For those of you who don’t know, I spent the better part of two decades working in email marketing. I think Scott Adams described marketing best: “we don’t screw the customer; we hold them down while the salespeople screw them.” That being said, I did (mostly) enjoy my time as a marketer, and I became more than a little familiar with a little company named Salesforce. If you’ve never heard of them that’s not surprising; they’re what’s referred to as a B2B company (that’s “business to business”), and their products are used to manage and run e-commerce across the nation.
Why that’s particularly relevant is because of a recent change in their acceptable use policy. Salesforce is now in the business of driving social policy as well as sales. While I might personally disagree with their stance, I want to get out in front and applaud them for making this move. I would love to see more companies, particularly big companies, making moves like this, for a few different reasons.
First it appeals to my libertarian desire for private action over government action. Yes, I have come around to accepting that not all government is bad, but I still believe that government should be the answer of last resort, not the first thing we try and then we turn to private solutions only after every possible governmental approach has been tried and failed. Also, there are a few common misconceptions that need to be addressed regarding private actors versus government action.
The big one that bothers me the most is the idea that somehow private actors can violate your right to free speech. Let’s take a look at the text of the First Amendment, shall we? “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Yes, I can see pretty clearly in there were it says that “Facebook shall not delete your posts because reasons.” The government cannot legally censor you (aside from a few exceptions). Private actors are not required to provide you with a platform for your crazy. In fact, that would be a violation of the First Amendment (freedom of association).
How does that apply in the case of Salesforce and their terms of service? By doing business with Salesforce, you are voluntarily associating with them, and vice versa. Their terms of service are, quite literally, the terms under which they are willing to associate with you. Don’t like it? Fine. Don’t do business with them. Nobody is forcing you to. It’s a free market. So long as Salesforce doesn’t use their market dominance in an anti-competitive way there is no issue (and by the way, that has nothing to do with the First Amendment, that’s standard antitrust stuff, which last I checked is justified under the commerce clause; but I could be wrong). And let’s not even try to drag the Second Amendment into it. I don’t care if they prohibit you from selling guns or gardenias using their software, the point is the same: they are not the government, and nobody is forcing you to do business with them.
That’s not to say there aren’t any First Amendment issues to be concerned with here, it’s just that nobody seems to be focusing on the relevant party, by which I mean Salesforce. Anybody remember a little case known as Citizens United? Yes, I know liberals love to hate on that case, but every dark cloud and so on. In this instance, it’s relevant because Salesforce as a legal entity has rights. The right to free speech. The right to free association. The right to not be compelled to provide a service to someone who will use it in a way that they deem inappropriate. Note that this last point is ethically in line with the baker who refused to serve the gay couple in Colorado. Whether liberal or conservative, you don’t get to pick and choose who gets to express their moral beliefs through their business just because you happen to agree with them. The law applies to everyone equally or it is worthless (which says more about the law de facto than de jure).
It has gone from truism to trite to say we live in a culture of outrage, but that doesn’t make it any less of a fact. It seems it is no longer possible to simply offend or commit a faux pas, everything that is done is an OUTRAGE, grist for the social media mill, driving one end or the other of the political spectrum into a frenzy. The latest example of this comes from the Harvard Lampoon of all places.
Now before I go any further I have to, of course, deny in the strongest terms that I am making any attempt to defend their bad decisions. What they did was in very poor taste. It was crude, and quite frankly not even funny. Should they apologize? Yes. Did they apologize? Yes. Case closed? Not by a long shot.
According to the Washington Post (my perennial source for outrage culture), Harvard sophomore Jenny Baker had the following to say about the Lampoon cartoon that started the controversy:
“Holocaust jokes? Never okay,” she began. “Sexualizing a young girl’s body? Never okay,” she continued.
“Sexualizing ANNE FRANK and saying it is a shame she was ruthlessly murdered because of her religion because she would have been hot? So unbelievably not okay,” she emphasized.
Baker delivered a recommendation to the staff of the Lampoon: “try to find other ways to be funny rather than sexualizing and trivializing the murder of a young girl and an entire population of people.”
She concluded, “This is trash.”
Now, having done more than a little humor writing myself, I’m going to offer a gentle rejoinder and say that Ms. Baker doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about. Holocaust jokes? Better be funny, but they can be okay. Sexualizing a young girl’s body? Better be damn funny, but it can be okay. Sexualizing ANNE FRANK and saying it is a shame she was ruthlessly murdered because of her religion because she would have been hot? Holy shit that better be the funniest fucking thing I ever read, but you CAN get away with it if it’s good enough, especially if you are using your humor to make a larger point. A couple things we can agree on are that (a) they really should try to find other ways to be funny, because man did they miss the mark on this one, and (b) this is trash.
Lest you think I am merely engaging in some sort of knee-jerk libertarian defense of free speech, let me share some real-life experiences from my own college days. These are from a couple decades ago, back when people were at least slightly less prone to take everything so immediately personal and there was no such thing as the internet. I was working on an independent college paper, which meant we could do whatever we wanted, and we pushed a few boundaries. I’m proud of a lot of the work I did there, and we had a lot of fun. At least twice I can think of our papers were burned in effigy at Take Back the Night rallies because of what we had printed, and I’m still proud of what we published in those issues.
And then there was what I still think of as the incident.
I was the Humor Editor for the paper at the time, which I say only to establish that everything that happened was my responsibility. I made the choices, and I had the authority. I was looking for content for my section, and a new guy volunteered to write a three panel comic for me. Sure, he had a shaved head and looked kind of scraggly, but I had known more than a few cool skinhead punks down in Richmond, so I decided to roll with it. I was also very high on my First Amendment horse at the time.
Long story short, the comic turned out to be about what you would expect. Not so blatant that I couldn’t pretend a certain amount of ignorance or at least try to hide from it at first, but shortly after it ran I had to admit to myself I had run a Nazi skinhead comic in my section. And yeah, I got more than a little hate mail for it, which I freely admit I deserve. I owned it, and still do. I made a bad call, and the reasons why don’t matter. I apologized, we ran a retraction, and while I have moved on I have never forgotten it.
So why do I bring it up now? Because the other material, the stuff that got my work burned on campus, I am proud of. I stand by it today. Because it had a point, and a purpose, and I was saying something with it. And yes, if I thought I could make a larger point with a Holocaust joke, and I thought the joke was funny enough, I would go for it and I would be all in. It would have to be a damn good point and a fucking hilarious joke, and honestly I don’t know if I’m that funny. But it would be worth it. And I’d have Anne Frank in my sights.
And I wouldn’t apologize either.
A lot of folks are upset about the outcome of the Masterpiece Bakery case, on both sides. Considering my feeling on the case was “a plague on both your houses”, I’m actually quite content with it. (You may now all commence throwing rotten vegetables and fruit.) Yes, I hated all parties involved. Why you may ask? Because this was a case where there could be no winners since they were all losers.
The couple involved threw a fit because they were denied a specific kind of cake (not any service at all, just that one kind of cake). Rather than just go somewhere else and write a nasty review on Yelp, they quite literally made a Federal case about it. Meanwhile, the baker involved decided that his personal beliefs prevented him from crafting a cake and pretending it was for Adam and Eve instead of Adam and Steve. Look, I have had to do a lot of things I object to at jobs in the past, and likely will have to in the future, so I have zero sympathy for him. Instead of shutting up and taking their money, he quite literally made a Federal case about it.
Cases like these tend to push me back toward my libertarian roots. My preferred method of resolving such things is to say “vote with your feet”, or better yet, “vote with your wallet.” Some jerk won’t provide you with the service you want? Find someone who will, and let everyone know why you won’t be patronizing his business anymore. Don’t be crude, but spell out exactly what happened in no uncertain terms. If the community backs you, they’ll avoid his business like the plague, and pretty soon he won’t have a business anymore. Customers making what you consider to be unreasonable demands? Either you’re right and the community will back you, or you’ll be appealing to a smaller and smaller niche market… assuming there’s a large enough niche to support you.
You will notice this doesn’t create immediate, clear and simple “Gotcha!” victories for either side. And that’s kind of the point.
Call it “developing community standards”. Call it “winning hearts and minds”. Hell, call it “the tide of history” if you want. The idea is that people make their own choices individually, as individuals, and the sum total of those choices show us what we value as a community. Not “who can shout the loudest”, “who has the most followers on Twitter”, or “who’s the most photogenic teenager on the news this week”. It also doesn’t involve who can win the largest segment of a quickly shrinking electorate so they can appoint the right judges to swing the case their way.
It may not result in moments of immediate gratification, but those moments of immediate gratification tend to be overshadowed by the decades of blowback they generate. The decades of gradual progress that come from individual choices tend to be slower but not nearly as messy or painful in the long run.
In a recent campaign ad for governor of the state of Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp loads a shotgun and points it at a young man who (in the ad) is “interested in one of my daughters”. He then proceeds to grill “Jake” on why Mr. Kemp is running for governor and what qualities are essential in a young man who will be dating one of his daughters. Naturally, those would be “respect and a healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment, sir.”
Where do I begin?
As someone who has often stated my support for the Second Amendment and the personal right to own firearms, as well as a satirist in my own right, the casual reader might expect me to fully support this ad. After all it’s just in good sport, right? A little poking fun, ribbing the liberals, maybe the casual allusion to the classic “Southern dad with a shotgun” motif? There’s at least a few things wrong with that.
The first thing is that it’s not “just in good sport”. There are a two rules in comedy that are getting violated here. The first, and one that is getting a lot of play these days, is that you punch up, not down. Who exactly is Mr. Kemp punching up at? Gun control advocates? Liberals? Jake? It’s not clear, but like many other politicians these days, he is in a position of power already, and he is using that position to take cheap shots (pun intended) at those who oppose him.
The second rule in comedy that is being violated is that the secret to good comedy is timing. As the editors of The Onion once pointed out, the closer a joke is to the tragedy it’s making fun of, the funnier it needs to be. If you’re going to riff on a tragedy the day after it happened, that better be the funniest joke I ever heard. Given the proximity to the Parkland shooting (along with any number of other teen shootings in America, which may not have gotten the same level of publicity but are just as heartfelt to the victims), I just don’t think this one makes the cut.
The second problem I have with this commercial is that it’s not about liberals versus conservatives, it’s about responsible gun use versus careless or outright unlawful gun use. The first rule of gun safety, always, is to treat every weapon as if it is live, loaded, and ready to fire. A logical extension of this rule that all responsible gun users follow is “don’t point a weapon at anything or anyone you don’t intend to shoot”. I don’t know if it’s because he’s trying to intimidate Jake into voting for him, scare him away from his daughters, or he just doesn’t like his actors, but none of those is a sufficient reason to point a gun at someone. Well okay, maybe because he’s an actor. (See? That’s comedy.)
Finally, the trope of the “Southern dad with a shotgun” is tired, played out, and insulting. Speaking as someone who has both been “threatened” by a father with a shotgun on multiple occasions as a teenager, as well as someone who has actually once been held at gunpoint for real, I can say with authority this shit needs to stop. You are sending one of two messages: either you are a homicidal lunatic who doesn’t understand how to participate in civilized society; or you prefer to use threats, bullying, and intimidation and don’t understand how to participate in civilized society. Neither is something that we should be modeling in the media as something to aspire toward, and certainly not something we should look for in our elected officials.
Here’s a quick joke for you: What’s the difference between a comedian and a politician? A comedian knows how to tell a joke, but a politician doesn’t know how to take one. I know, it’s not very funny. Guess I would have fit right in at the White House Correspondents Dinner the other night with Michelle Wolf. See, she wasn’t very funny either, according to many inside sources. It seems she wasn’t given the approved list of topics in advance that she wasn’t allowed to make jokes about because it would have been “in poor taste” or “going too far”. As George Carlin and Redd Foxx roll over in their smutty graves and Richard Pryor curses a blue streak that causes thunderclouds to form, I have to wonder what in the world these people are thinking.
There are several reasons that attacking Michelle Wolf is wrong, but I’ll focus on three: defense of the comedic tradition, the fact that such attacks are thinly veiled misogyny, and finally naked self-interest for journalism itself.
The tradition of the comedy roast is a time-honored one, and vulgarity is a common component of such roasts. Is it a bit crude and arguably tasteless? Sure, but it’s still a tradition. Besides, as William Blake said, “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom…for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.” Or if you prefer Ferris Bueller, “You can never go too far.”
…Unless of course you’re the President of the United States. As many commentators have pointed out, Mr. Trump is well known for making gross, insensitive, and outright vulgar comments about women that are objectively as insensitive as anything that was said by Ms. Wolf. There are three differences worth pointing out. The first is that Ms. Wolf is being called out for her comments by a wide swath of people, some of whom have served as apologists for Mr. Trump. The second, and probably more notable difference, is that Ms. Wolf is a comedian whose job it is to make pointed and (to some) humorous observations about others; Mr. Trump is the President of the United States. Regardless of what they have to say, to at all put their language or behavior on the same level is ludicrous. Finally, by calling out Ms. Wolf without calling out Donald Trump for equivalent comments, there is the faintest stench of “ladies don’t talk that way”, the kind of “there, there” misogyny that says women aren’t capable of meeting men on their own terms.
And ultimately that is what it’s all about: meeting the haters on equal footing. The press is supposed to be a participant in and defender of the First Amendment, which sometimes means taking a stand for controversial speech. The accusations that the White House press corps has gotten too cozy with the administration are hard to ignore are defend against when the WHCA starts taking sides against the entertainer they brought in to mollify the man who has popularized the term “fake news”. I’m not suggesting that every journalist everywhere should stand up, cheer, and demand an encore. That’s a decision for every individual journalist to make. When the association as a whole starts turning on individuals for expressing opinions or even for doing the job they were hired to do, that creates what’s known in the biz as “a chilling effect”. You want to know that professional associations will have your back, not put a knife in it.
I expect politicians to make hay out of this; it’s what they do. I guess I just expected better from journalists. I guess I’m learning better.