Digital Debate Wednesdays: Should You Punish a Company for Politics?

Welcome back to Digital Debate Wednesdays! Every Wednesday, the staff of The Ace of Geeks will get our keyboards ready for a good, old fashioned nerd argument, and you get to hang out with us! Feel free to email us any ideas you might have for future debates, or let us know in the comments! Until then, here’s this weeks topic:

Last week, there was an interesting kerfluffle in the gaming world. It was revealed that Oculus founder Palmer Lucky had been donating some of his vast wealth towards the cause of promoting “memes and shitposting” in favor of the giant cheeto with hair currently running for president. Specifically, the group he supported financially, called Nimble America, was known for racist and hate filled diatribes on places like Reddit, and was associated with known Literal-Supervillian-Milo-Yannapoppopdiddlyoppadoo. Or whatever his name is.

The response was fairly immediate – VR developers like Insomniac Games either openly condemned Lucky or pulled support for the Oculus hardware. It appeared that Lucky’s “political” actions had given a sudden huge lead to his competition in the VR space.

So here’s my question: Putting aside, for a moment, that Lucky’s actions were in support of an Orange Teletubby That Feeds of Anger and Ego, do you believe that actions like this should affect a company’s profits? Or should consumers and developers only be focused on the product?

Seth Oakley: Financial power is very real, and can influence people and compel action out of them. Like physical power (ie. hitting someone until they do something) or social power (ie. shaming someone until they do something), financial power can be wielded by those that have it to get other people to do something.

No, I can’t say that using the power that you have over someone else to make them do something they don’t want to do is ever ethically right. I can’t see enough of an ethical difference between pulling support from his company and going to his house to beat him with a stick. To suggest the opposite, to me, is to say that those with power should be able to control other people any way they can.

Morally, I think this type of influence is required to control elements of a society that go against what is best for each person, and against what is best for the entire group. In theory, the society gives law enforcement the physical power to stop elements that would be bad to the society. In theory, the society gives the media the social power to shame people who act inside the law, but are still bad for the society. In theory, the society gives banks the financial power to impoverish people who would act against the interests of the economy.

So yes, morally, what they are doing is right, and needs to be done, but no, it is ethically the wrong thing to do.

I’m so confused right now.

  • Mark Foo: I completely disagree that financial power is the same as physical violence.You are entitled to not being physically harmed by other people. You are in no way entitled to me spending my money on your product.
  • Sam Stafford: An individual choosing how to spend their own money is one thing. Organizing a campaign of defamation and/or harassment that results in grave financial harm is getting into different territory.
  • Mark Foo: A boycott is not a campaign of defamation or harassment, though.
  • Melissa Devlin: I believe we need leaders who will seek out and wield power for good. The force of activism lead to the landmark supreme court decision to allow gay marriage. The fight for equality is not over but that is power wielded wisely and for the general public good. And that is where we get to my answer. Was this for the general public good? Yes? Great. We boycotted south african grapes for years over apartaid. We sanctioned Iran out of amassing nuclear material. Economic power can be wielded badly, but not always. I am in total support of their reaction. Economic pressure is a great way to start tackling social justice in the arena it is most problematic, the wealthy. We have top down problems and this is a top down solution. If he is going to put money where his lack of concience guides him then let those who work with him make their choices as freely. In this country you can be free of many thing, but not consequences.

Mark Foo: To me, this is simple: A company is its people, especially its leadership. Do you want your money being spent on things you find morally reprehensible? If no, then don’t spend money on their products and don’t do business with them.

You have no obligation to support anyone’s products or business. It’s the business’ job to get you to spend your money on them and anything that impedes that is really up to them to solve. It’s how capitalism works.

  • Seth Oakley: Yeah, from a moral perspective, I agree. Like when Trump objects to paying people who he contracted to do work. He has no obligation to spend money on them, and it’s up to them to solve that problem. That’s how capitalism works. It’s the businesses job to collect that money.
  • Mark Foo: No, that’s completely different. You’re talking apples and oranges. When you’ve bought a service or product from someone, you’re obligated to pay for it, otherwise that’s theft.If you’ve entered into an agreement, you can’t just break it. You can, however, NOT buy something at any point, even when you’re standing at the cash register with it.
  • Like, seriously, he CONTRACTED people to do work and then didn’t pay them. Surely you can see how not paying a contract is different than a boycott?
  • Seth Oakley: I think there are differences, and from the reports that I have heard about his business dealings, I think there are similarities, too. A lot of the power that he leverages comes from having more money than the people he contracts. So sure, tactically, they are different, but strategically, they are quite similar.I don’t mean to start name calling, so don’t take this personally; I want to say this politely, but I also don’t want to be misunderstood: I think your statements are naive. If you can think of a more polite way for me to say that, and it communicates the same message, let me know and I’ll edit this. Again, not trying to be rude.

    “When you’ve bought a service or product from someone, you’re obligated to pay for it, otherwise that’s theft.” What about all of the people who request refunds or returns? Still theft? (No)

    “If you’ve entered into an agreement, you can’t just break it.” Lol, yeah, you can. It happens all the time. And there are consequences, people exert physical power (legal power, criminal charges, law suits), social power (reputation attacks, review websites) and financial power (never spend money there again), or nothing happens.

  • Seth Oakley: Seth, this DOES seem like apples and oranges. One one of the reasons contractors draw up contracts is exactly to protect themselves from people not paying them after they’ve put in months of their life. That’s why hiring a contractor is quite a bit different from buying something at a store. If you’re a contractor, you might have ONE client for months. The culture and expectation are completely different from BUYING something. It’s more like HIRING someone temporarily.Can you imagine McDonalds refusing to pay their employees after the pay period was over because they didn’t like their work?

    I work freelance. Sometimes (not often, but sometimes) people don’t like what I’ve given them. But I’ve still worked those hours, and they have to pay for them. And they’ve signed a piece of paper that says they do. And I really have no recourse if they say no (and in fact, I could get a reputation if I badgered them to pay for work they thought was sub par) but I also know where to look to find companies blacklisted by freelancers because they have a rep for hiring but not paying us. That’s not savvy business acumen, that’s exploitation.

    Also, your refunds/returns example is a bit different in another way. If I take something back for a refund, I have to give the thing back. It sounds like Trump uses the things he contracts. Why not fire the contractor as soon as the thing doesn’t look right and get another one in there to do it right? It’s like eating the whole meal at a restaurant and then complaining that it didn’t taste good.

    Lastly, you know it matters if there’s a *pattern.* If Trump once hired a contractor and hated his work and went through the arbitration process in the contract to not pay, that happens. I doubt he would have a reputation if he’d done that ten times out of a thousand contracts since 1980. But a pattern is different–maybe not legally, but certainly ethically. If I go around to every restaurant and eat the whole meal and then complain to get the meal comped, you don’t say I’m a savvy shopper. You say I’m a cheapskate and a con artist. I don’t know EXACTLY how many contractors Trump hasn’t paid or what the ratio is to those he’s hired, but the implication wasn’t that he had done it once in a blue moon.

  • Mark Foo: You’re drawing comparisons where they don’t exist. The consumer-producer relationship is not the same as the employer-employee relationship.Not paying for contracted services revered is a breach of contract. Me deciding on not buying your widget and buying someone else’s is literally how capitalism and competition is supposed to work. It’s the underlying action of the free market.

    The problem here is you’re viewing the right of individual consumers to decline to purchase a product into which no agreement to purchase was entered as the same thing as an employer withholding payment for services and goods which he contracted.

  • Here’s the nutshell version: The “force” of multiple people deciding not to buy something is not equal to the “force” of a single actor refusing to pay someone when they’ve previously agreed to do so. These are different in two very key ways:
    1) The power wielded by the individuals in question. A boycott only has power because of the individual minor power aggregating into a larger force. Trump not paying someone when he holds the money and power is abuse of power.
    2) The prior commitment agreed to by the parties involved. There’s no agreement broken in a boycott. There is with Trump.

Sam Stafford: I haven’t looked super closely at this case to see how egregious the individual’s behavior was, or what percentage of the company he represents, so maybe this is an exceptional case. That said, as a general rule I believe that corporations are not people (my friend) and under the same sort of logic that I don’t believe that a corporation should be able to act as a shield/proxy for the political actions of one of its members, I don’t believe that as a general rule a corporation should be punished for the political actions of one of its members acting as a private individual.

As another general rule, I don’t like the idea of an individual being blacklisted from a private industry for the political views of the people they associate with. (Candidates for public office are a somewhat different matter.) We have instances of this in history that I think we can all agree have gone poorly and even when we’re sure it’s the Right Thing this time because this time it’s a Bad Guy we’re doing it to and it’s using The Power Of Social Media To Make A Difference which is obviously a totally different thing from a witch hunt, it makes me a little uneasy.

What makes me uneasy about it, beyond historical parallels, is that I’m sure there are many many cases of people who have done worse things who are escaping this sort of mob justice, and there are many more who could easily be made to SOUND like they have done worse things who could have their lives ruined because the average person who jumps on a bandwagon does not do their own research first. Who the gun gets aimed at is partly a matter of luck and partly a matter of someone being willing to do the work to generate a bunch of shares to reach critical mass. I’m not eager to contribute to keeping that gun loaded when it’s something that is so easily commandeered by trolls and the wealthy.

  • Seth Oakley: Yeah, it’s tough, because on the one hand, you’re thinking, “Man, this could go really, really wrong” and on the other hand, “But remember that time when it didn’t?” and on one foot says, “But dude, how about all of the times that it did?!” and the other foot thinks, “I wish I could talk….”
  • Sam Stafford: To bring it full circle, it’s pretty easy to see that the surprising amount of success Trump has enjoyed in his campaign has been due to his skill at manipulating the media (including social media to a great extent via the economics of clickbait). When I look at the amount of unchecked power that the Internet hivemind can wield against an individual person in one instance (even if it’s doing something I like at that particular moment) and I look at how easy it is for someone like Trump to bend it to his purposes in another, I get nervous as hell.

Scott Woodbury: I think these actions are warranted. Palmer Luckey could have easily taken the traditional approach and directly contributed to Trump, but he decided to take a less than savory approach and donated to a group that uses character attacks and unsavory routes for public engagement. What’s further confusing is that he says he is a third party supporter of Gary Johnson. In reading that it seems he supported this Nimble America just to troll Hilary Supporters, which in my mind doesn’t show very good judgement on his part.

When your business venture is high risk (VR has always been traditionally high risk) you need all the good will you can get for support from developers and consumers. It is ultimately surprising that he made such a stance that could, in effect, alienate half of those groups.

Free speech is guaranteed by the constitution, but it doesn’t mean people have to respect what you say or how you say it. A smart businessman in this situation would have kept his political leanings a private matter, or have taken more traditional routes to expressing them. Seeing how Oculus has competition in being the first one out with the HTC Vive it is shocking that any business would want to make a stance on such a heated political landscape.

Ethically I think it lies in that acceptable grey area, no one likes grey areas, but it’s tough to be black and white about it. How someone runs their company is their prerogative. Both the developers and Luckey are making their stances in this matter known. The difference is the moral aspect.

The developers are acting morally (making a choice based on virtues) and taking the higher ground, where Luckey is seems to be engaging in a morally questionable approach for political engagement.

Luckey shot himself in the foot pure and simple and now he has to dig himself out. It makes people question his leadership which is never a good thing in a business. The developers get to get free positive PR as a result, so they win either way.

  • Seth Oakley: Agreed.

Raven Knighte: Luckey had a choice. I feel that he chose badly. His financial life is supported by corporate profits – whether he is just a shareholder, board member, or even an employee at a lower level. It’s up to the consumer to do research and decide for themselves whether they want to spend their money on a product that will generate the dollars for this man to spend on that poor choice. Considering, like Scott said, that VR is a high-risk venture, it would make sense to research the company behind a product before deciding to make an investment – whether it’s buying stock in the company or buying a physical product. I also agree with what Mark said – “Do you want your money being spent on things you find morally reprehensible? If no, then don’t spend money on their products and don’t do business with them.

You have no obligation to support anyone’s products or business.”

Tyler Dent Hayes: I more or less concur with Mark here: No-one has an obligation to associate with any particular kind of person in their private lives, and they can end an association for any reason they want. That includes where people choose to spend their money or time, which is the decision developers and consumers are making with ceasing to support Luckey’s enterprise. The base effect is no different than if people decided the Oculus Rift wasn’t a good product and stopped supporting/buying it for that reason, though it may come with a bonus rider of making the affected people/businesses change their tune.

Now, I do not think people are *obligated* to not support people who do things they find objectionable; that’s practically impossible, and not a privilege everyone has. But if people choose not to do it, that’s their decision. So in other words, yes, I think actions like this should affect a company’s profits; people get to pull support for whatever reason, and no-one gets to get in the way of that.

(In before the inevitable: I am of course referring to where we choose to spend our money *privately* — I am not digging into taxation in this debate if I can avoid it…)


Raven Knighte: To answer the question “do you believe that actions like this should affect a company’s profits? Or should consumers and developers only be focused on the product?” Yes. I do think it should have an effect on the company’s product, for reasons that have been previously stated. Should consumers and developers be *only* focused on the product? That is highly subjective.

Jarys Maragopolous: So two perspectives come to mind, my gut reaction and the momentum of Legal Corporate Personhood.

My gut says that Lucky can put his money wherever he likes but, then, so can his backers. Unless legally bound, these backers can withdraw their support at any time and for any reason or no reason at all. And is political affiliation am appropriate reason to withdraw money from a venture? Absolutely, and special interest and lobbying groups know it. Some groups threaten companies all the time with boycotts or pressure to be applied to their advertisers. This has been acceptable in our society for a long time, it is acceptably ethical. perhaps even generally considered moral, as consumers use Buycott and other tools to judge companies politically and spend accordingly.

Now, here’s the other thing, the last huge Corporate personhood case, Clinton V. Citizens United, established that all “persons” in the united states, be they biological or multinational companies, have free speech. They also established that the expenditure of money is considered free speech. Therefore, and my logic might be too simplified, it is an act of free speech for investors to withdraw funds. But this contrived argument aside, I believe the only scandal here is that the Founder of Oculus supports the Alt Right. Those people are a dangerous junk drawer of Gamergaters, Sad Puppies, and Neo Nazis, all brimming with the resentment of past failures and defeats. They stand for Fascism and we shouldn’t just laugh that off.

You can respect common humanity or you can have our respect, but you will not have both.

Chris BrecheenI do think these actions are justified.

I actually agree with more than one contradictory opinion that has been voiced so far, but I don’t think they’re talking past each other a little. There’s a scope to this that I think is a little too easy for your typical gaggle of geeks to see. That’s not an insult; we just tend to be a less diverse demographic slice of the world. Sometimes it’s easier for us to forget that financial pressures (like boycotts) aren’t typically very successful if they’re being wielded in order to punish someone for “voting for the other side” or believing in the ether or something. They tend to work when someone very high up is dehumanizing a marginalized group in a horrific way. And while some who have not experienced the difference between harm and offense when it comes to hate speech (white men, for example–who overwhelmingly populate your average geek community–who can be offended but who aren’t institutionally harmed even by the rare anti-white insult) may think there’s not a huge difference between someone spouting shit they “don’t agree with” and someone advocating the oppression of another group of human beings by FUNDING a propaganda campaign that will directly lead to things like their mistreatment by employers, housing, financial institutions, and even physical violence.

Basically what I’m saying is the idea that anyone should just ignore something like this HUGE and only focus on the product comes from a place of privilege.

Ultimately, companies are analogous to politicians. They are not entitled to our money (or votes) and have to do something horrible to lose it. They must EARN my money (or votes). And a high profile employee funding hate speech might have nothing to do with their product, but people will still not want their money going to support that sort of thing.

  • Mark Foo: I think the big thing here to highlight is this wasn’t a case of Luckey donating to the GOP or something, either. He was/is funding a group that explicitly engages in hate speech and activities of grey-area legality.If a dude donated to the NRA, that’s not great. If a dude donated to the KKK, it’s more likely to be seen as beyond the pale.

    There’s a pun there.

Rowan Hansen: I like the idea of companies choosing to do business on the basis of mutually agreed upon ethics whereby if somebody comes out openly in support of someone whose ethics are nonexistent they get the financial rig pulled out from under them by their business partners. To me this is just more evidence that it is always possible for an otherwise intelligent person to be kind of terrible in terms of morality, and yes, the only way you can get through to a person like that regarding the rectitude of their cause is to hurt their bottom line.

Luke Farr: I had some pretty strong feelings on this matter, but to put it succinctly: if consumers can decide to support a business model based on positive impacts in spending (ex Toms Shoes gives a pair to a needy child for every pair sold, or a portion of proceeds goes to help x or y charity) then conversely I think that consumers should feel free to avoid products that spend their money for costs that do not align with the consumers general philosophy or politics. I like to buy local products because by supporting things like my local farmers at the farmer’s market I am supporting local causes/businesses/charities etc.

Korbl Klimecki: Well…. ok. We have free speech, and while I don’t agree that money is speech, I do think that the choice of who to donate to is an exercise in free speech. So, Lucky of course has every right to donate his personal money to whoever he likes, even a collection of oily beads produced by a fad cleanse diet that has gained sentience and teamed up with a hairy tumor to look like a person.

However, pulling your support or deals with a company because you disagree with the politics of the head of that company is also an exercise of free speech.

And the thing about the freedom of speech is that all it really means is that the government can’t stop you from saying something, but other people are totally allowed to react, up to and including telling you to shut up.

So Lucky can donate to whoever he likes. I don’t think corporations should be considered people, and I tend to think that corporate donations are bad for a variety of reasons. But by the same extent, people are free to say “Wow, I’m not going to buy that guy’s product because he’ll get some of that as profit, and some of that might go to [thing I don’t like]”

Like, when I found out that Clint Eastwood produced Sully. I wasn’t particularly interested in the movie to begin with, but after Uncle Clint’s Empty Chair Debate Theatre and “racism used to be ok!” when I found that out, I decided I’m not ever going to spend a dime to see Sully. Because I don’t want to give racist leatherface my money.


Top Image by R Steele Earl

Mike Fatum
Referred to as a God Among Men, the Greatest Man that Ever Lived, and That Dude Over There…No, The Dude with the Long Hair and the Goatee…Yes, That Guy, Mike has grown up being known and loved around his apartment. In addition to being a successful film director and editor, he loves video games, movies, comic books, board games, and his wife and cat. He’s been friends with Jarys for over a decade now, and they started hosting a radio show together on college that became the genesis for the Ace of Geeks Podcast. When he realized he had so many talented friends who could write, the Podcast became an entertainment website, and here we are.

One thought on “Digital Debate Wednesdays: Should You Punish a Company for Politics?

  1. I’m honestly shocked that Chick-Fil-A didn’t come up in this. Remember that there was a large boycott when their CEO or President or some other SUPER WAY UP THERE GUY gave to a series of Anti-LGBT organizations and politicians. Outrage a-plenty. I know a few consumers who will never frequent that place ever again. My own lady wants nothing to do with Taco Bell for (apparently) similar practices during this election, despite loving their food.

    We, as individuals, are free to spend our money where we choose (as informed or uninformed as we are) when and where we want. If a company has a person within it that you find so distasteful, then you should cease business with them. That said, these are really the only ways that we, the individuals, can express that disgust in any meaningful way. Crying about it on the internet, and then driving down to Taco Bell for a Chalupa isn’t gonna make the impact you want.

    Worse still, every person you tell about your crusade against a place may just inspire people who otherwise wouldn’t have gone anyway to go IN SPITE of you and your own beliefs. Others still will be reminded of the existence of that company (as you’ve accidentally advertised their products, and more eyeballs on anything is the desired outcome for advertising in general) and go there too. It’s weird and complicated how, on the micro level, little you matter to them. I mean, if enough of you made this impact, maybe?

    But, the higher up the food chain they are in a company, the less damage you (as a single person) would do to them. More than likely, other people who work for the individual who feel the same as you but just more in the trenches would get affected first and more harshly. Example : You and your friends used to frequent a Big Name Coffee Shop (BNCS). Something their CEO did offends you, and you and your friends boycott their business. The shop you frequented loses your money and may (I must stress MAY) lose hours, workers… Hell with enough friends not going to this one place, you may close that one shop down. Good for you, it’s not in your neighborhood anymore. Woo hoo. Those people lost their jobs, but you feel better.

    Ugh, the more I think about it, the more I think it doesn’t matter and we should all just eat a barrel. If we were millionaires, and our money mattered, then sure. Otherwise, blech.

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