Organizational Leaders Like Chris Anderson Should Stop Indulging Their Most Hysterical Employees
Seriously, show just a tiny bit of genuine leadership and courage for once
The writer and podcaster Coleman Hughes, who is a buddy of mine, kicked off a bit of a brouhaha earlier this week. Writing in The Free Press, he explained what happened after he recorded an April TED Talk, pegged to his upcoming book, arguing in favor of a color-blind approach to race and racism.
TED draws a progressive crowd, so I expected that my talk might upset a handful of people. And indeed, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a handful of scowling faces. But the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The audience applauded; some people even stood up. Throughout the meals and in hallways, people approached me to say they loved it, and those who disagreed with it offered smart and thoughtful criticisms.
But the day after my talk, I heard from Chris Anderson, the head of TED. He told me that a group called “Black@TED”—which TED’s website describes as an “Employee Resource Group that exists to provide a safe space for TED staff who identify as Black”—was “upset” by my talk. Over email, Chris asked if I’d be willing to speak with them privately.
I agreed to speak with them on principle, that principle being that you should always speak with your critics because they may expose crucial blind spots in your worldview. No sooner did I agree to speak with them than Chris told me that Black@TED actually was not willing to speak to me. I never learned why. I hoped that this strange about-face was the end of the drama. But it was only the beginning.
On the final day of the conference, TED held its yearly “town hall”—at which the audience can give feedback on the conference. The event opened with two people denouncing my talk back-to-back. The first woman called my talk “racist” as well as “dangerous and irresponsible”—comments that were met with cheers from the crowd. The second commentator, Otho Kerr, a program director at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, claimed that I was “willing to have us slide back into the days of separate but equal.” (The talk is online, so you can judge for yourself whether those accusations bear any resemblance to reality.)
It goes without saying that these are abjectly ridiculous claims. You really can just watch the talk and see for yourself. Whether or not you agree with Hughes, he’s careful to explain exactly what he means, and to differentiate his own view from a more cartoonish understanding of color blindness in which we pretend to not even notice race. He’s saying we should aspire not to judge people or distribute rewards or punishments on the basis of their race (untethered from their socioeconomic standing), not that race doesn’t exist as an important social phenomenon or can safely be treated as nonexistent.
In the moment, Anderson responded the correct way. According to Hughes, he “took the mic and thanked [the critics] for their remarks. He also reminded the audience that “TED can’t shy away from controversy on issues that matter so much.” But, Hughes continues, “Two weeks later, Anderson emailed to tell me that there was ‘blowback’ on my talk and that ‘[s]ome internally are arguing we shouldn’t post it.’ In the email, he told me that the ‘most challenging’ blowback had come from a ‘well-known’ social scientist (who I later learned was Adam Grant).”
Grant is a superstar within psychology, and he claimed that Hughes’s argument was “directly contradicted by an extensive body of rigorous research,” linking to this meta-analysis. I’m hoping to do a more in-depth piece on this particular facet of the controversy soon, if I have time to do enough reading about it. But based on my own knowledge of the field of diversity trainings, I think Grant is badly overstating (1) the strength of the evidence that any one particular approach to framing these issues “works” better than others (though different people define “works” differently, which is part of the problem); and (2) the extent to which that meta-analysis could in any sense “directly contradict” Hughes’s argument.
For now, though, I want to focus on Chris Anderson’s role as the head of TED. Because of the way Anderson chose to handle this controversy, Hughes soon learned there were potential conditions attached to the release of his already-recorded talk. First, TED asked Hughes also to participate in a moderated debate to be released as part of the same video as his talk. This is extremely unusual — can you recall many TED Talk videos including both a talk itself and a debate in which the speaker had to defend their position against a skeptical interlocutor? — and Hughes said no. Then TED said okay, how about we do the moderated debate and release it as a separate video at the same time. Anderson claimed this would help amplify the reach of Hughes’s ideas, which struck Hughes as disingenuous. “Clearly, the release proposals being pressed upon me were conceived in order to placate angry staffers, not in order to amplify my message,” he wrote in The Free Press.
Eventually they struck a compromise: “TED would release and promote my talk as they would any other, and I would participate in a debate that would be released as a separate video no fewer than two weeks after my talk.” But Hughes claims TED has not held up its part of the bargain by giving his video the same (considerable) PR push it does to its other videos, and that as a result his talk has languished and not gotten much attention relative to the normal size of this platform.
This was already a ridiculous story, and the available facts suggest Chris Anderson botched it every single step of the way. As anyone who has read about the polished, whirring machine that produces TED Talks knows, the organization does not leave anything to chance in terms of quality and content. TED Talk participants run a bit of a gauntlet, and that includes, obviously, TED knowing exactly what’s going to be said during the talk long before the speaker actually steps onstage. This is far from a poetry slam open mic night.