Brendan Eich, Mozilla and the Paradox of Tolerance
Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was the center of a lot of controversy shortly after his promotion to the position of CEO.
Brendan Eich had donated to Prop 8 back in 2008 which made political active LGBTQ folks and allies within and without Mozilla uncomfortable. Wide spread criticism and boycotts followed. Developers of Firefox OS applications even pulled their apps.
Brendan Eich was slow to comment and when he did the damage control was honestly pretty terrible. At one point seeming to imply that championing marriage equality might hurt Mozilla’s chances at expanding into Indonesia with Firefox OS.
The spectacle ended with Eich’s stepping down.
The whole state of affairs left me feeling very uneasy. For the first time in my memory two causes I champion were in seemingly direct conflict. The open web v marriage equality. Part of my uneasiness int this conflict was derived from the fact that the open web itself can’t really take to many serious punches. It is facing a number of threats and Mozilla is one of the few last defenders still standing (former open web allies like Google have not looked like terribly good allies as of late.)
Mozilla itself is also facing an existential crisis of its own. Firefox has finally slipped below Chrome in popularity and of the four major desktop browser vendors in play (Internet Explorer by Microsoft, Chrome by Google, Firefox by Mozilla, Safari by Apple) three of them have essential cornered the mobile browsing market through the mobile ecosystems they control. Its becoming more apparent with every passing day being a successful browser means having a mobile ecosystem. Firefox OS is Mozilla’s attempt to safe guard their future in that vein, but it is by no means a sure thing.
I whole heartily endorsed the criticisms and the boycotts of Mozilla but privately felt uneasy about joining along in promoting a boycott of Firefox itself and privately winced when OK Cupid started pleading with its users in mass to switch to proprietary browsers.
When Eich stepped down I had a sigh of relief.
However much criticism has erupted in the weeks following Eich’s resignation. A lot of said criticism has to do with claims around Eich’s first amendment rights. Such complaints are largely ridiculous as the first amendment defends your right to say a thing but does not protect you from public outrage over what you said.
However another criticism has been batted around which I want to discuss. Its been championed in a few places, generated online surveys and has been endorsed by usually spot-on gay news blog Box Turtle Bulletin. I will reproduce the meat of the piece here with commentary, but by all means read the original. Quotes from the original will be in bold, my direct comments will be italicized.
Diversity Is the Natural Consequence of Liberty
The gay rights struggle is about freedom and equality for all. The best and most free society is one that allows the largest number to live true to their core beliefs and identities. It is a society that allows its members to speak their minds and shape their own aspirations.
The natural consequence of true liberty is diversity. Unless a society can figure out a way to reach perfect agreement, conflicting views will be inevitable. Any effort to impose conformity, through government or any other means, by punishing the misguided for believing incorrectly will impoverish society intellectually and oppress it politically.
The test of our commitment to liberal principles is not our eagerness to hear ideas we share, but our willingness to consider seriously those we oppose.
By and large on the subject of human rights I believe we have concrete right and wrong answers. I think most people’s intuitions bear this out. For example: the UN has a declaration of human rights; I do not believe it is worth wild to treat the idea that these rights are alienable as a valid idea worth respect or consideration. In fact I am firmly of the opinion that it is often dangerous to treat such ideas as legitimate and while the Declaration of Human Rights is mostly silent on the subject of LGBTQ folks I think much of the same argument does apply. While the idea of diversity as a natural consequence of liberty sounds wonderful and has many facets of truth to it, it does not mean all beliefs within a diverse culture are legitimate or are worth consideration.
Progress Comes from Persuasion
There is no evidence that Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO who resigned over his $1,000 donation to California’s Proposition 8 campaign, believed in or practiced any form of discrimination against Mozilla’s LGBT employees. That would be a very different case. He was pressured to leave because of personal political action he took at a time when a majority of the American public shared his view. And while he acknowledged the pain his donation caused, he did not publicly “recant,” which some suggested he should have done as the price of keeping his job.
So the issue is cleanly presented: Is opposition to same-sex marriage by itself, expressed in a political campaign, beyond the pale of tolerable discourse in a free society? We cannot wish away the objections of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith traditions, or browbeat them into submission. Even in our constitutional system, persuasion is a minority’s first and best strategy. It has served us well and we should not be done with it.
I firmly believe that social taxes against bigotry are needed in parallel to intellectual persuasion. Human beings in mass tend not to change deeply held beliefs through reason alone. The gay rights movement has not made the progress it has today purely by playing nice nor by relying solely on persuasion. Pretending that has not been the case does not help the cause.
At some point beliefs contrary to a human rights do and should go beyond the pale of tolerable discourse. For example had Eich funded a racist idea such as outlawing interracial marriage I doubt we would be having this discussion. We are free to argue over whether or not we have crossed that line in the public consciousness, when it comes to marriage equality. However if I had to guess Eich is a clear indicator that we have started our journey across that line. If so, I for one do not want to hinder that social progress.
Free Speech Is a Value, Not Just a Law
Much of the rhetoric that emerged in the wake of the Eich incident showed a worrisome turn toward intolerance and puritanism among some supporters of gay equality—not in terms of formal legal sanction, to be sure, but in terms of abandonment of the core liberal values of debate and diversity.
Sustaining a liberal society demands a culture that welcomes robust debate, vigorous political advocacy, and a decent respect for differing opinions. People must be allowed to be wrong in order to continually test what is right. We should criticize opposing views, not punish or suppress them.
The freedom—not just legal but social—to express even very unpopular views is the engine that propelled the gay-rights movement from its birth against almost hopeless odds two generations ago. A culture of free speech created the social space for us to criticize and demolish the arguments against gay marriage and LGBT equality. For us and our advocates to turn against that culture now would be a betrayal of the movement’s deepest and most humane values.
Again I wonder if Eich had been funding a racist idea such as outlawing interracial marriage would we be having this discussion? Treating an idea as legitimate grants that idea the illusion of legitimacy. I do not want to have homophobic, racist or sexist ideas treated as legitimate. I am not going to respect someone for sharing racist beliefs in an open and honest discussion that doesn’t end with them recanting, nor will I “agree to disagree” with them. Such behavior tacitly endorses their position. We should continue to make people feel uncomfortable, embarrassed and outmoded for holding these bigoted ideas. Otherwise they will continue to feel comfortable holding them.
Disagreement Should Not Be Punished
We prefer debate that is respectful, but we cannot enforce good manners. We must have the strength to accept that some people think misguidedly and harmfully about us. But we must also acknowledge that disagreement is not, itself, harm or hate.
As a viewpoint, opposition to gay marriage is not a punishable offense. It can be expressed hatefully, but it can also be expressed respectfully. We strongly believe that opposition to same-sex marriage is wrong, but the consequence of holding a wrong opinion should not be the loss of a job. Inflicting such consequences on others is sadly ironic in light of our movement’s hard-won victory over a social order in which LGBT people were fired, harassed, and socially marginalized for holding unorthodox opinions.
It is overly reductionist to say that Eich was simply stating an opinion which disagreed with others. Eich not only donated a non trivial sum of money to anti-gay political forces during a particular heated chapter of the gay rights’ struggle in California but also obviously did not have a change of heart during the intervening years. When given the opportunity to apologize for harming others, to state how his beliefs may have evolved, or even to pledge not make any further contributions to anti-gay causes, he danced a little side step. Eich was not just being punished for a belief but also for bigoted actions he had committed with no promise that such bigoted actions would not occur again in the future.
It seems fallacious here to conflate any employee at Mozilla loosing their job over political beliefs with Eich as CEO volunteering to step down. One aspect of a CEO’s job is to formally represent the company when communicating with the press and the world. Publicly acting on controversial political beliefs can and did damage Eich’s ability to do his job.
It is not clear how signatories to this statement would like this principle to have been applied to the Eich case. Should Mozilla have insisted that Eich not resign despite the fact they were suffering a huge PR problem? Or is this a plea for people to care less passionately about marriage equality?
Enforcing Orthodoxy Hurts Everyone
LGBT Americans can and do demand to be treated fairly. But we also recognize that absolute agreement on any issue does not exist. Franklin Kameny, one of America’s earliest and greatest gay-rights proponents, lost his job in 1957 because he was gay. Just as some now celebrate Eich’s departure as simply reflecting market demands, the government justified the firing of gay people because of “the possible embarrassment to, and loss of public confidence in … the Federal civil service.” Kameny devoted his life to fighting back. He was both tireless and confrontational in his advocacy of equality, but he never tried to silence or punish his adversaries.
Now that we are entering a new season in the debate that Frank Kameny helped to open, it is important to live up to the standard he set. Like him, we place our confidence in persuasion, not punishment. We believe it is the only truly secure path to equal rights.
It is a crime that “reverse discrimination” is not a formal fallacy I can cite. Thankfully false analogy is and this paragraph is guilty of it. It is frankly a bit disrespectful of Franklin Kameny to use his legacy in order to beg for mercy on the behalf of people in authority committing bigoted actions.
I find the whole argument simply an expanded form of the paradox of tolerance, which may look interesting on paper, but can’t possibly be worth consideration in reality. Tolerating intolerance has never proven terribly useful in the long run or the short.
I am sympathetic to folks who feel uneasy about how this played out or think there may have been some proportionality issue at work. This particular case was fraught with very subjective benchmarks. Eich’s contributions to Prop 8 were not trivial but not large, unfortunately there remains no objective ruler by which to judge how little money would have made it okay or how much money would have made it clearly unacceptable. Eich and Mozilla took some flack about these same contributions once before in 2012, so in a very reel way they were being tried in the court of public opinion a second time for the same crime. etc. etc.
However, I think its a mistake to look at what happened with Eich and say we should avoid this whole kind of affair again. I think it should instead be seen as a measure of how far we have come with gaining public support on this issue. A critical mass of people from the tech section alongside folks out their building structures on the web do seem to think this kind of thing is beyond the pale and the trend looks like those numbers are growing.
That is not a mistake it is frankly a good thing.
- Mark Surman wrote an interesting retrospective piece from the perspective of someone inside Mozilla.
Team Rarebit had much to say on this being a developer of apps in the Firefox OS Market. All of their relevant blog articles are worth reading. I especially enjoyed the idea of their being a moral component to leadership positions.