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Follow The OTDers

A few things have inspired me to revisit the Jewish faith I was long tempted to abandon.

But before going down this path, it happened that I started reading the memoirs of people who were virtually imprisoned in the Jewish community, and who made their way out. These are disparagingly referred to by religious Jews as "OTDs" - meaning "off the derech" or "off the path" of religious observance. 

They shouldn't be referred to as "off the derech." To me it looks like they are "on the path" - their personal path - a good path for them, and for the Jewish people.

I am inspired by their courage in getting out and telling their story. I am inspired by the fact that they tell the truth about what's happened to them, the humiliating truth.

It might be curious to some that I would celebrate those who have given up Jewish observance altogether. 

But it makes a lot of sense to me. In their commitment to getting out and telling others about the evils of fundamentalist religion, the OTDs are fighting a war that we should all fight. 

They are waging a war that will benefit all those who live in its aftermath.

OTDs are rescuing the Jewish religion from itself.

And they are lending strength to others, religious or not, Jewish or not, fighting related battles. 

"Look not at what people say, but what they do," my husband always tells me. 

The OTDs may say they don't believe in religion. But by shedding light on the ways in which Jewish people are oppressed by their very own Jewish clergy, they are furthering our spirituality in ways the ordinary rabbis can only pray to do.

The role of anti-religious or non-religious Jews has been critical to Jewish history. These were the Jews who founded the Jewish state, who acted to save our people from extinction and restore to us the freedom to practice religion as we choose in our Holy Land.

These Jews also saved Jews from extinction during World War II. The movie Defiance portrays this, through the different paths of two brothers. One keeps a group of Jews alive in the forest. The other joins the famously anti-religious Russian partisans who in real life played a critical role in overthrowing the Nazis.

Though they disavow religion themselves, or at least say they don't know what the truth is, OTDers are helping the Jewish religion get back to authenticity anyway. A lot of people don't know this, but "Torah" comes from the Hebrew root word, "Yareh," which means to shoot an arrow in such a way that it successfully hits the target. 

Though they don't preach any observance, OTDers in effect play the role of Rabbi Hillel in a Jewish world that has devolved to heavily on the side of Rabbi Shammai.

Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel were both what we would call nowadays "observant." However, their basic approach to the Jewish religion was diametrically opposed. Shammai emphasized the purity of ritual observance, whereas Hillel focused on the purity of human relationships.

A frequently-told story from the Talmud makes this point. 

A non-Jew is interested in Judaism but frankly is overwhelmed by it. He approaches Rabbi Shammai and says, basically, "I'm interested in converting, but I need a version of the Torah that is easier to digest than the one you've reportedly got."

Shammai, whose entire life is dedicated to preserving the integrity of the Torah, is irritated by the seemingly non-serious nature of this request and "chases" him away.

Outwardly, the rabbi's behavior might seem difficult to understand. Maybe the man was mocking him? No, he wasn't - the rabbis were clear on that.

Then what? Well for one thing, Jews are supposed to turn away potential converts, because frankly the religion asks a lot of a person. For another, we don't want to dilute authentic religious practice.

But still - "chases." That is a very strong word, and a close read suggests that Rabbi Shammai went too far. 

So the Talmud contrasts Rabbi Shammai's response with that of Rabbi Hillel. Confronted with exactly the same question, the rabbi says: 
'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.'" - Talmud (Shabbat 31a)
The conventional understanding of this answer is that we should treat each other nicely because it's the right thing to do. On a superficial scan, the Talmud offers it as if to say, you can't call yourself religious and simultaneously be mean to people.

This interpretation seems to be supported by a rabbinic discussion of the grounds for dismissing a rabbi. Ordinarily you cannot do that: A rabbi once is a rabbi for life, even if someone comes along who is technically "better."

There is an exception to that rule, though: The congregation can fire a rabbi if he is non-observant or if he is cruel, if he behaves in an "irreverent and mocking manner" (Meishiv Davar, Siman 10, via
"Rabban Gamaliel sat and lectured and Rabbi Yehoshua remained standing on his feet until the people protested and said to Hutzpit the Turgemon, “Stand!” and he stood. They said, “How long will he continue to persecute him?"- Talmud (Brachos 27b-27a), translated at 
The question comes up whether Rabbi Hillel is offering only a partial version of Judaism here. Is he dismissing that part of religion which concerns our obligations to G-d?

The rabbis say that he is not.

On a deeper level, Rabbi Hillel is saying that you should not sin - either against other people or against G-d - because your actions directly affect other people. When you sin, you cause evil to proliferate in the world. (Rabbi Yisroel Ciner via Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman) 

In other words:

If you are bad, we are all going to pay for it. 

Once you understand that, says the rabbi, everything else is just the "how."

The Jewish community is starting to wake up to the fact that abusive rabbis have run rampant for far too long, and have left massive collateral damage in their wake. 

It is as if we are waking from a very bad dream.

When we do achieve a modicum of normalcy again, when we hit that magical middle of the road, we have the "OTDers" to thank for it.

We ought to do that, and acknowledge their place in putting the rest of us back "on the path."


"Defiance" movie poster via All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

After Iran, The Courage To Speak

*Originally posted on LinkedIn.

"If I have found favor in your eyes, O King, and if it please the King, let my life be granted me by my plea, and the life of my people by my request. For my people and I have been sold to be annihilated, killed and destroyed!" - The Persian (today, Iranian) Queen Esther, Megillat Esther, Chapter 7, via Chabad
When something is wrong, do you tell your boss?
Queen Esther was "married" to the Persian (today, Iranian) king Achashverosh but the truth is that the union was really her job, and an involuntary one at that. Opening her mouth, or even speaking out of turn, could have quickly resulted in her death.
Esther did speak up, despite the risk, because it was the right thing to do. I am named for her, and am doing the same. I'll try to tie it to a work theme to make it appropriate for LinkedIn, but obviously my concern is for the Jewish people.
So if you don't think this is the right place to be posting this stuff, please feel free to stop here.
* * * 
Which are you more afraid of, losing your job or dying?
I ask because there are people who kill themselves when they get fired. Every now and then I read about a New Yorker (why is it always someone from New York?), usually from the financial district, literally jumping out the window over the loss of their job.
In the government, firing doesn't usually happen. But it when it does, it's normally painful and slow. You can get into trouble for a lot of reasons. Whatever the background noise, I know of a few people who've been marginalized into leaving. The trauma is real and it is lifelong.
So I definitely don't want to get fired. I am a Jew working for the U.S. government, so it is risky to criticize anything that the government does. But as you're probably reading in today's paper, the new nuclear pact with Iran has just been announced.
In a world where anti-Semitism is becoming an ordinary fact of life - where more than 1 billion people have negative stereotypes about Jews to begin with - I am worried that this deal will result in great harm to my people. A terrible loss of life.
This is a country that has called for the annihilation of the State of Israel and a "referendum" on the life of all Jews in the region. (This is as opposed to a "massacre.")
I am going to trust that G-d will protect me because I am trying to do the right thing, respectfully. I will exercise my civil right to speak as a private citizen, only for myself and not as an employee of the government.
Having said that, even if I weren't Jewish I would not understand what is going on since Iran seems fairly hostile toward the United States. For example, just five months ago, while the nuclear negotiations were going on, Iran held a public demonstration commemorating the 1979 Revolution in Tehran.
As reported by Mehdi Boulurian for the Fars News Agency, tweeted by Sobhan Hassanvand from Iran, and reported by the Gateway Pundit, Iran openly hung ("lynched") our President in effigy. Here's the tweet and accompanying photo.
Are these photos just posturing? Are they staged as a kind of cultural machismo, to make a public show? "I can be more anti-American than you are?"
Maybe so. Let's look at the basic terms of the deal, as reported by NBC News. On its face this looks pretty good:
  • Nuclear Technology: Yes for peaceful purposes like electricity and medical treatments. No to a nuclear weapon.
  • R&D: Limits on research and development of nuclear technology. Nearly 100 percent reduction of stockpile of low-enriched uranium (below weapons-grade) for 15 years. 
  • Sanctions: All economic sanctions lifted. Weapons embargo lifted after five years. Missile technology, eight years.
  • Verification: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to "monitor and verify" that Iran is sticking to the deal. If it breaks the deal, the sanctions return. (Refusing entry to inspectors is breaking the deal.
The problem with all of this, of course, is that what you get to read in the newspaper is only one representation. It may or may not be true, or even make sense.
For example, there is a stereotype that Muslims are anti-American, anti-Semitic and generally "extreme."
This stereotype is a lie.
The only time I've ever encountered a Muslim that seemed hateful was at my daughter's graduation speech. I've encountered Jews who also seemed hateful in the same way.
There is a stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed slaves. Again, in my experience - maybe because I'm encountering Muslim women in America - this is also not true.
For example, one time I encountered a Muslim couple in Union Station. The woman had on a niqab, the traditional black face-covering that looks to outsiders like it's extreme.
I was really curious whether she was an oppressed slave. So I did what may seem strange to you, and stopped the couple and asked him if I could ask her about it. (This was out of respect for what I supposed was their cultural traditions, as I knew literally nothing about the faith.)
The woman surprised me by speaking immediately and forthrightly, as if to say, "You didn't have to ask him." She said, "What do you want to know?"
I believe what a Muslim colleague once told me, that "people of faith never have a problem with one another." I don't see this as a religious issue at all.
In fact right here on LinkedIn the vast majority of people who like and comment on my posts, unless I am reading the names incorrectly, appear to be of the Muslim faith.
And if you go back to the original story of Purim, the Iranian king was a neutral guy. It was a single person in the kingdom, a sadistic dictator wannabe, who sought to disrupt the peace and target a certain people, namely the Jews.
There is another stereotype that says that Jews are out to take the United States for all it's worth, to exploit the government for our benefit.
Again, in my experience this is largely not true, although it disturbs me when I see examples of the opposite.
What I do see is that Jews are very passionate about doing what they think is the right thing. Even when the "right thing" seems absolutely crazy to the vast majority of people, like last night on the train...when my husband, my daughter and I were treated to a lengthy diatribe from a Jewish man who insisted that the Holocaust was G-d's "punishment" of the Jews and that we somehow "deserved" it.
My daughter was so upset by this guy, and so was I. But I said to her, "Guess what, you're going to college soon. Get ready to hear an earful."
The reality is that Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, people from so many backgrounds and countries have worked together for hundreds of years to make this nation the great democracy that it is. I love my country. Every week in synagogue we pray that G-d protect this nation and its leaders.
In the story of Queen Esther, it was a Jew, her uncle Mordechai, who disrupted a plot to take the king's life.
So you cannot always believe what you read in the paper, or what you see on TV. But I do believe in looking at body language.
In that light, here is a very interesting photo. It's one of the Iranian negotiators (not named in the photo caption), rejoicing at the Iranian nuclear deal.
His picture is on the cover of today's Washington Post. 

Contrast that photo with this one, of Vice-President Joe Biden, as he stands next to the President during the deal's announcement. This is not the smiling "Uncle Joe" I've become used to seeing in the headlines.

Of course, I could just be reading into things. My concern about the deal does not mean that the deal is necessarily bad.
In fact, multiple surveys show that the vast majority of Americans favor it, as the Washington Post notes.The Atlantic summarizes why: It's a pragmatic decision; the alternative is really only war, a war that few have the appetite for because what are we going to do, all kill each other? (I shoot you, you shoot me, and in the end we're both dead.) 
But the conventional wisdom does not always resonate, and to me I look at this reasoning and I see history repeating itself.
On this day in 1938, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, French Premier Edouard Daladier, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sign the Munich Pact, which seals the fate of Czechoslovakia, virtually handing it over to Germany in the name of peace. Upon return to Britain, Chamberlain would declare that the meeting had achieved “peace in our time.” - The History Channel, September 30, 1938
Appeasement as a strategy did not work then. It did not prevent Hitler from killing 11 million people, Jews and non-Jews alike, in the name of his lunatic vision of an "Aryan master race." It will not prevent Iran from doing the same thing for the purpose of creating a radical, state-sponsored army of terrorists spouting another lunatic vision, a crazy version of Islam that has absolutely nothing to do with what the Prophet ever intended.
For the Prophet Muhammad was a bearer of the message of peace. I can't do anything other than tell you what actual Muslims have to say for themselves.
Islam is a peaceful religion that advocates for tolerance, compassion, and respect. Islam is also a religion of equality as we are all God’s creations and as such are all deserving of respect. Islam taught respect among all races, between female and male, and between adult and child. Islam also preached compassion and tolerance for people of different beliefs and especially for people who worshipped the on true God.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, understood that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worshipped the same God, and in-fact were striving to follow the one word of God....Islam has historically been the most tolerant of the three major religions worshipping the one true God.
The Prophet Muhammad believed in leading by example and was known for being patient and even tempered....Muhammad would also pray for those who harmed, or wanted to harm him. Even when faced with evil, the Prophet would return peace and preach for the glory of God instead of hatred. 
And Muhammad did not believe in forced conversion. A person must openly and willingly embrace the word of God, otherwise it was meaningless....Muhammad did call for Jihad, but the original sense of the term Jihad means “struggle” and a Jihad can be both a personal struggle and a political struggle. Muhammad also allowed for martyrdom, but believed that physical violence should always be used as a method of last resort and when a follower of Islam was basically trapped or forced into violence to protect his own life.
Throughout his life Muhammad, peace be upon him, did engage in war and battles but only when it was absolutely necessary to ensure the continuance of Islam. - "What Was The Prophet Muhammad's Message Of Peace?"
If you ask me what I believe is the truth of the matter here, I personally believe what I learned when I worked at USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. That regular people in developing nations regularly suffer, while a few corrupt people try to take more than their fare share, diverting what rightfully belongs to the masses so as to enrich and take power for themselves.
Here is a belief I have that does not come from the government, but rather from studying, reading, and seeing popular representations on film. Dictators of ALL faiths, not only Muslim, use religion just as Marx said oppressors do, as a literal "opiate of the people." They turn people's natural desire to connect with something greater and more meaningful against them. They abuse our natural feeling for G-d. And they take all of our guilt, and shame, and promise absolution if only we will follow them and take up weapons against an imagined and manufactured "enemy."
I do not believe that Iran's corrupt sponsors of terorrism will let international inspectors disrupt any program of nuclear arms in any meaningful way. This is not meant at all as a means of disparagement: just the opposite, I have too much respect for their intelligence.
They know that people in all the world want peace. They trust that we are willing to be fooled, that we are foolish.
May G-d grant us the wisdom and the courage to fight back against these haters before it is too late. And to establish a world for our children, and our children's children, that is green and lush and covered, really covered, in words and deeds of peace.
Photo by Abe Novy via Flickr (Creative Commons). All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the Federal government as a whole. Screenshot of Iranian negotiator and Vice President Biden via, pool photo, Joe Klamar, Associated Press, from today's coverage of the Iran pact in the Washington Post. Screenshot of effigy/flag burning via Fox News.

Marketer, Analyze Thyself

You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions." - Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), "The Breakfast Club"
As a child growing up in the '80s I wanted very badly to be cooler than I was.
Although looking back I can't imagine why. Look at this junior high perm, circa approximately 1983.
On the weekends I used to watch all the movies by John Hughes. I loved "Sixteen Candles" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Pretty in Pink" and "The Breakfast Club."
All of them were movies about who we want to be, and the vast gap between that person and who we actually are.
A lot of girls wanted to be Molly Ringwald.
There she is as "Claire," in "The Breakfast Club," 1985. (I got that haircut, but not the color.)
There she is a "Andie," in "Pretty in Pink." SO COOL.
A lot of the time I wanted to be Judd Nelson, too. Yeah, I'm a rebel!
But in those times, to say such a thing would have branded me a lesbian. Lesbians were branded as bad, weird, dangerous, your suspiciously mannish looking gym teacher.
So I didn't say that, even though so much of the time I really felt like "Bender." "There you go, irrational authority," his expression says. "F.U.!"
Invariably in a John Hughes movie, there is a moment of transformation where the characters realize who they really are. They personal brands they've been carrying are just a ruse and a facade. They've got to be more honest.
Part of the reason people can't get to who they really are is a sense of discomfort, a fear, an unease. They are upset about what they perceive as inner flaws, and project these onto others unconsciously.
Writing in the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud called projection a "defense mechanism."
It's common. It is why people hate on other people for absolutely no reason. 
It is also why some marketers typically have trouble understanding, sympathizing with or catering to their true audience. They obfuscate, are condescending, distort the reality, because they can't face what's really going on. 
Great marketers don't have any unconscious defenses preventing them from seeing their audience as they are. Rather, they choose to observe their audience, love their audience, give their audience what they want, deciding consciously how far they want the brand's environment of indulgence to go.
If you're stuck on unconscious defenses you aren't doing a good job at work, generally. Clouded by bias, you misjudge the people you're dealing with, or perhaps you judge them all fairly pessimistically.
Railing against others shows nothing about them, but it does reveal a lot about you - as in, you probably need some therapy. The Talmud (Kiddushin 70a) says:
"He who [continually] declares [others] unfit is [himself] unfit and never speaks in praise [of people]. And
Samuel said: With his own blemish he stigmatizes [others] as unfit.” - Talmud (Kiddushin 70a).
How do you get past your own problems so as to be effective at work, or anywhere?
You can do the therapeutic work; it's worthwhile. And you can also do something that requires very little analysis. 
A colleague is fond of quoting this Stephen Covey gem, and the advice is even more profound than it may seem on the surface.
"Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
Here's the logic behind this approach.
When you try to solve your problems by analyzing yourself, typically all this creates is more confusion.
But when you forget about your ego and simply focus on the other, your mind is then at work, solving a problem. You aren't thinking about your defenses; personal worries, doubt and self-hatred don't have a chance to get in the way.
It's pretty strange, isn't it? Pretty paradoxical. To move yourself ahead, to make your way at work or anywhere, you've got to forget about you and simply focus on the other.
But it works, I can tell you that it does work.
Take off those blinders by solving the Rubik's cube of what makes the other person tick. It's the Platinum rule: "Treat others as they want to be treated."
You'll be amazed to see how fast those barriers fall, those seemingly un-scalable iron walls, that have so stubbornly been holding you back.
All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Chase Elliott Clark via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Only Superheroes Need Apply

I was talking with a friend over the weekend about her anniversary plans. "You doing anything nice?"
Really I was just making conversation. What with jobs, kids and errands, not to mention watching the money, most couples don't do the splurge.
"No, not really," she said, as expected. 
My friend has younger kids and we're heading into the empty-nester phase. I remembered how very badly I had wanted help as a young mother. It was hard to be responsible all the time. I longed to go out with my husband to the movies, just the two of us. But there was nobody we trusted to watch the kids, and even if we had, the cost of dinner and a movie and a babysitter was a barrier.
"Let me take the kids for a few hours," I impulsively offered, as I had no idea what I would do with her kids. "I'm not doing anything tomorrow."
Just then, one of her kids ran up to her. "Mommy, Mommy, look at this!"
He had a storybook in his hands with "Minions" characters all over it. Then he started talking, blah, blah, blah.
It wasn't very interesting to me, but I could see she was trying to follow. "That's great, honey! Yeah..." 
To me it looked like she was drowning, drowning in a pool.
She turned toward me. I could see her assembling her smile like a mask.
"That's okay, but thank you. It's sweet of you to offer."
Running, her son was running all around the room and she darted off.
I wonder when it was that we became so goddamn perfect. When did we decide to set that bar for performance so high, so impossibly high? We have to be the impossibly perfect parents, the impossibly perfect lovers, the impossibly perfect ones at work. 
Lots of resumes have come across my desk over the years. In roughly the past five, there's been a noticeable shift away from listing responsibilities and accomplishments. Instead, many communicators have a column on the right that simply shows all the skills and software packages they've mastered. 
And there is more. They also have personal websites, and portfolios online. They have freelance jobs, their own companies. They have bachelor's degrees, and master's degrees, and certifications. 
They're overqualified, they have pushed and pushed and made themselves into the Barbie dolls of communications excellence, even though the #1 qualification of all is someone I can trust, who can stop and critically think.
Relationships, too, have become so unforgiving.
My grandparents, on both sides (may they rest in peace), stuck together for many decades, through war and trauma and poverty. They didn't always get along. But they didn't make such a big deal about everything.
If they competed at times, it was usually over who the grandchildren loved more. My father's parents would ask if I preferred my mother's parents and vice-versa.
I remember that Grandma, my mother's mother, always tried to reduce the pressure on me. When we visited them, and I left the Sabbath table after an hour and laid down to rest on the couch, my father would follow me and get me up.
"Come back to the table," he used to say. "Your seat is waiting."
And before I could say "please stop anthropomorphizing," Grandma would appear.
"Alex," she wagged a finger in his face. "G-d is everywhere. Would you please not make such an ISSUE!"
I have to laugh. I loved her so much. Grandma, wherever you are, I love you.
The modern religious Jewish community has far, far exceeded any kind of discipline my father tried to impose. The rules have exploded, they are enormous, it is impossible for me to keep any sort of track.
And then there is dating. Which I observe from a distance, watching my kids and their peers growing up and trying to mate. I don't remember anything like this kind of pressure in my life - to be thin, and beautifully made up, and an academic super-achiever, with an internship, who has independently invented a mobile app with which to save the world.
And all of this pressure hitting before you even hit puberty!
No wonder our children are becoming anxious, depressed, and increasingly resistant to the over-prescribed path we call "progression" up the educational ladder. 
About one-third of U.S. college students had difficulty functioning in the last 12 months due to depression, and almost half said they felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year, according to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, which examined data from 125,000 students from more than 150 colleges and universities. - 2013 National College Health Assessment via the American Psychological Association
I have to wonder, is the increasing willingness to medicate school-age children solely reflective of better medical care? Or is it little more than a socially sanctioned method of blocking their normal responses to abnormal social expectations?
Meaning, what if we simply cut the number of hours they have to sit in a chair, ended standardized testing and replaced it with narrative annual evaluations, eliminated homework and simply let them go out to the backyard and play?
Business leaders are under a similarly mounting pressure. In the past - and believe me this was not a perfect system, but it was clear and reliable - it was enough to run a business and make a profit. Over time, the expectations grew to include a certain amount of corporate social responsibility, and then grew again to cover employee engagement. These expectations make sense and to a certain extent are, of course, reasonable - from a return-on-investment perspective, and frankly also ethically.
But it is not reasonable to expect any human being to assume the qualities of an omnipotent being. And this, I think, is where business has gone off the rails.
It is not possible for any human being to be endlessly inspiring, perfectly humane, super-fantastically creative, innovating constantly, disruptively, and in a revolutionary manner, infinitely, all the time, in a never-ending explosion of perfect leadership skills.
It is not possible.
In the world of branding we speak of this term "positioning," meaning that the brand occupies a very distinct, very relevant, very compelling and consistent place in the customer's mind.
A very distinct and singular place.
Not all places, for to do so would be not only impossible but would eliminate from the customer's mind that space within which the brand itself, in all its equity, has lodged itself like a rock, hopefully.
No - you want the brand to be simple, to be limited, to be singular and to be good at whatever that particular brand can do.
The same principle applies to ourselves, to our roles as parents, to our work, to our relationships, to our religious practice, to whatever extent we want to have one, and to the leaders who shape our world.
We've got to stop expecting ourselves, and everyone we deal with, to live up to some kind of superpower mold. It doesn't exist. It is impossible. It's unrealistic and it hurts us as long as we can't let it go.
We've got to let it go.
If we could allow ourselves to be human, if we could stop punishing people for the inescapable fact that human beings are born to learn through making mistakes, that would really, really be a good thing.
If we could stop expecting perfection of ourselves, maybe we would be a little less defensive about the mistakes we invariably do make.
Opening up a space for really good dialogue about what kind of people we are, who we want to be.
Making it okay to put your feet up on the couch and do nothing for a few hours while a friend takes the kids and similarly, does nothing very special in particular.
Bringing the joy of living back to this increasingly frantic setting on an imaginary treadmill, that we have come to experience as "life" in the default.
Photo by José María Pérez Nuñez via Flickr (Creative Commons). All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

Is Ellen Pao Reddit's "Gone Girl"?

In the film "Gone Girl," a psychopathic woman wields female victimhood against her cheating husband like a gun. 

It's a scary movie for men and women alike. We watched the show on Saturday night as a free feature pick on Xfinity. Neither of us fell asleep till the tiny hours of the morning.
Judging from a random selection of simultaneous Tweets, we were not the only sleepless ones. 
At the same time, in real life, Ben Affleck - the popular star of the movie, who is rumored to be a philanderer in real life - is getting a divorce from his wife, the also popular star Jennifer Garner.
It is hard not to favor Jennifer, because of her good-girl and good-mom persona. But that is precisely the point of the movie: The brands we see on TV are often grossly manufactured. 
Meanwhile, Ellen Pao's departure from Reddit is a top news story this weekend, as has been her ongoing litigation against San Francisco venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Her prominence in two stories making headline news has made her a lightning rod for those on both side of the sexism debate.
Some see her as a "fighter of sexism," a victim of a kind of "terrorism." Others see her as an "incompetent feminist CEO," a professional victim, much like the female lead in "Gone Girl," out to milk her gender status for money.
Pao ascended to the national spotlight for her lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as well as due to her controversial reign as Reddit's CEO. She stepped down after a massive protest against her firing of a popular employee.
In the KP lawsuit, the jury considered whether Kleiner Perkins had discriminated or retaliated against Pao based on gender. Here's the dispute in brief:
  • Pao argued her performance was excellent, based on the content of her business decisions and recommendations. Kleiner Perkins says it wasn't good enough, based on the process of her business behavior, e.g. poor relationship skills, evidenced by continuous clashes with peers and failure to provide leadership to clients. 
  • Pao argued she received similar negative feedback as the men in the firm, but they were promoted where she was not.
  • Pao argued that she was treated worse for being female, while Kleiner Perkins said if anything she was treated more positively.  
  • Pao argued that she was standing up for women as a group, e.g. that sexism was a feature of the culture, while Kleiner Perkins argued that Pao was motivated by self-interest. 
Kleiner Perkins partner and billionaire John Doerr was Pao's mentor. He called her claims "unfounded" and defended the integrity of the firm. In fact, a recent study showed that when you control for education, experience, and job title, tech fields in fact show no gender difference in pay.
But at least one industry commenter, Kumar Thangudu, suggests that Pao was at the very least "technically competent" and blames KP for "bad internal processes." (It's been noted more than once, including by Thangudu, that she recognized Twitter's potential early on but was ignored.) Commenting in Quora, he says:
"Ellen is (a) technically competent VC who hasn't been a founder but clearly has a strong heuristic to investing properly and helping founders. She's been the victim of bad internal processes at KPCB."
Similar to the inexplicably-psychotic-wife stereotype deployed in "Gone Girl," KP has attempted to portray Pao as, essentially, an aggressive, calculating b-word. But even Doerr noted that although she failed to prove her particular case, the tech industry was also on trial and lost, rightfully so.
“Now we know there was a second trial going on in the court of public opinion. And on this topic of diversity, it found against the technology industry and we, in the venture industry, we get that,” he said.
At KP, says Pao, two partners tried to engage her in a sexual relationship. One of them, Ajit Nazre, was successful. After she ended it, says Pao, he retaliated against her at work, plus was allowed to review her performance anonymously.
Harvard University has passed a policy prohibiting professors from engaging students in sexual relationships, because the power imbalance has an unethical quality that tilts against the student.
In fact, KP later fired Nazre for sexual harassment of another employee. But after Pao filed her lawsuit against KP, the company put her on a "performance improvement plan" then fired her in what it claimed was a "downsizing."
What happened at Reddit is less clear. What most of us know is that Victoria Taylor, a female employee beloved by users, was fired. But she has spoken out and we still don't know why that happened. 
We also don't know why Reddit, a virtual man-cave, would hire a seeming fighter for women's rights to serve as its CEO. From a branding point of view, this makes little sense to me. Clearly Pao's public statements reflect a cognitive dissonance at the very least about the sensibilities of the brand's users - for example she dismissed their petition about Taylor's firing as insignificant.
In the end, as we all know, the truth behind any situation is extremely gray, extremely nuanced, extremely complicated. What is clear is that branding can serve as a framework and a filter to help us make sense of complicated things.
And that branding, as in the movie "Gone Girl," is a tool wielded universally, regardless of one's particular gender. 
Entertainment Weekly cover via E Online. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.