Another multinational corporation forces its ideology on everyone else

Imagine having to affirm your agreement with a certain ideology before being allowed to shop for socks in Sears or shoes in Nordstrom’s.

I’m not sure it’s possible to go five minutes without a “judgment” unless you’re unconscious or asleep. These people need to read a little Kant (something I wouldn’t usually recommend). 

A friend writes to ask whether it would be possible for a Catholic to do business with Airbnb, the on-line accommodation rental service, once they require acceptance of what they call their “Community Commitment” pledge.  According to an email message sent out recently to all their members and customers:

On or after November 1, we’ll show you the commitment when you log in to or open the Airbnb website, mobile or tablet app and we’ll automatically ask you to accept.  If you decline the commitment, you won’t be able to host or book using Airbnb, and you have the option to cancel your account. Once your account is canceled, future booked trips will be canceled. You will still be able to browse Airbnb but you won’t be able to book any reservations or host any guests.

And what is the pledge you must make if you wish to do business with Airbnb after November 1?  Quoting again from the company’s email:

You commit to treat everyone — regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age — with respect, and without judgment or bias.

There you have it: gender ideology as corporate business policy.  If you refuse to agree with the ideology, then you’re no longer permitted to do business with the corporation.  

It’s odd at the very least.  Imagine having to affirm your agreement with a certain ideology before being allowed to shop for socks in Sears or shoes in Nordstrom’s.  “To purchase items in Sears, you must first affirm that you are opposed to communism in all its forms and guises.”  “You can only buy shoes at Nordstrom’s if you sign this pledge that you will not to be offended by people with foot fetishes.”  I dislike communism, and I like foot massages (which is not exactly a “fetish,” but I wouldn’t want to have to prove that to an anti-foot-fetish-fanatic), but I wouldn’t shop in a place that required signing an ideological pledge of any sort.  

Besides, when did simply renting a room become a political act or an ideological statement?  (Answer: on or after November 1, it seems.)

Imagine a corporation saying: “To book a room in this hotel, you must agree to abide by the Ten Commandments.”  Even though the Ten Commandments are nothing more than the most basic moral principles — don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery — there would be widespread outrage, I imagine, and not only among those who book hotel rooms with an eye to committing adultery.  

I have purchased several pieces of furniture from a local Mennonite carpenter.  He didn’t ask me to sign a pacifist pledge to refuse to participate in any war.  I’m very much opposed to war and respect pacifists, but how could I sign such a pledge?  The world is too unpredictable.  There might be a war I think we simply must fight.  

Should we seek to treat everyone “with respect”?  Absolutely.  But what does “respect” entail in any specific instance?  Does a parent treat a child “with respect” when he or she punishes him or her for engaging in dangerous behavior?  This certainly seems to be the case.  Does a teacher treat a student “with respect” when he or she gives the student a C for sub-standard work?  I think so.  Does a coach treat a player “with respect” when he benches her for losing her temper on the basketball court?  The most highly respected coaches do it.  And here’s a puzzle:  Does “respect” for my Uber driver mean sitting up front in his car or in the back?  Those who use Uber know that this is one of those heated disputes, like how much you should leave as a tip at a restaurant when the service was bad.  I have a friend who insists on sitting in the front and castigates those who don’t as disrespectful.  (He does have an admirably high Uber rating, in fact.)  And yet, neither I nor my wife can get over the feeling that we’re supposed to sit in the back.  (She too has an admirably high Uber rating — just a tad higher than my friend, as it turns out.)  Deciding what “respect” for a person entails depends upon the situation; it requires wisdom and judgment.  

But “judgment” is precisely what we’re not supposed to be engaging in, according to Airbnb.  If by “always treat your students with respect,” you mean “never make them feel bad,” “never challenge their ideas,” or “never critique them,” then I couldn’t possibly agree, because to fail to do these things when called for would be the most disrespectful thing I could do as a teacher.  It would mean treating my students as if they were babies, not the young adults they are, in need of the appropriate sort of mentoring. 

My general approach to ideologically motivated totalitarian commands masquerading as acts of charity is: Just Say No.  Actually, as I’ve written elsewhere, my formulaic response in such cases is:  “I’m sorry, but my personal conscience does not permit me to empower that ideology or obey this particular expression of your authoritarian will-to-power.”  

But even if you’re not the sort of person who is bothered by ideology, or let’s say you agree with theirs, there may be deeper problems with agreeing to this particular statement of secular faith.  You could be ostensibly agreeing to something that might not be humanly possible.  

Consider this: you’re not merely pledging to treat everyone with respect, which, for fallen human creatures is already a bit of a stretch.  Ever get annoyed with your cab driver and treat him in a way he might not have considered “respectful”?  Ever get annoyed with your children and snap at them?  But let’s just say for the sake of argument that you’re going to commit yourself to trying, which seems like a good thing — depending, as I’ve said, upon how one understands what it means to treat people “with respect.”  But how about the last part of the pledge that demands you treat everyone “without judgment or bias”?  That might pose some real problems.  

What if I meet some gay people, and I’m positively biased toward them?  Or what if I say to my wife: “Let’s see whether we can rent from a gay person; their places are always so much nicer”?  Is this impermissible under the new Airbnb regime?  It would seem so, unless their words don’t mean what they say.  “No bias” means no bias for or against. 

So too with “judgment”:  living “without judgment” means making neither positive nor negative judgments.  What if I judge the people they mention to be absolutely lovely?  Is that wrong?  Can I really promise to be neutral about everybody?  I mean, sometimes you just like people.  You can’t help yourself.  You judge that they’re nice, and maybe (heaven forbid) you get a little biased toward them.  Mothers tend to be biased toward their own children over others, gay or straight.  No Airbnb for them, I guess.

Quite frankly, I’m not sure it’s possible to go five minutes without a “judgment” unless you’re unconscious or asleep. These people need to read a little Kant (something I wouldn’t usually recommend).  “Judgment” is simply the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.

So let’s say I’m looking at a person in a red raincoat, and I say, “Wow, that’s a bright red raincoat!” That’s a judgment.  If I look at a gay man and say, “Wow, he’s tall,” that too is a judgment.  I made a “judgment” about a gay man:  “he’s tall,” or “he’s nice” or “I like the way he does his hair.”  Or if I decide: “I’d like to go to coffee with that guy dressed as a woman!” that’s a judgment.  I made a considered decision.  (Full disclosure: I admit to having made just such a “judgment” a few weeks ago at a conference.  We never got the chance for coffee, but I admit to having made the “judgment.”  Thank goodness I hadn’t signed the Airbnb pledge.)  And yet I’m supposed to agree to make no considered decisions nor come to any sensible conclusions regarding people if I want to do business with Airbnb?  I’m not sure it’s humanly possible.

Indeed, isn’t “making a judgment” precisely what Airbnb is demanding we do: come to a sensible conclusion about people and make a considered decision to sign their pledge?  So how does this work?  I am supposed to make a judgment — the judgment they want me to make — just this once and then agree to forego “judgment” for, what, the rest of my life?  Isn’t that like asking me to promise: “I freely choose now never to use my freedom to choose again”?  That’s a stiff price to pay and violates all canons of rationality.  

So, in answer to my friend: No, I don’t think a Catholic can sign this pledge — but only because I don’t think any rational human being can sign this pledge, given that it involves logical incoherence and an inherent contradiction.  

Here’s a basic rule of thumb I have:  Never pledge to do things that aren’t humanly possible. If you do, you will inevitably disappoint people.  

But if you were wondering whether you could just sign the pledge, but not really mean the words, my answer would be that you can; people do this sort of thing all the time; it’s called lying.  And in case you hadn’t heard, there’s a commandment (one of only ten) against that sort of thing. You might want to recall that Thomas More chose execution rather than sign a pledge he didn’t agree to.

But even if you think the Ten Commandments are superstitious, religious bunk, let me warn you that the good people at Airbnb just might judge you rather badly if you sign the words of their pledge but don’t really mean them.  There are actually people in the world (and the Airbnb folks may be among them) who are biased against liars.  Some people go so far as to refuse to do business with those who say things they can’t possibly mean just to be accepted and liked.  Reprehensible, perhaps; but true, I’m afraid.  

Please don’t judge them.

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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 45 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."