The Plague-Ground – Can you be creative and clean too?

We all do dumb things when we’re young, and my list is very long. But I never smoked cigarettes. I must have had one drag back when I was 12, hacked my lungs out and concluded: “This is disgusting.”

But I did work for a tobacco company, for a week. I was a freelancer and my job was to write a script for a tobacco company sales conference. This was the early 80s and the technology back then was a “multi-projector slide show.” I flew to the company’s office in Montreal for a briefing by the company’s marketing executives. I remember the meeting was at 9 a.m. in the boardroom. I waited on the very sleek executive floor where an equally sleek receptionist asked if I would like coffee. She then escorted me into the boardroom and sat me down for what she said was the first meeting of the day.

I couldn’t believe what I saw …and smelled. On the long polished board table were four large ashtrays. Each was filled to overflowing with cigarette butts. The room itself smelled like day-old tobacco, which it clearly was since the receptionist and I were the first people to use it that day. Yet she in all her poise seemed oblivious to both the stench and the butts. She left and five minutes later three men walked into the room, introduced themselves and lit up cigarettes, which they smoked for the next hour as we discussed what they wanted to say to their salesforce.

Was this a test?

By the end of the meeting, I left the smoke-filled room, made my way quickly to the elevator, to the cab, to the airport, to the plane and home to Toronto. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

I remember I wrote that script lightning-fast as well, wanting to wash the whole experience from my memory. This was my first experience working for a company whose product, when used normally and in an approved fashion, will kill you.

I also got paid obscenely well, another lesson for my young moral compass.

That was then, 40 years ago.

This is now, a time when we are all being called to account, no matter how distant from the consequences we may feel we are.

Actually, this is NOW, the Year 2020, whose summer has brought us cancel culture, BLM and BIPOC.

Sometime in the last five years, the word “creative” has shifted from being an adjective to being a noun. So in years past, I may have been creative. But today, I am A Creative, someone who displays productive originality for a living.

Creatives these days aren’t just being held to account; we’re holding each other to account.

This past week saw two examples of this huge shift in personal responsibility, or mob rule, depending on your view.

The first is a New Yorker piece by Bill McKibbon called When Creatives Turn Destructive.

He looks into the many ad agencies and PR firms working for fossil fuel companies (and refusing to publicly acknowledge that fact) and asks how they can push that message and at the same time cheer on “the young people already out on our streets striking for climate action.”

McKibbon also notes “…This same dynamic is playing out in the legal profession, where law students at top schools have come together to rank the nation’s top law firms, and more than six hundred of them have pledged not to work for firms that represent fossil-fuel companies. Last winter, students disrupted recruiting events for Paul, Weiss, which represents Exxon, at Harvard, Yale, and New York University.”

Then last week, the idea that creativity is no longer neutral, nor will Creatives be neutral, hit much closer to home.

Last Monday, several employees of Penguin Random House Canada objected to the upcoming publication of its best-selling author Jordan Peterson’s new book, Beyond Order, next March, because they feel “…he is an icon of hate speech and transphobia and the fact that he’s an icon of white supremacy, regardless of the content of his book, I’m not proud to work for a company that publishes him.”

PRH Canada decided to go ahead anyway. He is a Canadian author, after all, and they are his originating publisher. So there are literally millions at stake here.

This too is part of a growing trend. As The Guardian noted: “The protests in Canada over Peterson’s book follow Hachette’s decision to drop Woody Allen’s memoir after a staff walkout, and reports that staff at JK Rowling’s publisher in the UK were told they could not refuse to work on her new children’s book The Ickabog because they disagreed with her views on transgender rights.”

I think I need a smoke.

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7 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Can you be creative and clean too?”

    1. There are multiple failings that have given rise to this situation – not least of which is the devaluation of independent critical thinking in our schools, universities, media and parliament — replaced by a new kind of woke orthodoxy that adherents proselytize with the fervor of religious zealots. The absurdity of publishing house employees having a cry-in about an internationally renowned author’s new book because of what he ‘represents’ to other people — versus the actual content of his book or ideas contained therein — is scandalous. They are not worthy of the job and should be shown the door. But by all means, furnish them with their participation ribbons on the way out.

    2. Nigel — It’s a bit like Purdue offering insurance companies a ‘bounty’ of cash payouts if one of their clients died from an Oxycontin overdose or committed suicide. It’s just a cost of doing business. Cheers. Bob

  1. Fascinating, Bob – the key here is triage “regardless of content”. No need to consider an idea or creative work if the author is deemed unworthy. Truly bizarre. It seems we have a new and more potent version of Librorum Prohibitorum – that, at least, did look at content. Those deemed morally compromised by “woke” standards are no longer worthy to even engage in any legitimate public dialogue. Not just the work, the originator, is banned. Consider the result on established works of art and philosophy? Time to light the bonfire… ?

    1. Robert — I hear you, and I too tripped over the “regardless of content” out-clause. It’s rule by whim now.
      I just don’t like you, so off with your head. Someone I know well took two of Peterson’s undergraduate courses and
      says he’s not at all the troglodyte he’s been portrayed as. His views are subtle and nuanced. Perhaps that’s the problem. Cheers and thanks for checking in. Bob

  2. I don’t particularly like Jordan Peterson but I subscribe to Voltaire’s maxim which I may be misquoting slightly “I hate what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. I think that a foundational element in a democracy is the right to freely express your views without fear of retaliation and regardless of what others think. This right is not absolute but we have laws to establish the parameters of what is acceptable or not and if those laws become deficient or out of date, then we can update them. But trying to censor people just because you don’t like what they say takes us down the slippery path towards totalitarianism. Penguin staff should act more professionally and not let their personal views interfere with their work. If publishing stuff they disagree with is too much for them, I suggest that they find another job.

    1. Adam — I agree with you on both points, especially since one of the protesters hadn’t actually read the book, but just didn’t like Peterson.

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