Why I’m cool with what happened to Brendan Eich

So: it came out that Brendan Eich, who had been CTO of the Mozilla Corporation (the folks behind the Firefox web browser) had donated $1,000 to support California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state. This roughly coincided with Eich’s promotion to CEO, and provoked an outcry, with outsiders talking about a boycott and many Mozilla insiders calling for Eich to resign, which he did.

And surprisingly, there’s been a sort of backlash against the backlash from among gay marriage supporters. Gay blogger Andrew Sullivan (known for arguing for gay marriage long before it was cool) wrote a post on Eich’s resignation titled “The Hounding Of A Heretic,” which also said:

The guy who had the gall to express his First Amendment rights and favor Prop 8 in California by donating $1,000 has just been scalped by some gay activists…

Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

A number of my liberal friends have posted their agreement with Sullivan’s piece, or voiced similar sentiments. My first reaction to this was to think that they wouldn’t be saying things like that if Eich had been openly supporting racist causes—say, donating to an effort to bring back laws against interracial marriage. Most people realize that social consequences for racial bigotry can exist alongside free speech. Such social consequences do not entail having legal penalties (much less archaic ones like the stocks, as Sullivan ludicrously suggests). The same goes for homophobia.

Part of what makes it hard to feel sorry for Eich is that he was CEO of a major corporation. The overwhelming majority of people never get to do that, which makes it hard for me to see Eich’s losing that privilege as a major injustice. Same goes for, say, the Duck Dynasty guy and the fact that most people never get their own reality TV show. I don’t think Prop 8 supporters should be blacklisted from all jobs everywhere, but Eich is a significant figure in the tech world—no doubt someone will want to hire him.

I suspect much of the negative reaction to Eich’s resignation is that even strong supporters of gay marriage are uncomfortable thinking of a majority of their fellow Americans as either homophobes or recovering homophobes. But the reality is homophobia was indeed the norm in America until quite recently—just as racial bigotry is once the norm. We should be glad that homophobia is now becoming taboo much as racism is.

I also wonder why the people urging tolerance for Eich can’t be more tolerant of the decisions made by other people at Mozilla and OKCupid. Where’s the tolerance for people who don’t want to work for, or use the products of, a company with a homophobic CEO? Can it really be our solemn duty as members of a democratic society to never complain, or decide to take our business elsewhere, when we find out that someone supported an effort to take away important rights from ourselves or our friends?

(I say this as someone who usually can’t be bothered to take part in boycotts himself. I just support tolerance of those who do.)

A number of people have been warning terrible consequences if Eich can be fired for his support for Prop 8, but I find these arguments ludicrously weak. Russell Blackford, who I normally respect, went to Twitter to say that “If you are actually lobbying employers to sack people for their political views, that’s anti-liberal and don’t complain if your opponents attempt exactly the same tactic… and this becomes routine from them.” I mean, what? If you support doing something under one circumstance for one reason, you can’t oppose doing in other circumstances for bad reasons? Might as well say that if you support jailing people for murder, you can’t complain when people are jailed for being gay.

There’s a tradition of arguing that, as John Stuart Mill put it, society’s informal sanctions can “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.” It’s possible to imagine situations where that might really be true—if there were a Pope of Liberalism, who unlike the real Pope people actually listened to, who in spite of having no legal authority could in practice have anyone ostracized for impure political views. If that were the situation, I’d agree it was a problem.

But here? The boycott / internal protest against Eich worked because lots of people agreed with it. The employees of OKCupid and Mozilla behind the effort have no power, not even de facto power, that they could turn against a less deserving target. Nor is Eich being cast out of polite society. Really people, get a grip.

Updated 4/7: Here’s a really great piece on Eich’s resignation from a Mozillian, which corrects some misconceptions people have about the event. Among other things, it confirms what I’ve heard from other sources, that Eich wasn’t pressured to resign, and argues that the real problem wasn’t the original donation to support Prop 8, but that Eich handled the ensuing controversy poorly.

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  • Joe Shelby

    Why should people boycott Mozilla because of one person’s *personal* actions, while at the same time make no attempts at all to boycott Google Chrome or Apple Safari when those companies have *corporate* policies that should be seen as offensive to all ‘geeks’.

    It is that level of cognitive dissonance that bothers me the most. Eich’s views on the matter are not Mozilla’s, where-as Google and Apple’s views on wages and competition (or NSA data mining) are inherent and endemic to the company as a whole. One person’s personal opinion is worth a boycott, yet an entire corporation’s attitude to employee fairness is given a free pass?

    • alfaretta

      That is the unfortunate aspect of “let the free market decide.” Most of us can’t really afford to boycott every company whose practices we abhor, so we have to make choices.

      And, it’s easier to pressure a company to get rid of one CEO than to get them to change the whole way they do business.

      • Joe Shelby

        read an article somewhere else about how it really became his first test of leadership, and when your job at Mozilla is to evangelize the developer community (as opposed to the CEO of a profit corporation whose job is to maximize shareholder value), being unable to resolve the fact that your very presence is dividing the community shows a failure in the ability to be the very uniting leader that Mozilla needed.

  • jjramsey

    Might as well say that if you support jailing people for murder, you can’t complain when people are jailed for being gay.

    Trying to parallel “murder” with “being gay” doesn’t work, since it’s not like those things are parallel in any significant sense. Rather what Blackford is saying is more analogous to saying that if one can be jailed for supporting an evil political cause, then a shift in the political winds could mean that one could be jailed for supporting a good political cause somewhere down the line.

  • Luke Breuer

    The same goes for homophobia.

    Can you produce evidence that Eich is homophobic? Or perhaps you are using the second half of the Merriam-Webster definition:

    irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against

    I’ve always been disturbed by “discrimination against” being part of a phobia, which is defined as:

    an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation

    The Merriam-Webster definition requires no fear aspect, which very much twists the English language. I prefer the Oxford dictionary definition:

    An extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people.

    What I suspect is happening here, is that the connotation of “irrational fear” is being used, even though the denotation need not include any fear aspect whatsoever. What is insidious is that most people will still bring along the connotation, even without the supporting denotation. A masterful feat of manipulation!

    • http://newstechnica.com David Gerard

      Argument from etymology is generally a waste of everyone’s time.

      • Luke Breuer

        What an excellent, rigorous argument! I declare glorious defeat!

        • Nathaniel

          The Campaign for Prop 8 used ads that said gays were coming after people’s children, vicious and vile homophobia.

          The CEO donated to a homophobic campaign, and refused to apologize when asked to.

          The CEO is homophobic.

          • Luke Breuer

            So when you donate to a campaign, that means you approve of every single thing they do? I’m pretty sure a lot of people who voted for it were pro-discrimination, but not pro-fear. To paint people untruthfully is evil in my book. The world will not be made a better place by lies and deceit.

  • kessy_athena

    There is a difference between a top down organized power structure sanctioning someone and a bottom up social sanctioning of someone. They’re very different processes.

    If a power structure excessively sanctioned someone for expressing their political views, that’s pretty clearly an abuse and would require some sort of action to change the power structure to prevent such things from happening again.

    When someone is excessively socially sanctioned, that’s also an abuse, but it’s much harder to do anything about. Unless you’re talking about a deeply rooted and endemic social injustice (such as racism in the the pre civil rights movement American South) trying to use a power structure (such as the government) to try to redress the injustice is quite likely to produce a cure that’s worse than the disease.

    A subtle process requires a subtle response. I happen to think that some people are overreacting to Eich. And my response is to say, “Hey, chill guys, you’re overreacting.” I don’t think any further response is required or appropriate.

    I do have a serious problem with the notion that liberals trying to push people they disagree with out of public life is perfectly fine, and we shouldn’t worry about conservatives doing the same thing in return since that would obviously be deeply wrong and immoral. If you believe that you’re Right and everyone else is Wrong, and that makes you better then everyone else, then you really aren’t any different then extremists of any strip. In the end, that sort of attitude is what all ideology comes down to, and why all ideology is equally pathological and dangerous. It doesn’t matter what sort of ideas you’re starting with are; it’s a frighteningly short step to add, “And therefore we’re morally justified in whatever we chose to do to everyone else.” I assume I don’t have to point out where that road leads.

    The basis of a pluralistic, tolerant, just society is the realization that none of us have all the answers, and that we’re all wrong about something. More then that, people are allowed to be wrong. If you disagree with someone, then explain why they’re wrong. Don’t attack the person or try to silence them. The solution to bad speech is more speech.

  • Otis Idli

    I agree the backlash against the backlash was nonsense. All of us disgusted by Eich exercised our free speech against him without robbing him of his free speech. Free speech is a universal human right. Having an elite, powerful job is not a universal human right. He has a right to be a bigot and we have a right to campaign against him by shaming him or complaining to organizations that support him. We won, but not by necessity or legal mandate. We won through the power of our own free speech.