Who Should Be Beyond the Pale?

Maybe you heard about Brendan Eich, who briefly was CEO of Mozilla. The media’s one-line summary of his story is that Eich was hounded out of his job because he opposes marriage equality for gays and lesbians. The somewhat longer version goes like this:

  • Mozilla (says Wikipedia) “is a free software community best known for producing the Firefox web browser.” (I’ve used Firefox off and on for years, and it has been my main browser for the past few months.)
  • Brendan Eich became CEO of Mozilla on March 24. He was a co-founder of Mozilla and had been Chief Technology Officer previously. The Mozilla blog said Eich “has been deeply involved in every aspect of Mozilla’s development starting from the original idea in 1998.” Back 1998, Marc Andreessen wrote about “Brendan Eich, who single-handedly designed and implemented the scripting language known as JavaScript”.
  • The same day, the small app-development company Rarebit, founded by a married gay couple (one of whom is British and could only get permanent residency in the U.S. after marriage), blogged “It’s personal for us” and announced it would protest by removing its apps from the Firefox Marketplace.
  • On March 28 The Wall Street Journal reported that three Mozilla board members were resigning. The stated issue was not Prop 8, but that Mozilla had picked an insider rather than “a CEO from outside Mozilla with experience in the mobile industry who could help expand the organization’s Firefox OS mobile-operating system and balance the skills of co-founders Eich and [Mitchell] Baker”. The article also noted that “Some employees of the organization are calling for Eich to step down because he donated $1,000 to the campaign in support of Proposition 8, a 2008 California ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in the state.” The Mozilla blog claims the protests came from “less than 10 of Mozilla’s employee pool of 1,000. None of the employees in question were in Brendan’s reporting chain or knew Brendan personally.”
  • Eich did in fact give the $1000 back in 2008. The public-record listing includes Mozilla as his employer, but that’s just part of the form. Mozilla did not make the contribution, authorize it, or endorse it.
  • Negative buzz developed on Twitter and other social media. By March 31, the online dating site OkCupid was greeting Firefox users with a statement that included “Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples. We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid.” The statement ended with links for downloading other browsers. (If you insisted on continuing with Firefox, though, you got through.) The OkCupid move seems to have been the trigger to turn a techie Silicon Valley controversy into a mainstream story. (I have to wonder whether OkCupid’s motive was political, or if they realized what a great publicity stunt this would turn out to be. I know I’d never heard of them before, but now I have.)
  • On April 3, Eich resigned. Mozilla insists that he was not fired or asked to resign. The next day, Mozilla insider Mark Surman blogged, “Brendan didn’t need to change his mind on Proposition 8 to get out of the crisis of the past week. He simply needed to project and communicate empathy. His failure to do so proved to be his fatal flaw as CEO.” Rarebit blogged, “I guess this counts as some kind of ‘victory,’ but it doesn’t feel like it. We never expected this to get as big as it has …”

So a better summary is more like: The personal politics of an already controversial choice for Mozilla CEO drew bad publicity to the organization, so he and Mozilla amicably parted ways. It’s still not what I would call a heartwarming story, but let’s at least be accurate.

Backlash. However it really played out, the Eich Affair has turned into an opportunity for right-wingers to denounce “leftist fascists“. Kevin Williamson at National Review wrote “Welcome to the Liberal Gulag.” Over at the web site of the conservative religion-in-public-life journal First Things, Robert George predicted:

Now that the bullies have Eich’s head as a trophy on their wall, they will put the heat on every other corporation and major employer. They will pressure them to refuse employment to those who decline to conform their views to the new orthodoxy

A number of pro-marriage-equality writers used this incident to establish their centrist credentials and distance themselves from what the Brits used to call “the Loony Left“. Andrew Sullivan wrote: “The whole episode disgusts me.” Slate‘s William Saletan denounced “the new Moral Majority” and compared Eich to people who have been fired for being gay. The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf wrote two articles on the topic, arguing first that pressuring Eich to resign was a violation of liberal values, and then discussing more abstractly the question I raise in the title: When is a point of view so objectionable that good people should stigmatize it and refuse to deal with its proponents in any way? Who should be beyond the pale?

The Wide Pale. Personally, I believe in what you might call a wide pale. Ostracism and boycott have their place, but I prefer to hold them as a last resort. So I continued to use Firefox all through the Eich Affair. My pale’s limits got tested a month or two ago, when a well-known white supremacist posted comments to “The Distress of the Privileged“. Should I just delete them on principle? I decided to wait and see. He posted a few slogans, didn’t insult the other commenters, and didn’t create any disturbance requiring my intervention. The comments are still up.

The wide-pale issue is particularly important when a once-fringe movement becomes mainstream, as gay rights is beginning to. Patterns established when the movement was small and powerless need to get re-evaluated and often are not. For example, the generation of Zionists whose worldview was forged in the Holocaust had trouble taking seriously the idea that Jews could be oppressors. Or, going further back in time, the Puritans who escaped persecution in England couldn’t wrap their minds around the reality that they had become the persecuting establishment in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

It’s over the top to say that gay rights has gotten to that point already, especially at a time when the right to marry exists in only about half the country, and states are passing laws to legitimize discrimination against gays in the marketplace. But the trends are there. Reading between the lines in the Rarebit blog (“We never expected this to get as big as it has”), I don’t think they ever envisioned themselves as the powerful side of the conflict. A constructive use of the Eich Affair would be to think these issues through.

Morality, not law. The first thing to realize about the Eich Affair is that there’s no legal issue. This isn’t about the First Amendment, because the government isn’t punishing Eich for his views. As in the Duck Dynasty flap in December, everybody involved is exercising freedom under the law: Eich freely contributed to a political campaign, his critics on Twitter and at OkCupid freely stated their objections, consumers freely decided to use or not use the Firefox browser, and Mozilla and Eich came to a free agreement that he should leave.

Of course, many of the abuses during the McCarthy Red Scare of the 1950s were expressions of freedom too. You were free to plead the Fifth Amendment when the Committee asked if you’d ever been a Communist, and all your friends and employers and associates were free to shun you afterwards.

The question is: As a culture, is this how we want to behave? Do we want to evaluate the politics of everyone we deal with, or would society be a more pleasant place if we all made a bigger effort to tolerate people we disagree with? This issue comes up every now and then on the Sift, most clearly during the Chick-fil-A boycott in 2012. In a piece I called “Is That Sandwich Political?“, I confessed to a certain can’t-I-just-eat-lunch annoyance and concluded:

[I]n general, I’m against balkanizing the economy into liberal and conservative sectors. If you really like Chick-fil-A’s food, I don’t think you should let anybody guilt you out of it … But if [Chick-fil-A CEO Dan] Cathy has left a taste in your mouth that a super-sized Coke won’t wash away, don’t let anybody guilt you about that either.

Start here: You feel what you feel. Large chunks of the economy are about giving you pleasure or making you feel good in some way. Sometimes, knowing the backstory of a product or a person ruins that good feeling and consequently ruins the product. This isn’t a rational process and you shouldn’t pretend that it is.

For example: Woody Allen movies. They’re supposed to make you laugh, but if you can’t stop wondering whether or not he sexually abused his adopted daughter, you’re not going to laugh very much. So don’t go. But it’s important to realize that this cuts both ways. Watching Ellen DeGeneres’ show is supposed to be fun. But if knowing that she’s lesbian disgusts you, you’re not going to have much fun. So don’t watch.

Part of the charm of Firefox is that you feel virtuous for using it, because you’re not helping Microsoft/Google/Apple take over the world. (For similar reasons, all the book links on the Sift go to a co-op bookstore rather than Amazon.) But if knowing that Eich was CEO messed up that good feeling for you, it made Firefox less valuable.

That’s why I have a hard time finding fault with Rarebit. As they said, it was personal for them. They were a gay couple spitting into the wind against the larger forces that had tried to keep them apart and made it hard for them to start their company. That’s a little more than just “I don’t like that guy’s politics.”

Given that you feel what you feel, though, the next question is whether you should try to get over those feelings, or instead fan them and try to engender them in others. Do you just privately decide “I’ve eaten enough Chick-fil-A in my life” or do you make a crusade out of it and try to convert others? These are the kinds of questions that become more and more important as your movement gains power and starts to have more responsibility.

The usefulness of purity standards. One point of a boycott is to bring a distant issue into everyday life. The Gallo boycott of the 1970s is a good example. The treatment of farm workers in California was easy to ignore if you were planning a fraternity party at Yale. But if some of the people you invited were boycotting Gallo wine, you had to think about it. Similarly today, eating local or organic or vegan might be a health option, but it’s also creates openings to evangelize against the factory farm system or its treatment of animals.

Having purity standards about what you use — refusing to ignore the moral backstory — can be an important way to balance the nihilism of the marketplace. Blood diamonds, slave labor, dolphin-safe tuna … the market tends to hide the moral implications of our consumption, and refusing to play along is sometimes appropriate. Also, in an era where one of the two major parties opposes regulations on principle, taking action in the marketplace may be the only way you can influence corporate behavior.

So there’s a balancing act to be done: I don’t want a fully politicized marketplace where I have to quiz the baker before eating her muffins. But I also don’t want to advocate a wall of separation between politics and the market.

Rules of thumb. I don’t think there’s a clear line between what should be politicized and what shouldn’t. But these are some rules of thumb I’m using.

  • Corporations are better targets than people. My main objection to campaign against Eich was that it had nothing to do with corporate policy. No one was arguing that Mozilla was being run in a homophobic way. By contrast, Chick-fil-A contributed corporate funds to anti-gay campaigns. So if you bought their food, you were subsidizing those contributions. (More recently, they’ve been downplaying that.) More importantly, corporations are amoral institutions, so you can’t really dialog with one. Hitting it in the bottom line may be the only way to get its attention.
  • If people are targeted, did they make themselves targets or were they ferreted out? This is why I find Eich a more sympathetic figure than Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson. Robertson said a bunch of ignorant, bigoted stuff to a magazine reporter. Again, that’s his right as an American. But it also means that if you’re helping make him a celebrity, you’re helping him promote those views. It’s totally legit to decide you don’t want to do that any more. Eich, on the other hand, gave $1,000 to support Prop 8, which is something any prosperous guy with his views could do. There was no sign he intended to use his position with Mozilla as a platform to campaign against marriage equality.
  • Have attempts at dialog failed? People don’t always realize the full implications of their actions, and can change their minds.
  • Is some drastic action pending that requires you to do something? During the Wisconsin union-busting conflict in 2011, I took heat from a reader for endorsing the boycott of companies supporting Scott Walker. (I sold my stock in Johnson Controls.) I felt that Wisconsin was the beginning of a nation-wide effort to destroy public-employee unions, and a major blow against the existence of all unions. Drastic action was being taken on one side, and similarly drastic action was needed on the other. Prop 8, on the other hand, was settled by the Supreme Court last summer, and all the momentum on the issue belongs to the pro-equality side.
  • Is the view you’re objecting to so reprehensible that you can’t imagine a good person holding it? In some theoretical sense I can imagine a good person being a Neo-Confederate who defends slavery, but my mind revolts when I try to flesh out that vision. Or if you tattoo swastikas on your biceps, sorry, but you’ve lost all my sympathy. On the other hand, I can disagree strongly about abortion and gay rights without demonizing my opponents. (Up to a point. If you want to implement the Biblical injunction to have gays stoned, I can’t see you as a good person.)

If you can think of other rules of thumb for these situations, leave a comment.

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Comments

  • Bob Idstein  On April 14, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Brilliant.

    Sent from my Virgin Mobile phone

  • Justin Siemaszko  On April 14, 2014 at 9:50 am

    One aspect of this that I wish I could see discussed further would be the practical implications of personal politics interacting with one’s place of work. It’s one thing to have a different opinion on taxation, foreign policy, etc than your boss or coworkers. It’s another thing entirely when someone is making direct attacks on your ability to live a normal life.

    If I were a gay person, it would be very hard for me to interpret a coworker as anything but hostile if I knew he was spending his money to make sure I couldn’t be at my partner’s side if & when he was injured and hospitalized. No amount of office charm can really overcome that. It doesn’t matter if someone is being professional or not if it’s publicly known that they’re spending money to hurt or oppress people within the company.

    Imagine how this story would play out with a race or religion issue…

    • Justin Siemaszko  On April 14, 2014 at 9:53 am

      “well sure, he’s a racist, but he’s a really great boss. He leaves the hate at the door.”

      “…unfortunately his actions have a direct affect on my life that have consequences at both work and home, so I can’t really leave my grievance at home in quite the same way.”

  • bkswrites  On April 14, 2014 at 10:59 am

    I especially appreciate your framing your arguments in first person singular. I can agree or disagree with you individually, or engage you person-to-person so that we can learn from each other. But generalizations tend to just make everyone mad. Members of dominant groups can claim, ‘Well, =I= didn’t, so it doesn’t happen.’ Members of oppressed groups feel unheard. Nobody grows. Thanks for engaging with your deep and also personal analysis.

  • Rhett  On April 14, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    “On the other hand, I can disagree strongly about”…”gay rights without demonizing my opponents.”

    I’d reckon that it’s a lot easier to do when you’re straight. When someone is attempting to limit the rights of queer people to a fully-enfranchised life, they are already dehumanizing them. It’s only a neutral and abstract subject if it doesn’t impact you.

  • Kevyn Jacobs  On April 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    It sounds like a good deal of the pressure to oust Eich was coming from inside Mozilla, and not just outside gay marriage agitators attacking the Mozilla CEO. A CEO functions as both the public face of a company, and also the internal leader of the company’s employees, as a figurehead.
    With strong objections coming from within the ranks, and a severe gay PR bruising from the outside, it sounds like it quickly became apparent that Eich was the wrong person for the job leading Mozilla.
    Andrew Sullivan has commented that he is disturbed that people can be fired for their personal political beliefs, but a CEO isn’t just any employee. It’s a specific leadership role that requires both support from within, while at the same time communicating the company’s message to the outside world. Because of his past political activities (and not just his beliefs), Eich couldn’t be effective at that job.

  • Philippe Saner  On April 14, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    I’ve got no sympathy for Eich. He made himself into a news story and brought bad publicity onto his company. And in doing so, he proved himself unfit to be CEO.

    Really doesn’t matter what you think of gay rights. He did his job badly.

  • Sarah  On April 15, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Haaa! I found my husband on OKCupid. They’re cool.

Trackbacks

  • By Roberts at the Bat | The Weekly Sift on April 14, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    […] This week’s featured articles are “This is What Judicial Activism Looks Like” and “Who Should Be Beyond the Pale?“ […]

  • By History Lesson | The Weekly Sift on April 28, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    […] where black players are the majority. It also raises the issues I covered a few weeks ago in “Who Should Be Beyond the Pale?” My rules of thumb are split. On the one hand, Sterling was ferreted out as a racist rather […]

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