This was originally posted on my company blog given that it addresses boycotting tech companies based on who their customers are, I feel is highly relevant. It was posted to Hackernews (where I have a karma score over 1000) and despite a vigorous flurry of upvotes, it was repeatedly [flagged], even in light of being unflagged multiple times by mods. It was also posted to slashdot (where my karma is over 3000) and again, it was flagged as spam, despite a mod there weighing in that it was not at all spam and that it should be resubmitted. It was also resubmitted to hackernews. All which makes my point: there is a witch hunt mentality which is proving the point of this entire article.
It seems people who want to engage these antics don’t see the contradiction that if organizing a boycott based on a company’s customers (rather than it’s actual deeds) is “free speech”, criticizing those boycotts isn’t. Thanks guys, you’ve proven my point in spades.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
– Edward Bernays, Public Relations
I’ve been trying not to write this post, because really, who needs a bunch of shrill, hysterical snowflakes calling you a racist nazi for committing the egregious sin of pointing out the many contradictions in the #deleteshopify boycott and the wider witch hunt mentality that pervades social discourse these days?
The main factor holding me back is not cynicism but actually fear. For the first time in my life I’m afraid to speak my mind. The possible ramifications of exercising my inalienable right to free speech frighten the crap out of me. So much so that I really don’t want to do it. I’ve become known as the type of person who speaks candidly and frankly about some tough issues and I’ve never had a problem doing that in the past. I’ve gone up against some pretty intimidating forces such as the City of London IPCU and the US FDA, but I’ve never been as scared as I am now to speak out. For that reason I’m just going to have to suck it up and do it.
There is a cultural purge in progress.
It is directed against not only those who are perceived as “pro-Trump” (which as a card carrying Libertarian I am not. I think that he’s no friend to free speech, privacy or the internet), but targeting even those who are not “anti-Trump enough”.
This cultural purge has a two-pronged approach, from one side, from elements within the corridors of power (or those recently ejected from it) who have successfully floated the concept that free speech is not inviolable and that it would be a good thing for “truth” to be curated by “somebody” who knows better:
“We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to… There has to be, I think, some sort of way in which we can sort through information that passes some basic truthiness tests and those that we have to discard, because they just don’t have any basis in anything that’s actually happening in the world…That is hard to do, but I think it’s going to be necessary, it’s going to be possible,”
— Barack Obama in speech at Frontiers Conference, Pittsburgh, PA, Oct 13, 2016 (emphasis added)
The other half comes from the trenches, comprised of manic flashmobs directing enmity against, literally, anything remotely connected to those deemed responsible for the greatest political upset of our time.
The mainstream media, outlets like Washington Post and the New York Times, among others, are complicit, providing the glue or the lubricant between this pincer movement and its chilling effects. The combination gels into an echo chamber drowning out all rationality and renders differing philosophies and legitimate dissent as blasphemous.
Let me explain my choice of title for this post and how it captures what I see going on here:
This post title is obviously a riff on Gil Scott-Heron’s song ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, and the backstory behind this song is quite instructive to times like these:
Gil Scott-Heron saw first hand how altruistically motivated social activism can turn ugly when a when a campus protest action he initiated went horribly overboard. After the death of one of Gil-Heron’s schoolmates, he started a grass roots movement with the goal of improving the medial conditions on his campus, including making the college infirmary operate 24×7, something he felt would have saved his friend’s life.
The laudable aim of improving conditions on campus with the possibility of saving future lives derailed into a menacing fracas. A mob congregated on the front lawn of the infirmary’s doctor’s home where they proceeded to burn him in effigy:
“The protest grew angry, culminating with some students hanging the doctor in effigy from a tree in his front yard and setting it on fire. The doctor came out of his house and swore that he wasn’t responsible for the deaths. As he proclaimed his innocence, he had tears in his eyes.
When Gil arrived at the protest, he stood between the students and the doctor, looking at the doctor’s children staring out the window in fear. ‘A cold flash scampered across the back of my neck, ‘ wrote Gil later to describe his sudden fear that events could spiral out of control into violence, a fear which was allayed only when the students went back to their dorms.
The realization that radical action sometimes leads to unintended consequences and violent overreactions haunted Gil, and that image of a distraught Dr. Davies lingered in his mind for months to come. The experience reinforced Gil’s instinct to avoid violence and militant action in the struggle for social change.”
One should easily concede that today there are many reasons to petition for change. Our governments still have us all under wholesale surveillance, we are still involved in numerous unsanctioned wars, continue to provoke toward new ones, and the government continues to methodically destroy the economy via financial repression.
But we should all take Gil Scott-Heron’s lesson to heart and try to keep in mind that we are all human beings. We all have rights, we should all be secure in our ability to speak and associate freely.
But that isn’t what’s happening.
Today, the mainstream media, rather than objectively and rationally report on facts, are instead complicit in a sustained, wide-ranging campaign of demonization of “all things non-Democrat”. There is blanket categorical denial of any valid basis for why the citizenry worldwide are rejecting what they increasingly see as an “Establishment Elite” agenda.
Greece, Brexit, Trump and quite possibly soon, Marine Le Pen in France are all continuations of a theme. These events are referendums unto themselves and those “Global Elites” are on a losing streak. Instead of trying to understand the basis of these rejections (that the populace are sick and tired of having a two-tiered society in which their civil rights are eroded and they get saddled with all the debt, while the elites get to operate under a different set of rules and gobble up all the assets); they have mounted a concerted campaign of outright propaganda and mind-numbingly nonsensical narratives to dismiss away these acts of “defiance”.
As alt-market.com’s Brandon Smith commentary observes:
“One of the most favored propaganda tactics of establishment elites and [those] they employ … is to relabel or redefine an opponent before they can solidly define themselves. In other words, elites [and their media] will seek to “brand” you (just as corporations use branding) in the minds of the masses so that they can take away your ability to define yourself as anything else.” (emphasis added)
And this is exactly what’s happening. For example, when you say “Breitbart”, your average person is so inculcated from the repetition of the words “white supremacist”, “racist”, and “ nazi” that people just assume that’s what it is. From there people think that it’s ok to #boycottshopify simply for supplying basic online ecommerce services to them (where does it stop? Btw, Breitbart derives 100% of it’s revenues from the internet, perhaps everybody in a twist about it should do us all a favour and boycott that too).
Is Breitbart really white supremacist, racist nazi hate site? Actually, no it isn’t. Most people think it is however, because they’ve been conditioned to believe it, and they’ve never actually gone there to see for themselves.
How do I know that Breitbart isn’t really the white supremacist, neo-nazi hate-site that we are incessantly brainwashed to believe it is? Well for one thing, I’ve seen the real deal. They look like this:
This place is called “Shitskin Plantation”. They wound up on easyDNS (my company’s system ) for about a week by the time we kicked them. The fact that we did eject a real honest to god racist, neo-nazi hate site doesn’t bolster the #boycottshopify movement for three reasons:
#1) Shitskin is clearly racist and contains actual language condoning violence toward an identifiable group. It was right there for anybody to see. Here in Canada such material is codified into law as “hate speech” under the Criminal Code.
#2) We chose. We assessed our AUP, found them in violation and kicked them. Specifically we found them in violation of “the Non-Aggression Principle” in our plain english Terms of Service. The NAP has grey areas and subjective rabbit holes. Libertarians debate it relentlessly. But the important thing is that nobody else forced us to do it in the absence of due process. We made our own determination, and that’s important. Sacrosanct, in fact.
And #3) Breitbart is an ultra-conservative, hard-right political opinion site. That’s all. They seem also have a penchant for inflammatory, click-bait headlines (who doesn’t these days?) You may not like it, I may not like it, but they absolutely have the right to be online and to publish.
That anybody who has even the most tenuous affiliation with them is fair game for having their rights curtailed, their livelihood sanctioned or sabotaged is indefensible. The only legitimate mechanism for these people to suffer in their fortunes is through the failure of their ideas in the marketplace of thought. By being rejected, not through being repressed (see below).
It is entirely reasonable for Shopify, or any other vendor to keep supplying services to Breitbart (at present they have no services with easyDNS)
It is also reasonable for any of those vendors to choose not to supply services to them of their own volition (you can’t have it both ways folks, you can’t force Shopify to dump Breitbart and simultaneously force some Bible-thumping redneck to bake a cake for a gay wedding).
What isn’t reasonable is to coerce or compel anybody else to take any action they would not themselves take under their own judgement. It’s truly frightening that there is a growing sentiment that this is acceptable behaviour.
Do you really want to live in a world where people sever business and personal relationships because a literal flash mob demands it? Where mobs get to pick and choose whom you are allowed to associate with?
Shopify has over 300,000 customers. You honestly expect them to sort through those and kick out the ones who you think are morally objectionable?
In 2010, when easyDNS was itself embroiled in the Wikileaks debacle I was absolutely appalled when ranking politicians applauded the vendors for severing ties with them. Senator Lieberman congratulated Amazon and Paypal by name for “breaking their contracts”, he literally used those words. A ranking politician applauding behaviour that should rightly get you sued. The public backlash then was huge and pro-Wikileaks. In our own small way, we stood up for Wikileaks then, we maintain a congruent position now. I applaud Shopify for standing firm and refusing to sever their ties for the same reason.
The “Right Side” of History
Whenever I hear a lot of activists whining about the current situation I frequently hear references to being “on the right side of history”. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of that. Actually that’s a nonsensical statement since history is amoral, or as Winston Churchill famously observed, “One damned thing after another”.
However there is one rule of thumb I’ve formulated over the years which I think can keep one onside of the grand currents sweeping through time and society and helped me understand my sympathy with Libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism. That is to know the fine line between rejecting an idea that one finds immoral, unethical, obsolete or otherwise objectionable and repressing it.
Morality is largely subjective. Very few people act in a way they themselves consider immoral. Almost everybody thinks that whatever they’re doing, they’re on the side of the angels. The tiny sliver of participants who are fully cognizant of their own immoral action and proceed anyway are criminals and sociopaths (the majority of them gravitate into politics).
When enough people’s ethical compasses align you get a cultural or societal norm. One of the cultural norms that we fought hard for over the ages was that people have a right to free speech and free association. You can disagree with what I have to say but respect my right to say it.
These rights were so hard won that they were codified into universal laws and into the very Constitutions that govern most civilized nations. I believe one of the more well-known words for it was “inalienable”.
Until now. Now people are putting conditions around “free speech” and “free association”.
The idea that free speech has its limits somewhere around the point where it hurts somebody’s feelings is beyond idiotic and dangerous.
The world is not one big foam insulated, bubble wrapped safe space. This may come as a shock to you but there is a widespread sentiment, a backlash dare I say, against the idea that a Saviour State should watch over everything and smooth out all the world’s sharp edges.
Boycotts usually backfire.
Back in the mid-90’s, Bob Rae was the Premiere of Ontario and I was in a failed metal band out of London, Ontario. Mr. Rae wrote a nice song about multiculturalism called “Same Boat Now” and submitted it to various record labels who promptly rejected it and told him not to quit his day job. My band recorded a power-pop version of his song and released it on 7” vinyl. Our label put an open letter to Mr. Rae on the back sleeve that was highly critical of his socialist political platform (albeit quite tame by today’s standards). I was mortified, fearing a media backlash but felt trapped. I called Jack Richardson, my former college prof from Fanshawe College’s Music Industry Arts program and widely credited with having single-handedly created the Canadian music industry and asked his advice.
Before I finished relaying the details he was laughing. “Mark”, he said, “The only thing that truly matters is that they spell ‘Landslide’ right. That’s it”.
This has been bourne out countless times since that event. I could list them here but the point is, boycotts usually invoke The Streisand Effect and actually bolster the target of the boycott. We can cite a couple brief examples:
- During the Bob Parsons era of Godaddy, when he shot the elephant, or when he aired some super-sexist Super Bowl commercial, Godaddy numbers, in terms of net-new domains-in or registered usually went up not down, in the face of consumer outrage and boycotts.
- Wikileaks, again – when we did help their mirror sites get back online there was a counter-reaction against that. Every once in awhile I check the emails from the customers who sent me extremely hostile emails telling me they were leaving, and almost all of them remained (and some still do) customers to this day.
- Shopify itself, who is publicly traded, has been on a tear in share price for most of the year, and it’s continued unabated since #deleteShopify began.
So what can you do?
You can only govern yourself. Your only recourse is whether to associate or disassociate with somebody. Yes, you are perfectly within your rights to #boycottshopify but as I’ve outlined, you’re being naive doing so and likely have the exact opposite effect if you’re enough of a loudmouth about it .
But if this Cultural Purge proceeds we will actually, for real, lose what used to be inalienable rights. Our right to free speech, our right to free association and our rights to our own minds. If something you say is considered “hurtful” (which will more closely resemble dissent or criticism of the Official Narrative than anything else) you will be sanctioned. You will tow the line or you will be penalized – contracts severed, vendors disassociate themselves, boycotts ensue. Whatever you do, just don’t say or think the wrong thing, because not going along with the crowd will make you a pariah.
If you want to prevent that:
1) you have the duty to look at the issue first hand and decide for yourself if it has any merit. Don’t ever come to me and tell me “XYZ is white supremacist, neo-nazi hate speech” unless you can show me an article that has the hate speech in it. Show me the white supremacist rhetoric. If you tell me you believe it simply because that’s what Wapo told you then you are a fool. You are Wapo’s useful idiot. A Wapobot.
2) you have to be prepared to call b/s whenever some whining snowflake demands safety from any contrary opinion, whenever some pundit robotically repeats the “white supremacist, hate speech, homophobe, Russian hackers” mantra, and whenever you’re asked to jump on some witchunt bandwagon against someone who dares to dispute the Official Narrative.
3) you have to be able to take the heat. Guess what? You’ll be next. Speak out against this nonsense and you’ll be subjected to hysterionics, character assassination, guilt by the most tenuous of associations, distortions of fact and a co-ordinated piling on by mobs of unquestioning ideological berserkers.
- You’ll be Peter Thiel (there was a popular outcry to remove him from Facebook’s board, why? Because he endorsed Trump.)
- You’ll be Scott Adams (his crime? Correctly predicting that Trump was going to win)
- You’ll be Ivanka Trump (facing a co-ordinated attack on her livelihood for her transgression of being born a Trump).
That is a cultural purge.
Hell, I’m probably next just for writing this piece. So be it. My credibility as a non-racist, free-speech Libertarian are unassailable and am categorically unaffiliated with Russian intelligence. My duty is to speak out precisely because it is becoming more dangerous to speak out.
“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. — Unknown