An accused harasser “applauded” the #MeToo movement. It did not end well

Time out.
Time out.
Image: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay
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Earlier this morning, Justin Caldbeck, a venture capitalist who left his job over alleged sexual harassment, took a moment to reflect on Twitter. “I applaud all the women who had the courage to speak out and ignite the #MeToo movement, including my accusers,” he wrote. “And props to @timemagazine for giving the movement and the women the recognition they so rightfully deserve. #silencebreakers #time.”

Justin Caldbeck’s short-lived tweet.
Justin Caldbeck’s short-lived tweet.
Image: Twitter

Caldbeck’s tweet referred to Time Magazine’s “Person of The Year,” which went to the “silence breakers”—women who spoke up about harassment, sparking a national conversation on sexual misconduct that has, in recent months, toppled many powerful men. His tweet also alluded to the six women who accused him of unwanted advances, which caused him to resign in June from Binary Capital, the venture-capital firm he co-founded.

About half an hour after being posted, Caldbeck’s tweet didn’t have any retweets or “likes” but had gotten a reply, in all capital lettering: “NO ONE BELIEVES YOU.” A few minutes later, his tweet was gone.

Caldbeck, like many accused harassers, is not a sympathetic figure. His alleged misconduct includes sending sexually explicit text messages, groping and kissing a woman whose startup he invested in, and pressuring female business associates to meet him in hotel rooms or spend the night at his apartment. When the first story about his alleged harassment ran, Caldbeck denied “attacks on my character” and reportedly texted the reporter, “Go f— yourself.” In July, his lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to an accuser, demanding she “stop making” and “correct” false statements.

As allegations of sexual harassment overall have accelerated in recent months, Caldbeck has recalibrated his approach. Last month, he spoke to 50 students in a finance class at Duke University, his alma mater, about the dangers of “bro culture.” He is reportedly planning a website on the same topic. “I have no interest in a comeback or redemption,” Caldbeck tweeted after the Duke appearance. “I am simply trying to take accountability and create positive change for women by educating men to stop bad behavior.” His current job description on LinkedIn is “Head of Self-Reflection, Accountability & Change.”

Silicon Valley has long been defined by so-called hacker culture, a value system that prizes clever, unorthodox thinking, and tends to let the ends justify the means. That culture protected “brilliant jerks” at Uber, encouraged a regulatory scandal at human-resources startup Zenefits, and inoculated Juicero against the utter absurdity of its $400 juicer. In the latest season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, hacker culture emboldens Richard Hendricks, the protagonist and archetypal startup nerd, to take increasingly risky and ethically ambiguous steps to salvage his nascent data storage network.

There’s another crucial element of hacker culture, which is that, in being clever and unorthodox, it’s ok to fail (fast, often), to “pivot,” and to try again. Uber has had a disastrous 2017 by any measure, and yet it still operates a stellar taxi service and, at least on paper, it is still the world’s most valuable startup. Parker Conrad, the Zenefits founder who was pushed out over the company’s compliance scandal, has not disappeared, but started a new human-resources venture. The season four finale of Silicon Valley briefly leads us to believe that Richard is finished, having destroyed the data of his only client, before revealing that he and the data were saved by pure luck.

Why has Caldbeck not faded away, but instead, incredulously, begun preaching “positive change” and “accountability” within months of the accusations against him? He is following Silicon Valley’s hacker playbook. He has failed (fast, and reportedly often) in his treatment of women and, now that the allegations have been aired, and his career in venture capital ruined, is looking for the next thing. The talk at Duke, the listing of “self-reflection” as a career, the short-lived tweet applauding women who spoke out against harassment—these are all part of Caldbeck’s pivot, from alleged harasser to… well, anything else.

The trouble is that sexual harassment can’t be hacked. Repentance can’t be demonstrated with a tweet, conveyed in a college lecture, or made credible by a tagline on LinkedIn. To even think such quick and superficial changes could wipe away the harm suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what occurred. As the woman on Twitter said to Caldbeck, “NO ONE BELIEVES YOU.”