I’ve had conflicting thoughts on Gawker as long as I can remember. I’ve never liked them, but part of me always respected some of the work they did while completely abhorring most of the rest. That’s kind of Gawker in a nutshell: there is no neutral, it’s love or hate and the feelings are often strongly rooted and unshakable.
What I’ve never wavered on, however, is my feeling that as much as I dislike what Gawker does, it was their right to do it. It’s the same way I feel about The Westboro Baptist Church, Donald Trump, or (non-violent) racial supremacy groups. I detest what they stand for, but as Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will fight to the death your right to say it.”
That’s the thing about free speech, you have to be willing to shut out the voices you disagree with without trying to remove them from the conversation entirely. Peter Thiel could stand to re-read the previous statement a few times.
When the news broke that Thiel had been secretly backing Terry Bollea — aka Hulk Hogan — in his lawsuit against Nick Denton and Gawker, I reacted with a rather neutral feeling. I wasn’t shocked and outraged, but I wasn’t happy about it either. There was a period of uncertainty where I deemed it Thiel’s right in much the same way Gawker had the right to publicly out him years earlier.
It wasn’t the classy thing to do, it wasn’t what I would have done, but if we’re to hope for any level of autonomy it wasn’t my place to decide whether he was right or wrong, just to realize that he didn’t break any laws and that my moral and ethical values don’t necessarily align with his.
I was naive.
What Thiel did was so back-handed that he — in the eyes of many — managed to sink to the same level as Gawker, all while taking the holier-than-thou stance that the publication had it coming. If you’re fighting on values and principles, you don’t hide in the shadows as Thiel did. You don’t attempt to control the outcome while keeping the situation at arms-length to avoid any backlash.
At some point, you have to step out from behind the curtain.
If we’re being honest, Gawker deserved some backlash. The publication, for years, thumbed its nose at long-held standards of ethics and integrity in journalism. It didn’t, however, deserve to be driven to bankruptcy by a vengeful billionaire that seems hell-bent on controlling the message.
Peter Thiel isn’t Silicon Valley’s savior, nor is is he the patron saint of hurt feelings.
Peter Thiel is a coward.