PC Culture

Strunk and White Supremacy

Roger Lynch, then CEO of Sling TV, in 2015 (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
An aggrieved young employee rejects the beloved style guide as a racial ‘microaggression.’

As major media and cultural institutions reenact The Crucible on the national stage (“I saw Goody Bennet listening to Devil Tom Cotton, and our village is now in danger”), a particularly stupefying incident that may have escaped your attention illustrates how confidently race-based hysteria stalks the landscape. A young black employee at Condé Nast quit her job and stormed out the door after her white boss gave her a copy of America’s beloved writing guide The Elements of Style.

First published in 1918, the slender book was written by William Strunk Jr., then overhauled and expanded by E. B. White in 1959. Generations of students and writers have kept well-thumbed copies of Strunk and White, as the revised work is commonly known, by their desks. As of 2016, a database that tracks these things found that it was the single most-often-assigned text in college syllabuses. “I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style,” Stephen King once wrote, failing to notice that the first six words of this sentence are superfluous, indicating neglect of Strunk and White’s famous injunction, “Omit needless words.”

Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch, who avers that he is making every effort to add racial and ethnic diversity to the famously snooty publisher of Vogue and The New Yorker, once gave his executive assistant, Cassie Jones, a copy of Strunk and White because he thought it would prove useful to her. White is strongly associated with the company, having written extensively for The New Yorker, where the clean, lucid Strunk-White style has always been the model. It was a New Yorker essay in praise of Strunk’s original book that led to White’s being commissioned to revise it. Half a century or so later, the collaboration has sold some 10 million copies. Any reasonable person would have replied with thanks rather than hostility.

Yet Jones quit days later in a huff, leaving the book on the CEO’s desk as she did so. She considered the gift “insulting,” according to a New York Times report. “With its suggestion that her own language skills were lacking, the gift struck Ms. Jones as a microaggression,” informed sources told the Times. Stunned, Lynch told the paper, “I really only had the intention — like every time I’ve given it before — for it to be a helpful resource, as it has been for me. I still use it today. I’m really sorry if she interpreted it that way.”

Assuming that’s all there is to this story, the young assistant looks like an unfortunate example of the kind of fragile, self-sabotaging young adult our colleges are sending out into the workplace. Our campuses turn young people into cultural hemophiliacs who, if someone bumps into them on the sidewalk, are likely to rupture a blood vessel and bleed out. Having spent four years being coached on the perniciousness and prevalence of “microaggressions,” with platoons of campus diversity guardians vowing to champion them in every micro-dispute, young people have learned to look for slights everywhere.

Cassie Jones quit the most prestigious magazine-publishing company in America because she was insulted by being given a common style guide. She was confident enough in her status as a victim that she told others about this. And on her way out the door, she dropped the book on her boss’s desk as a symbol of her grievance. A moment’s research would have provided her with ample evidence that millions of people have kindly given, and gratefully accepted, this elegant and useful little book.

I have no acquaintance with Jones’s writing but she would be a rare young person if her skills were already so polished that Strunk and White could offer her no improving hints. Strunk and White isn’t a remedial guide or the equivalent of being told to go back and start over. Its advice on the merits of simplicity and directness over jargon and obfuscation is applicable to nearly everybody, even professional writers. It might be counterproductive to, say, a larval David Foster Wallace to be told to strip out stylistic excesses and eschew verbiage, but if Jones is like 99.999 percent of writers, Strunk and White could only help.

So what are the bosses of the world supposed to take away from this incident? Should they consider Jones’s mindset typical of young minorities? If it is, lots of other young minorities might have hair-trigger settings for taking offense. Are potential employers supposed to ignore this potential pitfall? After hiring a person of color, how should an employer deal with that person, suspecting that any good-faith attempt at mentorship might not only be misconstrued but taken as a racist insult?

Roger Lynch, smarting from the many media stories that reported what happened with Cassie Jones, might today be thinking either a) I should not have hired Ms. Jones, or b) I never should have tried to help Ms. Jones succeed. Perhaps Lynch is thinking he should have kept his distance from Ms. Jones lest anything he say or do set her off. Are any of these thoughts what members of minority groups want CEOs to be thinking? Any group that implicitly or explicitly demands unusually sensitive treatment from employers is creating barriers to its own advancement.

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