Two years ago, Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced to resign because it had been reported that he had given $1,000 to the campaign to pass Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure approved by California voters that prohibited same-sex marriage. (Later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality.) Now Silicon Valley activists are targeting Peter Thiel, because the controversial venture capitalist and a board member for Facebook donated $1.25 million to a super PAC that supports Donald Trump. Those of you who wonder why there is so much division in American politics need look no further than Silicon Valley.
Eich must have been in shock when activists went after him for giving a modest sum for a position that was mainstream in 2008. Barack Obama said he opposed same-sex marriage and, incongruously, Prop. 8 — and he won the White House that year. Six years later, Eich lost his job for opposing same-sex marriage, and actually believing it.
Ellen Pao, a co-founder of Project Include, which is supposed to promote diversity in the tech world, said Thiel’s big donation prodded her group to sever ties with tech incubator Y Combinator, where Thiel is a part-time partner. Pao explained, “While all of us believe in the ideas of free speech and open platforms, we draw a line here. We agree that people shouldn’t be fired for their political views, but this isn’t a disagreement on tax policy, this is advocating hatred and violence.”
Pao, who is most famous for her failed sexual discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, doesn’t understand free speech or the difficult balancing acts it requires. She doesn’t say how Thiel advocated for hatred and violence, other than to assert that Trump makes some people — women, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, Asians feel “unsafe.” She relies on intolerance’s favorite crutch, guilt by association.
“No one’s calling for every Trump supporter to be driven out of the Valley,” Will Oremus wrote in Slate; when critics call for a billionaire to lose a board seat, “it’s a far cry from the systematic persecution of suspected communist sympathizers.”
Of course it’s not systematic persecution because there is only one known Trump mega-donor in Silicon Valley. But it’s still persecution designed to marginalize a point of view.
Even though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disagrees with Trump on immigration, he has resisted calls from his staff to expel Thiel from Facebook’s board. “We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate,” Zuckerberg wrote. “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault.” Zuckerberg also has had to overrule staffers who wanted to remove Trump posts on a Muslim ban as “hate speech.”
This is all about who gets to play in the high-tech playground. Pao and like-minded techies fear they might have to work next to people with dissident views. If they got out more and talked with folks with different philosophies, they could argue and engage in a battle of ideas. But they don’t know how to argue. They only know how to cover their ears.