Silicon Valley speaks up against intolerance

A viral ad from Amazon has gotten a lot of attention, but it’s even better that several companies are taking real-world stands against anti-Muslim bigotry.

After an electoral cycle full of hate and intolerance, who knew that an unpretentious 30-second Amazon ad could do so much good? You’ve probably seen it: a simple story of a Christian pastor and a Muslim imam having tea, laughing and complaining about their creaky knees. Later, each independently comes up with the ideal gift for the other: kneepads. The final few seconds show the two men putting on their pads and kneeling to pray. The ad is quite effective. Even after repeated viewing, it still brings a tear to my eye.

I’m apparently not alone. The ad has been a viral sensation, with 10 million views on Facebook and nearly 2 million on YouTube, not to mention countless millions on television (Amazon has bought a tremendous amount of airtime for it). News outlets including USA Today, Fortune and CNN took note of its message of the universality of faith and religious tolerance for Muslims.

It’s easy to feel cynical that the real message is to buy things from Amazon, but that ignores that the company had good reason not to release a high-profile plea for tolerance when doing so puts it directly in the president-elect’s crosshairs. During the campaign, Donald Trump called for a ban on any Muslims entering the U.S. He also went after Amazon directly, repeatedly attacking it and its head, Jeff Bezos, saying at one point, “Believe me, if I become president, oh, do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.” Investors seem to think that Trump will follow through: While the rest of the stock market has gone on a tear since his election, Amazon’s stock has dropped 20 points. And that’s the least of Amazon’s potential problems with Trump, who has said he believes Amazon violates antitrust laws and has hinted he’ll make sure the Justice Department, under his leadership, launches an investigation.

Interestingly, Microsoft’s “Spread Harmony” ad also prominently features Muslims. Both companies are doing the right thing, and other tech companies that like to project a holier-than-thou air of progressiveness and inclusiveness should join them — though it would be even better if they practiced what they preached. Tech firms seem sincere in their efforts to improve their own diversity, but so far success has eluded them. As Patrick Thibodeau reported in Computerworld last May, “Among the top 75 Silicon Valley tech firms, whites make up 47% of the workforce, Asian Americans 41%, Hispanics, 6% and African Americans 3%, according to an analysis by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. … Women account for 30% of the workforce at these 75 firms.” (Figures on the employment of Muslims in the tech sector are difficult to find.)

Still, I don’t think Amazon and Microsoft are being hypocritical, and I don’t think their ads will be ineffective. According to The New York Times, such ads can have effects in the real world. In an article about a wave of ads featuring Muslims in a positive light, it reported, “Several advertising executives likened the movement to the decision by mass marketers to cast same-sex couples and their children in ads for the first time in 2013 and 2014, making inclusion and acceptance a priority over potential criticism from some customers.”

Kevin Brady, an executive creative director at ad agency Droga5, which made a Honey Maid commercial prominently featuring a Muslim family, told the Times, “With the kind of gay parent issue, we’ve gotten a little closer to acceptance, but the Muslim issue in America is still pretty raw for a lot of people. I don’t think it should be, but it’s one that I think brands took an extra step of courage to really go out there with in 2016.”

It’s time for the tech industry as a whole to push back against intolerance, not just against Muslims but also immigrants and anyone else who was targeted during the presidential election campaign. Ads are one way to do it. Another is to refuse to cooperate with any effort to create a database of Muslims in the U.S., as over 3,800 tech professionals have done by signing a petition at Neveragain.tech. As the petition notes, “IBM collaborated to digitize and streamline the Holocaust.” That’s why it’s heartening to read that Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter, Uber, Microsoft and, yes, IBM have said they will not work on such a project.

That’s even better than a feel-good ad.

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