Political correctness and organizational nihilism


Howard S. Schwartz

School of Business Administration

Oakland University

Rochester, MI  48309

(248) 684-5345





Human Relations 55(11) November 2002

ABSTRACT Political correctness represents the attempt to eliminate the father, often referred to as the patriarch, who is seen as having deprived us of our connection to mother and all of her goodness. But what has really deprived us of our connection to mother’s goodness is not the father, but reality itself. Political correctness therefore represents an attempt to destroy reality. This attempt to destroy the father as the representation of reality represents a different way of constructing meaning than we have in the traditional Oedipal arrangement. But the traditional arrangement made organization possible, whereas anti-paternal psychology undertakes to destroy organization. When organizations give themselves to political correctness they therefore reorganize themselves toward self-destruction. I call that process organizational nihilism.





I would like to thank Yiannis Gabriel, Ann Winston, Erika Stern and Paula Singer for helpful comments on earlier drafts.



Political correctness and organizational nihilism


Howard S. Schwartz



Consider a speech made by Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina to a conference of high-tech executives. As reported in the San Jose Mercury-News, Fiorina said that Silicon Valley was falling short on diversity efforts because it wasn’t a high enough priority.


‘The fact is that diversity is not a hiring practice or a hiring priority in many Silicon Valley companies,’ said Fiorina, speaking on a starstudded panel of high-tech executives who had been brought together at the San Jose Hyatt by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/Push Coalition. ‘As a result, this industry has far too much conformity.’

 With a direct and stern demeanor on the podium, however, it was Fiorina who laid the responsibility for diversifying the workforce at the doorstep of her company.

Fiorina asked executives to look in the mirror and examine their companies’ workforce. She scrutinized HP’s faces and found it still falling short of ideals.

To stir HP’s pot of innovation, she has made diversity the centerpiece to her goal of reinventing the company.

 ‘Diversity inspires creativity and inventiveness, and those are the core virtues of the New Economy,’ she said. (Kwan, 1999)


What is remarkable about Fiorina’s speech is the way it blends together three quite different meanings of the term ‘diversity.’ We may refer to them as viewpoint diversity, ethnic diversity, and victim-group diversity. With regard to the first meaning, diversity is taken to impart intellectual complexity at the level of the group. With this meaning of the term, Fiorina is on good grounds when she associates it with innovation and creativity. This is standard organization theory (e.g. Weick, 1969). But the idea that viewpoint diversity is something you can determine by ‘looking at’ people holds only if you assume that it is closely correlated with ethnic diversity. Yet even if we grant that questionable assumption, saying that the high-tech industry was not diverse was absurd. Silicon Valley was the very model of ethnic diversity. Silicon Valley start-ups at the time were headed by Asians, most notably Indians, in numbers far out of proportion to their representation in the population (Lewis, 2001).


But of course, that was not what Fiorina had in mind. She was referring to the third sort of diversity, in which diversity is defined only with regard to membership in groups defined as having been oppressed. In this sense, a diverse organization is typically defined as having a certain percentage of employees from these specific groups at every level, for example, a percentage equal to their fraction of the population (e.g. Walsh, 2000). Victim group percentages are certainly lower in the high-tech industry than their share of the overall population. This is undoubtedly what she had in mind when ‘with a direct and stern demeanor’ she ‘laid the responsibility for diversifying the workforce at the doorstep of her company’ and, by extension, on the doorsteps of the other companies, and ‘asked executives to look in the mirror and examine their companies’ workforce.’


If this was what she meant by diversity, though, it is difficult to tie it in with the sort of viewpoint diversity that she associated with innovation and creativity. For one thing, the level of educational attainment in science and technology for some of these groups is far below that of the rest of the population (Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1999). It is therefore difficult to see how one would expect them to be equally represented in the high-tech industry, or how their presence could add viewpoint diversity to the discussions one would expect to find in such industries. Yet that is exactly what Fiorina did, even to the extent of saying that the high-tech industry, then the center of the most creative outpouring of technological ideas in the history of the world, had ‘far too much conformity,’ a condition she was evidently going to deal with by making diversity ‘the centerpiece to her goal of reinventing the company.’


This is a hodge-podge of ideas that makes no sense, and anyone can see that. But Fiorina has used this self-contradictory word-salad to define the way she is going to ‘reinvent the company,’ and she has made it clear that variation from these ideas, whatever they mean, will be taken as a sign of moral dereliction. So what does one make of this, and especially what does one make of it if one is an employee of Hewlett-Packard?


Political correctness and organization


This scene of smoke and mirrors represents the impact of what we call ‘political correctness.’ As Richard Bernstein defined political correctness (PC) in the newspaper article that brought the term into the public domain:


Central to pc-ness, which has its roots in 1960’s radicalism, is the view that Western society has for centuries been dominated by what is often called ‘the white male power structure’ or ‘Patriarchal hegemony.’ A related belief is that everybody but white heterosexual males has suffered some form of repression and been denied a cultural voice . . . (1991, Section 4:1)




more than an earnest expression of belief, ‘politically correct’ has become a sarcastic jibe used by those, conservatives and classical liberals alike, to describe what they see as a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia. (Section 4: 4)


So it is that Fiorina says she is going to ‘reinvent the company’ by bringing those oppressed cultural voices into the mix, whether it makes sense or not, and so it is that she has made it clear that the question of whether it makes sense is not open for discussion.


From its origins in the academic community, political correctness has spread widely throughout the society and into organizational settings of all kinds, manifesting itself across a broad range of phenomena, running from controls on speech to hiring and promotion policy. But although such efforts are generally accompanied by a pronounced sense that the right thing is being done, it is by no means clear that the operation of political correctness within organizations is benign.


Approaching the matter from the standpoint of an economist looking at the processes and consequences of preference falsification, Kuran (1994) has discussed the way it interferes with the processing of important information. But Kuran’s approach is general and could apply equally to any dominant idea. My approach is psychoanalytic, and looks at the unconscious dynamics underlying the ideas we associate with political correctness. I have argued that these dynamics have had a corrosive and destructive effect on organizational functioning within the university and the military (Schwartz, 2001). The purpose of the present article is to extend this argument to organizations in general.


The plan of the article


I look at the psychodynamics underlying political correctness. I show that there is a dark side to political correctness that can only be called nihilistic and that bodes no good for anything.


My claim is that political correctness represents the operation of dangerous, primitive forces. The wreckage of organization is not their byproduct, but their aim. An organization that adopts them, and that refashions its processes in accordance with them, will give itself over to its own destruction. I first explore these primitive processes, showing how they differ from the forces that  have created organization. I then show the way in which these destructive elements play out in a syndrome I call organizational nihilism, whose dimensions include the undermining of organizational structure, meaning, motivation, and ultimately language itself.


The key to this analysis is the term ‘patriarch’ in the definition of political correctness. For psychoanalysis can come to no other conclusion than that the white males represent the father, and this is a view from which the supporters of political correctness will not demur in the slightest, for the father, the patriarch, is widely believed to be the deepest representation of everything political correctness is directed against.


But what is the meaning of this father, this patriarch? What does he represent that so much of the world is now turned against him? And what will be the consequences for organizations of this assault? These are the questions that concern us. In order to answer them, I turn to the psychoanalytic theory of the sex roles.


Bi-parental psychology and organization


Classical psychoanalytic theory makes the assumption that both the mother and the father participate in the rearing of the child, but have different roles. For this reason, I refer to the classical configuration as bi-parental.


The role of the mother is largely informed by our image of mother as we experience her very early in life. This primordial mother is the world to the infant; her love for the infant is experienced as absolute and unalloyed. Brought into the self to form an imago, she is the root of the person’s basic feeling of goodness. Her presence at the focal point of all of our desires makes her, by far, the most powerful figure in the psyche.


The idea of returning to closeness with this wonderful figure, of becoming again the object of her love, lies at the core of whatever we think is desirable. Freud calls that idea the ego ideal (1914, 1921). When we think of our lives as getting somewhere, the ego ideal is where we are thinking of getting. Having an ego ideal, and believing that it is possible for us to attain it, underlies our sense of hope. Without it, happiness is not possible.


But, according to the traditional psychoanalytic theory of the Oedipus complex, there is someone who stands in the way of that bond. It is the father, who already has an exclusive relationship with the mother. The child’s response to the father, as the salience of his relationship with the mother becomes apparent, is murderous rage. He wants to kill the father so that his bond with the mother can be complete.


In the bi-parental model, this murderous rage occasions a sense of guilt, and this guilt provides the basis of civilization. The crucial process here is that the child, having to reconcile itself with the father, comes to be able to see itself from the father’s point of view and, from that point of view, to understand the objective character of the father’s relationship with the mother, thus beginning the process of its socialization.


Object-relations theory adds a useful dimension to this. Klein (1975) maintained that, within what she called the ‘paranoid–schizoid position,’ the mental life of the infant is characterized by a splitting of the image of mother into two complementary fantasies: a ‘good breast’ and a ‘bad breast.’ By providing an image to which we may attribute everything bad that happens to us, the bad breast functions as a way of preserving the perfect goodness of the good breast. The image of the ego ideal, then, is an image of fusion with the good breast, getting its appeal from that primordial fantasy. Within the paranoid–schizoid position, the father, insofar as he is experienced as blocking the infant’s fusion with the good breast, is experienced under the aspect of the bad breast, whereupon we can understand the infant’s murderous rage.


For Klein, the anxieties of the paranoid–schizoid position are resolved through a psychic achievement called the ‘depressive position,’ in which it is understood that mother is neither all good nor all bad, but a whole human being who has good and bad aspects. Implicitly, we understand that she will love or hate us, not as an essential outgrowth of who she is, but as a response to what we have done.


Here begins the critical process through which the child is able to see itself from a viewpoint outside of itself and thereby get beyond its narcissism. It develops objective self-consciousness (Schwartz, 2001), the capacity to see itself as an object rather than simply experiencing itself as a subject; not as the center of the world, but as a person among persons.


Yet the primitive images and wishes remain. The image of the mother, and of the female generally, continues to be influenced by the early fantasy of the good breast. Given his difference from the mother, it falls to the father either to be seen under the complementary fantasy of the bad breast, or to develop a role that differentiates him from fantasy by representing external objective reality. The mature male role is determined by the choice of that latter representation. If the father functions properly within that role, he teaches the child the way the world works: that most other people will treat it without any special concern, following rules of exchange that apply to everyone and that organize their relations within their mutual indifference; that it cannot have what it wants just because it wants it. Yet his bond with the mother conveys the message that the child can gain such a bond himself.


In a sense, the father is teaching the child a cultural narrative whose theme is the attainment of the mother through the fulfillment of one’s responsibilities. Thus the child must become like the father, in the sense of becoming a person in terms that the father understands, of taking a place within the cultural narrative that the father has given, the structure of which is constituted by the exchange relationships that order society. The person’s developing sense of these as obligations is, of course, its superego (Freud, 1923).


We can see that the basic elements involved in this go deeper than the personages involved, who ultimately only represent them. What the child wants is the absolute and unconditional love of the universe, of whatever is outside of itself. Indeed, it does not want there to be anything outside of itself at all, in the sense of there being anything that will oppose the free flow of its spontaneity. This is what fusion with the mother represents. Yet, in fact, the universe is indifferent to its fate and the father’s job is to acquaint the child with this indifference. Thus, the father represents reality. But the union of the father and the mother means that love can be attained. And becoming like the father means satisfying the demands made by the world outside of ourselves, indifferent as it is to us, that mark one worthy of attaining it. The route to the ego ideal, then, is seen as a matter of fulfilling the obligations of being an adult member of society.


This gives us what we need in order to understand the structure of meaning in the traditional organization. Within the organization, roles are given meaning by the fantasy of the organization as the ego ideal (Schwartz, 1990). Participants have before them the image of the perfect job, in which they will be able to do what they want and be loved for it, within an organization sufficiently powerful that the world poses no threat to it. Such idealized work never corresponds to our experience, but we are able to make sense of that by the assumption that there are responsibilities and obligations that we have not fulfilled. The structure of these responsibilities is represented by the organization’s vertical dimension. From this it follows that we can move toward the ego ideal by gaining increased responsibility and advancing within the organization.


Although this dynamic may lead to the loss of reality (Schwartz, 1990), this loss of reality is a corruption of a system that, when it is working properly, actually has a very close relationship to reality. The very idea that organizations are structures of responsibility helps to focus our attention on reality, and typically this focus on reality has a degree of independence from the fantasy that drives this psychology of organization. We must do our jobs in real time and space, subject to real demands from others, and subject to the fact that the organization that we idealize also must exist in a real world. Indeed, the very mythology of this configuration anchors us to reality, because it says of its idealized figures that they have fulfilled the demands of reality and that is the basis upon which we idealize them. This is characteristic of the way meaning is structured within the biparental model, since it is, after all, the idea that there is something outside of the maternal bond that defines it as bi-parental. Fantasy can never simply drive out reality in this case, since the idea of reality is a premise of meaning in this configuration.


It is the capacity of fantasy to drive out the idea of reality that differentiates political correctness from the tradition bi-parental configuration. PC’s antagonism toward the father represents a very different approach to the resolution of the Oedipus complex.


Anti-paternal psychology


In traditional psychoanalytic theory it is regarded as a developmental achievement to bring the father into the self. What precedes it is referred to as pre-Oedipal psychology. What marks the development out of pre-Oedipal psychology is that separation from mother is given meaning by the acceptance of the legitimacy of the father. But suppose that separation from the primordial mother were not accepted and hence the narcissistic expectation that the world would revolve around us remained our fundamental assumption about life. The thing that seems to the infant to stand in the way of the realization of this fantasy is the father, who in Kleinian terms is seen under the corresponding fantasy of the bad breast. We already know that the child’s response to this is rage and the desire to kill the father. My claim is that the attack upon the patriarch represents a carrying forward of this orientation into adult life.


To see why this is a problem we must observe that the reason the father is seen as an intrusion into the perfect linkage of infant and child is that he represents the fact that there is a world outside ourselves that does not revolve around us. Reality is what causes the downfall of the idea of living our lives within the perfect circle of mother’s goodness. The father did not cause our separation; under the aspect of the bad breast he is just being scapegoated for it.


I have elsewhere begun to explore the reasons this scapegoating is taking place in our time (Schwartz, 2001). At this point, I will only say that the function of the father was built on the representation of reality. It became that of engaging reality and keeping it at a distance from the family, so that the mother’s love could operate safely within the family. My hypothesis is that he succeeded in that attempt.


For reasons having to do with the remarkable development of organiz- ation and technology in the last century, the necessity of directly engaging indifferent reality has been substantially attenuated. As a result, the idea that there is an independent reality has lost its conviction. The achievement of the depressive position, which represents the psychological consolidation of that understanding, has been undermined. As a result, we have come under the sway of the earlier and simpler imagoes of the paranoid–schizoid position.


The meaning of the father’s role has been lost and he has come to be identified with the earlier persecutory fantasy of the bad breast – as persecuting us and causing our separation from mother, who is strongly identified with the good breast. He has come to be seen, not as the figure who guarantees a space within which the love of the mother can operate, but as an invader who took the mother by force and made her turn her attention away from us, her children. Our fantasy continues that union with her would be all that we would need, and would be something to which we are entitled. Expelling him, rather than becoming like him, would bring about the ego ideal. Locating the threat to the mother’s benevolent omnipotence in the person of the father, then, provides a simple answer to the question of the causes of our distress and at the same time the beginning of a program for dealing with it. Get rid of him, and life will be perfect.


What we can see from this is that meaning in this psychology has a different structure than in bi-parental psychology. In addition to the fantasy of fusion with the mother, the affective core of pre-Oedipal psychology revolves around rage against the father. Meaning is structured here around the rejection of the very developmental achievement that provides the base for socialization in the bi-parental model. Our idea of recreating fusion with the mother means destroying the father, not becoming like him. Giving this structure its due, taking it on its own terms, we would then no longer be able to call it pre-Oedipal at all, in the sense of seeing it as moving toward the traditional resolution of the Oedipal configuration. I call it anti-paternal.


The meaning of organization in bi-parental and anti-paternal Psychology


In the simplest possible terms, organization refers to the structuring of exchange relationships (Blau, 1964; Homans, 1950). An organization refers to a system of exchange relationships that has an identity, in the sense that it is thought of as a specific agent within the overall pattern of exchange relationships. Even on this minimal level, it is easy enough to see that the images of organization that are reflected in bi-parental and anti-paternal psychologies are diametrically opposed in a very important way.


Within bi-parental psychology, organization makes sense and organizations make sense. The maternal element is present in the sense of belonging that the organization affords, and in the way that it is seen as a route to the ego ideal. The paternal element is present in the way the organization is understood as being part of the exchange structure of social life. The individual who accepts benefits from the organization will therefore be expected to accept the responsibility of balancing the exchange.


Focusing on the responsibilities of the exchange process highlights the difference in the way organization is seen from the standpoint of the two psychologies. For a structure of exchange makes objective demands on its participants, demands that need to be fulfilled whether the participants want to fulfill them or not. The paternal element makes it possible for those demands to be legitimized and accepted as obligations. From the standpoint of anti-paternal psychology, however, there can be no purpose beyond free expression – no lunches, so to speak, aside from free lunches. It is impossible to make sense of the demands inherent in the exchange framework. They must, therefore, be experienced with rage, and resented as intrusions, violations, and acts of hatred.


These different approaches to organization arise out of fundamentally different structures of meaning and therefore different approaches to the nature of reality and to what life holds in store for us. For bi-parental psychology, life is a struggle in which we begin with nothing more than illusion. If we are ever to have anything good in life, we must create it though our efforts. Yet, since it places the ego ideal at the end of a path that we may follow, it offers us hope of its attainment. For anti-paternal psychology, we begin with everything that is good, and lose it through no fault of our own. Meaning can be structured only around the narrative of our loss and our hatred of the forces that are seen to have unfairly taken goodness away, and who are seen to have it in our stead. In place of hope it brings us rage, envy, resentment, and schadenfreude. And, since that loss is imagined as infinite, these feelings of resentment can never be assuaged or even diminished. They are not passing feelings but structural elements of the person’s orientation toward life.


Within anti-paternal psychology, an organization cannot be approached from within the depressive position, as having some good aspects and some bad ones. It cannot seem to be a set of arrangements through which many individuals accomplish their purposes, being therefore entirely suited to none of them. Set against the perfect, effortless fulfillment that the primordial mother seemed to offer, the fact that anything is required of us and that anyone else gets anything must be experienced as deprivation – the organization seen as a locus of oppression, properly the focus of rage, envy and resentment, and deserving to be destroyed.1 When these forces are integrated into the organization, they focus the organization on its own destruction. I refer to this process of self-destruction as organizational nihilism. The danger of political correctness, then, is that the dynamics that underlie it incorporate organizational nihilism into the organization’s core processes.


The undermining of organizational structure


As I have said, under bi-parental psychology, an organization may be considered to be a structuring of exchange relationships within a wider pattern. The demands made upon employees within the organization may therefore be considered to be expressions of what the organization believes it needs to do in order to maintain its status as an agent by satisfying external demands. Organizational participants generally grant the legitimacy of the organization’s demands and agree to be bound by them in their activity within the organization. However, the legitimacy of structure is based on bi-parental psychology. Anti-paternal psychology, with its denial of external reality, not only cannot make sense of exchange relationships and hence organizational structure, but it actually comes alive through resistance against it. Such resistance is its motivational core.


Organizational nihilism begins when an organization devalues its job definitions, hierarchical relationships, and other elements of organizational structure in order to validate those who refuse to accept their legitimacy and see them as oppressive. Making organizational demands, or justifying them in terms of organizational necessity, becomes politically incorrect. It is at that point that organizational structure comes under the organization’s own assault.


The conflict between organizational structure and political correctness is clearly visible in the area of racial preferences in university admissions, which represent specifications of lower admission standards for members of certain groups, defined by their biological characteristics.


There is no sense in saying that racial preferences do not lower admission standards, since that is exactly what they do, at least with regard to members of the designated groups. For example, selective universities admit African American and Hispanic applicants with much lower grades and scores on tests like the SAT than white and Asian applicants. There is no dispute about this (e.g. Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1999).


However, there’s not necessarily anything pathological about it, and certainly it is not unique. As the supporters of racial preference observe, universities have given preferences to other groups: children of alumni, athletes, and so on. Preferences may be given for perfectly rational reasons. Whether specific preferences make sense in terms of the organization’s requirements may be an issue, but to the extent that they can be discussed in a rational way, there is no issue of dangerous unconscious forces. The matter only becomes an issue for psychoanalysis when rational discussion is made impossible. This is exactly the effect of political correctness.


Under political correctness, valid information is cast out of discourse. It is not refuted through logic or by contrast with other information, but excluded from discussion by demonizing the individual who introduces the information as a vile oppressor. This recasting represents the triumph of subjectivity over objectivity that we know to be characteristic of anti-paternal psychology. That is a general matter, however. Our present question is a bit more specific. It relates not so much to the issue of political correctness in general, but to the question of how political correctness is likely to affect organizational functioning. For what we have here is the fact that the information barred in this case is directly and unequivocally related to expectations of organizational performance.


SAT scores are the best predictor of college grades, for blacks and Hispanics as much as for whites and Asians (Ramist et al., 2001). The SAT has certainly been the subject of criticism, largely for the way it correlates with family income level, a fact that has been taken to indicate a bias (e.g. Lemann, 1999). Now is not the time to go into the technical details of this controversy.


For our purposes, what needs to be understood is that the matters tested in SAT exams are skills such as the capacity to read difficult books and to engage in complex verbal and mathematical reasoning. These may or may not be related to social class, but they are what college work consists in, and all the more so at selective colleges (Dowling, 1999–2000). By excluding these matters from discourse, the university begins the process of giving up its conception of itself as a place where students read difficult books and engage in complex reasoning. Thus, through political correctness, the organization abandons its capacity to specify the nature of its work, which determines its structure and its place within the exchange framework.


The reformulation of organizational meaning


As we have seen, it is a mistake to think that the issue of racial preference only affects certain groups and therefore only a limited number of individuals. There is no way to lose the importance of standards for only a limited number of individuals. The nature of meaning requires that such issues be generalized. Lose them for one and you begin a process that culminates in losing them for all. This is the reason why the potential for destructiveness in organizational nihilism is as potent as it is. Not only the whole organization, but also the whole idea of the organization, the very meaning of the organization, comes under an attack that pushes toward its reformulation. This reformulation is the point to which we now turn.


Political correctness has to generalize. Meaning is structured around the pursuit of a fantasy, and that fantasy is never realized. This means that, in principle, meaning cannot be verified directly. It is, as the postmodernists tell us, always self-referential. That does not mean that how we structure meaning does not matter. It matters very much because the way we structure meaning has consequences for the way we live our lives and structure our behavior. In the end, we find that either we are happy with these consequences or we are not. And that matters a great deal. Still, in the interim, our strongest evidence for maintaining our belief in the way our meaning is structured is that others structure their meaning that way. An alternative structure of meaning is a threat to the meaning that our lives have and inevitably we move to defuse the threat by extending our sense of meaning over the other, subjecting ourselves to the meaning of the other, or forming a new sense of meaning that encompasses both of them. But such a synthesis requires that the clashing systems of meaning can each be given their due, that they can be spoken and that their logic and consequences can be considered.


But if one set of meanings is sacrosanct, that means that the contradictory meaning cannot be spoken. The sacrosanct meaning must therefore overcome the other without the possibility of synthesis. The point here is that the politically incorrect meaning is regarded, from the standpoint of political correctness, not as a legitimate view that must be weighed in the balance, but as shameful and not possible for the acceptable individual to consider. Another way of looking at this is that, within an organizational setting, there is no way to mark off the areas in which one sort of meaning applies from the areas in which another sort applies except through a distinguishing process that itself has meaning and therefore runs the risk of being politically incorrect. If that distinguishing process preserves the negative judgment for the limited group, it will be just as politically incorrect as the judgment made in the limited case.


For example, consider as a justification for using lowered standards of admission for certain groups of students, the ground that the university is under intense political pressure to do so. This is obviously politically incorrect because it implies that the university is only admitting those students as a result of coercion and that they would not be thought to belong there under ordinary circumstances. It would violate the cultural voices of the oppressed who are believed to be entitled to unconditional validation. True or not, it cannot be said, since it implies that the beneficiaries of the preference are a special case marked off by their deficiency. It follows that it is not possible to specify any other way of distinguishing among the requirements for different groups within the organization except by downgrading their importance for everyone.


Once the process of the reformulation of meaning has begun, every process within the organization is brought to go along with it. A major component of this is the undermining of performance appraisal. The redefinition of the organization’s demands, promotions and appraisals as expressions of oppression may be visible in the context of an increasing number of class-action suits brought by black employees against such companies as Texaco and Coca Cola. Generally, there is no specific evidence adduced and the companies deny the charges of discrimination, but they settle the suits out of court for huge sums, promote members of the aggrieved groups on an accelerated basis, and agree to institute and augment programs of ‘diversity training.’ Of course, in specific cases, these suits may be well-founded, but the lack of evidence and the obvious fact that discrimination can only be counterproductive leaves another possibility, which is that the image of the company’s performance appraisal system as racist is the result of a distortion of perception on the part of the plaintiffs, who have come to see oppression where it is not.


In cases where this is so, the organization is on the route to making itself impossible. If the performance appraisal system was not racist, then what has been stigmatized is performance appraisal itself and in fact, again, the idea that the organization can make demands on its employees in accordance with the necessities imposed by the exchange process. This point comes to a focus with regard to the issue of diversity training, which, after all, represents an attempt to change attitudes. An agreement to emphasize such training must represent the view that there was something systemically wrong with the attitudes that were responsible for the distinctions made in the course of performance appraisal. But if these were simply judgments made on the basis of the organization’s necessities, it means that the roots of the crime have been located in the judgments of those necessities themselves. Here again, the problems this creates cannot be limited to the specific area in which they occur. They must ramify to have the most profound effects on everything that the organization does. Much of this plays out in the context of organizational motivation.


Undermining of organizational motivation


In the bi-parental organization, the work of the organization is meaningful both under the aspect of exchange and under the aspect of fantasy. As exchange, an organization attempts to maintain a balance between the inducements it offers to employees and the contributions it expects from them in the form of work (March & Simon, 1958). The experience of such a balance is referred to as equity (Adams, 1963). This forms a component of the overall pattern of exchange that gains an organization the support of its environment and permits it to remain a viable entity. Under the aspect of fantasy, such participation is part of the process through which the employee becomes like the father and moves toward the ego ideal of fusion with the mother. But, although this makes sense within bi-parental psychology, it loses its meaning in anti-paternal psychology. There, we should recall, fusion with the mother is not something one achieves by becoming like the father, but is something one has been deprived of by the father through his selfishness and oppression.


The very idea that there should be a balance between inducements and contributions loses its meaning and comes to be defined as part of the ideology of oppression. Fusion with the mother can only be imagined through the destruction of the father. But recall that the father represents reality, and specifically in this case the demands that are made upon us as part of the exchange process. He represents, in a word, the organization itself. That means that in anti-paternal psychology, what is meaningful is not the work of the organization, but its destruction. This shift in meaning represents a shift in the nature of motivation. This has different effects, depending on whether one is a member of the victim group or the group defined as oppressors. Within the victim group, the exchange aspect of work disappears and the demands of work come to be experienced as part of the whole pattern of oppressive attacks that have historically marked one’s victimhood. In effect, the organization, defined as a nexus within the overall exchange network, has disappeared. It has become just another setting for the historical conflict of oppressor and oppressed. The idea of equity loses the component of work contribution and comes to be redefined in terms of the way one sees the historical experience of one’s group.


One result of this is that the psychological substrate of work motivation is lost and work is felt to be meaningless. Work that is unmotivated and feels meaningless is not likely to be done very well. This may be met by decreased valuation by the organization, expressed through a decrease, or a lack of increase, in organizational rewards. For those who have defined themselves in terms of their victimization, these penalties are not likely to be seen as legitimate and will be responded to as acts of oppression.


Of course, an organization that holds fast to its work demands and performance appraisals will reject such charges. But an organization in the grip of political correctness will be unable to respond in that way and will have to see the judgments it makes as themselves the problem. It will see itself as culpable for the sense of grievance and respond by promoting those who have experienced those demands as oppression and increasing their level of reward. But though this may have been done to lessen the sense of grievance, it is likely to have the opposite effect. As we have seen, the sense of loss in anti-paternal psychology is infinite and irreducible. It cannot be assuaged, but is a structural component of meaning. Advancement only transfers the sense of grievance to a higher level of responsibility. Indeed, the higher demands at that level pose even more of a contrast with the ego ideal, hence increasing feelings of inequity and oppression and multiplying demands for redress. These are likely to be met by further reward and promotion while further decreasing the motivation to work and causing a further deterioration in work quality. All together, this means that decisions of ever-increasing importance, affecting ever-wider areas of organizational functioning, will deteriorate in quality. This will lead to further deterioration in the capacity of the organization to formulate its necessities.


As the balance of rewards shifts to those defined by their historical victimization, two things happen to those defined as oppressors. In the first place, as the connection between inducements and contributions is attenuated their contribution becomes relatively devalued. To the extent that they maintain their own sense of the value of their work, this must lead to increased feelings of inequity. Yet, within the politically correct organization, their grievances are going to be redefined as racism or some other form of oppression and hence to provide reason to send them for further abuse in the name of ‘diversity training.’ This cannot help but have a negative effect on their positive valuation of work, and hence on their motivation.


This demotivation takes place at the level of exchange. A similar deterioration takes place at the level of fantasy. Specifically, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the fantasy of forming the ego ideal by becoming like father since the father has been redefined as an oppressor whose moral dereliction makes him unsuitable for connection with the mother. Once sight is lost of the necessities of the organization within the exchange process, those who have been promoted within the organization for doing good work will come to be seen as having stolen their advancement from the oppressed. They will be punished for the work that was previously rewarded. This cannot help but undercut their desire to take on increased responsibility in the organization in the future. Moreover, the hope of promotion was the way that individuals who were identified with the organization dealt with the unpleasant aspects of their jobs (Schwartz, 1990).


For the organization to undermine their possibility of promotion simply removes that way of coping, leaving them feeling stuck with what they hate. In general, as the organization shifts its meaning toward validating the charges of oppression made by those defined as victims, the impact on those defined as oppressors becomes severe.


Indeed, one may easily expect that many will lose the positive basis of their attachment to the company, which provided a large part of the meaning of their lives, having it replaced by bitterness and disillusionment. And these, let us finally note, have, by virtue of the fact that they would have been promoted had performance been the measure, been its best employees.


Altogether, the system of motivation has been turned upside down. Resistance to organizational demands is rewarded and good work is stigmatized. Increasingly, the organization will not be able to maintain the necessary level of employee contribution. In the end, the environment will no longer support the organization and it will fail. At that point, we may say that organizational nihilism has succeeded in its aim.


The destruction of language


The transformation of meaning from bi-parental to anti-paternal has the effect of making organizational demands anomalous and turning performance appraisal and promotion into ways of reversing what are now seen as previous processes of discrimination. This will have negative effects on work motivation, but it will also have effects on the quality of promotional decisions. Such individuals will increasingly be unsuited to their work as far as the exchange function of the organization is concerned. Anxiety must result from this and it is likely to be externalized as a climate of oppression.


As these changes take place, the idea of what the organization should be doing shifts further in the direction of taking its place, not within the framework of exchange, but within the political struggle against oppression. Organizations are increasingly likely to subordinate themselves to the mantras of their politics, such as the idea that ‘diversity’ is the most important function of the organization. This is what we saw happening in the example from Hewlett-Packard with which we began.


At the same time, they must appeal to the diminishing fraction who are still willing and able to do the organization’s work, which means formulating their political principles in ways that will make sense in exchange terms. The result is likely to be an increasing incoherence in organizational discourse. In effect, organizational participants are being asked to believe two contradictory things. First, they must believe that the organization should be and is selectively enhancing the prospects of members of groups defined by their historical victimization. Second, they must believe that everyone is being treated the same. Yet there will be no possibility to clarify the meanings of this discourse, since to do so would reveal its incoherence, making it impossible for it to function, not to mention being politically incorrect in the sense of violating the principle of validating the sense of grievance.


I suggest that as the result of conundrums like this, language, within the anti-paternal organization, changes its nature. This destruction of language is perhaps the deepest form taken by organization nihilism. The key to understanding this lies in an understanding of the nature of language. Language is perhaps the most fundamental element of the exchange process and is itself constituted out of exchange. Political correctness means the death of language in the sense that the exchange character of language is lost. It ceases to be a medium of communication and becomes instead a medium of concealment.


Public language becomes a venue for ritualized displays. Words become  separated from meaning (Kuran, 1995). Meaning becomes private and increasingly inchoate. The capacity language offers to compare and share our experience of reality becomes lost. It ceases to be an intersubjective structure. Narcissism needs no exchange, but requires the other to collapse into it. In the end, then, what appears to be language within political correctness is simply an invocation of a grandiose, primitive self that does not recognize the existence of independent others. Language revolves around the desires of this ‘I,’ which are increasingly arbitrary and shorn of connection with reality. For the use of such ‘language,’ others are entirely dependent on the one who is saying ‘I,’ and this dependency must be the source of extreme passivity and abandonment of moral autonomy.


As a result of this, thought, which depends on language for its precision, becomes impossible. It becomes impossible, that is to say, to figure things out and it becomes impossible to refine one’s thoughts by thinking about them. This must have very serious consequences for the quality of organizational decisions at every level. Indeed, an organization that operates this way would no longer be said to make conscious decisions at all, but only to move on the basis of unconscious forces. In truth, it could hardly be said to be an organization at all, any more than a mob is an organization. The process of organizational nihilism would then have reached its fruition.




In concluding this essay, we do well to recall that political correctness is built around a narcissistic premise. It does not acknowledge limitation and does not lend itself to the reasonable resolution of the grievances that it champions. On the contrary, the very notion of reasonableness, and even that of reason, comes under its attack. The concept of victimization that it validates is not relative and defined with regard to a just order. It is absolute, and defined with regard to an unattainable ideal. It thus legitimates a war against everything that exists and even everything that could exist, all of which will always fall intolerably short and deserve to be destroyed. This should give us cause to question the conviction of righteousness with which its aims are often pursued.


Notes 1. In this connection see the excellent essay by Mark Stein (2000), detailing the ways in which envy attacks social systems.




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Howard S. Schwartz is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. His PhD is from Cornell University. His interests lie in the psychodynamics of organizations and political correctness. His works include Narcissistic process and corporate decay: The theory of the organization ideal (New York University Press, 1990) and The revolt of the primitive: An inquiry into the roots of political correctness (Praeger, 2001).


[E-mail: Schwartz@Oakland.edu]