Tech Doesn’t Have a Free Speech Problem. It Has a Know-It-All Problem.

Jesse Powell, the chief executive of the cryptocurrency exchange Kraken, this month released to its 3,200 employees a 31-page document that purported to describe the company’s values. But based on the edited version later published online it appeared to reflect the values of Mr. Powell himself. He characterized his beliefs as “libertarian,” a political philosophy that emphasizes a commitment to the protection of individual liberty. Mr. Powell also vowed that Kraken was committed to supporting a “diversity of thought.”

Neither theme is uncommon in the rhetoric of Silicon Valley’s elites, but Mr. Powell’s behavior as an executive illustrates why these ideas often ring hollow in practice. To demand that some workers pass an “ideological purity test” regarding the benefits of cryptocurrency, as Mr. Powell was once quoted describing it, does not demonstrate an openness to diversity of thought. And vowing to “control the language” that people use to describe their own gender identity, as Mr. Powell also reportedly did at a companywide meeting, hardly shows a commitment to protecting individual liberty.

Meanwhile, Mr. Powell has said things to employees on Slack that would make a labor lawyer blanch — among them that most American women are “brainwashed” and that the question of whether they’re less intelligent than men is unsettled. (He later said these comments were taken out of context or called them jokes.) Then there was that time he tried to lead a discussion about who should be allowed to say the “N-word.”

So, no, Mr. Powell’s toxic behavior is not rooted in his libertarianism or his commitment to diversity of thought; it’s simply an outgrowth of his narcissism, which has allowed him to turn the company he runs into an ideological vanity project.

And Mr. Powell isn’t alone. Earlier this month, it was reported that SpaceX employees had written a letter asking that their chief executive, Elon Musk, please, for the love of God, stop tweeting and generally displaying the erratic behavior that is causing chaos within the company — and which in any other industry might result in removal. “It is critical,” the authors wrote, “to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values.”

Mr. Musk promptly fired several of them, claiming the letter was distracting the company from its mission (which is, of course, exactly what the letter claims Mr. Musk is doing).

Technology companies are certainly not the only enterprises whose leaders have taken political stances: Executives at Hobby Lobby, Martin’s Famous Potato Rolls and Bread and Chick-fil-A have aligned themselves with conservative politics, while the leaders of companies such as Ben & Jerry’s are unabashedly liberal. Nor are they the first to litigate culture wars within their own companies, as Disney and Starbucks know too well.

But the culture of Silicon Valley puts a lot of faith in the idea that technology is inherently world-changing and that the aims of the industry are high-minded. High-profile executives are lauded as innovators and revolutionaries whose vision exceeds that of ordinary mortals — and they often develop followings of people inside and outside of their industry who view them that way.

The most prominent exemplar of this phenomenon is Mr. Musk, whose fans range from the merely enthusiastic to the slightly unhinged. This has, perhaps understandably, reinforced Mr. Musk’s deluded belief that he is capable of understanding and resolving problems beyond his ken, including the rescue of Thai children stuck in a cave, and fixing Twitter, where the product-level expertise he has displayed is mostly limited to his prolific use of the platform.

Mr. Powell also demonstrates this expansive estimation of his own abilities, noting in a tweet that his efforts to demonstrate his open-mindedness by entertaining debate within his company were thwarted by his employees’ comparative ignorance: “Problem is I’m way more studied on the policy topics, people get triggered by everything and can’t conform to basic rules of honest debate. Back to dictatorship,” he tweeted.

This know-it-all problem is particularly insidious when it manifests in white male chief executives who believe their success equips them to dictate what should and shouldn’t be acceptable to employees — many of whom face different structural realities in workplaces where they are marginalized.

It doesn’t seem to occur to these know-it-alls that their success is at least partly contingent upon advantages they have because of the identity-based inequities that they seek to limit conversation about. Or perhaps this idea does occur to them, but it violates their triumphant personal narratives so they discard it. They need to believe that they are extraordinary. By this logic, the people they hire are not.

This kind of leader believes he is the biggest asset to the company, so his interests are naturally paramount and his right to do and say whatever he wants should be unconstrained, with no regard to consequences. The problem, for him and his company, is both labor law and a competitive market for top talent.

Workers have a right to a workplace free of discrimination, and while what that means is subject to legal interpretation, it doesn’t take a team of labor lawyers to understand that workers with other options will avoid companies where it’s suggested they may be less intelligent because of their gender, or where they’re discouraged from expressing their identities. If a chief executive suggests, even jokingly, that women are intellectually inferior, or invites discussion on who can use a racial slur, women and Black employees hear the message loud and clear. What are an employee’s rights in this case?

The chief executive of another cryptocurrency platform, Coinbase, Brian Armstrong — who defended Mr. Powell and called The Times’s reporting on his behavior a “hit piece” — has faced this question himself. In Mr. Armstrong’s case, a wave of departures of Black employees in 2020 followed incidents in which racial stereotypes about drug dealing were invoked by a manager and Black people were characterized as “less capable” in a recruiting meeting.

In all of these instances, Kraken, SpaceX and Coinbase claimed that they did not tolerate discriminatory behavior or hostile work environments. But the adage that your right to throw a punch ends where another’s nose begins apparently does not apply in the offices of these executives, where the only person who has a right not to be punched is the person in charge.

These chief executive narcissists have a common refrain when people point out that they don’t like being punched: You are welcome to get a job somewhere else. “Work somewhere that doesn’t disgust you,” an executive at Kraken told employees in the company Slack.

Mr. Powell, Mr. Musk and Mr. Armstrong all send the same message: Individual rights matter for them, but not their employees, and diversity of thought is limited to expression of ideas within the boundaries of their own preferred ideologies. All criticism of their behavior is inherently malicious. (Mr. Powell went so far as to sue former employees who posted anonymous critical comments about working for him on the job site Glassdoor.)

Ultimately, shareholders, employees, customers and other stakeholders will have to choose between the companies in which they’re investing their time, labor and money, and the know-it-alls who think the institutions would be nothing without them. Contrary to what these chief executives believe, the two are not synonymous.

Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers), a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist. She was the editor in chief of The New York Observer and the founding editor of Gawker.

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