On Mixing Politics with Business
by Jesse Liberty
On Mixing Politics with Business
(This is being posted simultaneously to my
Queer Politics blog
, and my
Here’s what I’d like to discuss over the next few posts
- Is it appropriate to mix business and politics?
- When does it become inappropriate?
- What price do you pay (loss of sales, etc.?)
Let’s start with some arguments in their most stark terms:
Argument one: There should be a wall between your
business and your politics, and the business should never reflect your
politics. Your clients don’t care, they don’t need to be exposed
to your politics, and you do yourself (literally) immeasurable harm. We’ll
call this the Church&State argument.
While it is not necessary for every client to know all my politics,
I am an activist in a cause that benefits from being not only “out” but “
in your face
” and failing to integrate these two aspects of who I am is an
opportunity lost. Let’s call this the Out&Loud
There are many intermediate positions, but these will get us started.
I have chosen, over the past few years, to let my politics bleed into my
business presence, and as that continues to grow, I think it is worth
discussing whether or not it is a good idea (my family and friends have
an easy answer: “no.”)
Example 1: I have a page on my
business web site
called “Articles and Publications” – There you
can find links to my articles both print and on-line. I’ve
added a section for my political articles printed in my
Argument in favor: Writing is what I do for a living. Argument
against: this is a technology business site and these articles are not
Example 2: I had repeated requests for recommendations on
technical books by readers and students. I created a Recommendations
page on my
business web site
(click on Books, then click on Recommendations). Over time, I received
requests to go beyond technical books (“what fiction do you like,
what else are you reading?”) On the one hand, what does that
have to do with business? On the other hand, reinforcing that Liberty Associates,
Inc. is me, a real person, not a part of a large conglomerate is part of
what I bring to the table.
So I started adding recommendations. For a while this was apolitical (lots
of literature) but then I got into a spurt of reading political books,
and so now the non-fiction section is divided into categories: “
,” “Evolution,” “Neuropsychology,” “Philosophy,
Politics and History.” It is the first category that dovetails
with my other politics.
Does having a section on Neuropsychology diminish my site? What about evolution?
What about Queer? Why would one be more problematic than the
other. Of course, the answer to that question depends on whether
you are asking “what is appropriate” vs. “what is
likely to lose more business?”
We’d all like to believe that we do now let money affect our deeply
held political and identity positions, but when you have two children and
a mortgage, reality intrudes.
One of the more interesting trends in Queer theory is the concept of “Covering.” Two
The Long Arc of Justice
by Kenji Yoshino.
Covering is the process of coerced hiding of crucial aspects of one's self.
The assertion is that there are four stages that marginalized groups and
individuals go through:
conversion (assimilation), passing (the closet), covering ("just keep it to
your self") and acceptance.
The question I'm raising today is wheter separating one's politics from
one's business identity is a form of covering if the politics are
assocaited with a group that is struggling with covering or passing in general.
This leads to two different branches of discussion: (1) would this issue
arise if your political cause was unrelated ot issues of identity (e.g.,
if you were an anti-war activist) and (2) is there a special obligation
if, like me, you are both bisexual and happily married to someone of the
opposite sex (in which case
is the default unless you go out of
your way to continually declare otherwise).
I actively invite your participation in this discussion, through comments and replies to these posts.
Jesse, let me ask two really simple questions about this:
- What's the business objective of mixing politics and business, as opposed to the personal objective?
- What's more important to you - upside reward or downside risk?
It may be more important (and more lucrative) to you that you signal your political affiliation to a certain set of your potential clientele. This will make them feel more at ease with you and hence more likely to do business with you. The political/racial/ethnic/religious/other affinity route is a common way for people to solicit business in America - almost the flip side of "covering". But you risk being confined to a self-imposed ghetto when you rely on this method, to the exclusion of all others, to get business. Eventually, it's not enough that you look or think the same as your customers; you've got to deliver value for money. This is especially true the more "mainstream" that a group becomes.
Or is it that you only want to do business with people who have similar political leanings?
The downside risk is that you may turn away a set of customers who may be opposed to your politics - or merely opposed to you mixing politics and business in the first place. Most customers don't care what your politics are, they just want good products and services at a low price. When you harangue or impose your politics on the customer, who is merely trying to buy a dozen bagels or a set of whitewalls or a piece of code, you risk losing that customer. You can substitute sense of fashion, food preferences, musical taste, etc. for politics and get the same results.
So is there enough pent-up demand from the potential affinity customers that you can afford to lose the "just gimme what I want to buy" customers? And how comfortable are you taking that risk?
These are good questions, and let me answer for myself (though others may have different answers/motivations).
I have no business agenda related to this topic. I'm not trying to market to a particular segment, nor do I prefer to work for a particular segment. This is not about building my business, it is about integrating my life with my work and not "hiding," while squarely facing the risks this involves.
The question is whether one can be "out" in an aggressive way, without "harranguing" or otherwise imposing on those who want to be left alone.
Your analogy to musical taste, food preference, etc. ignores the very real politics in this nation that (a) Queer folks are politically and legally marginalized and (b) the more people who are visibly out, the closer we come to the "tipping point" when such marginalizaiton is not acceptable.
For me the key issues include:
- what is the price
- how much am I willing to pay?
- what good is it doing?
I'm not trying to denigrate the situation you're in. Jews, freed slaves and their descendants today, and Native Americans all went through some or all of those same conditions. Other groups, put upon to a lesser extent, have also exhibited the mixing of business and identity/politics.
But I included food, music, etc. in there for a reason - it's a question of congruence or relevance vs. merely making a statement of identity. Is it important to say this is a Jewish deli/Black real-estate brokerage/Gay bookstore because it says something about who you are and what you're doing, or is it merely part of the de-marginalization effort (or some of both, of course).
What you've said here is that you're not really asking about mixing business and politics, as in both spheres of activity approaching each other. You're really asking "To what extent should I use my business to promote my political views?"
The "hiding" concept is useful, because in this particular case we're talking about an identity that isn't immediately recognizable due to appearance. But it's a question of identity nevertheless.
The third item you have in the list, "what good is it doing", is probably key. If I needed my car fixed, and I saw a sign for a vegetarian auto-body shop, I'd probably snort and pass it by. Promoting vegetarianism is a fine thing in and of itself, but it really has nothing to do with fixing cars. I want my car repair tech to be thinking about my car, not his next meal or my next meal, and therefore his politics/identity serves as a distraction from his business in the view of his potential customer. And my opinions about vegetarians, supposing I thought them bad people, probably wouldn't improve. "That's just like those vegetarians, trying to sneak their deviant views into the automobiles of decent, right-thinking people. Of all the nerve!"
To the extent that an active promotion of politics becomes a distraction or incongruency from your business, I think it's probably unproductive. It's not likely to win any hearts and minds. It will also cost you business from those politically opposed to you. It's probably more productive to use your business skills and assets in a directed way (pro bono, PAC, etc.) to forward your political aims.
To the extent that the involvement of politics in business is related to the identity question, I think the historical record shows that it's productive up until that tipping point is reached, but can become counter-productive afterwards - at all costs, avoid the self-perpetuating culture of victimization. Your objective is not just demarginalization of the group qua group, but also integration of the individuals as full and equal members of the larger society. Don't repeat history and get stuck in a situation of "Yes, they are fine people, so long as they know their place and stick to their own neighborhoods."
Regarding the question of "what good is it doing", I too agree it probably key. I don't know though whether the analogy of the vegetarian auto-body shop is apt in this case. The service that Jesse is offering is very much linked to his personality and identity. Folks engaging his services are doing so for his expertise, experience and know-how. The political dimension is tangential but still relevant - at least for some potenital clients - and certainly for Jesse himself (else why would he be asking our opinion?).
Beyond visibility - which is important for "non-visible" minorities, I think the benefits include giving potential clients more information about the man behind the service. As a potential customer, it just might affect my choice of service provider depending on the service I'm looking for. For example, if I'm looking for an HR benefits specialist for my company that has a diverse workforce, I might choose someone that has shown that he is at least thinking about diversity issues over someone that appears to be completely oblivious, or what's more, positively hostile.
Reposted from other blog
The following comment appeared on my Queer Politics Web Log and is reposted here with permission:
One of my favorite personal rules is this: Make all decisions as if you are yourself. This does not require you to mix every element of your beliefs into every aspect of your life, but it argues strongly against insisting on keeping them all diligently separate. As you say, mixing them has consequences. But in the Google world, you can't really maintain multiple public personas under your real name and expect them to stay apart, so even on practical grounds it's probably better to be Out than outed.
In this particular case, the "danger" is that the exposure of your politics will scare off prospective technical customers. But that's exactly the discrimination you're fighting against, so once you've decided to participate in the fight it, it doesn't really make much sense to try to evade your own personal share of it by keeping quiet. Seems to me you're committed to the moral path. So walk it with pride.
And although the stakes are obviously higher with some political positions than others, I don't think that changes the answer, or at least not mine. If "professionalism" means personal detachment, we're better off with far less of it. Nor do I think your particular case deserves special treatment for any outside reason.
But your internal reasons, including the direct and indirect effects on your family from how you conduct your professional life, are yours alone, and I think it is very much your right (and arguably your obligation) to let them trump external factors to whatever extent you wish. If you had chosen not to come out as a bisexual for family reasons, anybody accusing you of passing should be sent to **** themselves.
OK, I'm pretty sure that didn't help much.
glenn mcdonald • 2/3/06; 10:39:37 PM
the day job
I've read (a few of) your books, Jesse. I found them well written, helpful, informative, about the topics that I needed helpful information about. I believe that, like me, most consumers of your worktime productivity could care less what you do on your own time. It's what is between the book covers I care about when I am looking at books, not what happens between the author's bed covers. So, as far as one customer of your business sees it, do with the social/political side of your life whatever suits that side of your life. . . just as long as you don't quit your day job!
don't do it
Not going into details here but one person I know and respect first lost his job because of his personal blog which contained political ideas that didn't match those of his employer, then found it impossible to get investors for a business venture he attempted to start up because of those beliefs, then found it impossible to find a job in his chosen profession because of them.
Calls went unanswered, letters disappeared into a void, at one point he got an interview but when he turned up everyone acted like they'd never heard of him, etc. etc.
Because of his blogging his wife faces the same situation.
He's now employed at a fraction of his previous salary in what is essentially menial labour when he used to hold management positions before.
don't do it
Of course that's assuming you're not marketing your skills or products directly to a specific political group.
If you're selling reprints of the writings of Stalin to members of the communist party it might be a good idea to show you share their ideas for example (and no, that guy wasn't doing either).
don't do it
That must have been quite a blog he wrote.
So what is the answer? Do we draw a line between ourselves and our work and attempt to pass as mainstream so as to protect our jobs?
Yoshino, in his book Covering, talks about three stages in oppression: conversion, passing, covering. Initially the marginalized convert to the mainstream when they can; failing that (or rejecting that) they attempt to "pass" (see Gentlemen's Agreement). Today, most "cover" - women downplay child care concerns, blacks learn extremely standard english, Queers learn to be quiet about their private lives, etc. etc.
Interesting that while some feel that this topic is totally off point for a technology writer, this one blog entry has received more replies than all my others combined (and then some).
the day job
I appreciate your support, but this blog entry is not about what I do on my own time, nor is it in any way about what happens "between the author's bed covers."
It is about how much we integrate our politics and work. Is it important for people active in a civil rights movement to make that known whatever the profession?
And if you don't mind my jumping on this point, Queer politics is not about what happens between the bed covers, it is about the right of people to marry, to keep their children, to keep their jobs, not to be harassed in school and so forth.
(sorry if this sounds strong, email and blogs make everything sound angrier and more polemic than intended).
The goal of this blog entry was to open a discussion; in that it has succeeded :-)
Jesse, I think being authentic at work is a universal struggle. In fact I think being authentic is a struggle, period. If you are as successful as you want to be -- and could give that up right now -- then you could be as political as you want to be.
I don't think it's a question of what's right. It's always right to create gay acceptance. It's a question of how right you can afford to be.
"I don't think it's a question of what's right. It's always right to create gay acceptance. It's a question of how right you can afford to be. "
Caroline, I think you have hit it squarely, how authentic can you afford to be, and what are the consequences and risks both of authenticity and of covering/passing? One runs the risk of paying a significant price in either case (though I must tell you that so far I do not detect a problem in getting work because of my politics).
It may be that we are more intimidated than we need to be, but ironically that would mean that coming out is proportionally less important (!)
Of course, reading "America in the King Years" (highly recommended) makes one realize how little we really risk compared to the incredible courage shown by those who truly put life, liberty, family, and physical pain on the line for the right to be treated with respect and dignaty.
I've been conversing with a Bulgarian who applied to work on a contract I had out to bid.
I have found Russian satellite and former USSR programmers exceed my expectations for quality minds, so I stayed in touch.
We talked about the dirtiness of politics, the quality of our school systems, school violence and the American culture of fear.
Just a moment ago he wrote: "I am happy that I meet a smart man like you to talk about such things."
So let's change the scenario for argument's sake... suppose we say I wanted to work for him, and he thought I was a man.
I would ask myself, Does he have a culture of favoring men? If he does, will I hurt my chances admitting that I'm a woman? Are these even questions I have to ask myself?
It's only been 30 years since we had the cultural shift we take for granted that not only allows but expects me to have a career. Which is good, because I have about two domestic bones in my body. Point is, who knows where my friend is on this subject. Most of the world keeps women under its thumb.
Whether you get work is always dependent on whether you fit. Jesse, your level of accomplishment is much higher than the norm, so your fit is proportionately greater than the norm's. Your talent, hard work and accomplishments give you a magic blue decoder ring that just could just about blind a client to caring about whether you're out.
But no matter what, it's not going to get you business, it might lose you business, and it's something you have to put on the table and measure. For every Melissa Etheridge there are hundreds of Matthew Shepherds.