Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Tuesday offered thoughtful insights about the saga between Peter Thiel and Gawker Media, showing his support for free speech and even quoting Confucius.
Speaking at Recode’s Code Conference, Bezos was asked about Thiel, the well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist who secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker. Recode co-founder Walt Mossberg asked Bezos if he thought it’s legitimate for a billionaire to fund a series of lawsuits, regardless of merit, “whose real purpose is to put that company out of business and destroy them for personal reasons.”
“I don’t,” Bezos quickly responded.
Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, said he didn’t know the details of the Thiel vs. Gawker battle and spoke in more general terms, sharing some “principles that would apply here.” He then referred to Confucius.
“Seek revenge and you should dig two graves — one for yourself,” Bezos said, quoting the Chinese philosopher.
The Amazon CEO later added that “the best defense to speech that you don’t like about yourself as a public figure is to develop a thick skin.” He said the advice wasn’t directed at Thiel or Gawker, but rather for any well-known person.
“It’s really the only effective defense,” he said. “You can’t stop it. You will be misunderstood. If you are doing anything interesting in the world, you will have critics. If you absolutely can’t tolerate critics, don’t do anything new or interesting.”
Bezos continued his answer, eventually getting into an issue he’s “passionate” about: preserving free speech in the U.S.
“We always have to remember that this country has the best free speech protections in the world because of the Constitution, but also because of our cultural norms. And you don’t want to erode those. You don’t want to create any kind of climate of fear or chill with respect to free speech norms.
The most important thing to remember about that is that beautiful speech doesn’t need protection — it’s ugly speech that needs protection. So of course that’s where the rubber meets the road. Someone will write something very ugly, and certain people will say they need to be punished for that ugly speech. But probably not, really, if you step back and think about what a great society we have, and a big part of it is the fact that we have these cultural norms that allow people to say really ugly things. We don’t have to like it. We don’t have to invite those people to our dinner parties. But you should let them say it.”
Bezos was later asked by an audience member — in fact, it was RealNetworks CEO and founder Rob Glaser who asked the question — about his thoughts on Donald Trump’s bid for president. Bezos echoed similar thoughts that he shared earlier this month at a Washington Post event, noting that it’s not appropriate that Trump is “working to freeze or chill the media that are examining him.”
It was another example of Bezos’ support for free speech.
“We live in an amazing democracy with amazing freedom of speech,” Bezos explained. “A presidential candidate should embrace that. They should say, ‘I’m running for president of the most important country in the world. I expect to be scrutinized. Please examine me.’
“That’s a very important cultural norm,” Bezos continued. “And without cultural norms, the Constitution is just a piece of paper.”