The case of Ellen Pao

Justin Marinelli, Senior Writer

Much anguish was had among certain circles with the recent verdict in the Ellen Pao civil suit. Pao, who was suing her former employer Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers (commonly referred to as Kleiner Perkins) on the charges of gender discrimination, was dealt a powerful loss. Undeterred, many who supported Pao are now claiming a symbolic victory and have resolved to push forward in supporting similar suits in the future.

Occurrences like this are dangerous not for what they intend to do, but for what they do not intend and yet accomplish anyway. This is especially true of high-profile events that the media elevates into a symbolic battleground for the latest political fad. Do you know why such things can be dangerous? It is because they add a very special ingredient to the social cocktail: tension.

Tension, of course, is value-neutral. It merely is, nothing more. However, the nature of tension is that it seeks to dissipate itself, and the means by which this force flows can be problematic, especially if it is pointed towards unproductive ends.

The end result of lawsuits like the Pao case, whether they are “successful” or not, is that they induce a deliberate tension into the culture by seeding among many observers the creeping, nagging doubt that maybe all those women who cry that they were discriminated against were the victims of nothing but their own inability to keep up with the standards that were expected of them. That doubt creates tension, and that tension is a potential force pointed at gender relations in the workplace.

It doesn’t matter what really happened. It doesn’t matter what was really the case and what reasons drove which actions. The only thing that matters in the minds of people is what they perceive to have occurred, and it is so easy for pernicious ideas to seed themselves within someone’s thoughts and slowly grow to alter and warp their every perception.

Doubt and tension. They are a dangerous duet and they are becoming an ever-driving force in our cultural discourse. Every black man killed by a white cop, every sensational narrative of rape, every domestic outrage or conflict that is taken by the media and elevated into the latest battleground serves to pile on another layer of the doubt and the tension. Were we a better country, we would know how to turn down the temperature, but the cycle of outrage has become so ingrained that the only thing we remember is how to take the tension and ratchet it up further. There is no going back. We are only going one way: forward. Is our speed accelerating? It seems it very well might be.

Our entire civilization has become a great rubber band–pulled in each and every direction by the tensions that permeate our social fabric. The more tense they become, the tighter the pull on the band. We no longer know how to dissipate the tension, and so the force has naught to do but strengthen.

What happens when it snaps?

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