Basecamp is both the name of a small tech company and their primary product, a web-based project management tool that includes forum-like message boards and a Slack-like chat component. It’s pretty good. (So I’ve heard.) In some ways, Basecamp is actually more famous for Ruby on Rails, the web framework they created for Basecamp. And, they’re famous for having capital-O Opinionated leaders, who recently banned “societal and political discussions” on the company Basecamp—essentially the equivalent of saying “no politics on the internal Slack”:
Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.
Basecamp’s post has provoked predictable outrage on Twitter, and, well, duh. Twitter is outrage’s natural habitat, where nothing is worth stating if it can’t be stated in the most extreme form possible. But pop quiz: what does “politics at work” mean to you?
- Facing fraught but important questions about company policies and culture, including pay equity, hiring practices, workplace behavior, and even the ethics of the work being done and for whom.
- A continual verbal slugfest among coworkers who seem more interested in pwning one another for their terrible viewpoints than coming to any understanding.
It’s clear from the text of their post that Basecamp wants to stave off the latter. And, y’know, that’s not unreasonable. I’ve had coworkers with political views I absolutely didn’t share, and we could still, well, work together. There was no explicit ban on politics; we just understood that it’s not something one gets into with coworkers.
The problem, though, is that shutting down the latter all too often means ducking the former. Suppose your company supports a politician pushing policies that would benefit the business directly; aren’t they now indirectly supporting every other policy that politician’s pushing? What if it comes out that one of your customers is a neo-Nazi network? Why does your company have only one woman and zero Blacks in its twenty-person engineering team? Why did that trans customer support engineer quit after only four months?
Again, I think—at least, I’d like to—that Basecamp’s intended message was keep company chat channels civil and focused on work. But if that’s what they meant, that’s what they should have said. By saying “no politics,” what they’ve communicated is don’t ask uncomfortable questions about our workplace culture.
Maybe they shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it makes them complicit, or if wading into it makes them a target. But they’ve tried to have it both ways. That guarantees the answer to both of those questions is yes.
Postscript: Literally just after I wrote this, I came across Jane Yang’s open letter to Basecamp’s founders, a brilliant—and depressing—read that makes me rather less sanguine about Basecamp’s intent.