I work at a large social media company that does some shady shit. The team I’m on doesn’t do the actual shady shit. We’re shit-adjacent. I’m actually proud of what my team does. And I like working there. So every once in a while I’ll donate part of my paycheck to a good cause, or a candidate who wants to regulate some of the shady shit that we do. Does that make up for the shady shit?
Great question. The answer is no, it does not make up for the shady shit.
First off, let me applaud you for the decent things you do, because they are in fact decent. It’s a damn nice thing to donate your money, or your time, to an organization or a cause that needs it. And I certainly don’t want to talk you out of that. Please continue, and urge others to do the same.
But that’s not what you asked me. You asked me if it made up for the shady shit. Which means you’re looking for an ethical offset. In other words, Does the good I do over here make up for the bad I do over there? The idea of ethical offsets has been around for a long time, even when they weren’t called that.
Let’s get religious. For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church recognized something called “indulgences” as an actual part of how they did business. (It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council of 1959 that they suggested reforming this. They also did away with saying the Mass in Latin and meatless Fridays at the Second Vatican Council, commonly referred to as Vatican II, like a Super Bowl. It was a good meeting. There are notes.)
According to the Vatican, an indulgence was a way to reduce the amount of punishment one had to undergo for sins. The original idea was that if you did a nice thing, the pope would issue you an indulgence which you would somehow present when you got to heaven. As a character reference. And the people at the door would weigh it against the shitty things you did. It was a reward. In reality, indulgences became a commodity that were bought and sold in the dark musty corners of cathedrals to shady characters who wanted to be dicks and treat other people like shit, but were still worried about getting to heaven. Like, if you wanted to kill someone you could get an indulgence ahead of time, and then you wouldn’t have to feel bad about it. Theoretically, you could also get the indulgence after the murdering, but you’ll probably end up paying more because you’ve already committed the murder and now it’s a seller’s market.
Here are two fun facts about indulgences. First, most people think the first thing on Gutenberg’s press was the Bible. That’s bullshit. It was indulgences. Almost no one could afford a Bible, but indulgences sold like hotcakes. Gutenberg was a good businessman. Second, indulgences were one of the main reasons Martin Luther went ballistic against the pope.
Because indulgences were a way to pay off the shitty behavior you were committing, they were expensive. Which meant the richer you were, the shittier you could behave. You could just buy your way out of it. Not unlike how the justice system works in America today.
If ethical offsets were a wrestling belt, the Catholic Church would be our first champion. And they held that belt for a long, long time. Until they finally passed it on to the business world.
The percentage offset
Obviously, the idea that something good can offset something bad is a long-held belief that has propped up many a jewelry store and flower shop.
In Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek calls for designers to donate 10% of their time to nonprofit causes and good works. On this, and maybe only this, Victor and I disagree. But Victor wrote that in 1971. Advertising agencies, who made a ton of money selling cigarettes and were looking like massive assholes after the 1964 Surgeon General’s report that ended the nicotine-fueled advertising gold rush, needed a way to claw back from the public’s hate. Offsets were in the air. Advertising agencies began carving away a percentage of their time for pro-bono work.
And so the Ethical Offset Belt moved to the advertising agency, which in turn begat the design agency, and the pro-bono percentage offset came with it, eventually passing to the startups of Silicon Valley.
The problem with the percentage offset is compartmentalization.
There’s a rich corporate tradition in Silicon Valley of granting employees a percentage of their time to “do good.” This is a nice distraction from what they’re doing the rest of the time. Google is famously known for their practice of “20% time,” when employees can focus on side projects. But as former Google HR VP Laszlo Bock wrote in his book Work Rules, not a lot of employees actually use it, which doesn’t matter as long as the idea of it exists. It’s guilt-relief as an interface. An indulgence.
The problem with the percentage offset is compartmentalization. On Friday I think about doing good things. The rest of the week I’m cool. And if I do something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth on Wednesday, I’ll make up for it on Friday. Even if I don’t actually end up doing it on Friday, the idea that I could if I wanted to, or wasn’t too tired, makes me feel better about myself.
There’s no percentage of your time that can make up for building databases at Palantir that ICE uses to round up immigrants. There’s no percentage of your time that can make up for building facial ID software, also for ICE, while working at Microsoft. (In fact, those employees rebelled and forced Microsoft to cancel that contract.) There’s no percentage of your time that can make up for allowing white supremacists to run free on Twitter. I don’t believe in ethical offsets. There’s no way that saving 10% of the world while destroying 90% of it turns into anything close to a net positive.
The passion project offset
Another popular way to deal with the guilt and shame that comes from doing unethical work is the much-lauded personal project. Again, this takes an amazing amount of compartmentalization. A stress-inducing amount. It practically forces you to live two separate lives. If you spend your day helping Yelp swap out restaurants’ actual phone numbers with Grubhub-affiliated ones and then go home to work on a blog celebrating the local food scene, you still spent your day helping Yelp swap out that restaurant’s phone number with one that wasn’t theirs. So no, the local restaurant scene doesn’t owe you a medal.
Franz Kafka spent his days working at an insurance company, and his evenings working on his passion projects. He wrote about turning into a roach. I don’t think Kafka successfully compartmentalized. You can’t either.
The donation offset
You should donate to ProPublica. You should donate to The Trevor Project. You should donate to RAICES. You should donate to Planned Parenthood. You should donate to a ton of other organizations that need money to keep doing good work. You should donate locally, nationally, and internationally. You should donate to political campaigns. You should donate to the organizations that I hope people will mention in the comments to this piece. You should donate as much as you can, and the more you earn the more you should be donating. And if you cannot donate money, there are organizations where you can donate your time. Some of us may even be lucky enough to be able to donate both.
That said, no amount of money, or time, that you donate to RAICES will make up for the fact that you earned that money while working at Palantir building a database ICE uses to separate children and parents. If you really want to help immigrants, and I hope you do, destroy the database.
If you are looking to make a difference in the world, you are already in the place you need to be.
Stand in the place where you work
My purpose in writing this isn’t to make you feel bad. You obviously already do. As my grandfather once told me, you don’t need to push a stone that’s rolling downhill. My purpose in writing this is to give you good news. And here it is. If you are looking to make a difference in the world, you are already in the place you need to be. You don’t need to go anywhere else.
I recently ran across a few tweets of Twitter employees from various offices cleaning up local beaches and parks. They were all tagged #lovewhereyouwork. I’m glad they love where they work. And I have good news for them. The next time they’re looking to clean up trash they don’t even have to leave the office. I am happy to go clean up the beach. I bet I can even get a big group to come with me. But only you can clean up the place where you work, and if you want to take a stand, if you want to make a difference, it needs to start at the place where you draw your paycheck. Because if you are earning a living somewhere that makes the world a worse place, there is absolutely nothing more important you can do than take a stand right there.
Yes, the nonprofits need your help. Yes, the campaigns can use your money. Yes, you should go canvas for a candidate. Yes, you should go out and clean beaches and protest inequality.
But all of these things need to happen in addition to doing your job well, and doing it in society’s best interest. Not instead of.
Ethical offsets are bullshit.
If you have a question, email me and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question, and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know what the answer is anyway).