The case concerned an executive working for the credit card area of Barclay’s Bank, and all my information about it comes from a newspaper report in the Daily Telegraph of 1 January 2008. All stories have many dimensions, and there may be others to this one, but the published dimension, which no one seems concerned to deny, will do well enough. Presenting recent quarterly figures to a staff meeting, the executive was quoted as saying: “The results were like Muslims – some were good, some were Shi’ite.” Apparently the meeting froze (they obviously freeze easily in banking circles) because of this “wholly inappropriate” comment. Barclays got rid of him paying him an undisclosed sum at termination, and (an interesting feature of the story according to a “company insider”) was the hush-up. “Part of the deal was that the circumstances of his departure must never be disclosed.”
Those who discuss these matters often stand above the issues by denigrating the joke, as happened with dim self-flattering journalists who did not public the Danish cartoons that last year set Muslims on a roar. This particular joke at Barclays, while hardly for anthologies, was however a pun absolutely standard for such a London satirical journal as Private Eye. The notion that it was expressing contempt for any class of people is, I think we may confidently say, simply dumb. As a case of discrimination, it resembled another case that hit headlines here recently in which a disc jockey remarked that black people were hard to see on traffic crossings at night. Was she a racist? The proposition was obviously true, and the circumstances of its utterance were certainly not likely to inflame deplorable passions. But an immense fuss was made over such a true proposition being uttered. She had earlier been in trouble for saying that black men are so good at athletics because they are accustomed to being pursued by lions. That too, seems to me an amusing remark, and being offended by it is, in my judgement, a mark of stupidity.
I doubt in fact that blacks would be offended by it. That some Muslims might have taken offence at the remark made by the Barclay’s executive is perhaps true; Muslims regularly make a profession of being offended. They have discovered that in liberal Christian societies, you can get mileage out of it. It intimidates. But I would guess that most sensible Muslims wouldn’t give this remark a moment’s thought. And if I am right, we come back to those colleagues at the meeting who were so shocked about the Shi’ite joke. Most of them must have been white British. One was quoted as saying: “No one could quite believe their (sic) ears when he came out with his Shi’ite joke. He had a very responsible job in a multinational company. What on earth was he thinking of? There were a few embarrassed guffaws but everyone except him knew he was for the high jump the moment he said it. Once word got round and a complaint was made he was toast.” Here is an interesting remark by one of nature’s instinctive collaborators with whoever has power. It is certainly not a moral judgement, merely a reflection of what might be called the pc terror.
A company spokesman said: “We do not tolerate discrimination…Everybody who works here gets guidance of what is right and what is wrong. We have a robust approach to equality and diversity and do not tolerate discrimination.” Robust is in today’s rhetoric the term of choice for flattering oneself on being strong, but this had all the robustness of a feather.
This is a stupidity story, not a victimisation one. The executive in question was making a lot of money and can no doubt look after himself. But it is I think important that we should all know about corporate cowardice and about the companies who indulge in it.