Does anyone else think it was kinda insane that people suggested Peter Thiel should be fired from Facebook’s board and as a Y Combinator advisor? I certainly did. You can’t just fire people for their political opinions! But very intelligent people I respected called for it, so I dug in to figure out why.
It turns out that their reasoning in asking for Thiel to be fired is logical, internally consistent, and is being made in good faith. That is, they’re actually making a good point, so long as you look at the world from their point of view.
Let’s try to do that.
The most important thing to understand is that complaints against Peter Thiel are not political. Equality advocates are not conducting a political purge. It’s not a witch hunt. They don’t want to fire all Republicans or all Trump-voters, they’re not anti-conservative, they’re not anti-right.
This isn’t political at all! This is about “safety”, not politics.
A good place to start with understanding this idea is via Trump’s recent video tape. In the video, Trump bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” without consent and using his power and money to get away with it. Trump bragged about it! It’s not an abstract concept or a belief that he has, and it’s certainly not a lie he’s telling to keep the Republican base voting for him. This is a thing that Trump says he did. It’s not politics — it’s that he’s a predator.
“Safety” is being free from that. It’s the idea that you don’t have to worry that you’re going to be attacked, whether physically, verbally, online, at work, at home. It’s knowing that you’re not going to be raped while you walk to work. It’s being pulled over by the police without fear of being shot. It’s about never having to worry about what other people might do to you.
The concept of safety is very tough for me to understand. I can get it a little bit on an academic basis, but I don’t feel it emotionally. I basically feel safe all the time. When Trump supporters excuse rape, I disagree, but I don’t feel threatened. Just like I don’t need pepper spray to feel safe walking down the street.
So just because you and I don’t personally feel unsafe due to Trump’s rhetoric, that doesn’t mean others don’t feel a visceral fear of attacks and violence, nor does it mean that their fear is unfounded.
Trump says and does sexist and racist things with impunity because he’s powerful. He’s a predator and he can get away with it because of his power and money.
So when Thiel comes in to support him with a giant donation, it’s not perceived merely as “free speech” or “just politics” (regardless of what Thiel intended). This is another powerful man, coming to the aid of an abuser. Thiel is his enabler.
As an analogy, imagine you are a woman working at a company. A colleague (Trump) has a reputation for sexual harassment, but he hasn’t been fired because that’s how the world is. Women who came forward against him got ignored, or fired, or quit in disgust. He brags about it and denigrates women regularly, but somehow nothing happens. Then, the CEO (this is Thiel) comes in, and promotes Trump. He says wonderful things about Trump to the whole company and to the press. He gives him a big promotion, and makes him the boss of many women, including you. Thiel’s not promoting him because he’s an abuser — Thiel just doesn’t care that he’s an abuser. Imagine how you would feel: the powerlessness, the helplessness. You can’t quit, you need to support your family, you’re stuck there, working for a sexual predator who acts with impunity.
Now imagine this abuser runs the whole country.
Facebook and Y Combinator
Given this, imagine you then read the following statements.
Mark Zuckerberg: “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault.”
Sam Altman: “As repugnant as Trump is to many of us, we are not going to fire someone over his or her support of a political candidate.”
Scott Aaronson: “Like, a hundred million Americans’ worldviews revolve around the fear of liberal persecution, and we’re going to change their minds by firing those who refuse to fire them?”
They’re not wrong exactly, but it’s like they’re on a completely different planet! They don’t even think about safety — they’re assuming that people are asking for Thiel to be fired for POLITICAL reasons. People want Thiel fired because minorities in the tech community — women, black people, Latinos, etc — do not feel safe having Thiel in a position of power over them.
So this political stuff comes across like a straw man, an excuse for keeping Thiel on board. No wonder they’re pissed!
This is not news
Of course, this information is actually out there. It’s completely obvious in all the complaints against Thiel, once you take onboard the idea that the problem is safety, not politics:
Ellen Pao: “His attacks on Black, Mexican, Asian, Muslim, and Jewish people, on women, and on others are more than just political speech; fueled by hate and encouraging violence, they make each of us feel unsafe. […]. This is advocating […] violence”.
Marco Arment: “Altman’s framing of Thiel’s Trump support as a diversity issue isn’t just incorrect — it’s a harmful distortion that reveals a deep misunderstanding of the tech industry’s actual diversity issues. […] Labeling reprehensible positions as “political beliefs” is a cowardly, meaningless shield”.
Look at the words they use — “scared for the lives”, “hate and violence”, “his attacks”, “existential threat” — and contrast them to Altman’s and Zuckerberg’s: “because they support Trump”, “support of a political candidate”. Altman and Zuckerberg are talking about mere political support. The others are talking about fearing for their lives.
To be honest, I can see where these dudes are coming from: it’s extremely difficult to see past your own situation. When you feel safe, it’s fundamentally hard to empathize with a lack of safety.
Did Thiel cross a line?
So if you believe that Trump’s actions are not just politics, but an attack on the safety of women and minorities, as many do, where would you stand on Thiel? In this worldview, would you ask for him to be fired?
Trump spent many months attacking the marginalized. As a result, almost everybody had left his side; all the other Republicans had stepped away from his disgusting behaviour. But not Thiel. Trump’s attacks were not new when Thiel gave his speech at the Republican Convention. And after all that, Thiel still made a massive donation. He used his money and his power to support attacks on the safety of women and minorities.
That’s the line Thiel crossed. That’s why people want him fired. He is enabling a serial abuser, validating him and his abuse. Thiel most assuredly did it for political reasons, but along with his political reasons came a giant “fuck you” to women and to the marginalized.
There are, as Altman and Zuckerberg and everyone else agrees, many reasons to vote Republican. Peter Thiel the Republican supporter can sit on as many boards, and advise as many companies as he likes.
Peter Thiel the enabler of hatred and sexual assault is a different matter though. As a woman, could you feel safe at a company that has Thiel on the board? No, because he clearly gives no shits about women’s safety. If he did, he would not spend huge sums to put a sexual predator over you. If you’re a Silicon Valley minority, would you work at a YC company which has Thiel as an advisor? Fuck no. Thiel clearly doesn’t give a fuck about your concerns.
I find it difficult to truly understand the need for safety on an emotional level, and maybe you do too. But I see where that need is coming from. Skipping over this concept and believing it’s “just politics” means you missed the point, as I believe Zuckerberg and Altman both did. If you want women and minorities to feel safe at Y Combinator and Facebook, then Thiel’s presence works against that.