This account is based on interviews with six Basecamp employees who were present at the meeting, along with a partial transcript created by employees. Collectively, they describe a company whose attempt to tamp down on difficult conversations blew up in its face as employees rejected the notion that discussions of power and justice should remain off limits in the workplace. And they suggest that efforts to eliminate disruptions in the workplace by regulating internal speech may cause even more turmoil for a company in the long run.
Right-wing narratives of woke capitalism are so off. Tech leaders aren’t remotely woke, as evidenced here, yet again. Over and over, tech leaders fail to rise to the 101 level of analyzing power and confronting injustice. The “disruptions” eliminated by suppressing internal speech are marginalized people. The silence is suffocating.
“Racism [and] white supremacy are not things that are so convenient that they only happen when full intention is present, or true malice is present,” the employee said. “Evil is not required. We’re not so lucky as for this to come down to good and evil. It’s as simple as creating a space where people do not feel welcome.”
The employee continued: “The silence in the background is what racism and white supremacy does. It creates that atmosphere that feels suffocating to people. It doesn’t require active malice. It’s not that convenient.”
Marginalized groups are tired from the exhausting work of coaching white men to understand their world. The leadership at Basecamp, and pretty much every tech company, are so far behind at understanding worlds outside their own that their professionalism is in question.
For this reason, I would suggest a renewed focus on MESH education,which stands for Media Literacy, Ethics, Sociology, and History. Because if these are not given equal attention, we could end up with incredibly bright and technically proficient people who lack all capacity for democratic citizenship.
“The price of relevance is fluency,” and these leaders are not fluent.
Worse, that visibility of critique means that powerful people now have to do work that they didn’t want to do. They can’t stand it.
Suddenly, even the most powerful people in society are forced to be fluent in the concerns of those with little power, if they want to hold on to the cultural relevance that thrust them into power in the first place. Being a comedian means having to say things that an audience finds funny; if an audience doesn’t find old, hackneyed, abusive jokes funny anymore, then that comedian has to do more work. And what we find is, the comedians with the most privilege resent having to keep working for a living. Wasn’t it good enough that they wrote that joke that some people found somewhat funny, some years ago? Why should they have to learn about current culture just to get paid to do comedy?
Similarly, CEOs keep fussing about how it’s hard to not offend people these days. (Being a CEO myself, this one ends up on my radar a lot.) Now, every person in marketing knows they have to try to stay culturally relevant, and certainly every ordinary worker knows they constantly have to be learning new skills and developing professionally. But if a CEO has been in his seat long enough, he’ll often get deeply resentful of being told that he has to learn new ways of being respectful to the people who were systematically obstructed from reaching his awareness in the past.