On Y Combinator’s Defense of Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel speaking at the RNC. Doug Mills/The New York Times

Yesterday news broke that Peter Thiel had pledged $1.25MM to support Republican nominee Donald Trump. Since Mr. Thiel himself isn’t active on social media, social media went after both Paul Graham and Sam Altman of Y Combinator—a startup accelerator that lists Mr. Thiel as a part-time partner.

Mr. Altman wrote about 10 tweets summing up his personal response last night. This one stuck with me.

Sam Altman tweet in defense of Peter Thiel

The concern expressed by both Mr. Graham and Mr. Altman was around setting a precedent by firing someone for political beliefs—something clearly dangerous and un-American.

That being said, the false equivalence here is striking, and to me patently ridiculous. Peter is a billionaire. A billionaire. Sam has no ability to cut off his viewpoint even if he wanted to.

One of many tweets directed at Paul Graham following the Thiel news

It’s as if while writing this, Mr. Altman forgot that this entire episode started as a reaction to Peter using that outsized financial means to donate $1.25 million dollars to Donald Trump in order to tilt the U.S. presidential election. There’s no equivalence or precedent here, and considering a part-time partner at YC who’s a billionaire an ‘employee’ is a masterful stroke of branding. To the rest of us, an employee is someone who needs to work for a living to pay the bills.

Mr. Thiel will be unaffected no matter what Y Combinator decides to do. There is no pitchfork mob out there who wants to deprive him of his rightfully earned wealth, or his freedom of speech. Though I am in favor of overturning Citizens United vs. FEC.

Sam Altman tweet in defense of Peter Thiel

What Mr. Graham, not a stranger to allegations of misogyny himself, and Mr. Altman are being insensitive to is the fact that for many people, myself included, wrapping Donald Trump in the blanket of “a major party nominee” is normalizing his behavior. So because Mr. Trump is a major party nominee, normalizing rape culture and referring to it as “locker room talk” is treated as normal political speech.

I wonder if either of them saw Michelle Obama last week.

Michelle Obama’s speech in Manchester, NH following the leaked Trump tapes from Access Hollywood

For millions and millions of women around this country, the leaked Trump tapes, subsequent news coverage, and victim-shaming was disgusting. What was worse: Trump and his surrogates going on television asking ‘why these women didn’t come forward sooner’. For women that have had an experience of being sexually assaulted, and had only downside in speaking out, this was horrific—and they were forced to relive these episodes thanks to Donald Trump bragging about it to Billy Bush. I’m fortunate to not have experienced anything like this, but I know many women, some very close to me, who most certainly have.

The response by Mr. Graham and Mr. Altman, to reflexively defend their business partner and treat the normalization of this misogyny as academic political speech, instead of showing empathy for what people are feeling, is tone deaf and predictable. The lack of understanding of life experiences that, as privileged white men, they haven’t had, reinforces one of the uglier stereotypes of Silicon Valley. Not taking a stronger stand allows this culture to continue to permeate this community in which I’ve lived for 9 years. A more compassionate course of action would have been to ask questions and listen first, not after. Men especially should be aware that we’re generally poor listeners, and lack emotional literacy—practical reasons why boards need to hire more women.

To make this even more ridiculous, Mr. Altman’s concern over cutting off viewpoints isn’t even one shared by Mr. Thiel, who wrote that women getting the vote was bad for democracy and who bankrupted an entire media company. This act actually did cut off the viewpoints and platform of all the journalists that lost their jobs, and don’t have billions to fall back on. The candidate Mr. Thiel is bankrolling also stated that he wants to “open up our libel laws.” CPJ called Mr. Trump an “unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists.” So if Mr. Altman was actually concerned over silencing viewpoints, he shouldn’t worry about Mr. Thiel, he should worry about the rest of us.