Less Cancel Culture Than Karen Culture

So you have probably heard about Basecamp. They're a Chicago-based software company that does some kind of project management web app stuff. They've been around for a while, but recently been in the news for a controversy similar to the one that embroiled Coinbase: basically, the bosses said "Enough with the SJ stuff at work," employees rebelled, the bosses said "If you don't want to work here, quit," and a third took the offered payout and left.

The Verge reports it as Basecamp implodes as employees flee company, including senior staff.

The story most media appears to want to tell is "Company goes anti-woke, goes broke." While losing a third of your employees does sound pretty bad, Basecamp was offering a generous severance package for anyone who wanted to leave. How many of them actually left because of the company's position on politics and social issues? The Verge quotes a lot of tweets from disgruntled former employees, but we don't really know how many just took the severance package to look for greener grass.

Here was the company statement that supposedly began the brouhaha leading to this exodus:

Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore

Further tldr: it apparently all started because employees had been for years circulating a list of "funny" (mostly foreign) customer names and making fun of them. Eventually some employees complained, the founders agreed that it was inappropriate and they should have shut it down earlier, but some employees were not satisfied by this. Cue a ‘Pyramid of Hate’ that apparently was the last straw for partner David Hansson. (Who incidentally is also the guy who created Ruby on Rails.)

Predictably, of course, the anti-woke side is portraying Basecamp as "based" (Basecamp, Coinbase, the jokes write themselves), but there seems to be little evidence that they are in any sense actively "anti-woke." They're just pushing back on being expected to let corporate policy be another channel for social activism.

OTOH, from the Verge:

While the company argued that it was just trying to get its own employees focused on work, company founders don’t tend to shy away from “societal and political discussions” online, with Hansson in particular having become a vocal critic of Apple’s App Store policies, to the point that he has testified in favor of antitrust regulation.

The Verge: "They told employees to lay off the social and political discussions at work, but the partners totally have political opinions, especially about things that affect their business!"

This is a pretty weak gotcha.

In that Medium article, the writer explains an infographic from the ADL showing that small prejudices can be the foundation for greater acts of discrimination, all the way up to genocide, etc. etc. Okay, it's just a pyramid showing "Really Bad Things might start with Mildly Bad Things."

David Hansson actually wrote a pretty thoughtful response to the Verge piece: Let it all out. He does not seem to be either "based" or "woke." He agrees that making fun of people's names was not cool and the company culture shouldn't have encouraged it. But he warns against escalating every discussion to a high-stakes stand-off. Basically, asking for good faith and charity and kindness.

He tries to navigate reasonable middle road:

But more so than just whether I think that's productive or healthy, a significant contingency of Basecamp employees had been raising private flags about this as well. Finding the discussions to be exactly acrimonious, uncomfortable, unresolved. Yet feeling unable to speak up out of fear that they'd have an accusatory label affixed to their person for refusing to accept the predominant framing of the issues presented by other more vocal employees.

Which gets to the root of the dilemma. If you do indeed strive to have a diverse workforce both ideologically and identity wise, you're not going to find unison on all these difficult, contentious issues. If you did, you'd both be revealing an intellectual monoculture and we wouldn't be having these acrimonious debates.

So if that is something you want, I continue to believe that a diverse workforce _should_ be something that you want, you have to consider what guardrails to put on the internal discourse. My belief is that the key to working with other people of different ideological persuasions is to find common cause in the work, in the relations with customers, in the good we can do in the industry. Not to repeatedly seek out all the hard edges where we differ. Those explorations are better left to the smaller groups, to discussions outside of the company-wide stage, and between willing participants.

Predictably, this did not go over well with woke employees, and the above-linked Medium article accuses him of "catastrophizing."

There is a lot of CW meat here. You've got "go woke, go broke" (or the reverse?), you've got "entryists," you've got "based" companies (not), and really, what you've got is a story that can be cast any way your own biases lie. Basecamp is being eaten up by SJ entryists because they didn't stomp down hard enough and tried to appease them, or Basecamp is "imploding" because of an out-of-touch founder who doesn't really understand Diversity & Inclusion.

What really tickled my sense of irony was Hansson complaining that his (he thought) reasonable and inclusive response to address the issue got reported to HR.

This was the reply that triggered two anonymous complaints to HR. The one complaint included charges 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.

I've read that reply many times now. I can't in my most critical reading find evidence or origin for the charges that this constituted protected-class discrimination or harassment. But obviously I'm not exactly an impartial party in the matter, so we followed our standard procedure regarding such complaints and sent it, along with all the context, to external labor lawyers for review. They concluded that no discrimination or harassment had occurred, and we shared their findings with the company.

No one who has seen a mod queue would be surprised by this. Even those of you who are always very calm and nonconfrontational, with middle-of-the-road opinions, might be shocked how often your posts are reported. Some of the most reasonable, unspicy posts get marked as "It's targeted harassment." Some people will report "Inflammatory claim without evidence" just because they don't agree with the post. (I will make a prediction that this post gets reported for... something.) So it is not at all surprising to me that a company founder saying "Hey, can't we all just get along and get back to work and give each other a little grace?" got reported for "discrimination and harassment." Frankly, this is less Cancel Culture than Karen Culture. ("Someone offended me and I want Someone to Do Something about it!")

I will say that David Hansson impresses me with his reasonable and nuanced takes, in marked contrast to the responses to him from both employees and the media.