Brendan O’Neill

Donald Trump and the shallow limit of Silicon Valley’s tolerance

Donald Trump and the shallow limit of Silicon Valley's tolerance
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How long before Silicon Valley drags its nerdy workers one by one into a dark room and demands of them: ‘Are you now or have you ever been a supporter of Donald Trump?’ Say ‘No, of course not!’ and you’d be allowed to stay; say ‘Yes, I’m backing his campaign for the presidency’ and you’d be cast out, blacklisted, made into an unperson so far as the trendy world of startups and social media is concerned. If such a scenario seems far-fetched to you, if you think it’s unrealistic to suggest the hip, fixie-riding facilitators of internet blather would ever set up a Committee on Un-Silicon Valley Activities, then consider what has happened to Peter Thiel.

Thiel is a venture capitalist. He co-founded PayPal and was the first external investor in Facebook. So he’s a big cheese in Silicon Valley matters. I’d wager that a majority of you reading this article will have paid for something or expressed something courtesy of a website built or funded by Mr Thiel. But in recent weeks he’s fallen foul of the Silicon set for one simple reason: he has expressed support for Donald Trump. He’s even given money — $1.25 million — to Trump’s stab to reach the White House. This means he is now an unperson.

The reaction to Thiel’s Trump-love has been extraordinary. His politics have ‘become a deal-killer in Silicon Valley’, says Bloomberg. Some Silicon people are refusing to work with him or any of the companies he’s associated with. Supporting Trump is political leprosy in Silicon Valley. A manager at Medium, the blogging site developed by Twitter, thinks the internet world hasn’t gone far enough in blacklisting Thiel. Too much of the tech world still ‘embraces him’, she said; they must now cut their ties, ‘even if that means losing connections and funding’.

A writer in Wired magazine has taken the bizarre position that Facebook, in failing to sever its links with Thiel, is being ‘biased against everyone who Trump has demeaned’: women, Mexicans, etc. This is doublespeak: in order to show it doesn’t have a discriminatory attitude towards certain groups in society, Facebook must discriminate against a certain group in society: people who support Trump. Wired slams Y Combinator, a start-up incubator where Thiel is a partner, for saying: ‘We are not going to fire someone over his or her support of a political candidate.’ Amazing — Silicon Valley has become so itchily intolerant of anyone different (read: right wing) that it will ridicule you if you hold to one of the core principles of the liberal outlook: that people shouldn’t be punished for their moral, religious or political beliefs.

The Orwellianism of the demand that everyone who works in Silicon Valley must have the same, safe, non-Trump worldview became clear when Ellen Pao said her diversity group, Project Include, would stop working with a company linked with Thiel. So a diversity group is shunning someone for being different. An inclusion outfit, which actually has the word ‘Include’ in its name, is excluding someone for the crime of thinking differently. They’re basically saying: ‘We want more inclusivity in Silicon Valley except for people we don’t like.’ Can they hear themselves?

As it happens, Thiel is far from a friend of freedom of thought and speech. He has also sought to punish those who say things he doesn’t like. His legal crusade against the mucky but much-loved gossip site Gawker led to its closure. So he’s not in a good position to now cry about being blacklisted for uttering certain things. But the rest of us, even if you’re not a fan of Thiel or Trump (I think both men are pretty unpleasant), should raise big questions about the attempted exiling of Thiel from Silicon Valley because of the mad precedent it could set.

Thielgate speaks to a growing intolerance among those who have pretensions to progressiveness, who for all their worship at the altar of diversity cannot bear to hear different opinions. We saw this with the sacking of Brendan Eich from Firefox Mozilla after it was discovered he doesn’t support gay marriage. Also, try ‘denying’ climate change at a Silicon Valley soiree: tech firms are known to cut ties with groups that aren’t 100 per cent eco-right-on. It is always the most ‘tolerant’ of student groups that will scream for the censorship of certain feminists or hard-right people. The self-styled tolerant Guardian spent last week lambasting those who said Gary Lineker should apologise for tweeting about migrants yet is now extracting apologies from Thiel for comments he made about date rape 20 years ago. Too often today, tolerance is intolerance. And the Orwellian circle is complete.

It isn’t only Silicon Valley that will lose out if all its players and workers are made to genuflect before the same ideological outlook. These people manage the sites through which the rest of us speak and argue: Facebook, Twitter, Medium, YouTube. That some of the overlords of this potentially brilliant and vast new media cannot abide people with strange or strong views really does not bode well for the future of free speech online.