Words matter, and they’re destabilizing the American tribe

Oct 29, 2018 · 5 min read

This weekend, a domestic terrorist killed 11 while they were steeped in prayer — because they are Jewish. The killer yelled “Kill all the jews” as he opened fire. This, in the same week where a man killed two in a Louisville Kroger, but whose intended targets were worshippers in a primarily black church. This, also in the week where a terrorist mailed bombs to political opponents labeled as “enemies of the state,” and George Soros, a prominent Jewish activist at the center of right wing conspiracy theories. This, also in a week where the government began de-humanizing the transgender community.

I’m writing this reaction from Berlin, having recently read “In the Garden of Beasts”, a biography of William Dodd, American ambassador to Germany during the rise of Nazi Germany. Dodd and family witnessed the ugly acts of Third Reich as they rose to power the country — just a few years earlier a progressive democratic republic — to commit atrocities against its own people and the world. Yet at the onset, things seemed normal — they held dinner parties with Nazi officials, where anti-semitic ideas were suddenly openly discussed, slowly normalizing them. What began as political rhetoric to gain power quickly normalized the once marginalized extremists — those who wanted to murder Jews — and gave them power and a voice. Where were the other leaders in the rise of Nazi Germany? Some moved, some voice quiet dissent, but many business and religious leaders went along. As a result, extremist murderers and thugs who just a few years earlier were underground, shunned — suddenly held high offices. And the rest is history.

And history has a history of repeating itself.

What’s happening in the United States in 2018 is not politics as usual. Red vs. blue, elephants vs. donkeys. What we’re seeing in 2018 America is nothing short of the destabilization of our American tribal values, driven by the political acts of our current power-holders (note, not leaders).

Leaders act to cement our best attributes, bring out our strongest selves and align us as a people around our core values. Especially when we can’t look to our politicians as leaders, community leaders in civic, religious, and business realms need to speak up. So as a business leader, I feel the duty to take up that responsibility.

Those currently in political power have turned our values upside down, and legitimized aspects of our society that were previously shunned. By telling white supremacists it’s ok to have racist views, they’ve made it acceptable to talk about white supremacy in the open, without fear of reprisal, making racist views akin to discussing who you favor in the World Series or whether organic foods are worth the cost. And emboldened by this legitimacy, some will go further than words.

Society is a delicate thing — getting millions of humans to act in some form of harmony and common good is remarkable. Humans are tribal creatures by nature, and our modern societies are a reflection of the tribe at a massive scale. So it’s our job as a society to decide who’s part of our tribe, and who is not. We’ve seen the ugly side of this in recent years — those in power telling us who ISN’T a part of the American tribe: immigrants. But as disturbing is who has allowed to become a part of our tribe: white supremacists.

It’s the job of society to create norms of acceptable behavior — to laud and celebrate those who exemplify those norms — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for example, who has a national holiday to honor his leadership. And it’s also the job of society to shun those who offend our sense of tribal justice — that’s how we create a functioning society for the benefit of the most. And I don’t believe that most people in America feel that racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy represent our values. So why would we permit these ideas to flourish? Whether we allow racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia to live in the open is an open judgement on our society — our tribe — and we are now living with the consequences.

While racism and white supremacy have always been a part of American society — it’s foolish to say anything else — the trend of the last 50 years of western society has been to denormalize it. What was once overt and in the open, was sent underground to die a slow death. Denormalization is the act of society telling you: “You’re wrong, cut it out.”

Ironically, the progressive idea of tolerance must be intolerant of these previously marginalized views. There must be an objective idea of right and wrong for a tribal norm and a functioning society. Even though we should cherish tolerance, we must reject and shun those ideas that violate our most basic principles. This extends to the media who have sympathetically covered white supremacists to better understand them, while failing to meaningfully challenge them. And other media outlets that amplify these messages for ratings, even while the tragic events are unfolding. This extends to social media companies who go out of their way to ensure that extreme right wing views are treated fairly. In fact, only recently have social media companies made any attempt to rid their sites of conspiracy theories that spread racist and anti-semitic ideologies. It took them two years since this movement gained the spotlight to acknowledge their role. Companies that have played a part of this normalization are culpable along with the current power-holders. That’s because words matter. Whether you say them, or help spread them.

That’s why we at Twilio banned not just hate speech, but any organization whose primary purpose is spreading hate. It’s in our control to decide who uses our product, and from whom we take money. We choose not to profit from this hatred, or those who spread it.

Words matter — they legitimize hate and the acts that hate brings from the most unhinged of society. So far the executive branch has led this campaign, and the congress has done nothing to mitigate it. It’s time to end this insanity, and stabilize our tribe’s values. Next week, we have the opportunity to vote — and send a message about the tribe we are. There are candidates of both parties who will stand up against the normalization of racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and hate. Regardless of which party you support, I believe the only American stance is to support candidates who will stand up against the words of hate and hold power-holders accountable. And standing up means speaking up strongly against this hate, not just quietly shaking your head.

While not always perfect, since its founding our American tribe has believed in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I read that phrase somewhere. If that’s really what America is about, then we need to recommit to those shared values. Use your dollars and attention to reject companies who amplify values in opposition to our tribe. Use your power to vote for leaders who represent those ideas, and tell the world that this is not the American tribe we are or want to be.

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