Georgia on his mind - Benioff vs bigotry (again)

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan February 26, 2016
Summary:
Benioff vs bigotry - round two. Now it's Georgia on our minds as anti-gay equality legislation leads to threats of a boycott of the state. Time for the tech industry to step up to the mark again.

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Marc Benioff

Last year, Salesforce waded into a war of words against legislators in Indiana over that state’s plan to introduce a so-called ‘religious liberty’ bill, which would allow opponents of same sex marriage to deny services to gay couples.

Salesforce had feet on the ground in Indiana following its ExactTarget acquisition and threatened to pull out of the state completely if the law was not amended. In the event, Benioff rallied other major tech firms behind him and the Indiana legislature backed down.

Now Georgia is making similar moves with House Bill 757, the so-called Pastor Protection Act, which would allow faith-based organizations - and organizations which self-identity as faith-based - that receive tax dollars to refuse services to same-sex couples.

There were signs of what was about to come last week during the post-earnings analyst call when Benioff, asked to characterise what makes Salesforce different, talked about culture and ethics and warned:

We’re looking squarely at what’s going on in Georgia with House Bill 757, which means that we may have to reduce our investments in the state of Georgia, based on what we’re seeing with the state government there as well. And I hope that they see the light the way that the state of Indiana did.

Back in Georgia, Republican Senator Josh McKoon hit out against Benioff’s comments, arguing:

Salesforce does business in Singapore and India…they make homosexuality a crime punishable by imprisonment. It appears he has absolutely no problem doing business in and making money from countries where homosexuality is a crime. So let’s spare us all the political antics around this issue.

On Friday the Salesforce CEO followed through on his comments by asking via Twitter whether the firm should pull its forthcoming Connections digital marketing conference from Atlanta. An overwhelming 80% of over 4000 people who responded voted to withdraw from Georgia if HB 757 is enforced.

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As the online vote was taking place, Benioff and McKoon got into a feisty back-and-forth on Twitter, in which McKoon kept repeating his ‘India/Singapore are just as bad as us’ meme and accusing Benioff of hypocrisy. Among the shots fired:

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Benioff in turn accused the Senator of not replying to a direct question about whether or not he supports discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals:

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My take

For our part, diginomica took a firm stand behind Salesforce and the other tech companies which railed against Indiana’s legalised bigotry. We’ll do so again here.

Last year I noted that Benioff’s stand was a brave one for any commercial business to take, given that you run the risk of alienating a chunk of your customer base who support so-called ‘religious freedom’ laws.

Now that we’re in a US election year, with a particularly febrile political climate, the stakes are potentially even higher. It’s probably too late for this to become an active issue in the Georgia Republican caucus on Super Tuesday, but it could well be an electoral rallying point between now and November. 

What is so utterly depressing about McKoon’s 'argument' is that - aside from the usual basic premise that ‘my freedom is completely dependent on my taking away other people’s freedom’ - it essentially comes down  to a childish whine of, 'If India and Singapore get to do this, why can't we?'.

Reality check - the fact that someone else, somewhere else is a bigger bigot than you are, doesn't lessen the fact of your own bigotry. 

Look, the senator does have a point, up to point. Yes, there are regimes all around the world where I’d much rather Salesforce and lots and lots of other companies did not do business, due to some of their laws and practices. And frankly you don’t need to go as far as India and Singapore to find them. 

On my side of the Atlantic, there are countries in the European Union, who should all be on an equality level-playing field when they sign up, whose track-record on LGBT issues does not stand up to scrutiny, particularly some of the former Eastern Bloc nations.

Even in Western European countries like the UK, gay sex was only decriminalised in the late 1960s, while equality laws had to wait until the 21st century to kick in with any real clout.

The point is that you can’t boil the ocean in one go. You have to pick your fights and take action where you can have an effect. As Benioff pointed out at one point in the Twitter storm yesterday, he’s a US CEO of a US company. He’s taking a stand on a matter of principle on his own doorstep where he and his company (and the wider tech industry) can make a  practical difference. 

Of course, we should encourage other regimes to change their ways. It will take time and effort to encourage progress, but it can be done. The India Supreme Court’s decision this month to reconsider decriminalising gay sex is a good case in point.  For the time being, it’s sometimes going to be necessary to hold your corporate nose and carry on in the meantime, while trying to set an example as a 21st century nation.

Of course, the other point that matters here is the same one that mattered in Indiana - this is nothing at all to do with freedom; it is to do with naked and unashamed bigotry.

It is about empowering an entitled section of society to say to other sections of society, ‘We are better than you are and we do not need to treat you as equals’. 

And all while hiding behind a holy book in which Jesus makes not a single mention of homosexuality.

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Mark Zuckerberg

Away from the specifics of this case, this is again an example of leadership in a digital age at a time when diversity has become such a major agenda item across the tech industry.

Others are stepping up to the mark as well. As the Georgia row was brewing, back in Silicon Valley Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was setting his own example by condemning members of his staff who have been defacing Black Lives Matter slogans on the company’s campus walls, replacing them with All Lives Matter.

In an internal Facebook post to all staff, Zuckerberg storms:

‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t – it’s simply asking that the black community also achieves the justice they deserve…I was already very disappointed by this disrespectful behavior before, but after my communication I now consider this malicious as well.

He adds:

We’ve never had rules around what people can write on our walls - we expect everybody to treat each other with respect. Regardless of the content or location, crossing out something means silencing speech, or that one person’s speech is more important than another’s. Facebook should be a service and a community where everyone is treated with respect.

This has been a deeply hurtful and tiresome experience for the black community and really the entire Facebook community.

Zuckerberg goes on to warn that this incident is now being investigated and also encourages employees to participate in a company ‘town hall’ meeting on 4 March to:

educate themselves about what the Black Lives Matter movement is about.

Strong words and strong leadership again. More power to his elbow. There’s a long way to go yet, but such examples, the necessity for which is unfortunate, are indicative of the kind of C-suite ethos that the digital age demands.

In the meantime, back at Salesforce, there are clearly some tough decisions now to be made about the Connections conference.

Benioff has a clear mandate from his Twitter poll to relocate, but given that the event is only a couple of months away, the logistic and financial implications of such a move must be daunting.

It is to be hoped that Georgia’s legislators re-consider their stance. Benioff’s far from alone in the business community in this case. Georgia Prospers, a coalition of over 300 businesses across the state, had already warned:

No one in Georgia wants to go through what Indiana experienced. It is a little-known fact that Georgia state law offers no nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community. In other words, this bill will take Georgia law from a “see-no-evil” approach to discrimination to tacit approval. That could prove devastating for our reputation as a great place to do business.

To which there is a simple enough solution - take bigotry off the statute books.