The danger of working for a progressive boss

Watch out for the Gabes.
Watch out for the Gabes.
Image: Photo byAP/Invision/ Willy Sanjuan
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If you’ve seen Hulu’s recently debuted television show Shrill, starring SNL actress Aidy Bryant, you’ve met “Gabe.” And even if you haven’t seen the show, you probably have known a Gabe or two in your career.

Let me explain.

In Shrill‘s world, where Bryant plays a young, eager reporter at a progressive alternative newspaper in Portland, Oregon, Gabe is her iconoclastic Gen X boss of some celebrity. He’s gay, super liberal, and anything but “the man.” In one hilarious quip, he claims to have invented women’s sexual empowerment in the nineties.

But Gabe, played by John Cameron Mitchell, also turns out to be a proxy for a certain type of boss, the kind whose entire identity is built on legitimate progressive bonafides, which makes it difficult to see his own blind spots or stay open to the possibility that they exist. The problem is a circular kind of reasoning. “I can’t be sexist, because that’s not progressive, and I’m progressive, so I can’t be sexist.”

In this case, we learn that Gabe is a fat shamer. “Lazy bodies, lazy minds,” he says when Annie, who is struggling to feel beautiful as a larger woman, shows up late at a workplace wellness cycling event. “Success is about an effort,” Gabe says, framing his concern as a matter of health consciousness.

Shrill is loosely based on writer Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, and Gabe is said to be partly inspired by Dan Savage, sex columnist and prominent gay rights activist. In real life, Savage was West’s former colleague at The Stranger, in Seattle, Washington, where he was a powerful figure. The pair did once clash over the topic of weight.

But Gabe doesn’t need to be a real person to feel familiar.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen depictions of real-life bosses that seem an awful lot like Gabe—or worse—in the news over the past few years. These are (usually) men who are vocal allies to women and people of color in public, but who undermine them in other ways. Whether their behavior is intentional or not is unknowable, and the psychology may be complex, but what we do know is that the “progressive” boss can be more insidious than overt bigots, because their reputation and self-mythologizing makes them difficult people to call out.

The criminal Gabes

The most egregious recent example of this troubling type appears to exist in Morris Dees, 82, co-founder and the powerful former head of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Alabama. He was removed from that post in March, following allegations of workplace misconduct. Specifically, the leader of the SPLC, known for its doggedness identifying and winning court cases against vile hate groups, was accused of racism and multiple counts of sexual harassment.

Dees’ fall shocked everyone, except the people who had worked closely with him, according to a recent New Yorker essay by journalist Bob Moser, who worked at the SPLC for a few years in the early 2000s. The organization known as a “beacon of justice” as he writes, was in fact what another one of its former writers called a “virtual buffet of injustices.” Employees worked within a two-tiered system: People of color were hired for support roles, while the higher-paid leaders, lawyers, writers, and fundraisers were “almost exclusively white.”

In a vivid portrait of the halo effect in action, Moser writes:

We were working with a group of dedicated and talented people, fighting all kinds of good fights, making life miserable for the bad guys. And yet, all the time, dark shadows hung over everything: the racial and gender disparities, the whispers about sexual harassment, the abuses that stemmed from the top-down management, and the guilt you couldn’t help feeling about the legions of donors who believed that their money was being used, faithfully and well, to do the Lord’s work in the heart of Dixie.

Dees is just the latest in a line of men who seemed to use the privilege of power, combined with the sheen of a do-gooder reputation, to hide victimizing behaviors. As the Washington Post’s Irin Carmon notes, Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul  against whom more than 80 women lodged allegations of sexual misconduct, and who is now facing multiple criminal charges of sexual assault—also gave funding to a Rutgers University professorship in Gloria Steinem’s name, appeared at the Women’s March in 2016, and was a high-profile supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

There are more recent examples in politics. Former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman was celebrated as a champion of women’s rights, as the New York Times notes, until several women accused him of physical assault and harassment earlier this year. Anthony Weiner, the one-time rising political star and former Democratic congressman for New York, convinced supporters that he stood for women, until he was sentenced to prison time for sexting with an underage girl.

We’ve seen damaging hypocrisy in the influential and supposedly “woke” comedian Louis CK, and in several high-profile men at progressive, liberal media outlets, who lost their jobs due to outright harassment or inappropriate interactions.

The Gabes who surprise you

Shrill’s Gabe character, however, is arguably representative of a more common kind of progressive leader—not a political figure leading a double life, or a handsy boss, but a well-meaning idealist who doesn’t always live up to his own ideals. These are folks who believe in their own infallibility as forward-thinkers and remain oblivious to their daily micro-aggressions against certain groups, including women.

Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has written about this topic as it relates to white people who believe they aren’t racist. She writes in White Fragility  “that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.” They are oblivious to their harmful behavior because they believe they have completed the work of eradicating any of their own unconscious racism, she argues. Writes DiAngelo, “To the degree that white progressives think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.”

The same is true of “progressive” people who believe sexism has nothing to do with them. Here, men and women can be equally guilty. Consider the actress and activist Lena Dunham’s damning dismissal of a fellow actress who, last year, accused one of Dunham’s close white, male friends of sexual assault. Arguably, Dunham, a creative force and vocal feminist, may not have believed that she was capable of being biased or racist (the actress was a woman of color), making it all the more likely that she would do what she did: use her formidable fame to discredit a woman’s story and lie about having inside information to prove her friend’s innocence. So much for being an ally. (Dunham later apologized, in a way.)

Miki Agrawal, former “She-E-O” of the “feminist” underwear brand Thinx, arguably falls into this category, too. Thinx employees accused her of talking openly about the shape and size of their breasts, groping their breasts, changing in front of employees, taking video calls while apparently nude in bed, and being blatantly ageist.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, studies Buddhism and is happy to publicize his progress as a spiritual seeker, but he allows hate of all forms, including misogyny, to flourish on his site. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has been repeatedly accused of promoting a particularly white and privileged form of feminism with her advice to “Lean In.”

Back in television land, the HBO show Insecure nails typical racist micro-aggressions from progressive do-gooder types in several episodes. Most notably, in the first couple of seasons, lead character Issa (played by Issa Rae) deals with bias in her job at We Got Y’all, a nonprofit serving mostly black and latino high school students. It’s led by Joanne (Catherine Curtin), an older white woman who doesn’t seem to notice that her staff is mostly white, too.

Executive producer Prentice Penny once told Quartz at Work that Joanne is meant to be a semi-sympathetic character, someone who in the late 1970s or early 1980s saw a need for a program like We Got Y’all and made it happen. But she got stuck in that time period (as her late-hippie outfits and the “End Apartheid” posters in her office show us). Like many older progressive types, her problem is that she doesn’t see “the way the world is constantly changing.” 

“She still views herself as like ‘not those people,’ right? It’s like,’I’m not like Trump. I’m very clearly not like that,'” Penny said. “But she’s also not necessarily seeing like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I need to get some more black people in this thing.’ Her view is: ‘Well, we’re doing good. That’s a good thing! I’m not not hiring black people, but I’m also not actively doing it either,” he added. 

Act fast

No matter how or why someone becomes a Gabe, or a Joanne, the reason they’re so dangerous is the same: because their money or work may be supporting the right values, it will take that much longer for people to blow the whistle. That act takes courage under any circumstance, but especially if you’re facing both gender and race biases. And it may not feel totally ethically sound when you’re accusing a do-gooder or icon.

That may be part of the reason it took so long for the SPLC to act on the rumors about Morris Dees. Moser recalls in the New Yorker story that one of his former colleagues told him: “I never even considered speaking out when things happened to me! It doesn’t feel good to recognize that. I was so into the work, and so motivated by it, I kind of shrugged off what was going on.”

In a story about former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, one of his accusers told the New Yorker: “Now that I know it’s part of a pattern, I think, God, I should have reported it… But, back then, I believed that it was a one-time incident. And I thought, He’s a good attorney general, he’s doing good things. I didn’t want to jeopardize that.”

For now, our call-out culture is anything but subtle, making it even easier for someone to remain quiet (as the Issa character does), unless they want to go big (like Annie, who, relatedly, is white.) But our understanding of how to discuss privilege, gender, or race is surely evolving, and soon we may more easily respond to these problematic bosses with a degree of nuance that’s appropriate to the situation.

That would be progressive.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality. Read more stories here.