Foreshadowing current controversies, in late October South Park created a music video entitled “Safe Space.” The short clip featured its various characters celebrating their “bully proof windows” and “troll safe doors” while thwarting the attempts of the villainous “reality” to puncture their carefully constructed comfort zones.
The irreverent comedy earns its laughs, sharply satirizing campus protests that have spread from Yale to Mizzou and to many other college campuses in the past weeks. It cleverly expresses the reaction of many Americans to the college protests: namely, that while they represent dangerously illiberal ideas and a true threat to the future of academia, their ultimate failure is their inability to prepare students to act like adults in a “reality” after graduation where college administrators will not cater to their every demand.
The problem, however, is that the weaponization of “safe spaces” to constrain and destroy those with dissenting opinions doesn’t just happen on campus. It is an under-recognized yet distressingly common event in the “real world” as well.
The Corporate Equality Index
Nowhere is this more true than in the world of business and technology. In these fields, the norm has changed from the avoidance of politics and religion to a culture in which the failure to openly support key portions of the LGBTQ agenda can result in disciplinary action and, in the case of Brendan Eich and Mozilla, termination. Most companies are not as flamboyant in their activism as college protestors. Still, through the threat of poor performance reviews, denied promotions, and stunted career paths, they are achieving the same effect.
The force behind these new policies is the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which has ranked companies based on their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion since 2002 and now includes 407 companies across many industries. The index, however, does not just ask for verbal or financial support for the gay and transgender rights movement. It demands that companies incorporate specific workplace policies, and it penalizes corporations if anyone associated with them dares to dissent publicly. As the Human Rights Campaign has swiftly picked up public and legal victories over the past few years, it has increased the demands for corporations to be awarded a top score in the index as well. Today, the CEI ensures that organizations and their employees are committed to the goals of the Human Rights Campaign through five main criteria:
1. Equal employment opportunities must include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. The first criterion ensures that the organizations include sexual orientation and gender identity in their global non-discrimination policies.
2. Employment benefits must be LGBTQ inclusive. This means that spousal and domestic partner benefits must cover different sex and same-sex couples equally; this applies to health, dental, and life insurance, as well as all other benefits, including adoption assistance for couples. Health insurance coverage must include treatment for transgender patients, including sex-reassignment surgeries.
3. The organization and workforce must be LGBTQ “competent.” This criterion determines whether corporations are committed to the LGBTQ movement internally. To meet this standard, organizations must not only have an employee resource group or diversity council focused on the LGBTQ population but also train their employees to be “culturally competent.” All supervisors must undergo training on sexual orientation and gender diversity, and LGBTQ “diversity metrics” must be included in the performance reviews of leaders throughout the firm.
4. The organization must publicly support LGBTQ equality under the law. This criterion ensures that the corporation is committed to the LGBTQ movement externally. Organizations that seek to meet this criterion must, among other actions, support at least one LGBTQ organization and show public support for LGBTQ equality under the law.
5. The organization is not allowed to be associated with any known activity that would undermine LGBTQ equality under the law. Although not strictly one of the four criteria, the fifth element of the CEI is essentially a tool for blackmail that prevents the company from working with or supporting any organization that may disagree with any part of the Human Rights Campaign’s agenda.
Starting with the 2016 CEI, the Human Rights Campaign is more strictly enforcing elements of this fifth criterion through formal policies, including two new requirements that organizations must only work with suppliers and vendors that have a “fully inclusive non-discrimination policy” and do not contribute funding (including philanthropic donations) to “organizations with a written policy or mission of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” While the Human Rights Campaign claims that its index is voluntary, the result of these new policies will be to bully any resisting companies into submission (as has already occurred with Barilla) and financially starve their vendors and non-profit partners until they support the HRC’s agenda.
Exaggerated Definitions of Discrimination
The injection of LGBTQ politics into the business environment certainly seems at odds with the daily life of the average worker. Amidst discussions of financial reports, client meetings, and legal briefings, it would seem strange and inappropriate to bring up most political issues, much less the definition of marriage.
Now, however, publicly supporting the entire LGBTQ movement’s agenda is mandatory. If employees refuse to participate in a company Gay Pride event, their behavior may be interpreted as discriminatory insubordination. If a female employee complains about a male using the women’s restroom, she may be penalized for harassment. It does not matter whether any of these individuals actually discriminated against any other employee (Brendan Eich had no record of discrimination). Merely dissenting from the liberal orthodoxy is enough to be branded a bigot not fit for the workforce. In effect, companies now not only demand that workers give them their time and effort in exchange for compensation; they also demand that workers submit their personal opinions and beliefs as well.
Efforts to increase LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace might seem like an entirely separate issue from Halloween costumes at Yale. Yet, at the root, both phenomena stem from the same problem. Both the Human Rights Campaign and the “safe space” movement, no matter how worthy their initial goals, have exaggerated their definitions of discrimination to include what mature adults would characterize as respectful disagreements. Just as college students have defined a “safe space” to be one where even silent indifference to their cause is “violence,” so too have many business leaders defined an LGBTQ inclusive workplace to be one free from any employee who may even silently hold the opinion that marriage should be between one man and one woman.
Perhaps it was fitting that, just as the South Park clip used the battle between the “safe space” proponents and “reality” to illustrate the absurdity of the college protestors’ arguments, it also used the eventual victory of the protestors over “reality” to illustrate the failure of the “real world” to defend basic civil discourse and freedom of expression. Following the recent wave of college protests, even many on the left, from Nicholas Kristof to Jonathan Chait, have expressed alarm at the intolerance of today’s college students.
In order to save the real world from their demands, leaders on both left and right have to do more than stand up to whiny college students. They also need to stand up to their own allies, such as the Human Rights Campaign, who have done most of the work to silence their opponents by whatever means necessary. If not, then the absurd reality of the college campus “safe space” will only continue to spread, threatening our basic freedoms and eroding our ability to act like adults.
D.B. Holiday works in corporate America. He’d like to keep it that way.