Peter Thiel is a pretty controversial guy. The billionaire, who cofounded PayPal and Palantir and is currently employed by several successful venture capital firms and hedge funds, has garnered criticism for encouraging founders to drop out of college, some particularly concerning quotes in The Diversity Myth, his 1995 derision of political correctness, and his status as one of the few right-leaning entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. The past few weeks, however, have ushered in a new level of Thiel-criticism and sparked heated debate around the values of the tech community. Many have called for him to be fired from his positions as a board member of Facebook and partner at Y Combinator, while others have expressed disdain at the notion that anyone could be fired for their political beliefs, especially in a community that claims to pride itself on its commitment to diversity.
So what did he do?
Thiel, who endorsed Trump at this year’s RNC, made his support material with a $1.25 million contribution to the Trump campaign on October 15—one week after the Access Hollywood video leak.
Why call for his banishment?
Though Silicon Valley has always been a place of grandiose mission statements about changing the world and bringing people together, critics have pointed out that the community is mostly highly-educated white guys, like Peter Thiel. In turn, countless companies have made meaningful efforts to walk the talk, rather than just preach about the importance of diversity in the twenty-first century. They use apps that test for unconscious bias job descriptions and fund coding academies at high schools across the nation to help create a more-diverse next generation of programmers. Management teams’ efforts to change their reputation have been modestly successful. For example, 45 percent of managers and executives at Slack are women, reflecting the company’s decision to emphasize diversity from the time they had about 40 employees. There is still a long way to go, though. Nancy Lee, Google’s vice president of people operations, says that “to see something significant where we’re actually hitting a market supply, you know, of 10 percent or something like that of Hispanic and Black Googlers, that’s going to take several years.” This is because a traditionally non-diverse workforce is already entrenched in most of these tech companies, and the institutionally racist and sexist status quo of the industry discourages many from pursuing careers in it.
This is where many of Thiel’s critics come in. They aren’t calling for him to be fired because he supports the GOP. Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO and current head of Project Include, explains “We agree that people shouldn’t be fired for their political views, but this isn’t a disagreement on tax policy, this is advocating hatred and violence.” Marco Arment, the lead developer of Tumlr, adds that instead of actually striving to fix their diversity shortcomings, Facebook and Y Combinator are “defending the large-scale support of racism, bigotry and sexual assault by an influential partner and adviser.” In this framework, then, Thiel’s donation isolates everyone who Silicon Valley claims to want to bring into its fold by telling women, immigrants, and people of different races that their well-being isn’t a major concern. In fact, it is low enough on his list of priorities that he is willing to give 7 figures to a candidate who is explicitly, sexist, racist, and xenophobic. By extension, the companies that continue to take Thiel’s advice are excusing his embrace of such problematic ideas by leaving him on, thus isolating would-be applicants and current employees and undermining their stated commitment to diversity.
Why leave him on?
In response to the anti-Thiel outcry, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an email to the employees of Facebook, stating “We care deeply about diversity. That’s easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It’s a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about. That’s even more important.” Sam Altman, the president of YC added on Twitter that, “Thiel is a high profile supporter of Trump. I disagree with this,” but “YC is not going to fire someone for supporting a major party nominee.” In other words, preaching diversity while firing people who have different opinions is by-definition hypocritical, and firms have a responsibility to maintain a consistent commitment to practice what they preach. Firing Thiel would erode employees’ feeling that they have the right to voice their opinions. Further, despite what many think about Trump, he earned enough support from American citizens to become the republican nominee, and these firms shouldn’t oust Thiel for agreeing with a sizable percentage of Americans.
Thiel, himself, has responded by imploring people to look beyond Trump’s rhetoric and consider why his message has been salient for so many: “No matter what happens in this election, what Trump represents isn’t crazy and it’s not going away. He points toward a new Republican Party beyond the dogmas of Reaganism. He points even beyond the remaking of one party to a new American politics that overcomes denial, rejects bubble thinking and reckons with reality.” For Thiel, then, this election is not so much about the candidate as much as it is about the sentiment that he is revealing throughout the country and the very real change that he thinks is inevitable, whether through Trump or whoever runs in 2020.
Where do we go from here?
It seems like there is a pretty meaningful disconnect between the two sides of this debate. Those who want Thiel out frame him as an endorser of hate and bigotry, whereas those who have chosen to keep him on see Trump supporters through a political lens. If those in favor of Thiel looked at the issue through their opponents’ eyes, Thiel’s assertion that Trump “reckons with reality” would certainly lead to his immediate dismissal. If a passionate Trump advocate began to fire Hillary donors, those against Thiel would certainly be outraged. When I first read about the situation, I was viscerally opposed to those calling for Theil’s firing on similar grounds to Zuckerberg’s charges of hypocrisy, but looking into the issue for this post has cast much more ambiguity on the situation than I expected. Ultimately, I remain conflicted, not passionate enough to say “throw Thiel out” but not enthusiastic about the message leaving him on sends. Regardless, his forecast on Trump’s legacy in upcoming years is going to undermine all of my relief when Hillary wins tomorrow.
What do you think these companies should do?