Sunday, April 6, 2014

Freedom, Brendan Eich, and the Outrage Machine

Recently in the news, Mozilla (makers of the Firefox web-browser, among other pretty good products) hired a new CEO - Brendan Eich - who, apart from being an excellent computer programmer (he created JavaScript) and by most accounts, a fine manager of technology companies, is also an opponent of gay marriage. In 2008, he apparently donated $1,000 in support of California's Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage in the state.

California requires non-profit organizations to disclose their donor lists, so some folks looked it up and when word recently got out, the internet threw a massive hissy fit and demanded that Mozilla fire him as CEO.

Even the dating website OKCupid stopped making their site available via Firefox in protest. Instead of finding an inbox full of unsolicited pick up lines, OK Cupid users trying to access the website via Firefox saw this image:

A few days later, Eich announced that he would resign.

This caused a lot of uproar from a lot of different people. Many Christians are predictably upset because they feel like it's yet another battle in the "war on religion". Several conservatives I know have taken to derisively pointing out supposed liberal "hypocrisy" and lack of "tolerance".

And to be honest, they have a point about the hypocrisy.

Some other notable people who - in 2008 - likewise supported the essence of Proposition 8 publicly included Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and strangely, yet nobody in the progressive crowd called for Obama to be fired. And his job is actually relevant to this kind of discussion.

Apart from that, some progressive friends are excited because to them it's a victory for Social Justice™ and comeuppance for those nasty religious conservative bigots. A few are excited because they do have a war on religious people (well... Christian religious people), and see Eich resigning as a victory for that too.

Some reactions are more interesting. D.J. Grothe, a gay friend of mine and the head of the atheist/skeptic organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation, found Eich's resignation to be disconcerting. He wrote:
"Terrifying in a free society. Should everyone who shared his wrong-headed pro-Prop 8 views at the time (he donated $1,000) now be drummed out of a job? The majority of Californians agreed with him then. When a victim group is made sacred and gains some power, there is inevitably an overreach to punish those whose unsupportive convictions aren't "approved." The way to advance social justice should not be punishing those who don't align ideologically, but by changing minds through good argument."
Later, gay blogger Andrew Sullivan said:
"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."
Both of those points are important, and I think quite true in some meaningful ways... but to be honest, I think George Takei expressed as close to my view as anybody:
"Well, that was fast. OkCupid's strong stance surely helped. And staffers at Mozilla who'd protested, and company directors who'd resigned as a result of his appointment, can now work in a hate-free zone.

And a quick civics primer: Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. This man donated money to a campaign designed to keep LGBT people from full equality and to deny our families equal rights under the law. He was free to make that choice, but we are free to hold him accountable. If he'd donated money to White Supremacists to help outlaw interracial marriage, there'd be little outcry over his ouster."
Tragically, George Takei can sometimes be a stopped clock on freedom issues. Right twice a day, but wrong the rest of the time. This is - fortunately - one of those times that he's right.

For me, this is a nuanced issue, only because I think it's a little petty and possibly callous to try to oust Brendan Eich for such a small donation to a cause that millions of other people also supported in California. But from a libertarian standpoint, I not only don't have a problem with it, I'm going to happily use it as an example that demonstrates a point I've made for years: Freedom of association & markets will destroy bigotry and discrimination.

Prop 8 passed when I was living in California. I was a voter at that time (I'm not anymore) and I voted against it. Incidentally, the year I voted against Proposition 8, I earned a spotless record of being on the losing side of every single initiative and candidate I voted on in the state. Among other things, I voted against a bond for cops, against an expensive train boondoggle, and for the decriminalization of marijuana.

The voters of California went the other way on everything... Including gay marriage.

Theodor Olson
I'm also very proud to say that one of the main attorneys who ultimately got Proposition 8 struck down in court, Ted Olson, works for Koch Industries as well. There's a documentary out about that right now called "The Case Against 8" if anyone is interested.

The point is, in no way do I have any love for people who want to restrict others' right to freedom of association and contract, which clearly includes the right of anyone to marry whomever they want. If you're human and can be considered of sound mind and held responsible for your actions, you should be able to arrange your life however you see fit and enter into agreements with others in any way you wish - provided, of course, that you don't harm or impede others' ability to do the same.

I would be happiest to see marriage taken out of the realm of the state entirely. No more government-issued marriage licenses, no special benefits for married people, etc., but until that happens, it's not too much to ask that the law is applied evenly.

So... I'm not interested in defending Brendan Eich's views.

What's more, Brendan Eich's political donations were to a cause that directly restricted human freedom, which changes the nature of his role from merely voicing an "opinion", to contributing (albeit in a very small way) to government restrictions on people's freedom of association. That is something that should be stopped.

But it was stopped. Prop 8 was struck down.

And this is where my view gets more nuanced. Prop 8 should never have been an issue. In a free society, people get to choose whom they interact with and under what terms... Period. A free society does not give the state power to be selective about who is allowed to sign any type of contract, including for marriage, and who isn't. So, a free society would not have given Brendan Eich's political contribution any power in the first place.

But we don't live in that society.

Instead, we live in a society where the state is involved in being selective about things like marriage. So it was completely within the realm of political possibility for groups to lobby for making sure the state restricted some people's right to association and contract. And that gave people like Brendan Eich the power to turn their opinions into force.

Or more specifically, into maintaining the de facto status quo of forcibly restricting gay people from legally marrying each other.

But... Society has also moved forward (ie. towards freedom) on this issue. And as usual, it's moved on a hell of a lot faster than the political system. Now we live in an America where, if not the literal majority, the majority of cultural leaders no longer tolerate anti-gay restrictions... Or, it would seem, the people who want to impose them. Even if - like Brendan Eich - those people weren't really integral to the creation or passage of the laws in question.

When Mozilla hired Eich as CEO, backlash against his personal political views was strong enough to scare that company's board of directors into asking him to step down. An example has been made, and as far as I can tell, it was all done without the force of the state needing to be involved.

The market had spoken.

But - and this is crucial to understand here - Eich wasn't censored. He wasn't thrown in jail for his views. He wasn't banished or exiled, and he wasn't physically harmed or coerced. Nothing which was rightfully his was taken from him.

Mozilla owns the job, not Eich. And after seeing the reaction of their customers to his appointment as CEO, the people who control Mozilla decided that Eich wasn't right for them after all, thus hopefully placating their users; the only people they are really obliged to make happy, assuming that they hope to remain in business for long.

This is truly a first-rate case of how the market tears down wrongful discrimination, while government only ensconces it. And as an example of the power of voluntary society to rid the world of bad ideas, I appreciate what happened here.

However......... With all that said, I think it's kind of sad that this particular case went the way it did.

Eich hardly seems like a worthy target of outrage. He gave a paltry sum of money to a cause he believed in; which was also (stupidly) within the scope of the law, and which was still supported by popular opinion at the time. Plus, Eich's job has no bearing on gay-related politics. It's not like Eich was about to elected to political office where his views could turn into laws that restrict others' lives. He's just tasked with running a tech company that he helped to build, and which as far as I can tell, never even discriminated in its hiring practices or business dealings.

So are we really so intolerant of dissent from the approved views that we'll lash out in outrage whenever someone supports an idea we dislike?

Is simply denying Eich a CEO job punishment enough, or should he atone for his thought crimes further in some way? Should he be allowed to have a job at all? What about the people who ultimately do hire them? Should we boycott their products? What if they only hire him as a janitor?

What penance will placate this particular mob?

I don't know... And honestly, I'm getting tired of the outrage machine that has infected so much of American society. Some will call me a "thin" libertarian, or perhaps a "brutalist" for this point, but we need to be a little more laissez faire about people who don't agree with our personal moral standards. It's ok that some people don't think homosexuality is right. It's ok if not everyone agrees on morality or has differing viewpoints on the ways individuals, and humans as a species, should behave. It's ok to have plurality of ideas on human society and interaction. It's just not ok to use force to have your way at the expense of all other views.

A free society can handle dissent and disagreement, and it can handle people who have stupid reasons for disliking others.

For the most part, the people we disagree with need to be convinced otherwise, not just bullied or ousted from employment. Though I do think shaming can be a useful tool in the arsenal of those wishing to see changes in public opinion. Stetson Kennedy proved that well enough when Superman fought the KKK on the radio.

But let's pick our battles more carefullly.

I will always be the first to stand up against anyone who wishes to use an authority of law & violence to restrict other people's freedoms. I stood against Eich's desired policy aims in California at the time, and I stand against them today. But beyond that, I think the desire to see someone like Eich experience lasting harm and to banish him from other parts of life is itself motivated by hatred, anger, and malevolence... Not out of a desire to see freedom for gay people expanded.

So when it comes down to it, I agree with Takei in that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from experiencing consequences from what you say or do. But I think there remains an open question as to what those consequences should really be. Surely we don't want to live in a world where every person who thinks something that the masses dislike must be shamed and boycotted into poverty.

I want to see more interaction and inclusion, not more division and animosity whenever people differ in core beliefs. I welcome the opportunity to talk to people like Eich. Even if I could not convince him that gay marriage is a lovely thing on its own, I would hope I could convince him that using the state to restrict their freedom of association is a bad idea.

In short, I would hope to make him more of a libertarian.

No comments: