what I referred to as the "happy drone book"), and attending seminars on how people in harder situations have good lifes and so we really shouldn't be worrying about the dangling sword of unemployment, such as this Mauritius seminar.

2 comments:

Me said...

I'm curious as the book that they had you read... "Who Moved My Cheese" was a bit hit around Gallo some years back...

Anthroslug said...

Actually, I think the title of the book I was thinking of was "Fish". However, I was also required to read "Who Moved my Cheese" and found it grating and insulting as well.