There is no such thing as an apolitical and non-societal discussion

On 3rd March, Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp (a company that runs an online project management tool and Hey, a privacy-focused email service) tweeted:

Company culture is not written down, it’s acted out. A company’s culture is a 50-day moving average of how it is, not how it thinks it is, wants to be, or was supposed to be.

Fifty-five short days later, on 26th April, he would publish a long and baffling blog post entitled “Changes at Basecamp.” The blog post indicated, amongst other sweeping changes of questionable value and intent, that the company would be adopting an etiquette against ‘societal and political discussions’ on its internal Basecamp instance. After uproar on Twitter, Fried’s co-founder, David Heinemeier Hansson, also blogged, sharing what he’d posted internally:

You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or stepping into it means you’re a target. That is difficult enough outside of work, but almost impossible at work. […] Next, Basecamp, as a company, is no longer going to weigh-in publicly on societal political affairs, outside those that directly connect to the business. Again, everyone can individually weigh-in as much or as little as they want, but we’re done with posts that present a Basecamp stance on such issues.

This policy is bad, although it does reveal a fascinating, and somewhat disturbing, mindset. The most telling detail of Fried’s original post is:

Who’s responsible for these changes? David and I are. Who made the changes? David and I did.

This much is obvious, because both Fried and DHH are white men operating in a field where being a white man is not a disadvantage. These are changes made by people who have the luxury of ignoring politics.

This is not a luxury available to an overwhelming plurality of people, whose very existence and happiness is considered an acceptable grounds for political debate. I could go into great detail about how non-white people’s, LGBTQIA+ people’s, women’s, disabled people’s lives are politicised—but I shan’t, because I assume that people who come to this blog know this. Fried and Hansson must know this too—and thought it was appropriate to adopt this policy anyway.

It betrays a deep level of selfishness to say to your staff members: “Please don’t bring your concerns about (eg) Black people being shot by police, children being submitted to genital examinations in the name of transphobia, etc. to work, it’s distracting and you’re not going to change anyone’s mind.” People build software to function as a part of society. Email is used as identity verification and a communication medium by almost everyone in modern society—in this way it’s almost a utility. To say “we don’t care about that” is no doubt upsetting to Basecamp’s staff.

There’s nothing I can add to the conversation around the content of Basecamp’s new policies that hasn’t already been said more succinctly than me, by more intelligent people. But I just want to come back to the original post, where Fried claims, among many other disordered and incoherent things, that they treat their company like a product. In some ways this a classic “programmer analogy” that sounds cute but doesn’t hold water. But in others, it’s an ominous portent for the future direction of Basecamp.

As C J Silverio said about npm at JSConf 2019, companies do not love you—not even companies that make something you like. Not even companies that employ you. Company culture is (as Fried’s tweet indicated) a moving average of how it is, but only as a result of “the company” being a moving target. A company is simply a group of people, at a point in time, working as part of a financial instrument to generate money.

It’s very likely that Basecamp will change significantly over the next few months and years. Even if Fried and DHH realise and admit that this was a mistake and work to fix the harm they’ve done (which I truly hope they do) in all likelihood they’ve made their workplace feel profoundly unsafe for many marginalised folks whose existence is politicised. I hope that these staff members (many of whom have tweeted about being deeply upset) can unionise or find a more sympathetic employer.

Those who leave will eventually need to be replaced. There is one particular kind of person who will probably really like a “politics free” workplace—the fascist. This isn’t a hypothetical situation. David Lewis reported for The Stranger in 2017:

According to my observations, the standard Seattle Nazi is a white male under 30 who either works in the tech industry or is going to school to work in the tech industry. “You’re also a coder? Do you mind if I send you something I’ve been working on?” I heard that more than once.

This may seem like an extreme jump to make, but it’s not. Most of us are the well adjusted people we are because we have been exposed to many different people with different ideologies over the course of our lives. Sometimes we have been called out in a way that hits us and this changes our worldview. Discomfort leads us to reassess our priorities, but in some ways can lead to a safer environment—particularly when we realise we’ve been coming from a position of privilege that others don’t have.

Shielding a person from political discussion at work does not mean their output suddenly loses all its political texture. If anything, it is likely to turn their worldview inwards, to a place that is more insular. A “politics free” workplace is therefore a gift horse for a political extremist or for someone who is vulnerable to radicalisation.

And is this the kind of person you want building your email?