April 10, 2014
*For large values of correct
Recently, Brendan Eich resigned.
There was a lot of drama involved.
Personally, gay marriage has been legal in my jurisdiction for the entirety of my adult life and so the whole topic is mind numbingly dull. It has become so boring and uncontroversial to my cohort that opposing this is evidence that you probably live with a host of other equally unpleasant and unexamined opinions.
And so, it was actually kind of… neat to see someone be held accountable. It’s nice that gay-rights finally joined the ranks of obvious ideas and that Standing On The Wrong Side Of History is going to have consequences.
Yet, on the other hand, I’m very receptive to arguments that It Is Essential For A Well-Functioning Democracy For To Be Capable Of Carefully Examining And Debating A Wide Range Of Contrary Ideas.
I felt a little uncomfortable during the whole debacle.
The notion that you could be fired for holding unpopular ideas is scary in a time where it feels like public discourse is being agglomerated along two opposite ends. There was a lot of hand wringing; this is exactly why The Left Can Never Win, because we’re so inflexible in our ideals. My friends of Eastern European descent, cynical and inheritors of a cultural memory of intelligentsia being rounded up, were especially uncomfortable.
The poster child for this argument is probably Andrew Sullivan, who wrote
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.
Andrew went on to add,
He did not understand that in order to be a CEO of a company, you have to renounce your heresy! There is only one permissible opinion at Mozilla, and all dissidents must be purged! Yep, that’s left-liberal tolerance in a nut-shell. No, he wasn’t a victim of government censorship or intimidation. He was a victim of the free market in which people can choose to express their opinions by boycotts, free speech and the like. He still has his full First Amendment rights. But what we’re talking about is the obvious and ugly intolerance of parts of the gay movement, who have reacted to years of being subjected to social obloquy by returning the favor.
I could be convinced that the base structure and incentives of the present crop of social communication tools we have at our disposal have encouraged a vituperative environment where we all drink in our daily vitriol, deeply encased in our own personal Google bubbles void of dissent.
Yet I remained uncomfortable. I’ve been chewing on this. And I’ve come to the conclusion that actually, Eich’s resignation is perfectly okay and fine.
I’ve come to believe that it’s mostly an expression of fear of losing our privilege.
1. The Personal is Political
The most common objection to the furor was the notion that our political views are an intensely private and wholly separate realm of our lives that can be kept separate from our professional interactions.
Why should it matter that Eich dislikes gay marriage?
Mozilla as an institution is deeply committed to diversity, and indeed a plethora of Mozillans have come out of the woodworks to attest to Brendan’s relentless professionalism. What’s the big deal? If you feel slighted, there is a deep bureaucratic engine in place to grind your concerns into decidable, arbitrable grievances and everyone can move along and focus instead on the greater mission at hand.
Yet, the political and personal split isn’t so binary. We do care about what people think. We treat people’s set of beliefs as a proxy for their capacity of judgement on daily basis. It matters.
Suppose we wound the clock back to the primordial soup of Web 1.0 and those fateful ten days in 1995 when Netscape management decided to Do Something About Java. Let us then imagine a slightly parallel universe where instead of handing the task off to Brendan Eich, the intern they had at their disposal was a cartoonishly malicious Brando Eivil — but that everything else in this universe was identical to our own.
Fast forward to 2014. People are excited that NISTScript 6 will finally give VisualBasicWebScript classes as first class objects and Brando Eivil has just been nominated CEO of Mozilla.
Upon further scrutiny, it is revealed that Brando — otherwise, a model of professionalism and good conduct — has been privately and quietly:
- funding a foundation dedicated to denying the Holocaust,
- been elevated to a Grand Dragon in his local KKK franchise, and
- indulging in his favourite hobby, clubbing baby seals using the horns of endangered rhinos whose lives he has extinguished using his bare hands.
This person would be shunned out of polite society.
Nobody would seriously propose that his views on the Shoah would allow him to remain totally impartial when dealing with his Jewish subordinates. The mere suggestion that the potential discomfort felt by his employees ought to be dismissed as the work of disproportionately vocal Jewish twitter activists, as of 2014, would be seen as outrageously offensive.
This is a bit of a No True Scotsman, but if you close your eyes and picture this scene and listen carefully you can just about hear the howling of all of the masses of people on the internet choking with rage.
This is to say, there is a point at which your political views obviously interfere with people’s assessment of your capacity for professional conduct. Pick any sufficiently abhorrent political view.
If there is some point at which political views disqualify someone from leadership, then really we’re talking about rich gradients of acceptable opinions rather than clean private/public separation. Some views just simply become so obviously heinous that they cannot help but reflect on the rest of your capacity for judgement.
2. Work Regulates The Personal
So, if we socially judge people for their presumably private beliefs that still doesn’t quite mean it’s appropriate to have your work place interfere with them, and to this I say: look around you.
Most people face enormous pressure to socially confirm at every interaction of their professional lives.
I think we’ve forgotten this because pretty much everyone who cares about this issue is probably a cushy white collar worker, in a field that is growing at a fast clip.
I’m reminded of a buddy of mine that got promoted to performing personal IT support for the execs at $LARGECO. He was told he’d have to be clean shaven, but he managed to negotiate with them to keep his moustache.
I’m reminded of this lady whose new job’s business casual corporate dress code was strongly gendered. She flaunted it by dressing by the male guidelines, and this was seen as transgressive, somehow.
I’m reminded of that Walmart out in Québec that shut down entirely because its workers had tried to unionize.
I’m reminded of how some states in America have criminalized reporting on animal cruelty in farming practices.
I’m reminded of how some states in America have legalized business religious discrimination.
This is just off the top of my head. I stopped dressing up for interviews years ago. You get what I’m trying to say.
3. It’s About The Stakeholders
Yglesias put it best:
Non-profit leader can't express views that are unpopular with donors, staff, and allies is the least-surprising story ever— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias)
Maybe the ideal of the open web would be better off, as Eich claims in his strangely tone deaf interview, if it weren’t seen as pet cause of progressives. But it turns out that an awful lot of the people who care about Mozilla and cultural patrimony of the internet are progressives.
Ultimately, the best argument against Eich stems from his seeming a) inability to predict this would be an issue and b) inability to deal with it once it did.
All Eich had to do was lie and say “I apologize for my donation. I was wrong. I will do everything in my power to make up for it and I hope the community can judge me based me on my record from this point onwards”.
Okay, so what about his integrity? What if his beliefs were truly sincere?
He could’ve just said, “I understand how my past can be seen as inconsistent with my commitment to upholding the diverse values underpinning the Mozilla community and to demonstrate this I am donating $10,000 to the community’s LGBT charity of choice.”
But he didn’t, and people got mad, and it wasn’t dying down and his presence started hurting the brand and he probably felt like it was too late.
And that’s called not doing a good job. It happens to the best of us.
What are we afraid of?
Honestly? We’re concerned because this group now has power in a way they never had before. That’s the only thing that has changed here. We have to be especially careful about not being homophobic — and, increasingly, sexist — in our speech and actions, and it’s scary to be held accountable for every idiotic thing that we’re bound to say.
An HN comment of mine got quoted in a blog post where the author pointed out the full range of my ignorant, offhand misunderstanding (of a piece of Ruby) and gosh that’s embarrassing. I sat up straight in my chair, and wondered whether I should spend less time saying stupid things on the internet.
Dear reader, my speech done got chilled.
A lot of stupid things come out of my mouth and the notion that I’m going to start being held accountable for them is troubling. There may come a time yet where I can’t just coast on by through my good looks, charm, white skin and ability to make web apps, and that I might be treated like almost everyone else.
Because, really. What’s a brilliant, millionaire white male tech celebrity going to do for the rest of his life?
Are you seriously afraid about having to defend yourself from Hacker News commenters? They’re the thought police knocking on your door in the middle of the night? Does a Committee on Un-Politically Correct Activities sound like it’s around the corner from you?
Is “at first they came for the homophobes and I did not speak out — because I was not a homophobe”, really the line that pops up into your head?
At the end of the day, it’s scary that there are new ways in which we’re going to be held accountable for our speech. But in this instance, for this particular case, I don’t see a precedent or a concern.