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Serving the regime: The case of Deloitte’s Dimple Agarwal

Deloitte’s former chief of ‘diversity and inclusion’ ended up a victim of the same steamrollering cultural movement she tried so hard to promote

The three-hour epic on the Second World War and its aftermath, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away (2018), has much to tell us about modern times. Based on the life of artist Gerhard Richter – who lived under both Nazi and communist regimes in Germany before escaping to the West – it has a wonderful portrait of a familiar type: the survivor-careerist.

Chillingly played by Sebastian Koch, he’s Professor Carl Seeband, Director of the Women’s Clinic and honorary member of the SS. Seeband has achieved his heights not only by “being the best”, but through eager service to the regime. He treats the wives of the highest ministers and takes part in the sterilisation programme of the disabled and mentally ill. Seeband will do whatever is necessary to please the powerful and will do it at once. “How can we help? What can we do?” we see him asking zealously at an early SS meeting. He soon finds out: he can kill. And he does so.

A rainbow flag, if waved hard enough, can distract from a growing homogeneity beneath it

When the war ends and Seeband with customary initiative saves his skin, we see him in the newly formed GDR as he reinvents himself as the perfect communist, scaling the heights once again. He is a man who grows more shameless as his guilt increases, now able to utter straight-faced platitudes about the Soviet Union and “that great terminal station, communism”, just as he once cheer-led for eugenics. Later, redefecting to the West, he lands on his feet there too. He’s a consummate actor and one to whom costume is momentously important. In front of a mirror he preens in his new SS-uniform, throwing out salutes and appraising the effect. We see him throughout the film dressed impeccably, armoured inside a series of cashmere coats and beautifully tailored double-breasted suits: the look of Power.

Yet it is language that provides his greatest cover. Seeband lives in a world of euphemisms, of verbal disguise. State killing of the weak becomes “racial hygiene” or “national health”. Murder is “liquidation”. Radical censorship and corralling of artists are reinvented as “socialist realism”. All these concepts belong to that category of words which exist, in Orwell’s phrase, to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

What’s most telling is the way Seeband’s sense of rectitude seems to increase with each jump that he makes. He relates to others with an overbearing self-righteousness and deadening, condescending advice. In his moral universe only the powerful are good. They are good just because they are powerful, because they survive. While others flounder about with their dilemmas, only Seeband and his kind, it seems, have understood the rules of the game. The world around them seems to agree, for success itself lends a twisted moral lustre to those it favours. The expression “the Great and Good” is no accident. These people must be on the right path, our unconscious whispers: the gods seem to love them so.

Anyone who draws too close a parallel between the current spread of Social Justice Policy and the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century lays themselves open – correctly – to charges of paranoia. Where are the executions and concentration camps? Yet the examples are on the landscape and you keep, inevitably, going back to them. They’re roadmaps, potential endgames of certain self-deceptions, omissions of personal responsibility, or ways of seeing others. They’re also dire warnings of what happens when we allow ourselves to be overtaken by beautiful lies or bliss out on the woolliness of abstract nouns. Hence the deliberate plainness and simplicity of post-war German Trümmerliteratur, which hoped to rescue the German language from the perversions of the Nazis. Hence the words too of German philosopher Theodor Adorno, that it was “barbaric” to write poetry after Auschwitz.

For such people had understood that when abstract nouns proliferate – “people’s government”, “action”, “special treatment” and, yes, “diversity” and “inclusion” – something untoward is often happening. These words – capacious enough to mean anything and therefore meaningless – have a narcotic effect on the listener. Also, like a conjuror’s trick, they misdirect the gaze from the real machinations taking place on the ground. A rainbow flag, if waved hard enough, can distract from a growing homogeneity beneath it.

Flying too near the sun of those abstract concepts, Dimple Agarwal got herself burnt

All of which brings us onto the case of Dimple Agarwal, the Deputy CEO of Deloitte UK and chief of “diversity and inclusion”, who stepped down from her job last Friday after being accused of bullying colleagues. Agarwal talked in the lingo of the time, awash with abstract nouns. She spoke of “our commitment to inclusion, where we are creating an environment of respect, dignity and belonging for all”. Inclusion, she said another time, was “about truly embracing and supporting everyone, giving opportunities to thrive and shine”. As the company’s “head of people and purpose” (a title neatly synonymous with the word “boss”), she led Deloitte’s Black Action Plan, and its drive for greater LGBT representation. In other words, a familiar type, one of the immaculate, right-thinking school prefects of our age.

At the end of last week, she came under investigation for bullying her underlings. They complained she’d communicated with them aggressively, contacted them late at night and before dawn, and insisted they attend extremely early morning meetings. As she’d previously spoken passionately about the need for “work-life balance”, this didn’t play well. It seemed there was some strange discord here between theory and practice. She’d littered her public statements with words like “inclusion”, “respect”, “dignity”, “belonging”, “truly embracing” and “supporting”, but in the end they were not enough for her to continue to “thrive and shine”. On Friday she stepped down from her leadership roles in the company. Deloitte UK Chief Executive Richard Houston explained that he would “not tolerate behaviours or actions that are inconsistent with our global shared values”.

There are several views one can take of Agarwal’s behaviour. The first is that she was a true believer in the principles of diversity, inclusion and work-life balance, who saw her most deeply held beliefs marching conveniently in step with the ideas and buzzwords of the time. But, to her dismay, implementing these cherished ideas required a severity that could only contradict them. Flying too near the sun of those abstract concepts, she got herself burnt. A small human tragedy, in other words.

A second view – the cynical one – is that Agarwal was one of the mini-Seebands of history; a type all too common and over whom we need shed no tears. That she tailored her views to her ambition, saying whatever was necessary to prosper until the inner contradictions became too obvious, her exercise of power too clear. One day she became a liability – and thus expendable – to the master she was serving. Another good-and-faithful servant, fresh-faced and untarnished, had to be found instead.

There is a third, more generous, take on Agarwal’s situation. It doesn’t absolve her of all blame but it is probably the most realistic – that she was as much a victim as anyone else. She was victim of a steamrollering cultural movement, which demanded she implement radical changes or face losing her job. That in her bullying and apparent bad faith she merely, ineluctably expressed the bullying and bad faith of the New Religion. It required her to spout meaningless slogans, to claim a purity of intent that only a saint could embody, and under its verbal cover seemed benign enough to be unquestionable.

What was wrong with wanting a world in which everyone could “thrive” and “shine”? For above all her job required her not to think too deeply, not to pull back the veil of those abstract nouns to see what in reality they meant; nor to recognise that they were ideals no normal human could live up to – particularly no human bullied by the demands of this new ideology and under pressure to implement them as fast as possible.

Ask not for whom the HR manager sends; they send for thee

Now Dimple Agarwal may be reconsidering her future. There are ways in which such crises provide a junction to individuals, an ability to reroute. Jo Moore, the Labour Party’s special adviser who was widely lampooned in 2001 for saying 9/11 was “a very good day” to bury bad news, resigned and retrained as a primary school teacher. One can only imagine the inner battles which had led her to such a different course. Yet the pervasiveness of this new ideology and its accompanying verbal cover is such that even work in that environment might now require the same linguistic evasions and moral knots. The case of Dimple Agarwal is a lesson to us all: ask not for whom the HR manager sends; they send for thee.

As to what might have happened if she’d stayed in her post, Miss Agarwal could take comfort from Ronald Harwood’s play Taking Sides. A gruelling interrogation of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hitler’s willing orchestra-conductor and careerist par excellence, Taking Sides has this to tell us on serving a regime too slavishly: “You start by censoring what you say, then you censor what you think, and you end by censoring what you feel. That is the greatest degradation because it means the entire individual will is paralysed, and all that remains is an obedient husk.”

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