Apple: The Reluctant Arbiter, Exodus & The National Story

 “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Whenever there’s a heated debate, a breakthrough in insight can come from an outsider with a fresh perspective. This has happened in the case of Apple and the Exodus International app. A writer from outside our inner circle instructs us.

I have been following the case of Apple, the Exodus International app, views on homosexuality and the current petition to have the app removed from the App Store. The basics of the story were covered by TMO just a few days ago.

Typically, a case like this starts with heated discussion on both sides that may or may not lead to a change in course by Apple. In the course of reading the two sides of the story, what I found missing was a unique, breakthrough viewpoint that shed significant light on the whole issue. Then, bingo, I found it in this article, “The Internet, Freedom of Speech and the Anti-Gay App,” by Victoria Pynchon. I do not know Ms. Pynchon, and she’s certainly not one of the heavyweights in the Apple analysis community. But her observations are important, and you can go read it now, or follow me along and go back to it later.

Ms. Pynchon’s contribution to the dialogue is that Apple has created an iconic device in the iPad. More to the point,

The furor over the Exodus App suggests that the iPad, by virtue of its shape and function, is assumed to be carrying our national “super story” – the tale a community tells about itself to establish a shared identity. As scholars explain, these national narratives hold us together and keep us apart. They help us make sense of our experience as we flip through the various idealized images the culture suggests we adopt as our own. When we fail to find our own story within the larger narrative — or find ourselves demonized by it — we lose confidence, hope and coherence. We want to be celebrated, or at least included, in the tales told around the community camp fire every evening.”

In other words, and this is a nuanced issue, the iPad has become the de facto village newspaper and the views expressed there, via apps, are subject to the judgment of Apple. Everyone wants to become a part of the national super story by having their voice heard on that so very popular platform. That, in turn, has placed responsibilities on Apple whether or not it likes the idea.

The Legacy of Newspapers

In the history of print, newspaper editors have long wielded considerable power and influence. They learned professionalism, values and judgment from many years on the job. If an outsider were to try to seize the tone of a newspaper’s content, it would be resisted. For example, if I were to write an essay for submission to the Denver Post that President Obama’s grandfather was a Nazi and a murderer, it would likely be rejected on the basis of the editor-in-chief’s knowledge, experience, and training. And their estimate my credibility and professionalism.

Similarly, every day, you come to TMO and find content that is the accumulated judgment and experience of our editors. You do this, realizing with wisdom that the people who most annoy us are sometimes the people we grudgingly respect*.

That’s not to say that newspaper editors haven’t made mistakes in judgment — they’re human. But if making a single mistake, any mistake, must lead to instant loss of position, then no editor could long endure his office. We live and learn. As I am fond of saying, “Judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”

The nuance is that while numerous newspapers seek to have their presence on the iPad, each with its own voice, the irony is that the iPad itself has become the delivery vehicle, via apps, and thus the arbiter of the national super story. Apple takes a stand on what it considers decency and honor amongst apps.

The American Princess

Another popular arbiter of American values in the past has been the winner of the Miss America contest. During competition, her views and goals are assessed and combined with other attributes, not to mention basic good looks. Some people have been jealous or alarmed by this institution because winners have often articulated values that leave them out in the cold, isolated from the national super story. Watch any contestant take a stand on sexual values, and watch the fur fly.

Over time, for various reasons, we decided that this was not the best platform on which to tell our national story. Too many voices were left out. But also, the forces that tried to marginalize the often very good values if the young women became more strident and influential. It just goes to prove Ms. Pynchon’s point: the more influential an American icon of national story telling is, the more other voices will struggle to be heard. Sometimes the force of gentle reason doesn’t seem sufficient and opponents go overboard.

Core Values

Now we’re geting down to the core issue of the Exodus International app which seeks to assist the user to better explore and understand his or her feelings and values. (I have examined the app.) The reason Apple approved the app is because it’s honest and sincere about helping people follow what is believed to be the teaching of the Bible. One problem here is that people of different religious faiths interpret the Bible differently. Forcing other people to believe what you believe never works and is offensive. However, helping people understand themselves is a good thing.

Ms. Pynchon makes a critical observation: “These religious beliefs (that sexual conduct outside of a one man-one woman marriage is sinful and can be “cured” by Jesus) are held by fewer and fewer Americans. They have also been repudiated by many liberal American Christian churches (including my own. -JM] They fly in the face of American secular legal principles [read as separation of church and state - JM] and contradict our contemporary scientific understanding. They are matters of faith, not science or reason.” What this author is summarizing is what is becoming the national story — that our individual DNA is our essence, and we treat our essence with respect. It’s similar to our other national stories, for example, that you don’t stone a woman to death for adultery.

However, and please read this carefully, there are those who believe that self-realization and fulfillment can come from pain, struggling to become what one is not yet, even if pain includes falling on the sword of one’s own DNA. Those who hold to this view want their voice also heard on the national iconic platform, the App Store. With sober reflection, we realize that while those who oppose them may win by the sword of their petition today, they may die by that same sword tomorrow. There is a place in American life for science and the best that religion has to offer. 

Corporate Values

The emerging arbiter of the above is Apple. Apple’s executives are women and men with lots of technical experience, and now they’ve assumed the role, perhaps unwillingly, of being the editors of our iconic platform. Occasionally, they make mistakes, but they usually correct them. But one thing is certain: we want our corporations to have values. And when they betray us, we seek to punish them.

We expect our agri-businesses to sell food that’s safe to eat. We expect our wireless carriers to have fair, transparent pricing and honorable license agreements — even if we don’t always get all that. We expect our banks to protect our money and we expect Facebook to protect our privacy — even when that’s not one of its business goals. We hope and pray that when companies start selling personal robots that they will inculcate Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Without those laws, humans risk becoming an extinct species. Because corporations are so entwined in our modern technical village, the policies they have and the products they build are increasingly tasked to represent our society’s values. When they fail us — or allow others to harm us — we are appalled. When done right, we celebrate.

Everywhere we turn, we expect corporations to adhere to our national sense of American values and the national super story. And yet, when confronted by those values, many who would have no master seek to change the direction of the national story for their own ends. It’s almost like the situation in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart. We get a glimpse of how Bedford Falls could have gone so terribly wrong, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, in an alternate timeline bereft of the values brought to bear by George Bailey.

We look at instant replay in sports events in infinite, slow-motion, excruciating detail over and over to make sure the game is played fair and without brutality. We also expect corporations to treat us fairly, and to do that, they must have values that we sign off on. All those things that Apple won’t tolerate in the apps that it approves are a by-product of those American values and are part of emerging national super story — like the newspaper editors and beauty contest winners they are replacing. I hope they’re up to the task because that is the task that fate has thrust upon them in our technical village. There is no turning back. None.

And the Winner is…

Don’t look for a verdict in this spot, for I am not here to take sides. There is grace to be found on both sides of the Exodus argument. The applicable value could well be tolerance for the softest and most reasoned voices of love, or it could be intolerance for emotional and strident voices of anti-science. I’d hate to think, however, that the default value lies in demagoguery and, simply, a poll of how many people are offended.

In any case, we honor Apple, the reluctant arbiter in our technical life, for having the courage to make a stand, to represent our best national values, our national story. The company’s greatest failing would to be rudderless, to have no values at all.

Author note: Just as this essay was published, it was learned that Apple pulled the app.


* For me, that’s columnist George Will.