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Breitbart Today. Baptists Tomorrow?

What is the relationship between morality and commerce? Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza on Shopify, Breitbart, free speech, and the importance of standards.

7 minute read
Breitbart Today. Baptists Tomorrow? March 16, 2017  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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Shopify, for those who don’t know – and I would have been among them until recently – is a site that lets merchants sell their wares online. It is a major Canadian tech success story. If you go to its site, you will be invited to “join more than 377,500 ambitious people who have sold $29 billion (in products) using Shopify.”

Not everybody is happy about the website Breitbart being one of those vendors. Breitbart is routinely described as a “far-right” operation, and that is often the kindest description. I don’t frequent Shopify and I don’t frequent Breitbart, but I do know that many liberals find the latter beyond the pale, especially since one of its founders, Steve Bannon, now serves as a senior adviser to President Donald Trump.

For that reason, thousands of people have joined e-petitions to get Shopify to stop Breitbart from selling its T-shirts, posters and other merchandise on the site.

The Ottawa Citizen has the story, and notes Shopify is also used by vendors who sell guns, marijuana, and escort services. There do not appear to be petitions to get Shopify to drop the ammo, the weed and the hookers.

Tobias Lütke is Shopify’s CEO, and has mounted a free speech defence of Shopify’s decision to host Breitbart:

Shopify is an unlikely defender of Breitbart’s right to sell products. I’m a liberally minded immigrant, leading a predominantly liberal workforce, hailing from predominantly liberal cities and countries. I’m against exclusion of any kind—whether that’s restricting people from Muslim-majority nations from entering the US, or kicking merchants off our platform if they’re operating within the law.

Commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression. We use it to cast a vote with every product we buy. It’s a direct expression of democracy. This is why our mission at Shopify is to protect that form of expression and make it better for everyone, not just for those we agree with….

To kick off a merchant is to censor ideas and interfere with the free exchange of products at the core of commerce. When we kick off a merchant, we’re asserting our own moral code as the superior one. But who gets to define that moral code? Where would it begin and end?

Products are a form of speech, and free speech must be fiercely protected, even if we disagree with some of the voices.

We don’t like Breitbart, but…instead of imposing our own morality on the platform, we defer to the law. All products must be legal in the jurisdiction of the business.

There is a lot there about the intersection of liberty and commerce, morality and law. Five points strike me.

First, Lütke is right that commerce is not only commerce. What we produce and sell, exchange and consume reflect our choices, and choices are moral acts. The late Michael Novak used to call economic liberty the “second liberty”, the most important after religious liberty. He thought it more important than the right to vote or the right to a free press.

While voting happens only on election day, and not everyone publishes or reads, every person is daily in the market, buying and selling, making and using, trading and investing. Lütke is right to be vigilant about liberty in this vast area of quotidian life, what he calls a “direct expression of democracy.” What we do in the realm of commerce reflects our moral character, and we do more there more often than in any other sphere of life.

Second, I agree when Lütke says that “products are speech.”  After all, a newspaper itself is a product. Clothing is a form of expression, not just a means to cover the body. Haute couture fashion houses agree on this point with pastors who tell young men to take their hats off in church.

It might be hard to see lumber as free speech, but what if the lumber has been harvested by a gay-positive collective according to ancient aboriginal logging techniques and bleached only with organic compounds?

Is tuna just tuna if it is also dolphin-safe? There have been international protests against “blood diamonds” and goods produced by Israelis in the West Bank. Products are not only products.

In a climate where free speech is under threat, Lütke’s defence of free speech is welcome.

Third, Shopify might be ambitious to join the ranks of Amazon or Google or Facebook, but even if it did, they are not governments and they do not hold State power. They are massively influential private actors, but they remain private actors.

They do not make laws. They do not have to tolerate what they disagree with. They have to take responsibility for what they buy and sell.

So to claim a defense of free speech does not end the argument. A publisher has the right not to be interfered with by the State in deciding what to publish, but he is not the State. He is responsible for what he does decide to publish.

Lütke appeals to an empty relativism: If we had a standard, whose standard would apply? The obvious answer is the standards of Shopify. At Convivium we do have standards of what we will and will not publish. The standards are ours. To observe that other standards exist is not a reason to abandon standards altogether.

Indeed, Lütke’s first argument about commerce being an arena of liberty underscores the importance of commercial choices, and therefore the moral responsibility of those making them. The larger the actor, the more heightened that responsibility.

Fourth, Lütke confuses morality with law, as if the latter exhausts the former. It’s an understandable confusion, as it is resorted to by nearly every public or corporate actor guilty of using office for personal gain. It’s not illegal!

In fact, influential players – legislators, financial firms, pharmaceutical companies, real estate developers, professional sports leagues – rig the rules precisely to make legal what is morally offensive. That it is legal is a thin reed.

What if the government were to make it illegal to sell T-shirts that say “I Love Breitbart”? Would Shopify simply comply? I hope not. The law ought to reflect the moral good, but the two are certainly not the same.

Observing the law, or permitting all that the law permits, as the only standard is not the exercise of conscience, but the abdication of it.  If “just following the law” sounds a tiny bit like “just following orders” it’s because it is the same.

That brings us to a fifth point, the moral calculations involved with what the tradition calls “cooperation with evil.” Where is the line?

A bank is not implicated in the prostitution business of a pimp who has an account there. Or is it? The law requires banks to report suspicious activity, so at least in part it has to concern itself with what its accounts are used for. Pressure groups have advanced the argument that banks should not accept business from certain types of clients.

Some things are clear. For years, major hotel chains offered pornography to their clients and took a cut of the revenues along the way. Recently some major chains have decided to get out of the pornography business, partly for ethical reasons, partly to garner some good publicity, and mostly because the whole matter has been rendered technologically superfluous by Internet pornography.

What about those ISPs though? Are they morally implicated in the content they carry? Or are they just providing the means, and no more implicated in the smut they pass around than the stationer is guilty if his notecards are used to produce an elegant ransom note?

A nurse who administers a lethal injection is clearly participating in the evil of voluntary suicide. What about the accountant who does the books for the pharmacy that provides the drug? Unlikely. What about the physician who does not participate in assisted suicide, but refers a patient to someone who will? That very question is the subject of a major public policy battle in Canada as we speak.

On the progressive side of our politics, divestment and boycotts are popular tactics based on the premise that buying goods or holding equities implicates one in the policies of those companies. I am generally sympathetic to that, but at the same time do not think that I am implicated in the philanthropic decisions of the bank that holds my mortgage. Ethical compromise? Or careful moral analysis? It’s not always obvious.

For purely tactical reasons, I would prefer Shopify to keep Breitbart, because in future it is more likely that the next target for expulsion would be a Christian institution. Breitbart today; the Baptists tomorrow. That’s a tactical argument, though.

On the merits?

In agreeing to sell Breitbart’s T-shirts and, inter alia , sexual services, Shopify is making a moral decision.

I would prefer keeping the T-shirts and getting rid of the hookers, but that requires a standard to distinguish between the two. A standard that – despite the millions of products Shopify has for sale – is not on offer.

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