So, if you read any of the tech blogs, especially Scoble's, you'll know that the big controversy this week is on Microsoft “suddenly” becoming neutral on non-tech issues. Depending on who you believe, Microsoft suddenly pulled support of Washington State anti-discrimination bill just before it went up for a vote or over a year ago, and they did this in reaction to a threat from a fundamentalist Christian group, or as a bit of “We only support tech issues that make our stock mo' betta” decision - making.
Like most things, there's only about four people that know the real story and most of them aren't talking. (Scoble's got Ballmer's 'Official' comment to Microsoft employees along with his own comments on his blog.) One of the big themes coming out of this is, do companies have any business taking stands on controversial issues that aren't directly related to their business, aka, “If it doesn't directly affect our stock price, we should shut the hell up on it.” There are a lot of reasons for this, all very logical, well - though out, and well - reasoned.
But they're also wrong. Companies, especially ones that are as diverse as Microsoft have a duty to their employees to fight discrimination regardless of the reason, or who it affects, because if Steve B. folds on this, what happens if, say, in ten years, there's a bill that affects the people against gay rights in a discriminatory fashion? Well, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, or, if he's spineless when it suits you, what do you think he'll do when you need him to have a spine to help you?
The “Microsoft should stay out of non-tech issues” crowd is missing a point. At some time, every group, regardless of its members is going to have someone trying to shaft them. Today it's gays. A hundred years ago, it was the Irish, and other immigrants. for over two hundred years, it's been black folks. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, it was women. At one point, being a christian was not a fun thing to be in parts of this country.
All of it is wrong. I may, and I do, disagree with the fundies. To the point that my 'pet name' for fundamentalist christians is, well, “fundies”. It's not a nice thing. I find their platform and their goals to be horrific, short-sighted, and rather reminiscent of the Catholic Church during the Inquisition, or really, any time in the first half of the previous millennium. They scare the hell out of me, because when you have a bunch of religious fundamentalists take over, people like me get shot first, and not in public either. (This viewpoint is not open for discussion. I have too much history on my side. In any totalitarian government, the first thing done is make sure everyone knows that God approves, the second thing is to permanently silence all the people who are able to point out you're full of crap in a cogent manner, and who are never going to stop.)
Fundies have the same right to the same rights as everyone else. The right to let economic and personal factors determine housing choices, instead of trying to find someone who doesn't hate them. The right to not be fired just because the new boss hates fundies. The right to go about their lives without catching shit because of who they are. The same things, oddly enough, that gays want.
We all have the right to those rights, and we have the right to expect that our local governments are going to do their bit to protect those rights. We don't have to like each other. We DO have to let everyone live without fear of being fucked with just because of what you are, or what you believe. I think terrorizing fundies is just as shitty as terrorizing gays.
But what's that got to do with Microsoft? Well, everything. Because Microsoft isn't some entity. It's a hollow shell, only given life and purpose by the people that make up its employee database. If even one of those employees can't do their bit because they're afraid that they're going to lose their apartment because the new landlord hates fags or fundies, the whole company suffers. No one works in a vacuum. (Well maybe Bill does.) That one person works with others, and now they can't do their bit. That person has friends. Now they have to deal with this person's problems because, the fact is, your life affects your work. If you're gay, and you got beaten to a pulp because some twat decided you don't have the right to be gay and alive around them, you're not going to be able to do your job right, and the ripple effect starts. If you wake up to find your car vandalized because PETA decided that you shouldn't wear fur, how good are you going to be in the office for the next week or so?
(Note: Yes, I'm using Fag and Fundie. Neither are pretty words, but they make my point, or help me to. So deal. This is also not a theoretical issue for me. I have deep familial and other personal links to the GLBT community. I cannot be neutral on this issue, not that I would be.)
That's where Ballmer and the rest of the “Only Care about Stock Value Things” crowd falls short. Microsoft is not a stock price. Microsoft is a group of people. Right now, some pretty divided people. There's groups of Microsoft employees that believe, with every fiber of their body, that some of their coworkers are not deserving of the same rights and protections because of who they are. Just how long do you expect them to work together if the message from the top is “We don't care either way”? That's not leadership, that's not guidance. That's sticking your head in the sand. Because you know that at some point, a Microsoft Fundie is going to say, in hearing of a Microsoft Fag, “Well, we won that one”. The best reaction you can hope for is that Fag just not talking to those Fundies ever again beyond a bare minimum in a coldly professional way. Of course, if they're on the same team, well, that team's kinda screwed. But who do you fire? The Fundie is right, they DID win. They may not have won for the reasons they think, but they won on an issue that's very important to them. The Fag who will never talk to that Fundie again beyond the bare minimum is right too. They feel threatened, and hated, and rightly so. They feel that the Fundie wants them to just not exist as a human being any more, and that's pretty correct too. So who do you fire?
Of course, it can get much worse in a vacuum. People quit. People argue, someone may even take a swing at someone else, and have to be disciplined, or even fired. What happens if this conflict is happening between members of a key Longhorn team? What does Steve do then? Let the team fall apart? Fire people? Tell them that when they're at work, they're Microsofties first and humans second? That will just drive it underground. But understand something...one incident, one purely, random, human incident like the one I described and you have a team that just became useless. No company, but especially not Microsoft, can afford that.
But Steve's just said that as a company, Microsoft doesn't care. Unless it is legislation that affects the stock price, Microsoft's official stance is neutral, aka apathy.
What happens when the State of Washington, or the Bush administration tries to push through laws that tell private companies that they cannot provide insurance benefits to partners of gay employees? (This isn't hypothetical, the City of Austin, TX. tried it with Apple once.)
What then? Do they suddenly become not neutral then? Do they think the Fundies will suddenly back their actions if they come out against such legislation? If so, can I have some of their drugs? At what point does Microsoft's leadership realize that they are nothing but a collection of smart people, and they can't afford to allow the government to screw over those people. Even if it pisses off others. What Ballmer cannot see, is that there's no magic compartmentalization here. If you're gay, you're gay first, everything else is second. If you're Christian, you're Christian first, everything else is second. To expect otherwise is unrealistic and not right. Yet that's what Ballmer, evidently, wants from the world. He's going to find out that he's not going to get his way.
I don't envy Ballmer. Not a bit. He's going to lose with one group no matter what he does. If he thinks any different, he's stupid. But I have to look at it this way. If I'm going to piss people off, I'd rather it be for doing something that protects human rights, instead of limiting them. I'd rather piss off PETA by supporting the rights of hunters, since hunters aren't trying to tell you you HAVE to hunt. I'd rather piss off the gun - control folks and support a states-rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, instead of allowing Idaho to decide gun policy for New York, or vice-versa, because that's allowing the people of the state to decide for themselves, instead of some federal committee without a clue. I'd rather piss off the white supremacists and make sure that immigrants and folks that aren't white get a fair shake, because if a part of us are second-class citizens, we all are. I'd rather piss off the FCC and hire Janet Jackson to play at my company party, than make her a pariah over a boob.
I'd rather piss off Fred Phelps than consign members of my family to lives of fear and worry. If I'm going to piss people off, then it's going to be because I'm reaching out a hand to those that need it, not slapping them down. I'd rather follow King and X instead of Wallace and Duke.
Ballmer is trying to avoid making a decision, avoid taking sides. But by doing that, he's already failed. He just can't see it yet.
As to what my personal reaction is going to be to all of this? I...don't know. It's something I'm still thinking of. If I had two-three year's salary in the bank, it would be a lot easier. But I don't, and I have others that I am responsible for. So I can't make the emotional decision, no matter how satisfying. I have to see what happens. Measure twice, cut once. But for what it's worth, I hate that I now have to even think about this kind of thing in conjunction with Microsoft.
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Just one more of the many reasons that I love the Internet, John Welch has written about the recent Microsoft controversy surrounding their position on Gay rights. [Read More]
Tracked on April 26, 2005 06:11 PM