Rainbow Power: The Rhetoric of Disruptive Diversity

This year Apple released a video showing their employees’ participation in the San Francisco Pride parade.

While it is not new to see companies promote their commitment to LGBT* equality, the message at the end of this film is freshly provocative: inclusion inspires innovation.

Innovation, that highly-sought force valorised at the centre of technology-led capitalism is said to spring from the inclusion of traditionally marginalised people in their workforce. In other words, one of the most valuable companies in the world attributes the primary driver of profitability to the diversity of its employees.

It’s a bold statement, and given Apple’s global reach and influence, a potentially powerful expression of support for individuals who continue to face discrimination around the world.

Yes it’s utopian, whether this statement represents a genuine commitment to social and political change or simply empty branded rhetoric remains to be seen, but it’s worth interrogating how this particular piece of content reflects larger shifts in culture, technology and business.

apple-inclusion-inspires-innovation

To look specifically at LGBT* pride for moment, the film may also constitute a subtle expression of solidarity from CEO Tim Cook, given recent media speculation around his sexuality, though Pride is increasingly a broader platform for equality: the rainbow now covers a wider spectrum, which in turn reflects the mainstreaming of LGBT* culture.

In London, LGBT* rights organisation Stonewall have shifted their communications to broader anti-discrimination messages, launching #NoBystanders as a campaign in March. This is recognition that, at least in the UK, many of the battles for civic equality have been won, so to maintain ongoing relevance a change in positioning is required. The corporate sponsorship of Pride, like Barclays this year in London, also indicates a mainstreaming of events previously driven by radical politics.

FreedomTo
Ben Cohen, long-standing LGBT ally. (you’re all welcome)

The defining aspect of Barclays’ campaign is the inclusive hashtag #FreedomTo, which can be read as an open pre-fix to everyone’s brand of equality, a shopping list of Western liberal values. No doubt this was the strategic rationale for sponsorship. Freedom here represents a specific neo-liberal ideal which places the individual and their right – to earn money, to own property, to buy fabulous clothes – in alignment with Barclays economic goals, rather than alternative political stances which emphasise collective liberty, in the context of the structures and systems which curtail this freedom.

Now pride has cultural capital which goes beyond ideas of the ‘pink pound’, there are legitimate concerns that real ongoing issues and the radical potential of queer politics are supressed and obscured by glossy commercialism. The ‘Conchita Effect’ (credit to Ben Henham for this) sees the subversive creativity and flamboyance of LGBT* performers lend itself readily to larger audiences in the name of entertainment.

Apple’s statement offers inclusion within a commercial, capitalist framework, but as a strategy for the furthering of equality does it compromise other forms of resistance?

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sequins in their eyes?

It is also interesting to examine where Apple’s statement sits in relation to the current discourse of ‘innovation’ and its close cousin ‘disruption’.

The fetishisation of hacking and start-up culture, ‘move fast, break things’ to quote Zuckerberg, has proliferated well beyond the technology categories where it began, but the limited, exclusive nature of this philosophy is rarely articulated. Kate Losse in her Medium piece on privilege and Palo Alto culture observes:

“don’t ask for permission” is a starkly if unconsciously raced and classed […] motto for Silicon Valley

She concludes:

By teaching primarily young white men to unreflectively “break things” and reward them when they do, Stanford and other Silicon Valley institutions like YCombinator are incubators not for social change or “disruption” but for the assignment of privilege to the people who are most likely to already have it.

The whole post is worth reading.

If  to innovate is to challenge the existing way of doing things, then Apple’s statement, as an alternative to the privileged ‘break things’ approach, recognises those people whose very identities and experiences represent a challenge to the norm: they are ‘rule-breakers’ born, not taught.

San Francisco Gay Liberation Marches - the original pride
San Francisco Gay Liberation Marches – the original pride

Historically women, LGBT* people, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities sit outside society’s dominant power structures, the ways of working and doing things which exclude and harm them. It makes total sense then that given the chance these people would tear up existing ideas in favour of new ones. When people’s ability to innovate is determined by their capacity to see beyond received knowledge, the ‘outsiders’ of Pride appear perfectly suited to this challenge.

This is the real-life component of an idea one my colleagues (actually my boss) articulated about appreciating ‘the lives of others’ through fiction. The literary catalyst for disruption also makes sense, since deconstructionism and much of critical theory since the 60’s concerns itself with recognising and picking apart the structures of discourse which govern fiction, and indeed the real world.

 

“Every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written (in the usual sense of this opposition), as a small or large unity, can be cited, put between quotation marks; thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion.”   Derrida, Margins of Philosophy

(P.S. I make no real claim to actually understanding Derrida)

 

Ideas Without Limits, the creative proposition of the company I work for, is an expression of deconstructionist intent, laying waste to conventional boundaries and received knowledge of our industry. Funnily enough it proves the maxim that thinking outside the box, however cliche, is really quite valid.

pringles fan or flavour
A healthy dose of surrealism also helps.

Supporting statements, Powered by People, Enabled through Technology, wrap up my point here in this post, we’re asking: who can think outside the box? Maybe it’s not a group of straight white men.

That’s not to say they can’t – we’re not implementing renewed policies of exclusion – but alternative perspectives are exceptionally valuable, wherever they originate.

It’s time we embraced #RainbowPower in all its refractions.

green and blacks pride parade
behold, postmodern chocolate.

Notes

1. In this post I’m dealing with Apple’s Pride statement as branded piece of communication to reflect upon shifts in culture and technology discourse. I’m well aware that a larger sense of inclusion and equality is probably incompatible with their current supply chain and the problems of third world labour. I’d welcome any comments from people with insight to lend on this.

2. I’ve used LGBT* throughout this post to be as inclusive as possible, and am also aware of the ongoing debate surrounding these terms and classifications. I again welcome any discussion on this point.

3. Why Derrida why?! I hear people asking… It’s not intellectual pretension (well maybe a little), but to highlight the similarities between academic writing on deconstructionism and postmodernism which typically unpick existing structures, with apparently novel takes on innovation and how to best innovate. The déjà vu occured when listening to start-up types, growth hackers, innovation gurus, generally prompts a sense of: “Honey we already dealt with this, welcome to the party, it’s about time”. And of course by ‘we’ I mean people vastly more intelligent than myself.

4. This post was updated on 22/06/14 (few days after original publication) to include a bit more on the politics and philosophy underpinning #FreedomTo. There is even more to unpick, discuss, and theory to introduce – if anyone is interested I can refer you to the expertise of people better informed.

Thanks for reading!

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