We’re going on an Airbnb holiday this summer. A funky place in a funky town.  For two weeks of rest and relaxation.  All the mod cons. Just how we like it.

At least I hope we are.

For today we received an email from Airbnb, as many of you no doubt did, that states that unless you tick the new anti-discrimination box next time you use Airbnb’s site (whether as host or as guest), you will be unable to use their services.

If you have a future holiday or contract in place and you refuse to tick this box, then your services – or your holiday stay – will be cancelled. You will have “the option” to cancel your account, which since you won’t tick the box, will be useless to you anyway.  Hey! The option you have without having an option.

Plain and simple.

Here’s how it reads:

Commitment

Hi,

Earlier this year, we launched a comprehensive effort to fight bias and discrimination in the Airbnb community. As a result of this effort, we’re asking everyone to agree to a Community Commitment beginning November 1, 2016. Agreeing to this commitment will affect your use of Airbnb, so we wanted to give you a heads up about it.

What is the Community Commitment?

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

How do I accept the commitment?

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.

What if I decline the commitment?

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 cancelled, future booked trips will be cancelled. You will still be able to browse Airbnb but you won’t be able to book any reservations or host any guests.

Now at one level it’s simply a case of ticking a box that most people would tick without thought.  And obviously this has ramifications for the US scene (there’s a specific US Legal explanation at the end of the letter).

However the cynic in me tells me that this is classic virtue signalling in the safety of western liberal democracy. Throwing stones at the gorilla when you’re at the zoo.

Because lo and behold, in the countries where your actual life might be in actual danger through the actual legal system, then Airbnb seems completely comfortable and relaxed about such discrimination.

So say you are gay, or a Christian, in a country where you could be tried and prosecuted for such crimes then Airbnb is more than happy with that arrangement.

Now I truly believe that if you aim to make a profit by opening up your house for the likes of an Airbnb then you have to abide by Airbnb’s rules – even these new rules.  That’s the state of play in our culture.  And perhaps it will flush out the odd racist or homophobe who can’t abide someone different in their house.

So if you can’t in all conscience abide by the new state of play, then don’t sign up, don’t try to run your business through Airbnb.  And if you already do run your business through Airbnb and you can’t tick that box, then that’s the cost your conscience must be prepared to make.  No one said this would be easy.   So I don’t have a problem with this per se.

But when Airbnb claim that their policy covers “any host” that is not actually true. In fact it’s a classic case of reaching for the low easy fruit, and the cynic in me says it’s all about profit.

How do I know? I took Airbnb up on their invitation and read the policy a little more closely.  Here’s what it states in three separate places:

Airbnb recognises that some jurisdictions permit, or require, distinctions amongst individuals based on factors such as national origin, gender, marital status or sexual orientation, and it does not require hosts to violate local laws or take actions that may subject them to legal liability.

While hosts are required to follow all applicable laws that prohibit discrimination based on such factors as race, religion, national origin, and others listed below, we commit to do more than comply with the minimum requirements established by law.

We are respectful of each other in our interactions and encounters. Airbnb appreciates that local laws and cultural norms vary around the world and expects hosts and guests to abide by local laws, and to engage with each other respectfully, even when views may not reflect their beliefs or upbringings.          (emphasis mine)

Did you see that? “Some jurisdictions permit”, “local laws and cultural norms”, “applicable laws”.  In other words in countries in which Airbnb operates that have hugely discriminatory policies – in fact in countries that require them – Airbnb seems strangely relaxed. So it’s not about Airbnb trying to make the world a better place.  It’s about Airbnb covering the legal butts.

In countries that discriminate dangerously in the areas of sex and gender, ethnicity and religion; countries that execute gay people and throw religious minorities in prison, stuff like that, Airbnb will turn a convenient blind eye.

Where the law is applicable, in fact where the law will hunt you down if you show any level of discrimination, then Airbnb is all for promoting respect and inclusivity.  But where the law promotes a lack of respect and increases exclusivity, then Airbnb is perfectly comfortable.

It would seem that Airbnb is committed to universal human rights, except in places around the world in which such rights are not universal.  Such countries get a hall pass from Airbnb. Forgive my cynicism, but such countries make up a huge part of the Airbnb world, and  Airbnb obviously knows that travellers like to go to such countries and spend money renting Airbnb properties.

This isn’t about virtue at all.  This isn’t a costly decision in the manner of a Martin Luther King Jr to end injustice.  This is a decision to ensure the money continues to flow. This is pragmatics.  This is the bottom line.  This is the “me-tooism” that rushes to make sure it isn’t being left behind in the race for the almighty dollar; that wants to make sure it isn’t going to get sued.

I am writing a reply to Airbnb, which has welcomed emails that ask for clarification of its statement.  You can send an email to allbelong@airbnb.com

Here’s what I am writing:

Dear Airbnb

Would it not make a bigger statement about discrimination if Airbnb were to refuse its services in any countries in which there are dangerous discriminatory policies against people?  For example huge swathes of the world have active and dangerous laws against gay people, against people of religious and ethnic minorities and against gender (almost always restricted to women).

Could Airbnb give assurances that its policy is anything more than shutting the gate after the horse has bolted?  It could give the impression that this is a merely financial move on its behalf. It does not appear that Airbnb is willing to take a financial hit by withdrawing its services from the many countries who do actively discriminate at a legal, political and social levels.

Airbnb appears to be giving such countries a hall pass. One could be forgiven for being somewhat cynical about Airbnb’s motives, given the huge injustices it is willing to turn a blind eye to in many countries in which it operates.

If Airbnb truly wished to change the world it would be prepared to take a far more costly stand for those people for whom discrimination is written into the legal framework. Airbnb could be giving the impression that the “all” of its “allbelong” email address, is in itself quite discriminatory, and refers only to people in those countries which are actively protecting communities already, or are making strong efforts to do so.   

I look forward to your response on this matter.

Actually, to be honest, I have yet to send that letter. I have wrestled over whether to publish this blog post at all.

I’m nervous.  I’m nervous that should I tick the box, it’s saying more than I want it to say, and at the same time it’s less than I should say.

I’m nervous that for me personally it could be a rejection of the Scripture in 1Peter3:5 that says “in your hearts honour Christ as Lord.” That’s Christian conscience right there.

But I’m nervous too that my tick of approval would be a classic case of me virtue signalling in places that it’s easy to do so, while I, along with Airbnb, am content to let the rest of the world go to hell in a handcart. Ticking a box, simple though it may be, could simply be aiding and abetting that pernicious process.

I haven’t fully figured out if it is that bad or not, but its certainly a consideration that I have to make. There is an implacable push in Western culture to silence true diversity; a silencing that, ironically, mirrors the silencing of diversity in all those icky places that Airbnb gives a hall pass to.  Required uniformity is the hallmark of true oppression.

Perhaps a re-planned holiday somewhere less exciting, in less salubrious accommodation, is a small price for me and my family to pay. Perhaps we can take a hit for the sake of the truly oppressed in our world, the likes of whom will not have a holiday in 2017, never mind an Airbnb one.