Jennifer Sey: Wokeism Is a Costume Elites Wear to Pretend They Care About Social Justice
“I was a traitor to what has become almost like a religion … which maniacally upheld these ideals that COVID restrictions were for the good of the masses, when in fact, they were doing such great harm.”
We sit down with Jennifer Sey, who was on track to become CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. after becoming chief marketing officer and brand president. Her advocacy against COVID restrictions, especially school closures, changed all that. She’s the author of “Levi’s Unbuttoned: The Woke Mob Took My Job but Gave Me My Voice.”
Wokeism is a “costume that the left, liberal elite wraps around themselves to say I care about social justice. I care about all these causes. I am a good person. If you threaten to expose that you need to be banished.”
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Jennifer Sey, such a pleasure to have you on American thought Leaders.
Thanks for having me on. I’m really happy to be here.
Let’s start with your story. Give us the background of how we got here.
Yes. I’ll give you the short version. I worked at Levi’s for almost 23 years, a brand and a company that people around the world love. I love the product. I’m wearing it now. But in 2020, I pushed back on the school closures in my city of San Francisco. This went against the woke ideology and the Democratic leadership, both in my city, state, and at the national level. And this was considered unacceptable.
I pushed back, and back, and back for two years. Ultimately, I was pushed out of the company because of woke capitalism, essentially because I was foolish enough or perhaps courageous enough to say, “This is a lie. This is a lie. This is benefiting no one, and in fact is harming many, many people, and many children.” But I was a traitor to what has become almost a religion. And certainly, I was a trait to my class, which maniacally upheld these ideals that COVID restrictions were for the good of the masses, when in fact, they were doing such great harm.
There’s something about you that was already different. There were many things. That’s why you’re laughing. You were sending your kids to public school, which was atypical of your peer group.
Yes, it was really atypical, not just of my side-to-side peers. I think probably in two, three employee levels below me in the corporate hierarchy, you couldn’t find a single soul who sent their kids to public school, not in San Francisco. They perhaps moved to a wealthier neighborhood across the bay where they might feel comfortable sending their kids to public school. But by and large, I was in the vast minority.
And so, over the course of my two years of kicking and screaming about how wrong this was and how children were being harmed, my peers all sent their kids back to school, because their kids went to private school. That’s when I thought the light bulb would go off, and people would see the hypocrisy if I just made it clear in a calm, nice way, but they didn’t, because the hypocrisy, in a sense, is the point.
This pose of wokeness is a cloak they wrap themselves in to signal virtue to hide greed, corruption, and keeping all the good stuff for themselves. It’s this costume that the Left liberal elite wraps around itself to say, “I care about social justice. I care about all these causes. I am a good person. If you threaten to expose that, you need to be banished.”
My pushing back on this one very simple thing, which now seems so obviously not that crazy of a thing to have done, “Let’s open schools for public school students,” that risked exposing the entire fraudulent operation. As we’ve seen of late Sam Bankman-Fried, the now notorious founder and CEO of FTX, he said it in a DM exchange with a Vox reporter. He said, “It’s a game we woke Westerner’s play, so that people like us.” I couldn’t say it any better than that. He said it himself.
Now that was fascinating when I came across it, because you don’t see it verbalized very often.
It’s interesting, though, because he thought he was talking to someone that was in his cohort. Why would she expose it? She’s in the press. They’re buddies. They’re both up to the same game. He didn’t think she would release that. Add to that, he doesn’t really think there’s anything wrong with it. They don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.
Because if you only ever talk to people who agree with you and think the same thing, it’s very hard to think that there’s anything wrong with that. That becomes your morality, that becomes your religion, that becomes the way you think. You don’t let anything pierce that. So, he shared it with her as a fellow member of this woke tribe. Why would she expose it? She would risk exposing herself. But she saw the hypocrisy and exposed it.
That’s a fascinating take. There’s so many areas to cover here. I want to start with when you first noticed something was off.
March 13th, 2020, the day that everything locked down in San Francisco. It was off from day one. I could say it was even before that, because we felt it coming in San Francisco. We knew this was coming. The fear and the panic was already being generated. But I was obsessively reading the data, along with my husband, that was coming out of Italy, in which the median age of death was over 80.
Nobody was bothering to look at actual data or adhere to the pre-pandemic playbook, which said you never shut schools down for more than a couple of weeks. And so, my alarm bells went off from the very beginning. It was from day one that me and my husband, we both said, “Hell no, this is wrong. People are going to be harmed.”
I had kept my advocacy to children in schools. It wasn’t because I wasn’t opposed to other things like lockdowns and business closures and keeping old folks in retirement homes from their loved ones and sick people in hospitals from the comfort—I was opposed to all of this. And then the upcoming vaccine mandates for a vaccine that we now know does not even work.
People were fired. I was opposed to all of this, but I did try to manage my outspokenness to children, and schools, and restrictions on kids. I thought that would be something we could all reach some agreement on, that we should not harm children, but I was wrong. It was all of a piece.
But it took quite a while for your exit from Levi’s.
Yes, it did. It actually took quite a while, because I was outspoken from the very beginning. Like I said, March 13th. It wasn’t until September of that year, a full six months later, that somebody raised it with me at work. It was our head of corporate communications, and she said, “You might want to maybe think about maybe not doing this. When you speak, you speak on behalf of the company.”
The implication being there would be reputational harm caused to the company. I would argue their bigger concern was reputational harm to them, my peers themselves, who had adopted this virtuous pose to say, “I stay home all the time, because I care about people.”
Meanwhile, in September or October of that year, they all began to send their kids back to private schools. I really believed at that point the fever would break and people would see the hypocrisy and there would be an uprising of people saying, “We need to open the schools. We need to open businesses.”
At this point, playgrounds in San Francisco were closed. I thought, people are going to definitely argue and they’re going to say, “We need to open the playgrounds,” but they didn’t. It was so oppressive in San Francisco. It’s like the further Left leaning a city, state, or town was, the more oppressive and the more intense the restrictions were.
And by December, when I started to lead rallies with my husband and a few friends, they were sparsely populated. People were afraid to push back against this religion. They were afraid, because you experienced tremendous reputational harm if you did. You were called everything from a teacher killer, to a racist, to a eugenicist. Nobody wants to hire a person or give a person like that a job. Who would?
So, from the first time that I got talked to in September, it was just constant for the next year-and-a-half. And I was so angry. A sane person might say to me, “Well, why didn’t you just stop?” I couldn’t because the hypocrisy, it was so great and I was so angry that these people would dare to say to me, while sending their own kids to in-person school, “You can’t advocate for poor children to be in school.” I don’t understand what is wrong with anyone that would not advocate for the same.
I don’t understand it. It lacks empathy. It lacks any imagination that these children might be suffering. It’s cowardly. And so, despite the fact that I am not someone that likes to be hated, I don’t like fighting with people, and I like to be liked, I couldn’t stop, because the hypocrisy was just so enraging to me.
Before we continue, I want to mention, and you highlight this in the book too, you were a very long-standing CMO. You kept that job a lot longer than others, because you were quite successful at your job. That would suggest to me that you got along with a lot of people, because that is a very important part of the job.
Yes, it’s a prerequisite, especially for women in corporate America. I think some men can get away with sharper elbows. But I was good at my job. I was well liked in the company. It sounds a little obnoxious to say that, but I was. I was well liked. I’d been there for a long time. I had friends across many years and generations and iterations of the company.
My own boss, the CEO, he called it a culture carrier. What he meant by that was I embodied the ethos of the company and the brand. I was a CMO for eight years, very unusual. The average tenure is about two years. It’s a slippery seat. People don’t deliver on the expectations. There’s a lot of, I would say, fancy talkers and non-doers in the role, but you got to get the work done and you got to drive the business.
That, in a sense is what’s alarming about this. There are those that would say, “Well, you’re this corporate executive. You’re not just any employee. You’re not just any person. You have an obligation.” What, to keep my mouth shut? If I can’t speak up, somebody well-liked, beloved, with 22 years under my belt at the company, in line to be CEO, who can? That should scare us all.
It’s actually really dangerous when you create a culture, both in a company and more broadly, that is not open to debate and dissent. Again, I’m going to use Sam Bankman-Fried. Nobody who saw the weakness in this company, the fraudulence, the corruption felt that they could say anything because he was beloved. That was the story. He’s a good guy. He supports the right causes, best to not say anything.
And we’ve heard this. It wasn’t just people in the company. People outside the company, journalists didn’t question or provide any scrutiny. Look how many people now have been harmed, and how many people have lost their life savings. Not just really rich people, regular people who put their life savings in this exchange. That’s what happens when we don’t question and challenge, and we see that something is wrong.
What struck me about this situation was SPF basically spent pretty lavishly across all sorts of very Left wing causes. And when I saw this it almost feels like protection. Look, he’s paying off all these media. He’s the number two contributor to the Democratic party.
He’s basically everywhere where scrutiny might come from the establishment. They’ve all been covered. It almost seemed very deliberate. And that’s when I saw that exchange with the Vox reporter. I thought to myself, “Wow, he really was looking at this cynically the whole time. That’s amazing.”
Yes, he admits it. He writes it down, right out loud, because he doesn’t really think there’s anything wrong with it. It just fell apart. It functions on two levels, because I think you’re right. He’s paying off, without calling it that. It’s a wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Paying off those who might seek to expose him or apply any scrutiny.
But then, broadly, for the rest of us, whether it’s the everyday investor or the everyday employee or just the general public, it provides a cover. “Oh, look, he’s doing all these nice things. He is a nice guy. I won’t question it.” So, it works on two levels. He buys himself cover from any degree of scrutiny whatsoever, and we can see how dangerous and problematic this is.
Now, even for those I would say that perhaps didn’t so overtly pay for that cover, I’m reminded of Elizabeth Holmes, a favorite subject of mine for many years, because she seemed so unconvincing to me the whole time. She seemed just a little crazy, honestly, in terms of her self presentation, but it was a similar adoption of a pose, without perhaps all the payoffs. Although, when you look at who was on her board, she still bolstered support in that way.
When they go beyond selling the product, her product was this thing that never worked, that was supposed to draw blood with a finger prick. It never worked. That was beside the point. All she talked about was changing the world, changing healthcare, changing the way you get, receive, and understand healthcare and you understand your own health. This always sets off alarm bells for me. Sell the product. If you’re doing any more than that, there’s a game being played.
You have a ton of fascinating observations about woke capitalism from someone who frankly played the game. And you also talk about that too. I definitely want to get into that. What I want to talk about now is this time period towards the end of that six months that we discussed earlier, when you were outspoken, people started to notice, people started coming and saying, “Hey, I don’t know if you want to be talking about what you’re talking about.” And then, your plan was to ultimately exit with fanfare, with a splash. Please tell me about that and why.
Yes, it went on for two years, my advocacy, and them pushing back saying, “You can’t do this.” By December of ’21/January of ’22, that is when I was told, “There’s no longer a place for you. You can’t be the CEO because of the things you’ve been saying and doing. Therefore, you can’t sit in your current chair, because that is the role that ultimately becomes the CEO. So you need to leave.” I was offered severance. I decided that I would not take that, because that inevitably comes with the signing of a nondisclosure agreement.
What the nondisclosure agreement would require is that I never speak about the terms of my ousting. I was not okay with that, because I was increasingly alarmed over the course of the two, two-and-a-half years, however long it was, at the illiberalism that had taken hold of this institution and other institutions like it, corporate entities across the country.
It had traveled from college campuses and oozed into companies. And I found it and still find it to be incredibly dangerous, because if you insist on a culture where free speech is not tolerated, not only is it non-inclusive, which is problematic in and of itself, but I actually think it’s fraught and rife with the potential for corruption and fraud like we’ve seen with Theranos and FTX, and Enron, and WeWork. Should I go on?
There were people in those companies who knew what was going on, but they didn’t feel they could say anything. And there are plenty of examples, which I cite in my book, that are less overtly criminal, but problematic. Because if you cannot have a conversation in the company about what is working and what is not working, what is true and what is not, you can’t innovate. You can’t move forward. It stands in the way of progress when we can’t have these conversations, because we’re all just adhering to propaganda.
Why did you decide that you’re going to go out with a bang with this op-ed and common sense?
Sorry. Yes, I didn’t finish answering the question. Because I felt that it was too important. It was absolutely imperative to expose this culture that was epitomized by my last two years at Levi’s, this woke capitalism as a pose, a fraudulent corrosive pose that corporate executives adopt to hide what is really going on underneath the covers, which is anything but progressive, or values-driven, or inclusive.
Essentially, it’s a cover for, at its best, business as it’s always been, profit for shareholders and executives. At its worst, there’s real corruption underneath it and criminality. One can easily lead to the other. It was too important to me to expose that, because it’s un-American. It’s dangerous. It is a violation of the spirit of the First Amendment. It stands in the way of truth-seeking, ultimately. So, I went out with a bang.
You put your money where your mouth was too, because you would have gotten probably at least a million dollars or something like that if you had played along.
I would’ve gotten a million dollars if I had signed the non-disclosure and never spoken of any of this again.
But didn’t they know at this point that this wasn’t your style?
You would think. But I I’ll go back to the example of Sam Bankman-Fried and saying what he said to this reporter. It’s beyond their imagination that anybody would give up. This is the culture. They can’t fathom a world in which one of their own would give up a million dollars to speak the truth. It’s like it’s beyond their wildest imagination, because they wouldn’t give up anything. They would give up nothing. Money is always first.
That’s fascinating. It paints a more disturbing picture than I was aware of when you put it that way. You have a lot of great observations from being in the thick of this over a couple of years. For starters, this woke ideology, a lot of people have only really become aware of it in the last few years.
When it comes to school, countless people I’ve spoken with told me the silver lining of this virtual learning was, “I actually heard what the teachers were teaching my kids. And I cut it off very quickly.” But tell me what you’ve learned. You have thought very deeply about this.
Yes, it’s important to look historically at what woke meant in the beginning. In the ’40s, and the ’50s, and even into the ’60s, it was really just a very simple thing that was being awake or alert to the fact that there was racial inequality, and being part of the movement to change that. It’s admirable, I have no issue with that.
The issue I have is what’s happened in the last 10, 15 years, but that has accelerated in the last three to five, which is the corruption and the commoditization of those beliefs into an ideology which can never be questioned, ever, about gender ideology, race ideology, or body positivity.
We’ll use a specific example of trans people. I had trans people on my team at work. I’m very supportive. I would never want a person to be discriminated against for anything, including being unvaccinated, but that’s a separate point. But if you question whether or not an 11 year old should be on puberty blockers, which we have no research on about the mid to long-term impacts, then you are violating this ideology. Therefore, you are evil and you must be banished.
It has become religious in nature. The capitalism is really just an attempt to profit off of this ideology and the passion behind this ideology amongst primarily Gen Z and millennial consumers. It’s really corrupted at this point, because they’re really just co-opting it to make money.
Something just struck me here. You became even more outspoken subsequent to leaving Levi’s, and obviously writing a book and so forth. Along the way, what has happened to your friends or your peer group, or how has that changed or not?
Oh, no, it’s changed significantly. I would say there’s several groups. There were my friends and colleagues at Levi’s. None stood by me during the course of the two years at Levi’s. I’ve heard from a few since to say, “I’m probably not supposed to talk to you, but I hope you’re well.” So that’s nice. Makes me feel good. These are people I knew and worked side by side with for 20 years. My friends from outside of work. It’s more like, “Well, we’re really confused by the things you say and do, but I guess we won’t banish you completely, but we find you upsetting and confusing.”
And then, there’s family members that I have no contact with because what I said was so problematic as to be deemed evil and dangerous, which is what I will never truly understand in my heart of hearts about any of this. Why couldn’t we all just disagree on perhaps what the best path forward was? Why did I have to be positioned as literally the incarnation of all things evil by people even in my own family? I will never fully grasp why that happened.
I know. You talk about your brother. That must have been very difficult.
Yes, that’s been the most painful part of all of it. I really wrestled with whether or not to put anything in the book about it at all, because it really does expose a wound. You asked about friends. I also have made so many new friends, lots of moms from across the country who pushed back on the restrictions and this unfairness directed at children. We come from all walks of life. We come from all sides of the political aisle. Some are religious, some are not. I’ve never really had a group of friends so diverse in their upbringing. And they have been a tremendous support to me.
But what I’ve found is some of them have also had these family fractures, and it’s the thing we bond over the most, because it is the most painful thing. I find for myself, when reading memoir, which is my favorite thing to read, it’s those moments of vulnerability and of pain when the writer is really truly honest, where I find the most connection and inspiration. So I felt, for that reason, it was important to include some of it. I have really only included what’s publicly available, meaning social media exchanges. I have not included any private communication.
Has your view of humanity changed at all through this?
It has. I’m trying to be optimistic, but I feel sad mostly. People seem more interested in fitting in and being in with the group than doing the right thing. I did not believe that about my friends. I didn’t believe it before. I thought they were critical thinkers. I thought they believed in questioning authority, and challenging the narrative.
But when it came down to it, it seems sure to me like 90 per cent of people went with the story they were being told, and were willing to ostracize and demonize their own friends and family members. There’s something really upsetting about that. In a sense, I should’ve known. I study history. There are so many examples.
I cite the Milgram experiment in my book. Two thirds of people continued to register shocks on these fake research study participants. They didn’t realize they were the ones being studied, the ones administering the shocks. If you know anything about that study, you realize that it’s been replicated many times. And those are always the results.
Somewhere between 60 and 75 per cent of people just obey authority. That’s consistent across geographies, across cultures, and across decades. That’s what we saw here. So, it’s disheartening and it’s very different to learn it from a book, versus to go through it in your own life. That really drives the point home, when you go through it in your own life.
What do you think about this authority? How do you think this authority could have been so wrong on so many things consistently? Actually, I find that quite stunning.
You mean the COVID industrial complex?
Yes. The lockdowns, implementing policy that was known to not be a good idea in the literature previously, throwing out the book, doing a type of vaccination that is untried and untested, and impossible to test in a short period of time. And then, specifically around children, that’s also been a question. It seemed like, in all cases, the children, our society’s most vulnerable, were the least vulnerable to the virus, and we knew that in March of 2020.
Yes. They somehow, some way, became the locus of all of our anxiety. All of the greatest restrictions were put on children. Even now, close to three years later, the debates are about masking in schools. Do we bring them back? Nobody’s debating do we mask in bars, and do we mask in clubs, and do we mask at sports arenas? It’s always children. That’s the locus of our anxiety. I don’t understand it. I don’t know how to explain it. Honestly, I don’t. It was like a mass psychosis, or a global social contagion.
There are those that think, and I adhere to this somewhat, in the U.S., we have to think of the United States as a global leader. Others followed our lead in a sense. Anything Trump said was bad. So, we had to do the opposite. I really did believe in my heart of hearts that the Democratic party would use this to defeat Trump. They’ll position themselves as the good people fighting disease and keeping people safe, but once they win the presidency, they’ll stop.
But it didn’t stop. You can’t stop it once it’s a social contagion. I don’t know if they meant to or they tried to, but it never stopped. But it was in the ether. It was among the people at this point. And it was unstoppable.
I read something in the book, which struck me in a different way. You were actually talking about how to sell jeans. I’ll read what you wrote. You said, “The trick in fashion, is to get people to all want to look the same and buy the same stuff with only slight variations, while telling them they are being themselves. It’s a remarkable sleight of hand if you think about it.” When I read that, I said, “Is she talking about selling jeans, or she’s talking about wokeism?”
I was actually talking about selling jeans, but I think you’re right, it is analogous, isn’t it? Yes, in fashion, at least in mass marketed fashion and certainly at Levi’s, where our whole reason for being, our vision for the brand was to enable your authentic self-expression, you don’t have to look like everybody else, but we sold that idea to everyone, and they’re all wearing the same jeans in the end. But marketing individuality, that is what all fashion brands do at this point. They market individuality. They commoditize your authenticity.
What strikes me about wokeism, and this is the passage really made me think about this, is that the people that really believe in it, which I know there are many people that really truly believe in it, and aren’t these looking at it cynically like SPF was. They believe they’re changing the world through their individual, thoughtful, strong, moral positions. But the reality feels more to me like everybody actually has the exact same position and the moment a different position is taken, the mob descents and destroys that person.
There’s nothing just or kind about it. I always laugh before this all this happened to me, that the people on my side, which was the woke side, would always talk about themselves and label themselves as good trouble. They would use that John Lewis phrase, good trouble. I would laugh and say to myself, “You’re no trouble at all. Everyone agrees with you. Who are these people you’re waging war against, that you’re fighting against? You’ve never met one. You don’t know anyone in Silver Lake or Brooklyn that thinks any differently than you. You’re not good trouble.”
That’s what’s so astonishing about all of this is, and you’re right, although I didn’t think about it when I wrote that. Wokeism allows them to adopt this, “I’m a fighter for all things good.” I don’t know what they’re fighting. Everyone they’ve ever met agrees with them. They’re not fighters. They will never stand apart. They will never stand up for anyone that goes against this ideology even slightly. I would agree with you, that most of these folks think they are fighting for the right thing, and that somehow that justifies horrific treatment of other human beings.
This is why I couldn’t understand. They justified locking poor children at home with no schooling for 18 months without an adult to supervise as righteous and just. They’re true believers. But they stopped analyzing and thinking about what was happening. Because there is no universe where that was right and just.
There is no universe where old people being forced to die scared and alone is just. But they believed in this bigger cause and in themselves as righteous, and they could not allow that stuff, the facts, to creep in. It justified discrimination against the unvaccinated. My company fired people that wouldn’t get vaccinated with a vaccine that does not prevent infection or transmission. And they have still not rescinded the requirement.
One of the things I found very interesting about reading your book is that, intuitively, it was very obvious to me that whatever the logic that was driving this COVID policy somehow was very much like woke logic. But what I found very interesting is that you make that connection explicitly throughout.
It is connected, although I think the start point was different. With most woke causes, and I’ll just use one that’s a little less fraught, “body positivity.” It’s still pretty fraught, to be clear. Body positivity touts healthy at any size. False. That’s not true. It doesn’t matter. You can’t question that ideology.
It’s debatable where it started. One could argue it started as a movement by women and it was adopted by medicine, pharma, companies, corporations, and ultimately the government. We couldn’t say during COVID that it was dangerous to be overweight. I said it and that made me a fat phobe.My point here is that usually it starts over here in the woke world and gets adopted by the party.
With COVID, it went the opposite direction. It started being touted by the party, the Democratic party. This is what good people did. Good governors locked down, and good mayors locked down and closed schools. Public health gave them the cover for that with the public health bureaucrats saying, “If you don’t want to do this, you don’t care about people and everyone will die.” It started in the party, but was adopted as a woke cause. So, it went the opposite direction with COVID versus what we’ve typically seen.
But the way it functioned and operated, I agree with you, became similar. The truth didn’t matter. It was ideological. It didn’t matter what harms were being caused. Children were being harmed. People were being fired. Old folks were dying alone. It didn’t matter. None of that mattered.
What mattered was belief in this ideology. I’ll use body positivity. It doesn’t matter that people are actually being harmed by being morbidly obese and they are being harmed. Their lives are being shortened. They are less healthy. They are less mobile. They’re sicker. We can’t say that, because the mantra is healthy at any size. It’s ideological. And you have to be pure in the belief of that ideology or you are evil and must be shunned.
You’ve said that your biggest mistake was not understanding, and this is my shorthand, not understanding the woke side taking logic. Please explain that to me.
Perhaps what makes me foolish is I thought I could be convincing. I thought I could make it make sense. I could state it all very clearly. I’m going to be nice about it. I’m not going to yell at people. I’m going to do it in my nice lady voice, my nice lady executive voice. I can make it make sense.
But there wasn’t any making it make sense. People had bought in with religious fervor to this belief system and anything that strayed or veered from that was heresy. And I misunderstood the intensity of the fervor. That was my mistake. I thought I could pierce that with logic.
Early on, and you document this, you implemented some very woke policy yourself at the company before COVID. So tell me about that, and tell me what you think about it now.
Yes. First up, I have thought a lot about the line. What is the line in terms of what companies should and can do? I lay out the line pretty clearly in the book. You can agree or disagree. I actually think companies adopting policies that further fairness and better working conditions for employees, I support that.
I’ll use an example from Levi’s past. Levi’s was the first Fortune 500 company to offer same sex partner health benefits. I support that. Most people would support that now. It was very controversial at the time, but we extended greater equality to all employees. In fact, we actually extended that same benefit to unmarried heterosexual couples in the company as well. When you keep it in the four walls of the company and you improve and enhance the working conditions for employees, that’s a good thing.
When you start signaling that outside the company as a marketing strategy for the company to drive revenues, that is problematic in many ways. One, it makes many employees feel unwelcome. Two, it alienates some potential customers. Three, it’s dishonest. It’s a lie. It’s a marketing strategy.
That’s my line in terms of what I think is okay. I don’t know if you would argue that giving same sex couples, partners, giving them health benefits was a woke policy back in 1992. I don’t think so. It was about fairness and equality, just like integrating factories was in the ’50s, which Levi’s did before the law required it.
The policies that you’re referring to, that I was a part of, are about the employee resource groups. I’m still thinking through some of this, so you’ll bear with me. Employee resource groups are all the rage in corporate America. Essentially, it’s cohorts of various subsets of employees, sometimes race-based. I was the executive sponsor of the black employee resource group at the request of some employee friends in my group.
Some were not race-based. There was a veterans ERG. There was a parents ERG. There was a disabilities employee resource group. They’re not always race-based. The intentions are well meaning, in that it’s an attempt to create a sense of community within the community.
The story I tell is I was a young woman coming up in this company. There weren’t a lot of female executives. It was very easy to not feel part of the broader culture. For the women in the company that were coming up, we had our own little shadow group. We created that sense of community ourselves. It was not at odds with the goals of the company. It was completely in sync.
But we would get together and talk about our experience, many of us had young children, and we were up half the night. It was really just a way to create connection and community, and actually enhanced my connection to the place. It didn’t make me feel separate, it made me feel more a part of it. But I think the problem is how these things get executed.
When certain groups in these company-supported ERGs are perceived to have more benefits than other employees, then that creates discord within the company, and it’s problematic. When some groups have goals that are different or outside of the company’s larger mission, that’s also a problem. Ultimately, it comes down to how they’re executed. I’ve seen such poor execution over the last few years, that I’m beginning to wonder if it can work.
What I’m thinking about is, in woke ideology, there is the idea is that if you’re in one group, if it’s race-based, if you’re white, you can’t ever understand what it would be like. You can’t empathize, really, at all because you have no idea. And don’t even try. And if you suggest you could, that’s terrible.
That’s evidence of how racist you really are.
Right. What I’m saying is that you’ve thought a bit, and I’ve thought about this stuff as well, is how, essentially, having a veteran’s group because these people have a common history gets weaponized into this ideology. And then, actually, when it’s implemented, it becomes used to further that ideology and create divisions where they might not exist.
Yes, that can happen. In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe it has to happen. Look, I was the white sponsor of the black ERG. Anyone could join. There were white folks in the black ERG that considered themselves friends and allies. There were Latino folks. So, they weren’t exclusive in that sense, which I think is different than some companies. In some companies, there is no joining if you aren’t a member of the group.
For the first two years when I was a part of it, it really did create this greater sense of community and belonging to the larger organization. It really did. I stand by that, but I do think things got a little crazy in the summer of 2020. Things just accelerated, and there was an expectation of a different kind of treatment.
And in fact, it’s funny, I haven’t told this story, but I’ll tell it here. I think there were 11 or 12 ERGs at Levi’s. There was a lot of anger and jealousy because the black ERG got more attention and they got more of a floor with the executives. They got more visibility, and that just accelerated. Now, part of the reason was because I was leading it, and I was really bullish, and I felt I had some really talented employees that had perhaps not gotten the visibility that they deserved.
But after the ascendancy of BLM and the murder of George Floyd, the black ERG really got all the fanfare in the organization. There was a lot of infighting and bickering, because the others didn’t feel they were getting the visibility and attention they deserved.
Something else that struck me as I was reading was you observing how corporate CEOs or people high up in the corporate ladder are actually quite influenced by their kids, who very often have been going to schools where they’ve been extensively indoctrinated with this woke ideology. And this helps precipitate that. I thought about it more. It’s like I can imagine that could actually play a very significant role in changing the direction of companies. That’s something I’d never occurred to me before.
Yes. It’s part of this whole movement and trend towards I’m your friend, not your parent. Parents want to be in good with their kids. They don’t want to tell them what to do. It’s also part of this, “I feel a little guilty that I have so much money. I acknowledge my privilege.”
And the kids feel even more guilty. These kids have had every advantage under the sun since forever. They have unimaginable wealth. They have trust funds. They feel very guilty about it and they want to overcome that guilt.
They do it through the presentation of themselves as social justice warriors. They have learned this in their very woke elementary schools. They went on to woke colleges. Every space is a safe space. Every sideways glance is a grave social injustice that they must battle with every ounce of their being.
They come home and they tell their parents about this, and their parents lean in because they’re the friend, not the parents. I told my parents that they were wrong about everything too, but they didn’t believe me because they knew better. Now, there’s just all this guilt. And so, the parent adopts the same pose that the child adopts so that the child will be proud of them, I believe.
That makes perfect sense, because that’s how this works. If you are not anointed with the moral veneer, so to speak, then you’re going to get shunned. So, the parents are going to lose their kids. The kids are going to lose their friends. And in fact, the work often is actually ostracizing the people.
Yes, that’s a lot of hard work. It’s crazy. If you’re not presenting this stance as a social justice warrior, even as a very wealthy CEO, then you’re just a greedy capitalist. Then greed is good. They want to distance themselves from all of that past. The banking tycoons and the Wall Street traders of the past, oh no, that’s not who they are. They just happened to be rich. They didn’t elbow people and cheat.
They didn’t do any of that. They just happen to be really good at what they do and they’re super nice and they care about making the world a better place. Does that sound familiar? Sounds like what Sam Bankman-Fried said with his effective altruism stance. But it is really not that different than the CEOs at more established companies. It’s the same mechanics are at play.
The relationships, and I say this as a Gen Xer with two gen Zs, the relationships that I observe across my cohort, they’re different than they were in years and decades gone by. The parents really do want to be friends with their kids and they take guidance from their children. They take fashion advice from their children, as well as moral and ethical advice.
They want to appear like good people in the eyes of their kids because, in essence, their kids have been told through the woke ideology they learn in school that they are bad because not only are they white, but they’re rich. They’re really bad. And so, this is their attempt to push back on that.
And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially as I’ve been doing interviews about related to gender ideology, is this very concerted effort to remove the parents’ authority, the children’s sense that the parents are the ones who have their authority, and shift that over to the school. This inversion almost of how parents and children relate to each other actually also puts the power in the hands of the school, because they’re teaching it and now the kids are teaching the parents what the correct moral position is.
Yes, it’s insane. It is as if the parents have been sidelined a bit, whether it’s by the schools or by the children themselves. But I think we’re going to have a rude awakening, honestly, because when the parents give up that responsibility of parenting, the accountability, I don’t think it goes well.
I’ll give you a very different example. You read the book. You know I was an elite athlete as a child. And in this world, parents did give up their parenting responsibility. They sent their kids off to training camps. They sent their kids to live at gyms run by [inaudible], or my coaches, the Strauses, where children were not well cared for.
They were abused. They were forced to train on injuries. But parents gave the ownership of raising their children to these coaches who did not have their children’s best interest at heart. The parents allowed themselves to be convinced that this was best for their child. That didn’t go well.
That’s how we got Larry Nasser, who’s the most prolific pedophile, certainly in the history of American sport. He’s sexually abused over 500 athletes. He often did it with parents in the room. But the parents trusted him and they gave over the ownership and accountability to these other people who were running USA gymnastics to this doctor, to the coaches in the gym that their child attended.
I say it in this context, because it takes away some of the current energy conflict. Everyone can see that wasn’t a good thing. And in fact, when these stories broke, you know what people said, “Where were the parents? Where were the parents? Why weren’t they parenting?” That’s what people said when they read my first book. “Where were the parents?”
And yet, now, the parents are wrong. They’re supposed to back up, and they’re supposed to not be participating in their child’s education and their rearing. They’re supposed to, if a child comes home at 11 and says, “I’m the opposite gender,” they’re supposed to affirm that. They’re not supposed to parent.
We started talking a little bit about woke capitalism. You describe it as a scam. What is the scam?
Woke capitalism is corporate America’s successful attempt to commoditize the mostly well-meaning activism of Gen Zs and millennials in an attempt to make money off their activism.
When Vivek Ramaswamy talks about woke capitalism, he basically describes the shift from—and this is essentially what ESG allows—the shift from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism. Now the CEO can exercise his power and say, “Well, it’s not about fiduciary responsibility anymore. It’s about the stakeholders, whoever that may be.” As Vivek has said, “Typically the stakeholder is the Chinese Communist Party.” Different story, different interview. But the bottom line is, do you see that as part of the scam?
It’s part of this scam, and I said the first part. The second part is it’s this co-opting of this youthful generation’s activism to appear good and well-meaning, so that they can still make tons of money for the executives and the shareholders. It still benefits the same people it always benefited. It’s pretend.
ESG is just this good housekeeping seal of approval. Look at the list of high ranking ESG companies. It’s a joke. FTX was a high ranking ESG company. It’s a joke. It’s a marketing strategy. It’s a seal of approval that says these people are good and they’re doing good in the world. They have this scam of a P&L, and they take all the money for themselves.
It’s just the same as it’s always been. In fact, more so. The ratio of CEO compensation to average employee compensation has gone up, and up, and up, and up every year for the last 25 years. The average CEO makes over 350 times more than the average employee.
To go back to COVID here, we’ve witnessed, unequivocally, the largest wealth transfer in history over a very short period of time, from poor people to extremely rich people, to your point.
But they all said they were doing good and cared about people and cared about saving lives, and that was enough. In the meantime, companies like my own were laying off employees in record numbers. 25 million people lost their jobs due to lockdowns. They said they were doing it with empathy. They said they cared about employee health, and welfare, and wellbeing. And so, we can’t open our stores. And nobody cared.
Where was the outrage of that 25 million people lost their jobs? I don’t remember much outrage. There was a little bit of, “Hey, send them checks. Send them $1,000.” How long do you think that lasts? Not very long. The just thing would’ve been to find a way for these folks to keep their jobs. The only way that was going to be possible was for the companies to advocate for opening up. That’s the only way that would’ve been possible. And they weren’t going to do that. That went against the party and the ideology.
You can have a society, or a whole ideology, or as John Mcwhorter calls it, a religion. And then, I can’t help but think there’s this whole social constructivist, powerful element in it where people that are believers literally believe that whatever they think of, whatever the postulates of the ideology, that is reality, and that’s what’s going to be reality. It creates a very, very troubling situation for society, doesn’t it?
It really does. I’ve thought about why. Why are so many willing to give themselves over to this? Why are they willing to believe? Look, inherently, most of us want to believe we’re good guys and that we’re doing the right thing. Most people want some framework for how to behave and do the right thing.
And in a world where religion is less and less relevant, we still look for those constructs and frameworks elsewhere. We still have this human impulse of religiosity. We have this religion sized hole in our hearts collectively. And so, we buy into it in other ways. And I think woke ideology is the most popular way right now.
We buy into it with second-rate religions like Scientology. I’m obsessed with Scientology. There is no difference between David Miscavige, the guy that runs that, and Sam Bankman-Fried. They’re the same. They both sold a framework for how to be a good person. They got people to turn over their money. And it’s a big fraudulent scheme, but it’s our desire to believe in something and want to be part of something bigger than ourselves and have this framework for how to make good decisions to be a good person. That’s what I think the impetus is.
One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is moving forward after what’s happened. You’ve lost friends, as we’ve discussed. There’s all sorts of people, you’ll never look at the same. There’s all sorts of people that have made bad decisions that might have cost even loved ones their lives. It’s going to be very difficult for them to admit that to themselves.
They did that as we become more aware, which I believe we have to, of the reality of what happened, and the costs of these lockdown measures, these quickly adopted genetic vaccines. There’s going to be a large social reckoning that needs to happen. It can be very difficult. In an environment where there isn’t a shared value system as you described, there’s less and less of one, it makes it extra difficult. What do you see as the way forward?
Goodness, I don’t know. I don’t really know what the way forward is. It’s all too fresh for me. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen; so much cruelty from people I respected, people cheering for others to lose their jobs if they refuse vaccination, people cheering for others to be demonized and ostracized, people I thought were good people. I can’t unsee that.
So, I’m not feeling all that forgiving. And certainly, no apology has been offered. In fact, some of the most horrific policies are being doubled down upon. There’s still debates about masking very young children in schools. There are still booster mandate policies at universities. We know this does nothing. There are still vaccine and booster mandates for employment in certain private companies.
Well, I’ll just jump in. For the young people, it’s a lot worse than nothing, isn’t it?
Yes. That’s right. That’s especially egregious, because we know they are the most likely to be harmed from vaccination, young men in particular. It’s particularly egregious and we continue to double down on the worst of the policies.
There has been this plea for amnesty for those who perhaps were wrong but did it for the right reasons, or that’s what we’re supposed to think. People like Fauci, and the Teachers’ Unions, and public health bureaucrats. But these were not benign decisions. Long after we knew that they were useless and ineffective and dangerous, these folks continue to push and double down.
There needs to be some shared understanding of how harmful these policies were. There’s a real attitude in the air of let’s just move along. Let’s just never look back. But if we do that, we don’t wrestle with the harms done to children and the catastrophic learning loss, which we need to wrestle with so we can help them.
If we don’t acknowledge an understanding and create a joint understanding of how horrible these policies were in terms of the damage cost, how cruel they were, then we can do it again. So, until we get to that shared understanding, I won’t stop talking about how horrible it all was. I may be very unsuccessful, but I won’t stop.
As we’re finishing here, tell me what you hope people can get out of your book, which, frankly, covers a lot of bases.
Yes. What I really hope they get is that you can do it. Screw up your courage, say the thing, call out the lies, push back against injustice. Stand up and say it. And you’ve got to do it now. And chances are more people agree with you than you think. Yes, it’s scary, but you’ve got to do it.
And I give a lot of background on my life, which was unusual. There was a really intense amount of obedience that was instilled in me as a child. It is very hard for me to find the courage to do this, but you have to do it. It’s dangerous, what is happening. Harms are caused when good people fail to speak up.
And so, it’s my fondest hope that it gives people a little nudge and a little dose of courage to stand up and do the right thing and say what they really think. It’s really the only way to pierce this bubble, this hypnotic bubble we seem to be in of wokeism where we all have to uphold its tenets as the only way to be a good person.
You may agree with 80 per cent of it, but if you question 20 per cent, you have to say it, because you’re going to be on the wrong side of something at some point. Stand up for your friends and neighbors who use their voice, and use your own. It’s the only way, and it’s the only way we can pierce this mass hypnosis, what appears to be mass hypnosis.
Jennifer Sey, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Thank you all for joining Jennifer Sey and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.
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