Whenever I write against corporate censorship, I get the same objection. It goes something like this: Don’t private corporations have a right to establish their own message? And in a free market, don’t they have an obligation to respond to customer demands? Google (or the NFL) can determine the image it wants to project. Google (or the NFL) have to respond to market pressures. So what’s wrong with firing dissenters from the corporate line? Why do you think you should have the right to publicly disagree with your employer and still keep your job?
It’s an argument with an undeniable surface appeal. After all, companies do have their own rights to define their mission and message, and I don’t have a legal right to dissent from my employer, on company time or otherwise, free from corporate reprisal. These rights are valuable, and I’m not urging legal intervention. Yet in our toxic political environment, both corporations and consumers are exercising their rights in a manner that is destroying our culture of liberty. They’re locked in a self-reinforcing cycle of intolerance.
Let’s discuss, for a moment, what I believe is the proper model of corporate-customer interaction. If I work for a bank or an insurance company or if I’m a receiver for a professional football team, then I understand that my role is to advance the commercial and competitive interests of the corporation. That means doing my job at the highest possible level, while also conducting myself publicly (even while “off the clock”) in a way that at the very least does not harm my employer’s public reputation. In other words, do good work, and be a decent person.
As a customer, I approach my bank, insurer, or football team expecting maximum competence in their respective fields. Critically, that’s all I should reasonably expect. I shouldn’t also look to these people to mirror or reinforce my world view. I should understand that when I live in a diverse, pluralistic community, there’s a high chance that when I meet with my accountant that he doesn’t always share my values. I can, however, expect him to know his way around a balance sheet. In other words, expect good work, and be respectful and tolerant.
Now, let’s corrupt this model with the politicization of everything.
The bank’s mission is no longer banking. It’s providing banking services, supporting gun control, defending a woman’s right to choose, and advocating for marriage equality. My tech company’s mission isn’t just “search” or social networking, it’s social justice. So now, as an employee I can harm my employer’s public reputation and impair its mission not just by violating norms of human decency but also by simply disagreeing with its politics.
Conversely, the customer now approaches his business decisions with his own host of demands. Speak out for (or against) religious liberty. Stand for (or against) the police. Boycott (or support) the NRA. The emphasis on politics is so great that customers are sometimes even willing to consume an inferior product for the sake of the “larger” goal.
Before last year’s parade of horribles at the quarterback position, I wasn’t convinced that Colin Kaepernick was still good enough to play in the NFL. Now it seems clear that he could help a number of teams, but “better football” is less important than better politics. When Google fired James Damore, did it improve its software engineering? But in both circumstances, key stakeholders (including consumers) got what they wanted — a more pure ideological environment — at the expense of other values.
It appears that this is the reality that many millions of Americans want. They want to consume commercial products while making a political statement or enjoying the warm embrace of their own ideological cocoon. But don’t for one moment think that this conduct won’t degrade American free-speech culture or that it won’t exacerbate American tribalism and polarization. It’s the very definition of intolerant, and it threatens American unity.
The core question here isn’t whether Americans have the right to politicize every sphere of life. They do. The question is whether they should. I say no. I say that Americans are using their free-speech rights to destroy the culture of free speech so thoroughly that the actual law will be largely irrelevant to people’s lives. “Conform to the tribe or lose your livelihood” isn’t the ethic of a free people or a free nation. It’s the practice of a balkanized, tribal land, and it’s not the future I want for the country I love.