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.
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.