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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