Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What Henry Blodget Could Have Written

(Some background - the article that started it all)

"There has been a recent furor over the fact that our CTO, Pax Dickinson, made some remarks on twitter that various people found offensive. I'm not going to summarise them - his twitter feed is publicly available, as far as I know he hasn't deleted or retracted any tweets, so if you're curious about the controversy, I invite to go read his words yourself (in their full context) and make up your own mind.

Rather than talk about the specifics of what Pax wrote, I want to talk about a broader question - whether companies should be in the business of effectively policing the private opinions of their employees.

We at Business Insider are in the market of providing news, opinion and discourse about events in the world today, and we do so in a way which disrupts the broken business model of most old media organisations. This line of work attracts people who are interested in the world around them, and their views will cover the whole spectrum of politics and politeness. Some of them will necessarily be iconoclasts, oddballs, misfits, and brilliant free-thinkers of all sorts of stripes. Interesting, competent people are always welcome at Business Insider.

Within this business, some people are employed as writers - that is, their words and public pronouncements are in fact their work flow, and the basis on which their performance is judged. Other people are employed in other capacities, making sure that the rest of the business operates smoothly.

Pax Dickinson is not employed as a writer at Business Insider, and as such is not employed for either his writing or his private opinions. Pax Dickinson is employed to make sure that the website at Business Insider operates at world-beating standards. Which, in case you're curious, it does. He's done at outstanding job at this, and BI wouldn't be what it is today without his efforts. We didn't hire him for his sexual preference, for his choice of reading material, for his political views, or for his ability to peacefully go along and get along. We hired him for a job, and he did it. He still does it.

From our perspective, that's the end of the story. We are simply not interested in policing the private twitter feeds of our employees to make sure they don't say anything controversial. That's it. To the extent we have an opinion on Pax's twitter feed, it is this: the private affairs of our staff are entirely their own business.

I could tell you that I don't agree with what he wrote. It's certainly tempting - I definitely wouldn't have written it myself. But to do that would be to give credence to the more basic assumption here - that we should take a position on agreeing or not with the political opinions of our staff.

Now, I'm also the CEO of Business Insider, and I have to make sure we have a viable business here. Lots of people are upset with Pax. Many are threatening to boycott our site. Perhaps, for business expediency, I should simply jettison Pax to please the people complaining the loudest.

You all are our customers, and you're entitled to visit or not visit our website according to whatever reasons you wish. That's up to you. We hope you stick around to keep viewing our great reporting. But if you decide you simply can't bear to read a site that employs someone like Pax, we'll sadly accept your verdict. If it turns out that enough people feel that way, then I as a CEO will have a sad choice in front of me, but not a hard one - if it's a choice between 'keep Pax and lose the whole business' or 'fire Pax and keep the business', every CEO in existence will choose the latter.

But before you insist on that course of action, I want to invite you to consider the larger angle here.

We live in a world where the bounds of acceptable discourse shrink ever further by the day. We live in a world where the only people willing to write on the internet under their own name are those who hold the most mild, innocuous milquetoast opinions.

When you choose to boycott a business based on the private views and words of its employees, you are sending a message - we demand ideological conformity from your staff. We demand that you, on our behalf, insist that none of your employees makes controversial statements or jokes that we don't agree with or that we find offensive. We demand that you do this not only for statements made inside your organisation and representing your organisation, but also statements that people make in their own individual capacity in their own free time. We insist that your employment contracts have an effective clause that one should not commit to permanent record any words likely to cause offense to people.

Collectively, you can easily get someone fired for their twitter feed. But there's a catch. You can't just do it for the opinions you disagree with. Because the other side is quickly going to learn the game, and the result will be a narrowing of the discourse all around.

I would ask you, is that really the world you want to live in? If it is, fine - that's what boycotting BI will produce. If enough of you vote with your dollars, that's what you'll get - a world where every single purchasing decision becomes a political decision. Where one cannot buy an icecream or mattress without asking what the political affiliation of its owners are, and what positions they enforce upon their employees.

If you, like me, find that world stifling and invasive, unfit for citizens of a country long praised for its robust discussion of ideas, then you have to check your initial impulse to boycott everything you don't like. You need to accept that there will be people in organisations whose products you buy who hold opinions you don't agree with, and that's okay.

This is not a question of 'free speech', specifically, since there's no government interference going on. You're all free to do what you want. But there's a choice we have to make about how much we as a society want to sanction people for their words alone. We at BI favor a policy that, if in doubt, we're in favor of more expression, not less.

Most corporations simply fold under the pressure of a boycott threat like the one we've received. But we at BI are taking an unusual step today - we're gambling that there's enough people out there who are willing to support Business Insider precisely because it does not police the private views of its employees.

We pledge that when you take a job with us, short of you breaking the law, you can write what you want, under your own name, without fear of being fired.

Imagine that.

Imagine how liberating that sounds.

Imagine if you could do that in your own job, right now.

If that's the world you'd like to see, we hope to continue to see you at Business Insider."

The sad, predictable reality is here.


  1. While the limits of acceptable discourse may be shrinking, intelligent conversation is not being stimulated by comments such as "In The Passion Of The Christ 2, Jesus gets raped by a pack of niggers. It's his own fault for dressing like a whore though." It's hard to be an advocate for such banter in a public forum -- that talk has a time and a place, I don't think that twitter is the time or the place especially if you know how polarizing it will be with so little to gain from such a proclamation.

  2. Regarding that specific quote, without any context, I agree, it certainly sounds bad. But Pax makes a defense (quite credibly, in my opinion) that this tweet was a deliberate play on this Mel Gibson quote which was well-known at the time. He was, in other words, mocking and satirising someone else's racist statement, not advocating it himself. The dates match up anyway, as the tweet is from the same time period. The phrase 'my remarks were taken out of context' gets thrown around a lot as a cowardly defense when it's unjustified, but here I really do think it's true.

    More importantly, I think there's an ocean of difference between a) 'we should advocate such banter taking place' (which, as far as I know, nobody is pushing), b) 'we should privately discourage such banter when we meet people who engage in it', and c) 'we should publicly attempt to get people fired who engage in such banter'.

  3. That's a fair point. Anything out of context is open for wild interpretation. That said there is an art to choosing your venue, when trying to make fun of something so controversial I would hope that you would try to provide some context or convey that it is not a personally held opinion, not an easy feat in 40 characters or less.

    I suppose though this speaks to the issue of people not being able to take a joke in the first place.

    I think this is just one of the many failings of having such a connected general populous -- you get people who use the internet as their own personal soapbox. When I hear of such events I often find myself wondering why they don't have better uses for their time than to become in internet activist for some ridiculous cause.

  4. That said there is an art to choosing your venue, when trying to make fun of something so controversial I would hope that you would try to provide some context or convey that it is not a personally held opinion, not an easy feat in 40 characters or less.

    Indeed. I think twitter is a very tough venue in which to either make risque jokes or talk about controversial subjects without hanging yourself somewhere, especially when you've written 10,000 tweets like Pax has. That's part of the reason I stick to this venue, where the caveats come flying thick and fast. :)

    Still, I think something definite is lost when every joke needs to have a footnote to a paragraph of explanation to make sure nobody takes it the wrong way. There's a certain style of impulsive humour that you just can't make to work.

  5. Hey, I had never seen this before. Thanks for writing it.

    1. No worries.

      Reading over it again does make me sad about the real world response. I miss your old twitter feed, it was one of the funniest things on the internet.

      I hereby offer this speech in its entirety to any leader of an organisation faced with this choice, and commend it to all.