On Basecamp and Banned Speech

There’s a saying about being the president: if the problem landing on the president’s desk were easy to solve, it wouldn’t have made it to the president’s desk. In the new social landscape, we’re all the president of our own little social world. We’re all faced with way too many outrageous occasions that beg our immediate attention and absolute judgement. If someone a thousand miles away said something disagreeable, it scrolls into our hands and we swipe them into the society’s trash can. And yet, if every human interaction were this clear and simple, if there had been a straightforward hero and an obvious villain, it probably wouldn’t be news. It would probably have been solved locally and life would’ve moved forward. Instead we’re only given the murky moral quandaries that stir up enough mutual animosity to merit our screen time.

And yet, we do love a simple narrative, don’t we? We love a hero’s journey, good versus evil, archetypes and so on. So when the story is funneled through the telephone game that is “the media” (news, social, and otherwise), what once was complicated and nuanced gets repackaged into a clear game of us versus them. In the red corner we get Tucker Carlson and in the blue corner it’s Rachel Maddow. And they’re in it to win it. To win what exactly? Who knows? Attention, I suppose. From you, from me, from the ad-buying team at Proctor and Gamble.

The first step to gain attention is to simply remove all context. There’s no room for details in a headline. You can’t fit a backstory in an Instagram live. Fifteen words, or less if you’re a true Hemingway.

Next, ensure that whatever makes your cast of characters deep and richly human is stripped away. They need to feel like people but also to represent a set of tribal ideas and stereotypes. It’s much easier to trash an idea than it is to trash a person.

And finally, just tell me who was wrong. Don’t make me think too much about it. I need my villain in a black helmet and a cape, I need his laugh to sound maniacal and his weapon to look intimidating. I need a five second Marvel movie that I can point to and say, “See?”

At the end of the day, whatever you think you know about this particular story doesn’t really matter, because it’s just the same mythic morality play we’ve seen a hundred times. If the other side is happy about it, then I already know my lines: I should be outraged.

That’s how I felt watching the back and forth surrounding the Basecamp fiasco, a tempest in the tech industry tea cup that luckily flew beneath the mainstream radar. I’ll skip the finer points, because I assume that if you’ve made it this far, you already know them.

On the other hand, how I re-tell the story will give you, the reader, some insight into how I view it. The adjectives I use or the details I curate, each becomes a puzzle piece that I’m hand-selecting to predispose you to supporting my point of view. So I’ll try really hard to be neutral in my quick summary. But I’m human, so I probably won’t be as objective as I think I am.

The main thrust is that two prominent tech execs got fed up with the social/political conversations in their company communications and set up a blanket ban on “societal and political discussion” in official work channels. It was made a little more complicated because 1) their company communications tool is literally their product that they build and sell and 2) these two execs are mostly well-known because of how opinionated they are: they write popular, manifesto-like books and blogs, and even have testified in front of Congress about topics that may be considered “social or political”.

In full disclosure, I’m a fan of their books and their general approach to work. So when I read their original posts, I was giving them the benefit of the doubt. I found myself nodding along the entire time. The “big” conversations have become so tribal, so toxic, why shouldn’t someone be able to just go to work and not also have to justify their political beliefs or defend their opinions? Conversations online are a terrible way to discuss big ideas, why not skip it altogether?

But then more context leaks out. And it gets a little more complicated.

The social/political conversation was coming from a few employees who were upset about some stuff happening inside the company, essentially a long-running bad taste joke that could be symptomatic of some large issues. These employees were trying to lead the company to a better place through recognition and atonement of some past wrongs.

But then more context leaks out. And it gets a little more complicated.

Maybe these employees were very vocal, and very much a minority. And maybe their accusations against their coworkers were getting a little outrageous and disruptive as well.

But then more context leaks out. And it gets a little more complicated.

You see where I’m going with this?

I was originally going to highlight each drip of the conversation, each shift from it feeling justified to it feeling a breach of power. Seriously, read the “leaks” in the Verge or the response from owner DHH. If you want to find justification for either side, you really can. If you want to paint a picture of a few ultra-woke employees hijacking the workweek, making ever-escalating and increasingly-impossible demands for more social shaming and verbal reparations, it’s clearly there. On the other hand, if you want to paint a picture of two privileged white male owners shutting down and walking away from the valid concerns coming from inside their labor force, it’s there too.

The mainstream liberal in me wants to side with labor, and with potentially marginalized voices. The longtime Basecamp fan wants to recognize the continual thoughtfulness of the oft-heterodox owners. At the end of the day, we really have to move beyond the two sides and address the fundamental question here: will banning social/political conversation at work lead to a more productive, more healthy, more fair work environment?

I honestly don’t know. But the more I think about it, the more I have to assume that no, it probably will not.

There’s an cliche making the rounds this past year: the only response to bad speech is more speech. On the one hand, I agree with this. Shutting down a conversation doesn’t solve a problem. Shutting down all conversations that could potentially, vaguely, more or less fall into some broad category of “things I don’t want to hear about”, that’s not solving anything. Similarly, censoring taboo ideas or labeling them as ‘misinformation’ doesn’t solve the problem either, it just pushes them deeper under the surface.

And yet, does anyone feel like the problem these days is that there isn’t enough speech? I mean, at some point, is silence really a form of violence or does it just sound like a nice change of pace in our hyper-online world? Sure we can call it a privilege not having to listen to something that we don’t want to hear. But the end goal isn’t that we just have to sit down and let every bad faith conversation play out in perpetuity.

So I disagree that the only response to bad speech is more speech. It’s certainly better speech, more conversation, good faith, listening, context, ambiguity, and a thousand other things that comment threads and message boards are simply not built for. It’s true that the only response to bad speech cannot be “less” speech. And a company that builds communication and collaboration software should be able to take some time out to work on.. I don’t know.. better communication and collaboration.

These problems are hard. And no one asked us to solve them, at least not this one. We’re actually not the president, and our mobile feed is not actually the president’s desk. Yet we do face our own tiny versions of these problems every day, and as individuals within a society, we move forward and adapt, whether we plan to or not. So I find that what makes me feel the best, feel good in a way that internet outrage certainly fails to, is simply writing about it for myself. Sitting down with a blank page and pushing through the uncertainly in my own mind to try to make at least one coherent argument. To start with an introduction and, by the time I get to my conclusion, to feel like you and I, dear reader, have learned something.

When I started this, I was vaguely upset because I couldn’t get this issue to fit neatly into my box of right and wrong. Now that I’ve written about it, I still can’t seem to fit it neatly into my box of right and wrong, but I’m not so upset about it. Instead I’m curious, because I’m not the same person that I was when I started, and I really want to see where our society goes next.