"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mass Shootings in the U.S.: Why Are Americans So Angry?

Even though the United States account for less than 5% of the world’s population, 31% of the total number of mass killings worldwide between 1966 and 2012 occurred there.[1] I contend that a rise in passive aggression and the related intolerance accounts for much of the difference. In other words, it could be that Americans generally are getting nastier and more angry at each other.

Although not a mass-shooting, Vester Flanagan shot two former co-workers in August 2015. While it is easy to relegate the story by simply concluding that the guy was nuts, a closer examination reveals the situation to be more complicated. The nuances may help us understand what lies behind the mass-killing violence that goes beyond the killers themselves and is disproportionately an American phenomenon. In analyzing the Flanagan case, I want to stress that even if his coworkers had been at fault, the double-murder was completely unjustified. My analysis is oriented to uncovering a hidden trend in American society rather than answering whether the shooting is justified.

In a lawsuit against another network in 2000, Flanagan had claimed that a producer had called him a "monkey" and that he had been "made aware that other black employees ... had been called monkeys by officials affiliated with defendant." He also claimed that a Caucasian "official" had told him that "it busted her butt that blacks did not take advantage of the free money," referring to scholarship funds. Additionally, he insisted that a supervisor at the station had said that "blacks are lazy,” and that that another employee had told a black tape-operator to "stop talking ebonics." WTWC-TV acknowledged that an employee "may have made similar comments to another employee," but denied that such comments are "indicative of unlawful employment practices." The case ended in a non-disclosed settlement.[2] The admission of race-oriented comments to another employee lends some credibility to Flanagan’s assertions.

Even so, Flanagan may have made his own contribution to the workplace tension. The news station denied that his termination was the result of discrimination. It instead cited "poor performance," budgetary reasons and "misbehavior with regards to co-workers."[3] The latter in particular resonates with what he wrote regarding the cameraman (Adam) and reporter (Alison) from his next station. After announcing that he filmed the shooting, he wrote, “Adam went to hr on me after working with me one time!!!”[4] Either Adam had overreacted or Flanagan’s treatment of co-workers was incredibly bad. Flanagan also wrote, “Alison made racist comments” to him, and that he had filed an EEOC report.[5] It could be a case of “white privilege,” or simply that Alison was racist (or that she took sides with Adam).

In any case, the shooting stemmed from anger in the workplace—people not getting along and not having the social skills to work things out rather than make things worse. Adam’s quick trip to the station’s human resources department may indicate a lack of tolerance, as well as a tendency to escalate matters rather than patiently work them out. If Alison made demeaning racial statements to Flanagan, then perhaps her attitude may have been condescending and thus inherently conflictual. Of course, both Adam and Alison may have simply been reacting to extraordinarily bad treatment from Flanagan—his report to the EEOC being an effort to go on the offensive rather than admit that he had treated his coworkers very badly.

I suspect that at least part of the problem is societal—Americans may be been becoming more passive aggressive, and this anger in turn might be kicking the outright aggression up a notch in some people. The lack of tolerance for disagreements shows up in the ideological fragmentation of the American news networks, for example, with Fox News and MSNBC employees on the air brazenly displaying utter disdain for progressives and conservatives, respectively. Dismissiveness toward others, or in other words being “too cool to talk,” stemming from an abject lack of respect for others, may have been increasing at least in the Millennial Generation. As the sordid attitude becomes more socially acceptable as a social more in America, then increasing anger and ensuing aggression can be expected. “Road rage” is a case in point: an extreme hostility toward other people ruffling feathers. Why are so many Americans angry? This may be part of the reason why the U.S. has a disproportionate number of mass killings, and I suspect that the same holds for workplace (and former workplace) violence.

[1] Stan Ziv, “Study: Mass Shootings ‘Exceptionally American Problem’,” Newsweek, August 23, 2015.
[2] Dana Liebelson and Jessica Schulberg, “Shooting Suspect Sued Another Newsroom for Racism, Claimed He Was Called a Monkey,” The Huffington Post, August 26, 2015.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Humans As the Intense Predator: Unbalancing the Food-Chain Unsustainably

By 2015, humans—the homo sapiens species in particular—had become “the dominant predator across many systems”; that is to say, the species had become an unsustainable "super predator."[1] We have had a huge impact on food webs and ecosystems around the globe.[2] Moreover, we have been using more of the planet's resources than we should. By August 2015, for example, humans had already consumed the year's worth of the world's resources.[3] In terms of fossil fuels, the consumption has had an impact on the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Behind human consumption are human beings, so the astonishing increase in human population is a major factor. As a virus-like species incredibly successful genetically over the previous five-hundred years, the self-maximizing feature both in terms of population ecology and profit-maximization may be the seed of the species destruction, and thus long-term genetic failure.

According to one study, humans are "particularly intense" when it comes to hunting, and have used powerful killing technology (trawl nets, guns and mechanized slaughterhouses, for example) to dominate other predators. [4] 

Large-scale fishing does not distinguish between fertile adults, weak fish, and the young. (James Watt: Getty Images)

With the efficiency (i.e., profitability) of large-scale fishing businesses, we remove fish at 14 times the rate of marine predators.[5] The research confirms what many scientists had warned for years: If we don't stop overfishing, we may soon run out of animals to catch. The study reports that many fish populations had already been hunted to the brink of collapse, shark populations decimated, and less than 8 percent of southern bluefin tuna left. [6] On land, humans had been killing top carnivores, such as bears, wolves and lions, at nine times their own self-predation rate.[7] By 2015, the food chain as a whole had become terribly unbalanced that thus unsustainable as a whole.

Applying business-efficiency principles to hunting, we can capture adult prey at minimal cost, and so gain maximum, short-term reward. The cost being minimized is both in terms of business and the species. Of the latter, Chris Darimont of the study points out that "advanced killing technology mostly excuses humans from the formerly dangerous act of predation." [8] Because hunters “’capture’ mammals with bullets, and fishes with hooks and nets. . . [Humans] assume minimal risk compared with non-human predators, especially terrestrial carnivores, which are often injured while living what amounts to a dangerous lifestyle."[9] To be sure, working on the deck of a commercial fishing boat in the north Pacific is one of the most hazardous jobs around, but the fishing businesses can externalize at least some of the cost (e.g., insurance).

Even so, by not applying principles from population ecology, the businesses engaged in hunting, fishing, and farming animals have been undermining efficiency, and thus profitability. The study claims that besides the sheer number of animals that humans kill for food being problematic—56 billion farmed animals were at the time being slaughtered annually, “(h)umans focus on adult prey, unlike other predators. A full-grown lion, for example, often opts for the smaller, weaker juvenile zebra rather than an adult. This distinction makes it harder for animal populations to recover as breeding members are removed.”[10] Presumably recovering populations are in line with sustainable profitability.

Tom Reimchen, a co-author on the study, “uses a financial analogy to explain the damaging consequences of hitting adult populations hardest. He calls the adults the system's ‘reproductive capital’—the equivalent of the capital held in a bank account or a pension fund. And he says we are eating into this capital when we should really be living off the interest—the juveniles, which many species will produce in colossal numbers, expecting a good fraction to be doomed from the moment they are born via predation, starvation, disease, accidents and more.”[11] “We are dialing back the reproductive capacity of populations," Darimont said. [12]

The doubtlessly unintentional self-defeating strategies of the businesses mirrors that of the species itself, in that the failure to be prudent in terms of population growth is also self-defeating because the ecosystems, including the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, get breached beyond repair in terms of being able to sustain our species when it is essentially a maximizing variable rather than tending toward an equilibrium. In short, the wise human species—homo sapiens—is not so wise, after all.

1 Chris Darimont et al, “The Unique Ecology of Human Predators,” Science, Vol. 349, no. 6250, pp. 858-860.
2 Ibid.
3 Jonathan Amos, “Humans Are ‘Unique Super-Predator’,” BBC News, August 20, 2005.
Nick Visser, “Thanks Humanity. Now We’re Unsustainable ‘Super Preditors,” The Huffington Post, August 21, 2015.
5 Amos, “Unique Super-Preditor.”
6 Visser, “Thanks Humanity.”
7 Amos, “Unique Super-Preditor.”
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Visser, “Thanks Humanity.”
11 Amos, “Unique Super-Preditor.”
12 Visser, “Thanks Humanity.”

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Natural Wealth Model of the Modern Corporation: A Basis for Sustainable Organization

Going to the Humanities to construct a sustainable organization based on ecological theory, this essay presents a theory of the firm that is at odds with the profit-maximization premise. I draw on the notion of the natural wealth of the Golden Age as depicted by such ancient Western poets as Ovid and Hesiod—who assumed such wealth to be devoid of greed—as a basis for sustainable organization from ecological theory to produce an alternative theory of the firm.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Apple’s CEO Manufactures a Human Right

People with disabilities represented 19% of the U.S. population in 2015—exactly 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became a federal law.[1] With computer technology being by then integral to daily life, the matter of accessibility came to the fore under the normative principle of equal, or universal, access. With major tech companies getting behind this banner, one question is whether they did so simply to sell more computers and software—better access translating into more customers. I contend that the stronger the normative claim being made, the greater the exploitation of the underlying conflict of interest.

In 2015, the American computer sector still suffered from “a lack of industry-wide expertise in accessibility development.”[2] So companies including Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo put together the Teaching Accessibility program to teach engineers, designers, and researchers how to include accessibility development in their skill-sets. "Increasing awareness and accessibility learning through core education, academic leadership, learning tools, industry initiatives, and partnerships with disability organizations will further enable graduates in relevant disciplines to enter the workforce and begin creating future technologies that are truly inclusive," Eva LaManna, policy manager for AAPD, said in a statement.[3] The premise, according to Larry Goldberg at Yahoo, is that making tech products accessible “is simply the right thing to do.”[4] Of course, doing so would not hurt sales either. This point undercuts the credibility of Goldberg’s normative claim, for it would be naïve to suppose that he and his colleagues would be motivated by “the right thing to do” were it not in the company’s financial interest. In other words, I contend that the normative claim is sheer marketing designed to garner the company reputational capital and at the same time advertise to the disabled.

Although Apple was conspicuously absent, the company had been training its engineers in the development of accessibility features. Indeed, the CEO, Tim Cook, wrote on July 24, 2015, went further than Goldberg in asserting the value of accessibility for everyone. “Accessibility rights are human rights. Celebrating 25yrs of the ADA, we’re humbled to improve lives with our products.”[5] To claim that a right is a human right is of course easy; the assertion may simply be a way of saying that something is very important. That is to say, if you value something highly, one way of expressing this is by asserting that it is a right—in fact, a human right. This implies that the thing that you value should be valued by everyone. He is essentially universalizing his maxim, making it a universal normative law. Obviously, we can wind up with loads of human rights going well beyond sustainability this way. Cook was indeed making a claim that human rights extend beyond needs, and thus are potentially limitless, unless access to computer technology was at the time essential to survival in the interdependent society.

If accessibility was at the time vital to survival, then government may have had an obligation to see to it that every person has access to a computer regardless of wherewithal to pay. This point presupposes that survival itself is a human right. Interestingly, Cook’s assertion that the right to accessibility is a human right can be interpreted as a claim obligating Apple to see to it that every person has access to a computer regardless of ability to pay. Faced with the implication that the company must hand out free computers (and accessibility software) to the poor, Cook might have sought to walk back his statement to something like, “At Apple, we believe it is important that computers be accessible to people with disabilities.” In retrospect, the man’s human-right claim may seem over the top. His conflict of interest may explain why he went so far without taking into consideration the implications.

For one thing, he may have been seeking to tout Apple’s record on accessibility. This is, after all, why Apple had not joined the training initiative. At the time, the iOS operating system included features like voice over, “speak screen,” dictation, zoom, and support for Braille displays.[6] To the extent that Apple had a sustainable competitive edge in accessibility, Cook had a huge financial incentive to make as bold a claim as possible. In business terms, a strategic competitive advantage should be highlighted in marketing so the potentially high profitability is more likely to be realized.

Interestingly, the marketing dimension itself undercuts the message in more than one way. First, the self-interest belies the claim of humility, and possibly even the claim of wanting foremost to improve lives. Given the manager’s fiduciary duty to the stockholders, his primary motive is to increase profits. Second, readers of Cook’s claim that accessibility is a human right can justifiably doubt the validity of the claim itself because Cook had a vested commercial interest in making the claim. That is, greater accessibility means more people are using computers, and thus are potential new customers of Apple products. Cook had the motive, therefore, to make the claim even if doesn’t believe it to be true, and to beg off any inconvenient implications such as the obligation to give away computers to people unable to afford them. In terms of Kant’s ethics, that Cook’s maxim cannot be universalized without internal contradiction (i.e., everyone should have a computer, but only if they can afford it) renders the claim unethical. In other words, it would unethical for Cook to have made the claim then refuse to give away computers.

In short, public statements by CEOs should not be taken at face value because more is probably behind the assertions than meets the eye. I suspect that the general public is naïve concerning such statements; we are too willing to assume that persons of high stature societally—and this includes CEOs of large companies—are good natured, for we don’t have access to the discussions that go on inside corporations. We are not familiar with how business managers think, and what motivates them. We suppose them to be like us, and we do not tend to carefully craft our utterances to manipulate other people in a self-aggrandizing way. So we take a statement such as Cook’s at face value. He claimed that computer-accessibility rights are human rights, and thus every person has a just claim regardless of ability to pay, and yet he clearly did not mean to suggest that, for Apple would then be obligated, and that would not be in line with the bottom line.  

[1] “IOD Report Finds Significant Health Disparities for People with Disabilities,” Institute on Disability/UCED, August 25, 2011.
[2] Lorenzo Litato, “Silicon Valley Vows to Improve Tech for People with Disabilities,” The Huffington Post, July 24, 2015.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Larry Goldberg, “Teaching Accessibility: A Call to Action from the Tech Industry,” Yahoo (accessed July 25, 2015).
[5] Alexander Howard, “Apple CEO Tim Cook: ‘Accessibility Rights Are Human Rights, The Huffington Post, July 24, 2015.
[6] Ibid.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Management: Helping vs. Controlling

I submit that subordinates typically view managers as having control issues—by which I mean that managers tend to be obsessed with maintaining control. The pathology because really bad when the manager would rather have a project fail than give up control. Lest it be thought that management as control is intrinsic to managerial capitalism, an alternative approach proffers a way out.

In “To Work Here, Win the ‘Nice’ Vote,” Adam Bryant of The New York Times discusses the management approach of Peter Miller, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Optinose, a pharmaceutical company. Thomas Fox, a compliance practitioner, points out that “Miller talked about one thing you rarely hear in the corporate world, which is to be nice.”[1] As a “young sales manager at Procter & Gamble,” Miller says, “I had five salespeople working for me, and one of the guys was 55 and another guy was 48. They were really successful salespeople, so I realized that I couldn’t teach these guys anything about selling. Since I couldn’t teach them anything, I tried to cultivate trust and respect by working really hard at figuring out how I could help them in a meaningful way.”[2] 

That a manager would admit that his subordinates knew more about selling than he did is quite telling in itself.; that he oriented his managing them to working really hard at figuring out how he could help them in a meaningful way seems almost surreal, given the salience of the control instinct in modern management. It follows that articulating the essential managerial skill as concerns supervision and human-resource management in terms of trying to help subordinates is potentially paradigm-changing with respect to management. Whereas telling people what to do highlights the instinct to control (i.e., management as control), being open to help people by observing (and discussing) and listening stems from a helping instinct (perhaps that of compassion or empathy)--perhaps the nice instinct.

Managers in whom the urge to control other people is dominant are consistent with Nietzsche's new bird of prey figure, which he calls the ascetic priest. This type is too weak to master the instinctual urge so the dominant urge is “out of control,” and thus anything but mastered. Not being strong, the weak whose desire to experience pleasure from power focus on control, and even cruelty, as the means to dominate other people. I submit that managers are typically of that type.[3]  Indeed, management itself is typically thought of in terms of control.

The desire to help implicitly transfers the control to the other person. To want to help someone out of a sense of not having more expertise than him is a virtual hands-in-the-air and “tell me what you need.” The presumption to know better than the person himself how to help him does not spring from the desire to help, but, rather, the urge to dominate. Therefore, on the basis of relative expertise, two different approaches to management exist such that management itself need not reduce to control.   

1. Thomas Fox, “Trust and Respect for Compliance Leadership,” LinkedIn (accessed July 22, 2015).
2. Ibid.
3. Skip Worden, “A Nietzschean Critique of the Modern Manager: An Alternative to Business Ethics,” The Worden Report, July 22, 2015.

A Nietzschean Critique of the Modern Manager

The functional managerial role in modern business is weak by Nietzsche’s standard. That is to say, a manager is of the vulgar rather than of noble strength. After highlighting Nietzsche's project more generally, I discuss his notions of strength and weakness. I then delineate Nietzsche’s attitudes toward wealth, trade and modern industrial culture—the immediate context for his concept of the modern business manager. I argue that Nietzsche views this context as decadent. Within this framework, Nietzsche’s rendering of the primordial commercial relationship can be taken as his genealogy of the modern business manager. Finally, I describe the modern business manager as akin to the ascetic priest in being a herd animal desperately seeking to dominate the herd and, presumptuously, even the strong.   

The full essay is at "A Nietzschean Critique of the Modern Manager."

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Zuckerberg Syndrome: San Francisco as Epicenter

It is difficult enough diagnosing a dysfunctional culture in a large corporation—imaging having a large American city as a de facto patient. Not that I had any idea what treatment could possibly cure a social-psychological disease when I was in San Francisco. I, like so many other new-comers there, temporary or permanent, got the sense after only a few weeks that something was very wrong in the way people were interacting there. As a corporate man in his late twenties from L.A. remarked after just ten days in the city, “The people here are very rude.” As he described the particular behavior pattern, I was stunned; it matched what had taken a month for me to discern. This began my curiosity as to the dysfunctional culture undergirding the wholesale lack of manners, and, more particularly, how it is that a distinct mentality or value-set and behavioral trait can show up in so many individuals.

What lies beneath the clouds is not necessarily visible from above. (Jeff Chiu of AP)

By 2015, software engineers at internet-based companies such as Google and Facebook had been moving to San Francisco and commuting to work in Silicon Valley for years. The “techies” were widening the economic inequality in the city, which, along with the related hike in rents, was causing tension—even anger—on the street. This sort of explanation is at root political in nature. While I do not doubt its validity, it does not do justice to the social-psychological dimension at the individual and interpersonal levels. In other words, I would like to provide some finer brush strokes to finish this picture of a modern American city in the grips of a pathogen.

By 2014, San Francisco had “become the hype- and capital-fueled epicentre of America's technology industry, which has traditionally centred on the string of suburban cities known as Silicon Valley 40 miles to the south. In 2011, Mayor Ed Lee [had] introduced tax breaks for Twitter and several other tech companies to encourage them to settle in and revitalise the downtown San Francisco neighbourhood South of Market, or Soma.”[1] Three years later, the city’s unemployment rate was just 4.8 percent, while California’s was 8.3 percent. In 2013, job growth in San Francisco County was the highest of any county in the States.

At the same time, “(m)any long-time San Francisco residents” worried “not only about being forced out of the city they love, but also that their city [was] being changed for the worse.” Critics were saying that San Francisco's “communities of alternative culture, ethnic or otherwise” were being “turned into playgrounds for rich people.”[2] According to Ted Gullickson, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Castro, the proverbial “gay mecca,” was more homeowner and much straighter, much whiter and much more conservative."[3] If the city’s soul was “its social and economic diversity and status as a refuge for those outside the mainstream,” then the city was indeed losing its soul.[4] I concur, though for a reason—one much deeper than the socio-economic shifts and the resulting tensions. I submit that enough of the city’s people, most notably those who are under 35 or so, had lost, or more likely never had manners. More serious than this euphemism implies, people comprising a major segment in the city’s population were assuming a mentality that could be labelled, The Zuckerberg Syndrome. The underlying pathology is psychological at root.

San Francisco was indeed ground-zero in the American trend of increasing economic inequality, and the social mores were starting to burst at the seams. The “influx of so many young, rich tech workers [was] causing significant tensions. Starting in mid-2011, rents and house prices began to soar. Eviction rates soon followed as property speculators sought to cash in by flipping rent-controlled apartment buildings into flats to sell.”[5] No-fault evictions “displaced nearly 1,400 renters in 2013. About a third of those evictions were under California's Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants and sell their apartments.”[6] Ellis Act evictions increased by 170% from 2010 to 2013, according to a City study.[7] The ability to essentially bid up the rents that pushed long-time residents out was increasing tensions—even turning the city into “an angry city,” according to one retired man there.

The long-time resident told me that the rising number of vocal confrontations between strangers, such as the ones I had I had witnessed just hours earlier between two middle-aged drivers in a parking lot and two young adults on a sidewalk were a function of the widening gap between the haves and have nots in the city. That Facebook, Google, Apple and other tech companies located in the string of “silicon valley” cities in the south area of the bay were commuting about 35,000 techies each workday between their high-rent residences in “the City” and the companies in Silicon Valley was undoubtedly stoking the fire. Just the sight of the sleek white, double-decker buses stirred jealousy and resentment on the street and most probably a sense of superiority, even snobbery, inside the luxury vehicles.

According to Nietzsche, resentment pertains to the weak. As for the strong, self-confidence rather than arrogance is the hallmark characteristic. The onlookers can thus be reckoned as “herd animals” and the bussed kids as “new birds of prey,” whose presumed superiority is in fact a hypertrophic instinctual urge to dominate. In other words, both are weak—which may explain part of the jealousy. In contrast, the strong are saturated with the self-confidence that is innate to strength rather than a need to be superior. Put another way, strength and its overflowing power are content in themselves, hence the strong do not view the weak as evil (whereas the weak view the strong as such). The strong seek to win a race, for instance, rather than focus on the onlookers, whereas the weak a race cannot resist the urge to be cruel both to the strong up ahead and to the onlookers.

I contend that the aggression being inflicted on a daily basis in San Francisco during its second wave of techies—the first being during the “dot.com” heady days of the 1990s—extended beyond the attention-getting vocal spats and “nudges” between strangers in public places.  I do not believe, however, that widening economic inequality is a strong enough force to trigger specific incidents of aggression, whether passive or active. The underlying cultural change was considerably more subtle even as it was stark on the individual and interpersonal levels.

I further contend that a cultural trait has no “collective” basis as an entity beyond the minds and behaviors of individual human beings. Arrogance, for instance, can spread through a number of agreements, whether tacitly or consciously made, between two or three people at a time, that a given attitude, value, or specific behavior is good rather than bad; hence it is permissible rather than to be shamed. One person “tells” another that being rude in a certain way is cool, and the other person in turn “tells” a few of his friends. Soon, a high enough percentage of people in that segment of the population are being rude on a regular basis in a particular way that is thus distinctive.

Having been in the social sciences for some time, I was curious to study how a cultural trait metastasizes—how it is that so many people could be rude in so precisely the same way—so I informally interviewed a number of long-time and new residents alike, of various ages and trades. Detecting a common refrain, I narrowed my focus to young adults between the ages of 21 and 35—the Millennial Generation. It was not long before a distinct pattern involving a certain mentality and a distinct behavior-pattern emerged, which people not infected typically identified as being unique to San Francisco though at the same time being the leading edge of a broader trend then going on in American society. I turn now to my data, obtained through observation and a series of interviews consistent with Clifford Geertz’s method of participant-observant, or époche.

A significant proportion of the young adults, most of whom were far away from their parents, appeared to feel free to treat other people their age and even much older not only with a lack of respect, but also with blatant rudeness tantamount to brazen passive aggression—and without any sense of shame. Typically on meeting someone new, for example, the delayed-adolescents would quickly size him or her up. Is this person on my level? Can I expect to get something out of him or her? If the answers are negative, the interest, albeit self-centered, in the other person quickly turns to a dismissiveness and dismissal. Even in the middle of a sentence, the other person can be hit with a rude turning-away without warning. Such rudeness is so blatant and severe it can be counted as passive aggression. The anger manifests not only in the turning-around and walking away, but also when the person merely turns around and ignores the other person, even while that person is asking, “Why are you ignoring me?” or “Why are you being so rude to me?” I witnessed an older woman asking a 25 year-old(ish) man both questions, after she had approached him to ask him about a noise audible in the patio of the coffee-shop/bar, with the boy continuing to stare off to the side as if she were not there.

At a coffee shop, I myself asked a similar guy an innocuous question only to get a curt answer. Strangely, on his way out, he said goodbye to each of the two guys he had also met briefly and who were then talking with me. Saying “goodbye” twice made it especially obvious that he was ignoring me. Why would a stranger make such an effort on something so trivial as saying goodbye, especially considering that he knew none of us and the question I had asked had not been offensive? More than the rudeness, I felt aggression. The presumption itself that such anger can be unleashed on an innocent stranger is itself a problem, particularly when it becomes part of a culture (i.e., widely understood to be acceptable rather than blameworthy). Put another way, why did the guy feel such a strong urge to reject a stranger whom he would be unlikely to encounter again (especially given his curt reply to my question)?

When I had been a student at Yale and a member of the Yale Political Union, the chairman of the “party” thereof that I had recently joined asked me to change my plans on the upcoming Friday night so I could attend a social party in the bell tower where the new members would be “tapped” to enter the secret society that the party owned. In actuality, he wanted me to attend so his three friends, who were the only ones tapped, could have the pleasure of seeing other members turned down, or rejected. In other words, the pleasure of selecting and being selected was not enough psychologically. The same phenomenon would be part of the epidemic to hit San Francisco decades later.

At a group for speaking French in San Francisco, a middle-aged New Yorker described to me (in English) another manifestation of the angry city.

“People are blunt in New York,” the Lebanese man of around 50 admitted. “That bluntness can be rude, sure, but here there is also passive aggression.”

“Have others from New York noticed the same thing?” I asked.

“Yes. Several others living here now have told me they had noticed it. In New York, people will tell you to your face what they think; the people here say one thing to your face and another to your back.” 

In other words, the passive aggression could manifest as duplicitous betrayal too. Moreover, the level of such aggression in San Francisco was not the case in other cities where a person might expect it, on account of overcrowding for instance.

In terms of dating or just “hooking up” to have sex, the following scenario—a true story which I verified from both parties—may have been paradigmatic in San Francisco in the Millennial Generation. A 28 year-old guy who worked at the time for Sacs Fifth Avenue met a 35 year old woman in a bar and the two clicked. After kissing, he persuaded her to change her plans the following evening so she could go out on a date with him. They met after work at another bar, and sat in the patio in the sunshine. She figured they would go out for dinner and then perhaps to a bar or to his or her place, so she was surprised when he informed her he would have to leave in an hour to attend a departing co-worker’s get-together at another bar. Seeing her mood quickly sour, he made a not-so-subtle reference to her looking older in the light, and that he should not have kissed her. He did not even feel any obligation to carry through with the date, even though he knew she had re-arranged her schedule to accommodate his desire to go out the next night. Thinking on her feet, she quickly called the guy she was to go out with later to tell him that she would be able to make it after all. She told me she had a good time on the second date—the first time she had had two dates on the same evening—and she got laid to boot! Neither the man nor women were teckies, so the phenomenon was not, or at least no longer, techie-specific; rather, it had spread through the Millennial Generation.

Certainly in San Francisco’s iconic gay “community,” the guys (generally speaking) were “always on the lookout for the next best thing.”[8] From that standpoint, dismissiveness toward any guy not in the running for the next time is a foregone conclusion. Zuckerberg’s innate sense of superiority could easily translate into a presumed entitlement to not only ignore interested guys eliminated from being “the next best thing,” but also get pleasure from inflicting pain so those guys feel they are being rejected.

“I hit on this guy at the Edge [a bar in the Castro] but he blew me off,” a gay guy recounted to me.

“Did you say something insulting?” I asked.

“No, I complimented him. So when was leaving the bar and passed me and two other guys who had talked with him—the three of us were talking—he went out of his way to say good-bye to each of the other two.”

“He really wanted you to know he was ignoring you,” I observed. “For some reason, the guy felt the need to put a lot of emotional energy into making sure you would be hurt. It’s not like he had reason to think he would run into you again. What I wonder is where all that anger is coming from—seems sadistic to me.”

A few weeks after I had spoken to guy who was so blatantly and intentionally ignored, I submitted the scenario to a San Francisco native—a women in her mid-20s dressed in “gothic” black. Her explanation uncovered a mentality utterly foreign to me.

“The guy being hit on was probably pissed that the guy he didn’t want hitting on him ruined his social image so he took it out on him.”

“You mean he was punishing the other guy?”

“Yes,” she replied, “the guy might have decided the other guy ruined an otherwise perfect day, so he should pay for it.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing!” I exclaimed. “It must be something going on in your generation.”

“Being able to get stuff instantly with apps has changed personalities,” she added.

“You mean into spoiled brats?”

“Yes,” she said.

Visibly excited about teaching an older guy so ignorant of her generation, she told me that to let a friend know that the person seducing him or her in a bar, for instance, is not good enough for him or her, simply put a hand on the friend’s lap as if the friends were in a relationship. That gesture sends the signal not only to the seducee, but also the seducer, that the latter is not good enough in the opinion of the friend. I was struck by the sheer brazen disregard for the seducer’s feelings.

The message must have been getting around enough young men and women in the city that it is fine to insult anyone who is presumably lower, of no future use. Treating other people as if they were throw-away “objects,” which involves deeming them as unworthy of even common courtesy, intimates sadism, or at the very least a subterranean current of pent-up anger. From where, I wondered like a scientist trying to find mass in space to account for indications of gravity far away, did the anger behind the passive aggression come?  

My theory highlights the cultural role of internet companies, their respective founders, and employees, with near-proximity intermingling spreading the dysfunctional attitude through the generation. The sheer number of “techies” who had moved to the city and worked in “the mostly white, male-dominated, monied monoculture of the tech industry”[9] was sufficient to have a major impact on San Francisco’s social mores and dominant attitude, especially considering the impact of the preexisting “laid-back” culture sewn by the hippies decades earlier.

A colleague of mine from Detroit Michigan reported to me after reading this essay that he had begun to see some of the same behaviors since techies had begun to move there in significant numbers. Although “like some hippies [the techies had] the same sense of social mission to transform the world for the better with technology,” this abstract idealism to be practiced on people at a social and geographic distance was dwarfed closer to home, as in social gatherings, for example, by what Nietzsche describes as the brain sickness of the weak who are too weak to resist their urge to dominate others. In more modern terms, the sordid flu is of malignant narcissism mixed with a presumptuous entitlement that justifies rudeness, even passive aggression, without any shame. Rudeness can be so severe that it becomes passive aggression. As such, it can remain undiagnosed as something real. Hence, my colleague’s feedback is significant.

Speaking with two retired men in San Francisco, I detected an alternative hypothesis.

“They are threatened by the older generations,” one of the men said, “so they lash out at us.”

“Why do they feel threatened?” I asked, skeptically.

“Because we’re straight-shooters. They use passive aggression because they are insecure.”

“But why are they so angry at us?” I asked, straining to understand something I had no intuitive sense of.

“We have put them in a tight spot. Not enough jobs. A [federal] debt of over $17 trillion—money we spent on ourselves that they will have to repay.”

“So it goes well beyond not respecting their elders.”

“Yes, and it is a recent phenomenon.”

The office cultures in Silicon Valley may have served as incubators. A climate of arrogance would either have come from the top or been tacitly tolerated. One techie told me that the people at Facebook do not respect the users.

“Does that come from Zuckerberg himself?” I asked. 

“I’m not surprised,” I replied, “considering how he treated the two guys at Harvard who were working on a social network there.”

“That’s right,” the teckie confirmed.

“I’ve studied organizational culture,” I said as a sort of debriefing. “It would not surprise me at all that Zuckerberg’s attitude toward other people—his manipulations and sense of superiority—as in that psychological experiment on Facebook’s users—defines the company’s culture, which in turn forms the values, attitude, and conduct of the employees.”

This raises the thorny question of whether the authorities at the area’s social-media companies bore any responsibility in having spawned or at least condoned the mentality of self-centered arrogance, rather than trying to eradicate it. In other words, did the companies’ respective managements fail in their corporate social responsibility? Can we hold them blameworthy if they were blind to the brain sickness, being infected themselves? Can we hold Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, responsible, given how he answered a question on CNBC television in June 2015 regarding whether he would serve as CEO on an interim or permanent basis beginning in July? “I’m not going to answer that question because it’s not what I’m focused on,” he said.[10] It would not take much for his employees, and those of other internet companies in the Bay Area to ignore questions from tourists on the street, or from strangers in a bar or coffee shop by merely thinking, “it’s not what I’m focused on.” Indeed, such dismissive arrogance is perfectly in line with walking away from a conversation unilaterally is a social context without even bothering with “excuse me.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that HIV was spreading most at the time in millennial generation. Why bother wearing a condom to protect the other person if he is not what is being focused on? Why be concerned with the interests of a person who is not worthy of respect anyway? Rather than simply being self-centeredness, passive aggression is also involved.

The distinctive pattern of the cultural dysfunction includes an absence of any sense of responsibility in following through when doing so is no longer of interest, even if other people are relying on the follow through. The pattern I discerned goes something like this: Jim does Susan a favor by rearranging his schedule to buy her a ticket to a rock concert, and Susan fails to meet as agreed to pick up the ticket because she feels like doing something else with another friend.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had “put the city on the world’s counter-cultural map by publishing the work of Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, described a “soulless group of people,” a “new breed” of men and women too busy with iPhones to “be here” in the moment.” The new breed can indeed be characterized as soulless in the sense that shame does not touch them. I am not referring here to a mere lack of social skills and even a selfish desire to use people for a person’s own ends; rather, the sheer presumptuousness of the arrogant dismissiveness of people deemed lower or beneath is striking in the pathology. I suspect it may be distinctly American, with San Francisco being the epicenter of the socio-psychological earthquake.

The pathogen may have been so associated with the Millennial Generation because it was sealing itself off from the other generations. A sixty year-old man, for example, would hardly continue to put up with such blatant disrespect as that which is laced with passive aggression. Abject humiliation can only result in social distance. In the film, Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is depicted as treating a distinguished lawyer with blatant, unashamed disdain at a meeting. Zuckerberg is looking out the window while the elder man is speaking.

“Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full attention?” the lawyer asks.

“No,” Zuckerberg replies.

“Do you think I deserve it?”

Zuckerberg again says no. Adding insult to injury, he goes on to ask whether he adequately answered the lawyer's “condescending question.”

It is telling regarding American society that Zuckerberg’s fortune and social-media technology have been so lionized, and yet the prospect of his values, attitude, and conduct coming to define an entire generation somehow escaped attention, at least as of 2015. That a founder of a company can come to define its organizational culture is nothing new; that similar founders would be drawn to the sector, such that the organizational cultures have family resemblances, and gain sufficient traction to spread throughout a generation is more astonishing.  

Can one person's persona infiltrate an entire societal system, viewed here as a network?  
(Justin Sullivan/Getty)

As for the sources of the passive-aggression element, I’m not going to attempt to psychoanalyze Zuckerberg or Dorsey. I can posit, however, that the internet companies may be one source. “According to TINYpulse's poll of 5,000 engineers and developers, tech workers are less happy than workers in other sectors in every key category. For example, only 36% of tech workers say they see opportunity for professional growth, compared to 50% of other workers. . . . ‘There's widespread workplace dissatisfaction in the tech space, and it's undermining the happiness and engagement of these employees,’ the survey concludes.”[11] The anger may be from the unhappiness, especially if the ease and convenience of smart phones create unrealistic expectations of instant gratification.

With its infusions of young techies, San Francisco came to serve as the incubator enabling the transmission of the social-media companies’ organizational cultures, including the angst, to the generation through intermingling. The City on the Hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a chilly bay had begun in the quest for the golden idol as gold hunters headed west. That the same city would be heir to so many techie dollars, and emerge as the leading edge of the descent of American civility, surpassing even the brashness of New York City, is perhaps not much of a surprise. The stunning development is instead the new strain itself, of a virus that oozes the putrid brownish arrogance of conceit tinged with subtle, yet very real anger manifesting as inconsiderateness so severe that it can be classified as passive aggression. In short, passive aggression as a raging epidemic in interpersonal relations even among strangers may have taken off in the not so “laid back” chilly city by the bay.

1 Zoe Corbyn, “Is San Francisco Losing Its Soul?The Guardian, February 23, 2014. All of the quotes, except those from my interviews, that are in this essay come from this article.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
9 Corbyn, “San Francisco Losing.”
10 Alexander Kaufman, “Jack Dorsey Won’t Say Whether He’ll Be Twitter’s Permanent CEO,” The Huffington Post, June 12, 2015.
11 Marco Cava, “Tech Workers Richer But Less Happy Than Most Workers,” USA Today, August 20, 2015.