Reading Between the Lines of Brian Armstrong's Mission Memo

Brian Armstrong's apolitical stance speaks to an unhealthy Silicon Valley culture where debate is shut down and substantive conversations happen underground.

AccessTimeIconOct 8, 2020 at 4:42 p.m. UTC
Updated May 9, 2023 at 3:12 a.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconOct 8, 2020 at 4:42 p.m. UTCUpdated May 9, 2023 at 3:12 a.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconOct 8, 2020 at 4:42 p.m. UTCUpdated May 9, 2023 at 3:12 a.m. UTC

Last week, Brian Armstrong, the CEO of Coinbase, published a Medium post stating the company would not engage in broad societal issues, would not take on activism and would not be a forum for political debate and discourse. He said he published this memorandum in response to internal strife at the company. If Wired is to be believed or the original text of the memo is any indication, much of that strife has been related to Coinbase’s response, or lack of it, to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Reading between the many lines of PR-appropriate language, the message Armstrong is sending is: If you want to push a progressive social agenda in the workplace, this is not the company for you. As the investor and writer Paul Graham said of the memo: “It is diplomatically phrased, but the underlying message, for those who grasp it, is anything but.”

Jill Carlson, a CoinDesk columnist, is co-founder of the Open Money Initiative, a non-profit research organization working to guarantee the right to a free and open financial system. She is also an investor in early-stage startups with Slow Ventures.

So why such tortured – or rather diplomatic – phrasing? Why go to the length of openly publishing this company document and even framing it as an example for other CEOs, only to couch the message in code? And what makes this supposedly neutral stance “anything but” diplomatic?

I believe the indirectness of Armstrong’s memo speaks to the very issue that he is working to change within his company. Cancel culture and the performative wokeness pervasive to Silicon Valley have left little room for discussion around questions like where, when and how social justice issues should be addressed. Fear of being cancelled has left many who don’t subscribe to the most liberal perspectives feeling forced to speak in dog whistles. Armstrong’s post is one such example.

Hear Jill Carlson discuss this column with Emily Parker and Ben Schiller on the Opinionated podcast:

What is performative wokeness? To be "woke" is to be cognizant of issues related to social justice. Performative wokeness is the act of signaling to the world how woke you are, regardless of your actual engagement in the issues. 

Some instances of this, I would argue, are at worst harmless and at best effective in raising awareness. A company changing its logo to a rainbow during Pride Month does not strike me as harmful, even if the move may ring hollow. A CEO stating publicly that “Black Lives Matter” may not be damaging but may turn out to be rather hypocritical depending on the company’s priorities and culture. Performative wokeness does more for performers than for the causes they are purporting to support, garnering them kudos from the community while doing relatively little for the community for which they claim to advocate.

Indeed, many instances of performative wokeness actually backfire, harming the very causes for which the performer is advocating. This is where we get into censorship and cancel culture. Shaming others for their political views or demanding the dismissal of a colleague because of whom they voted for might be on some level understandable given the emotional and divisive nature of many of the most salient issues today. But silencing and shaming are not pragmatic because they are more likely to further radicalize the other side and drive any chance at discourse underground.

With this context, one view of Armstrong’s post is that he is denouncing performative wokeness in the workplace in defence of tolerance, diversity of thought and free speech. That, however, is not the message I actually gleaned from his letter. His words do not champion open-mindedness, civil engagement and respect for dissenting views and differing experiences. Rather, he instructs employees to leave political and social issues at the door and calls for the suppression of open discussion, all in the interest of focusing on the job at hand. He meets intolerance and silencing with further intolerance and silencing.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece predicting a future that looks remarkably like the present. In the world I describe, speech is not free, cancel culture is alive and well, and open discourse only takes place in private chats amongst the trusted and like-minded. Those who fall out of line are at risk of being fired from their jobs for their views. I could not have predicted that a week later Coinbase would be all but asking employees to leave for being vocal about their social stances and political views.

Fear of being cancelled has left many who don’t subscribe to the most liberal perspectives feeling forced to speak in dog whistles.

There are many aspects of Armstrong’s memo I find disconcerting. He talks about the workplace being a refuge from division and creating an environment in which employees can focus. He does not acknowledge that, for many, an environment in which they cannot discuss important issues or air their experiences is far from a refuge. He talks about bringing economic freedom to the world while seeming to avoid the inequalities in economic freedom in his own city, state, country. There are many dynamics he glosses over.

But what troubles me the most is that, instead of creating space for productive pushback, for the discussion of nuance and for diversity of opinion, he closes it off. This is worth noting and caring about because this pattern is playing out on a larger scale across Silicon Valley and across the country. The backlash against cancel culture is not manifesting as advocacy for dialogue, free speech, nuance and tolerance. Rather, the backlash is only driving discourse deeper underground, breeding an even more intense culture of fear and further entrenching intolerance.

Over the long term, this type of backlash will only result in greater division. And the wound to heal will be even deeper the next time the fire around these issues ignites, whether that happens across the country or within a single company.

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