The price of relevance is fluency

“You can’t say anything anymore! You can’t even make jokes!”

There’s a constant complaint from people in positions of power, mostly men, who keep making the ridiculous assertion that they’re not able to speak in public. What they actually mean is they no longer understand the basis of the criticisms they face. And it’s a phenomenon we see from so many people who have a public platform, whether they’re CEOs or comedians or other cultural figures.

Some of this is a familiar issue: the powerful think that ordinary people have no right to criticize them. There’s nothing new there, and certainly a lot of the dismissive reactions are simply these people thinking that they’re better than their critics, and so don’t have to listen to the pushback. But even those who think they should still be at least pretending to take feedback from the public are mystified by what they’re hearing.

But there is something new that's also helping cause all this fuss: the rate of change in culture is increasing.

For some kinds of people, we valorize the breaking of social conventions. In business, it’s called “disruption”, in arts or culture they’ll be called “bad boys” or other similarly ridiculous names for rewarding transgression. Eventually, these rule breakers (who, of course, seldom break the rules of systemic racism or sexism or other structural injustices) find themselves in a position where they have a public voice. They’re onstage, or quoted in the media, and they love the fact that they’re being heard. They bask in the unalloyed adulation of the masses.

Until recently. All of a sudden, the same things they’ve always said, or something said in private that suddenly becomes public, get a vociferous negative response unlike anything they've ever encountered. Usually, that blowback happens on social media, and these powerful legacy leaders tend to blame the issue on some ineffable negative essence of social networks. They rant about things like "the twitter mob". But that's not the issue at all.

There Is No "Twitter Mob"

You see, there is no "Twitter mob", there's only people. And people shape culture, and culture evolves. But in the past, the powerful could keep themselves isolated from the way culture evolves, if they wanted to. Janet Jackson didn't even know what Hot Cheetos are!

And so, these political leaders and CEOs and comedians and famous-for-being-famous people blather on like they always have, but only now they're faced with the criticisms they've inspired. The criticisms were always there, but the connection of social media to mass media has made them visible.

Worse, that visibility of critique means that powerful people now have to do work that they didn't want to do. They can't stand it.

Suddenly, even the most powerful people in society are forced to be fluent in the concerns of those with little power, if they want to hold on to the cultural relevance that thrust them into power in the first place. Being a comedian means having to say things that an audience finds funny; if an audience doesn't find old, hackneyed, abusive jokes funny anymore, then that comedian has to do more work. And what we find is, the comedians with the most privilege resent having to keep working for a living. Wasn't it good enough that they wrote that joke that some people found somewhat funny, some years ago? Why should they have to learn about current culture just to get paid to do comedy?

Similarly, CEOs keep fussing about how it's hard to not offend people these days. (Being a CEO myself, this one ends up on my radar a lot.) Now, every person in marketing knows they have to try to stay culturally relevant, and certainly every ordinary worker knows they constantly have to be learning new skills and developing professionally. But if a CEO has been in his seat long enough, he'll often get deeply resentful of being told that he has to learn new ways of being respectful to the people who were systematically obstructed from reaching his awareness in the past.

We can't even count all the stupid ways this plays out, but there are common tropes. The go-to examples of resistance to cultural evolution are always the legacy power-holders resisting the very identity of the communities they excluded. You'll hear awful shit like, "I don't know whether to call them Black or African American, or what?" or terrible "jokes" about the appropriate pronouns that people should be identified with. Now, these powerful folks don't want to be held accountable for disrespecting people with different identities, and the powerful certainly don't want to be mocked for their illiteracy in contemporary culture, but they damn sure want to make certain that you know they're not interested in indulging modern norms for showing respect to others.

It's not that hard

Here's the thing, though: It's not that hard. It's not difficult at all to ask people how they want to be identified. It's not tricky to listen to what people are saying about their concerns and their issues, and to try to understand what that means about how culture is evolving. It's not hard at all to be humble about unfamiliar aspects of society and ask for information in respectful ways, then take those responses into consideration going forward.

And in fact, that's the simple price of continued cultural relevance. If someone wants to maintain power in culture, all that's required is a sincere and honest engagement with those who are granting that power through their attention and support. All it takes is a little bit of curiousity and some basic human decency, and any of us who are blessed with the good fortune to have a platform will get to keep it, and hopefully to use it to make things a little better for others.

But those in power who have a loud public voice and refuse to adjust and evolve their messages for the modern world will only face increasing resistance, and even actual accountability sometimes — perhaps even in the form of losing their platforms. And good riddance.