This week the internet has been ablaze over Basecamp. (And also Line of Duty, let’s face it. I haven’t watched the finale because season 6 has been so bloody disappointing in general – I was actually BORED in the penultimate episode which I didn’t think was actually possible for this show. But I digress.)
Basecamp is a business software company and, full disclosure, I have been an early adoptee of their email service, hey
. Which makes what has been going on over there this week all the more disappointing, as it’s a really great email service.
It all seems to have started, over a decade ago, with a list. Basecamp being then (and now by all accounts) as most tech companies are, staffed by white American men, there were certain customer names that were, to them, super funny
. Not all the names were Asian or African in origin but…you get the picture. And what may have seemed all fun and games back in 2009 suddenly didn’t seem so funny in 2021 and some employees – a lot of employees – started trying to have conversations at work about the “funny names” list.
I was of course not party to the conversations so can’t comment on how they went, but what does seem to be in the public domain is that the conversations culminated in Basecamp’s two co-founders making public statements
that, among other things, banned political discussions from internal message boards:
Here is how co-founder Jason Fried put it:
1. No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account. Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.
I mean, sure, there is no point denying that politics is not exactly sweetness and light these days if it ever was, but there is an immediate, and what should have been an obvious, problem with this blanket ban and that is: what constitutes societal and political discussion? Is discussing paternal lead policies a political or a work-focused discussion? How about the fact that online abuse hits women and ethnic minorities more than white men, an issue which needs to be thought carefully about with all software design? Political? Or Work?
There are clues to what Fried might or might not consider to be acceptable political discussion later on in his blog-post where he announces that there will be “no more committees”:
For nearly all of our 21 year existence, we were proudly committee-free. No big working groups making big decisions, or putting forward formalized, groupthink recommendations. No bureaucracy. But recently, a few sprung up. No longer. We’re turning things back over to the person (or people) who were distinctly hired to make those decisions. The responsibility for DEI work returns to Andrea, our head of People Ops. The responsibility for negotiating use restrictions and moral quandaries returns to me and David. A long-standing group of managers called “Small Council” will disband — when we need advice or counsel we’ll ask individuals with direct relevant experience rather than a pre-defined group at large. Back to basics, back to individual responsibility, back to work.
I mean, this sounds kind of ok, except…returning the entire responsibility for moral quandaries to two white guys? Look, as Fried’s fellow co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson himself wrote in a short post for Inc
bigging up Basecamp’s work on diversity, “I have nothing against white guys, but white guys don’t reflect the world at large or our customer base.” Indeed. And so when considering questions of morality, or indeed any other business decision, sure, have some white guys there, they certainly exist and their perspective is valid. But if you want to avoid embarrassing and costly mistakes (arguably a bit like this one?
) it might be an idea to have some other people in the room – as I believe I conclusively demonstrated in a little book you may have heard of called Invisible Women
And in case you were in any doubt about the ideological underpinning of these decisions, Fried then clinches it by trotting out the old canard about not being “a social impact company,” but a software company. This is a false distinction. If you create anything that humans interact with, you are by definition a social impact company, but this goes doubly so if you are a software and communication company, which is exactly how Fried describes Basecamp. James Damore eat your heart out
Shortly after Fried posted his dictum, fellow co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson muddied the waters further with a clarification: “Note that we will continue to engage in politics that directly relate to our business or products. This means topics like antitrust, privacy, employee surveillance. If you’re in doubt as to whether something falls within those lines or not, please, again, reach out for guidance.”
So, politics is OK, but only if it’s politics the co-founders are interested in, seems to be the general theme. It was all starting to remind me a bit of this from my intro to Invisible Women:
…in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election […] it felt you couldn’t move for tweets, speeches and op-eds by (usually) white men decrying the ills of what they called ‘identity politics’. Ten days after Donald Trump’s victory, the New York Times published an article by Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, that criticised Clinton for ‘calling out explicitly to African American, Latino, LGBT and women voters’. This left out, he said, ‘the white working class’. Lilla presented Clinton’s ‘rhetoric of diversity’ as mutually exclusive with ‘a large vision’, linking this ‘narrow’ vision (clearly, Lilla has been reading his V. S. Naipaul) with what he felt he was witnessing with college students. Students today, he claimed, were so primed to focus on diversity that they ‘have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good’.
Two days after this was published, ex-Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was in Boston at a stop on his book tour84 explain- ing that ‘It is not good enough for someone to say, I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ In Australia, Paul Kelly, editor of the Australian, described Trump’s victory as ‘a revolt against identity politics’, while over in the UK, Labour MP Richard Burgon tweeted that Trump’s inauguration was ‘what can happen when centre/left parties abandon transformation of economic system and rely on identity politics’.
The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins concluded the annus horribilis that was 2016 with a diatribe against ‘the identity apostles’, who had been ‘over-defensive’ of minorities, and thus killed off liberalism. ‘I have no tribe,’ he wrote. He could not ‘join the prevailing hysteria’. What he wanted was ‘to re-enact the glorious revolution of 1832’ – which resulted in the extension of the British franchise to a few extra hundred thousand men of property. Heady days, indeed.
These white men have in common the following opinions: that identity politics is only identity politics when it’s about race or sex; that race and sex have nothing to do with ‘wider’ issues like ‘the economy’; that it is ‘narrow’ to specifically address the concerns of female voters and voters of colour; and that working class means white working-class men. Incidentally, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the coal mining industry, which during the 2016 election became the shibboleth for (implicitly male) working-class jobs, provides 53,420 jobs in total, at a median annual wage of $59,380.89 Compare this to the majority female 924,640-strong cleaning and housekeeper workforce, whose median annual income is $21,820.90 So who’s the real working class?
These white men also have in common that they are white men. And I labour this point because it is exactly their whiteness and maleness that caused them to seriously vocalise the logical absurdity that identities exist only for those who happen not to be white or male. When you have been so used, as a white man, to white and male going without saying, it’s understandable that you might forget that white and male is an identity too.
Look, it is absolutely true that these conversations are difficult, and that finding a constructive way to navigate them is not simple. It will be a case of trial and error.
It’s also true that there can be bad faith actors on all sides who make the conversations even more difficult than they need to be. But that doesn’t mean that the right response is to abandoning them entirely. Abandoning them entirely suits only one group and that is the group that already has the power. And if Basecamp is serious about wanting a more diverse team having difficult conversations is part of the hard work they are going to have to do. And they should be serious about it.
As Karen Spärck-Jones (who long-term subscribers will remember from issue 7
of this most excellent newsletter) said, Computing is too important to be left to [white] men.“