Thursday, October 21, 2021

Free Speech, Silicon Valley and Peter Thiel

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Villanova University professor Sheila Corley didn’t write this new piece of analysis about Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel to get a dig in at his pretensions. Rather, it is in defense of Free Speech.

While most who support antigay policies are loath to call out Mr. Thiel as the staunch gay opponent that he is, this book, Who’s Afraid of Peter Thiel?, asserts that Thiel’s homophobic policies are supported by many people in the technology industry. Thiel is a co-founder of PayPal and briefly served as the President of Facebook. His money and influence could have helped bring about the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the end of sex discrimination in the tech industry, but he didn’t.

A private citizen has the right to express his beliefs, even if these beliefs cause outrage among millions of others.

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Corley’s book takes a deep dive into how some of the most powerful people in the tech industry–ranging from the CEO of Salesforce to the founder of Square to the head of Google Ventures to the chairman of the Board of Netscape–allowed Thiel to speak at a conference celebrating human rights and civil liberties at Stanford University. Thiel’s planned remarks, about his immigration reform beliefs, were canceled by Stanford and then quietly condoned by some at the conference. It’s unclear if Thiel and the other speakers protested Thiel’s work in the tech industry; what’s clear is that the message promoted by the speakers at the conference was that even those who hold antigay beliefs aren’t condemned for it by those around them.

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“Silicon Valley prides itself on being open and accepting,” Corley writes. “Yet its attitude toward differences, even sexual difference, shows a surprisingly narrow view of what makes us human. From a business perspective, separating people is in fact profitable: when people can think, have opinions, and act independently they are far more innovative. No less important is their ability to empathize, which is crucial for business.”

We have such an insistence that I will never be gay or lesbian or black in America

Everyone is entitled to his or her own personal beliefs. It is a rights issue. But please note: Here’s the other side of the equation: the notion that anyone who supports antigay legislation can make their personal prejudices clear and their employers fund them to do so. Do you think the Apple exec or AOL CEO would take their homophobic views to work if they were confronted with boycott efforts? In which case, would they be forced to condemn the views they openly espouse in their office?

Not to impugn the motives of those who put money and power behind Thiel; it’s his prerogative to speak how he sees fit. But does this really square with the idea that in a free and democratic society the government shouldn’t force people to accept the beliefs of others for its own sake? His speech was in opposition to the politicization of health care, but what it means for the individual’s choice of doctors isn’t a point to champion on its own merits, but one to oppose a leader who privately espouses the belief that all doctors are pedophiles and that they are all willing to murder babies? Doesn’t that represent a more serious attack on the values of the individual than simply acknowledging that we have other ideas and that no one should be forced to accept them?

Sure, some have called for a boycott of Silicon Valley’s publicly held companies. It’s admirable that citizens are fiercely protective of their own rights. But as Yale law professor Jack Balkin says, a public statement on gay rights like his lacks the courage to take a stand for actual policies that directly affect the lives of those who support gay rights–and it’s by choice. One would hope that the people at the conference took a stand and publicly stood in opposition to Peter Thiel. He could show a broader commitment to the cause he so fervently represents if he did.

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