The techie world has been rocked by a witch hunt in the name of tolerance over the last week, as gay rights activists have demanded that Mozilla (the non-profit organization which produces the FireFox web browser) fire its newly named CEO Brendan Eich, because six years ago he made a $1,000 personal donation to the political campaign for Proposition 8, the successful California ballot initiative to amend the California constitution to define marriage as only possible between one man and one woman. There have been previous cases of activists digging through the rolls of who provided donations to the Prop 8 campaign, and targeting people for their support of traditional marriage. Eich’s donation apparently became known within the company and caused some controversy among employees about a year ago, and this then escalated to a wider campaign last week when he was named the new CEO. This campaign claimed its scalp yesterday as Eich resigned from both the CEO position and Mozilla’s board.
Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it. We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.
We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.
Brendan Eich has chosen to step down from his role as CEO. He’s made this decision for Mozilla and our community.
Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.
Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.
We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.
The wording of the last paragraph in particular, since Eich was forced out precisely for holding different views than the majority of Mozilla’s employees and other vocal advocates in the tech community.
It seems to me that this serves as a key example of a new and increasingly strident intolerance, a deep illiberality, on the part of the “liberal” end of the political spectrum. One online commentator I read had this to say in justification of forcing Eich out of the company he helped found:
The only way to defend recently won liberties is to ensure that activists attempting to deprive people of said liberties are regarded (justly, in this and similar cases) as politically untouchable and deplorable. Gays had to spend millennia hiding in shadows, living secret lives in fear of blacklisting or, more likely, outright murder; making modern opponents of gay equality politically unpalatable in high-profile leadership positions doesn’t even begin to compare.
Solidifying gains by destroying the political power of those who advocate retrogression is always necessary.
This attitude strikes me as destructive to any kind of democracy or pluralistic society. Democracy does not simply mean that the side with the most votes wins. Maintaining a democratic culture requires that the winning majority not immediately turn around and use their political and economic power to destroy the lives and livelihoods of those they have successfully defeated (this time.) That approach to democracy naturally leads to one party dictatorship or civil war. It is unstable. It is mob rule.
Fortunately, not even all gay advocates are on board with this scorched earth approach. Andrew Sullivan writes:
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.
But I can’t help thinking that on his side, Sullivan is in the minority.
It’s tempting in this kind of situation to turn to bluster: What? They want to take it to the streets? Well, bring it! We’ll see who wins that!
But while it’s emotionally satisfying to revel in how bad the other side is (and don’t get me wrong, I think that behavior of the people demanding that Eich be kicked out of his job is darkly totalitarian and says very bad things about where the “progressive” side of our culture is heading) what I want is not some kind of a tit-for-tat battle in which each side seeks to purge and destroy each other. I actually support a liberal society in which you do not fire someone because you disagree with his political and religious beliefs. But with each outrage like this, that moderation becomes harder to maintain.
I’m not among those who thinks we’re heading for an actual civil war — our country is far too prosperous and lazy for that — but I do think this kind of thing represents a degradation of the political world similar to that which (in countries with far more people who believe they have nothing to lose and thus are willing to resort to civil violence) we see in countries getting ready to destroy their democratic cultures and resort to fighting over who gets to punish their opponents using the machinery of the economy and the state.
In this case, of course, what we see is people using cultural and economic power, not state power to hound their opponents. However, I’m not convinced there’s necessarily a bright line of difference in terms of destroying the culture of democracy. Even those within Mozilla who profess themselves very glad of Eich’s ouster admit that there is no evidence of his ever discriminating in the workplace — indeed some express having been surprised when they first heard that the supported Prop 8 — but merely working with someone who holds different political and moral views has become repugnant to them. That is not a good sign.