Lock the Doors

pirate wires #55 // nuclear fallout from chappelle's most boring netflix special ever, activist insanity, tech execs push back, and brian armstrong's new way forward
Mike Solana

A glitch in the Matrix. Two weeks ago Netflix released the Closer, the company’s final Dave Chappelle special in a multiyear, hundred-million dollar comedy series, and many people on the internet were mad, which… ok who cares? We’ve already seen this culture war drama, and we know how it ends: a corporate apology, a few new crazy people on salary, and maybe someone’s getting fired. But after a furious reaction from Netflix’s team of in-house activists (I’m yawning), amplified by a shocked and outraged press (I’m literally falling asleep), Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos flipped the script. Critically, he rejected the activist premise that Chappelle’s speech was equivalent to violence, and explosively (according to crazy people only) generalized the point, insisting “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” Then, in the middle of a fresh rage cycle, the company suspended several activist employees for unhinged workplace behavior, and fired another. On an internal message board, Netflix founder and co-CEO Reed Hastings doubled-down on recent decisions, flatly stating he would work with Chappelle again. Much of the story was distorted by the press, which we’ll get to in a moment, and Netflix carefully wrapped every action taken in a language of feigned caring for the feelings of its in-house scolds. But the unavoidable fact was this: no one was cancelled for “dangerous” content. The mob not only failed to hurt Chappelle, or anyone involved with producing his special, but several leaders of the mob came very close to being held accountable for their own unhinged behavior. And this, if not the show itself, feels to me like new material.

Now what about this “violent” comedy?

In his special, Chappelle repeatedly assures us he’s holding nothing back this final time around while making forbidden jokes he’s pretty much already made about gay men, women, trans people, Jews, and of course white people. At no point does he encourage violence. The death of one trans woman is mentioned, somberly, at the end of a long story about his friend and longtime San Francisco opener, Daphne Dorman, who killed herself shortly after being harassed by a mob of Twitter activists for defending Chappelle. If you only read about the show you wouldn’t know this, but really what Chappelle is talking about, through the lens of a black man living in America, is race, as he has done in a compelling, effective way throughout his career. Every jab, every dunk, every swing inevitably ties back to this subject.

There is, it must be said, a lot of cringe “clapter,” which is to say an audience clapping and cheering in agreement with a point rather than laughing at a joke. In comedy, this tends to indicate consensus, not subversion, which is probably the show’s greatest actual crime: it’s boring. Two years ago, Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones covered all of this material in a way that still felt dangerous, and therefore important. The Closer, on the other hand, feels more like going to church and sitting through a friendly sermon.

This is not to say Chappelle’s critics felt blessed.

Consensus among adult men and women living in Brooklyn who watch comedy specials as a profession was predictably abysmal — Sticks and Stones faired even worse among the institutional gargoyles, with an even higher (near perfect) audience score. Then, while we all saw widespread media condemnation coming, public statements from a handful of Netflix employees who argued Chappelle’s comedy actually physically harmed trans women gave activists pretending to be journalists something new to cover.

The first significant hit came from Jaclyn Moore, a showrunner for Netflix’s Dear White People. A few hours later, Moore escalated. She was no longer criticizing Chappelle’s work, she was boycotting Netflix. Then Terra Field, a software engineer at the company, jumped in with a lengthy thread on violence:

As much of Chappelle’s show was focused on the phenomenon of queer white people using the language of social justice to silence black men and women, Field was careful to insist she wasn’t afraid for her own life, but for the lives of trans women who were black. She then listed many names of murdered black women, and implied both Chappelle and her colleagues at Netflix helped kill them. This position, that speech is itself a kind of violence, is increasingly mainstream. Just last week the ACLU publicly argued compelled speech is necessary to “protect” trans people. “Protect” is a critical word here, as the entire pro-censorship position is built on the link between speech and real-world physical harm, and this is what Netflix is grappling with — just like Facebook, Google, Apple, and every other tech company in the business of platforming speech. The concern is not that a mob of people find some piece of content offensive. The concern is that a mob of people seem to believe Reed Hastings is himself personally complicit in actual murder.

There were now enough anecdotes for the press to weave a new chapter in a beloved, recurring story: our tech industry titans’ amoral, corporate greed in conflict with the conscience of a younger, more thoughtful generation. As the drama continued to boil over on social media, the Verge’s Zoë Schiffer reported that Terra Field, characterized simply as “trans employee who tweeted about Dave Chappelle special,” was suspended. The implication of Zoë’s story is Field was fired for tweeting, which was of course parroted throughout the tech press. That Netflix insisted this charge was inaccurate is included in the Verge’s original piece, but only to make legitimate the piece’s original untrue claim. The sleight of hand looks something like this: “some say [untrue thing], and here are a lot of out-of-context anecdotes to make [untrue thing] seem likely, but for the record some say [the truth]. You decide!” Only one line in Zoë’s piece hints at the truth: Field and three other employees, all of whom were suspended, “tried to attend” a meeting they weren’t invited to.

Allow me to translate: activists doing activism, rather than their jobs, stormed an executive meeting, and for this very crazy behavior they were sent home.

This is a kind of dishonesty we’ve seen from the Verge before, and often from Zoë. In May, she grossly distorted the scale of an “employee demand” that Apple’s Tim Cook speak out against Israel. A week before that, she amplified an internal petition at the same company demanding “accountability” for hiring bestselling author Antonio Garcia Martinez, specifically for his pre-existing bestselling book Chaos Monkeys, which led directly to his firing. But this most recent distortion harkens back to Zoë’s unbelievable January story on Instacart, in which she framed that company’s having to layoff 2,000 workers in the middle of a pandemic as “Instacart is firing every employee who voted to unionize.” There were ten employees who voted to unionize.

After her original Netflix distortion, Zoë wrote three follow-up pieces. In her third, she accurately reported that a Netflix employee was fired. The framing? “Netflix just fired the organizer of the trans employee walkout.” Three paragraphs down she reported the truth: the employee was fired for leaking metrics to the press.

But as familiar as the plot may be, this Netflix saga feels distinct from recent tech activist dramas, including the dramas Zoë has dishonestly reported on, or herself incited. This is because the question we seem be asking is not whether censorship will occur, or whether a CEO will be coerced into authoritarian behavior by a minority of employees who should never have been hired. The question we’re beginning to hint at is whether activist employees attempting to seize control of a company will themselves lose power.

Counterpoint: you can go. Last year the internet cracked in two when Coinbase told its team that workplace political activism on topics not directly related to the company’s actual product would no longer be tolerated. Then, CEO Brian Armstrong offered to pay activist employees unhappy with the company’s new focus on the company’s actual product to leave. Naturally, the tech press hated this decision. We were told the company was tearing itself apart. Could Coinbase survive the existential hemorrhaging of employees this decision would certainly provoke?! Thankfully, tech press hysteria tends not to graph to reality.

A few weeks ago, close to the anniversary of his decision, Armstrong recapped his position, and shared his results. The thread begins here:

As racial and gender diversity were the grounds on which he was initially attacked, Armstrong first mentioned such diversity at his company had taken no hit. In fact, along some dimensions it increased. Then, most importantly, he noted the reaction of his employees was overwhelmingly positive. As it turns out, the handful of activist employees tech writers most love to put on blast, ostensibly on behalf of their colleagues, actually make the lives of their colleagues miserable. Finally, Armstrong encouraged the rest of the industry to follow his lead.

In Zoë’s fourth piece on the Chappelle revolution, a teaser for tomorrow’s company walkout, she lists a series of activist demands. For the most part, they just seem to want more money for content and hiring. But they’re also demanding “harm reduction,” which includes trigger warnings, control of the suggestion algorithm, and down-ranking on “harmful” programming like Chappelle’s special. Most importantly, activists are demanding leadership acknowledge Netflix is responsible for physically harming trans people. If the company caves, it of course sets a new standard for the platform, and invites permanent scrutiny of this kind. But what happens if Netflix simply does… nothing? Better question, what if Netflix leadership presented activists responsible for the demands with a counteroffer: instead of giving you control of the company, and silencing the most popular comedian alive, we’re going to literally pay you to leave.

…?

The average tech employee isn’t really interested in roleplaying the 1960s between their morning gourmet coffee break and their afternoon massage. Most of them actually like their jobs, and want to do them. It’s also worth remembering that for every Netflix employee furious with the company’s decision to produce relevant content, there are hundreds — probably thousands — who want to work for Netflix. The minority of cultural authoritarians working in tech don’t actually have much leverage, so why do we keep entertaining their authoritarian demands? The attempted takeover is opt-in. You can truly just opt-out. The Verge won’t like you. This will continue to not matter.

So listen, my humble suggestion is this: tomorrow, after the walkout, can someone please just lock the doors?

Bye.

-SOLANA

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