The tricky business of airing privilege in the office

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The tricky business of airing privilege in the office

By Anson Cameron

Winter. Melbourne. It’s 7.30am and I’m sitting outside a cafe drinking a double-shot. At the next table a man and woman are having a work breakfast run along the same lines as a consultation between a psychiatrist and an offender. She’s some sort of HR culture-tweaker, the firm’s resilience officer or diversity marshal maybe. She has the zeitgeist and Ronald by the short-and-curlies and she’s loudly reshaping him to fit the company template.

Ronald has answered a questionnaire, apparently honestly. (Fool. Has he never lived in an Orwellian nightmare?) And she’s tabulated his answers and they are not what she wanted to see at all. In front of her she has sheets of paper laid out and she consults them and grimaces. Doing this at a cafe feels like performance to me. Perhaps it’s part of Ronald’s humiliation. Break him and build him again – straight from the US Marines’ playbook.

“Ronald, confidence is good. It’s a good thing to have,” she says to him. “But if you have confidence that she lacks can you see how that might be intimidating? And where does your confidence come from? Ask yourself that. Maybe you haven’t earned it. It might be a privilege thing.”

She had clearly been licensed by their employer to capture and tame Ronald’s toxic confidence and his shameless references to Daylesford.

If this was a demand for a kind of psychological socialism whereby we aspire to be equally meek then Ronald appeared to get on board pronto. It’s known that in a crisis mammals can absorb oxygen through the rectum, and watching Ronald with his mouth pursed he gave off the vibe of a man who had hunkered down to a level of meekness where he was taking surreptitious sips of the stuff through his boxers.

“Also,” she continued, “when you talk about what you did on the weekend ... well, not everyone gets to go to Daylesford.” Never a truer word. Not everyone does. Imagine the traffic in that town if they did. Bloody Ronald. Boasting about his escapades in Daylesford. I bet he mentions Devonshire teas and farmers’ markets and maybe he has a mug in the lunchroom with his name on it made by a Catweazle Daylesford potter.

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Now, not to be rude to Daylesford, but we have to recognise Ronald’s as entry-level snobbery. But if someone gets status at work by vaunting his or her familiarity with a gold-rush piss-take town such as Daylesford, then it won’t be long before some braggart mentions a night in the Portsea pub or lunch at a Barossa vineyard. And the people who, in Ronald’s inquisitor’s words, “don’t get to go” to the half-strength nirvana of Daylesford and are damaged by that deprivation will now have two full-on, five-star paradises in their heads that they also don’t get to go to. Someone might mention Buller. How’s that going to make the co-workers who don’t ski feel? What if a credit analyst with a brood mentions a son’s birthday party in front of some wannabe parent running the gauntlet of IVF? Come on, Ronald? Daylesford? It’s just hurtful, man.

The woman I was eavesdropping doubtless had a degree in one of the social sciences that enabled her to detect a feral id, a dude out of synch with the era she was determined to engineer. And she had clearly been licensed by their employer to capture and tame Ronald’s toxic confidence and his shameless references to Daylesford. But was it working?

Watching, I couldn’t really say whether or not Ronald was buying the news of his own iniquity. The consultation went on. There were other ideas in his head that had been found to be unorthodox. It wasn’t just “confidence” and “Daylesford” he’d been found guilty of. But Ronald had become a semaphore of rote contrition; he was pouting and nodding, with his head low, signifying he “got” his crimes. Still, only aspiring martyrs don’t play at contrition when captured by the enemy. Ronald probably has a family to feed. Fake contrition is one of the first things you learn as a kid. It’s the usual kind of contrition.

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The problem is the Daylesfords, isn’t it? There are two Daylesfords. There’s the Daylesford of the discontented and envious – a place they’ve never been. And there’s a sweet Daylesford bristling with pubs and bonhomie where Ronald goes on weekends.

Concealing your happiness is becoming the smart thing to do in this country. Happiness is seen as a zero-sum game, therefore yours is a shameful condition contrived at someone else’s expense. So don’t let ’em know you’re having fun. And don’t mention Daylesford.

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