Getting the signal out

There’s a pun hidden in the title but it’s as obscure as most of my puns.

So, the situation at Basecamp exploded with apparently almost a third of the employees choosing to resign, or rather, accept buy-outs from the company. And the head of strategy was suspended and resigned. So, what happened?

Trusting the media reporting is difficult; these stories are so politically based that you can easily see what the reporter wants to frame them as. But today I read something else that might explain what happened:

You cannot argue with a punch in the face. If you are intent on having a reasonable discussion with someone, and the other person is intent on punching you in the face, no matter how much energy and effort you put into building your arguments and gathering your evidence, it will not matter. You still need to deal with the punch to the face. Once the punch is being thrown, you can’t debate the punch, or invalidate the punch with logic, or provide evidence that the punch is unwarranted; you need to dodge, block or punch back.

[…]

To put the strategy into simple terms: CSJ advocates are not trying to defeat you intellectually with evidence and arguments, they are trying to defeat you socially using power moves and social maneuvering.
— Mike Young, “How To Play Games with Words Part 1: The tactics of the “woke” Critical Social Justice activist

Why could this be relevant? Well, the report in Verge tells the story with what we must assume are true elements, though possibly framed politically. And those elements show that Fried and Hansson almost has lost control of their company, where perhaps half of the employees felt very strongly that it should move in a direction the executives do not.

This was not viable and while it seems clear Fried and Hansson were surprised by what was happening, I still hold that their decision was right. Look at this, very long reply that Hansson sent before everything blew up:

[Employee 2], I can appreciate how those examples raise the sensitivity of anything related to names, minorities, and power dynamics.

Still, I don’t think we serve the cause of opposing colonial regimes or racist ideology by connecting their abusive acts around names to this incident. And I don’t think we serve an evaluation of you and others making fun of names in a Campfire session by drawing that connection either.

We can recognize that forceful renaming by a colonial regime is racist and wrong while also recognizing that having a laugh at customer names behind their back is inappropriate and wrong without equating or linking the two.

To take an example from the Campfire incident. The name [customer name] is an English surname that you can trace back to the 1500s. It’s funny because it sounds like [phonetic connection to customer name]. Having a laugh at that does not connect you to any colonial or racist origins. It’s inappropriate and wrong because it’s disrespectful of the customer, a violation of basic expectations of privacy, and sets a bad cultural tone at Basecamp.

Same too with the other name that was primarily made fun of in that Campfire session: [another customer name]. It’s a surname that follows the Nordic style of “Son of [that customer name]”. And it’s again funny for phonetic reasons, because it starts with [word fragment from customer name]. [That word fragment] is just a funny word! It’s still inappropriate for us to be laughing at individually named customers in our company Campfires, but not because there are any racist or colonial overtones to it.

In fact, reviewing the original list in question, the vast majority of names on it fall into the category of the two specific examples above. It’s not a list of, say, primarily Asian names. Out of the 78 names listed on the last version we were able to recover, just 6 names appear to be Asian.

So connecting this to the shootings in Atlanta, because the Asian victims of that atrocity had their names misspelled in news reports, is exactly the kind of linkage I’d like us to avoid when we analyze our mistakes together at work. It needlessly creates this extremely high-stakes environment where inappropriately making fun of a name like [customer name of nordic heritage] can be rendered as part of some larger narrative of colonialism and racism that it just does not merit.

Anyway, again, I completely appreciate that this is an incredible sensitive time when it comes to questions of identity, racism, and colonialism. Much more so than even just a few years ago when nobody called out that Campfire session analyzed above as being inappropriate or wrong, or sought to investigate the origins of the Best Names Ever list.

We need to at once respect that sensitivity, not let it draw connections in overreach, and respond proportionally. We should in my opinion also be humble enough to recognize that if we participated in acts just a few years ago that we now consider deplorable, it’s possible for others now to be where we were then without being irredeemable people.

Doing all of that is not easy! But we can try, do our best, improve, and forgive ✌️❤️
— David Heinemeier Hansson, “Let it all out

There’s a reason I quote it in full because I want you to read it and see if you can spot the discrimination and harassment there. If you can’t, well, that makes a lot of us. Nevertheless the company HR received complaints, charging that the

reply constituted discrimination against [employee 2] on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, or other protected-class attributes (though did not specify which exact attributes they felt this was targeted discrimination against) as well as a charge that it constituted harassment.

Unsurprisingly, external labor lawyers found no discrimination or harassment had occurred but imagine being in a company where employees would think so. Fried and Hansson will have to do some soul-searching, for as the executives they are very much to blame for the culture.

As I said, I think their decision was the right one and I hope they stick to it. But it will take some nerves of steel, now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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