Read: Brands have nothing real to say about racism
In yet another telling, the memo is most noteworthy as a blueprint for how companies can defend liberal norms against hostile takeovers by small but savvy factions of radicals. These observers see attacks on Coinbase as part of a pernicious pattern: A company is confronted with untenable demands, stops short of wholly meeting them, and is punished by activist journalists and social-media demagogues who defame its leaders as racists, bigots, or reactionaries––words that retain the stigma of their old meanings even as they’re promiscuously redefined.
Tiku alluded to this point of view in her Post column, reporting that “some libertarian, centrist and right-leaning Silicon Valley investors and executives, who wield outsize influence, power and access to capital, describe tech culture as under siege by activist employees pushing a social justice agenda.” Many critics of “woke” activism would clarify that they don’t object to “social justice” properly understood, but to illiberalism justified in the guise of social justice; to intolerance of ideological diversity; and to bad actors who gain and wield power by manipulating America’s thankfully widespread opposition to racism, sexism, and bigotry.
The Coinbase drama revolves around two issues: the narrow one of whether a company should issue a Black Lives Matter statement, and the general one of whether a company should permit or even encourage political activism.
On the narrow question, as a Coinbase engineer told Wired, “a lot of people feel that saying Black lives matter is an ethical statement. They feel it should be an easy thing to say.” Why won’t all companies just go along? I can think of a few possible justifications for hesitating, as Coinbase did, or staying silent, as other companies have.
Such a statement might be attacked for imperfections, no matter how well intentioned, arguably upsetting more people than were heartened, and sometimes leading to calls for resignations at the top. Imagine that a CEO is asked to put out a statement declaring that “Black lives matter” by stakeholders who question how any decent person could disagree with self-evidently true words––words that merely affirm the common worth, dignity, and humanity of Black people. If she complies, however, activists might use that statement as leverage: They might publicly muse about whether the CEO truly believes that Black lives matter or just declared as much to “perform allyship.” To prove she is not exploiting the Movement for Black Lives while doing nothing to advance it, like a racist, the CEO must accede to new demands that might not be uncontroversially correct or broadly supported.
Read: It’s not callout culture. It’s accountability.
Company leaders might also worry about precedent. If they could issue a single statement affirming that “Black lives matter,” that would be fine. But what if that statement led to a demand to embrace controversial parts of the Black Lives Matter agenda? Or if the murder of a Bay Area police officer then prompted an employee with a son in law enforcement to demand a statement that says “Blue lives matter”? Or if an employee with a son who has Down syndrome asked for a statement against selective abortion? Or if a Uighur employee asks for a statement acknowledging China’s efforts to put Muslims in concentration camps, a statement that upsets a cohort of Chinese employees? Or if a Palestinian employee touched off an internal workplace debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? These slippery-slope concerns are inherently speculative, but that doesn’t make them irrational. Leaders might gamble that they’re better off upsetting their employees once with a norm against statements than offending them with a particular statement, or non-statement, in the future.