The Crux of the Matter

Over the past week, there has been a tremendous amount of digital ink spilt over the case of Brendan Eich. Eich was a talented programmer who ascended to the position of CEO at Mozilla (creator of Firefox) and then resigned in the wake of controversy. It came to light that he had donated money (US$1,500 in total) in support of Proposition 8, a 2008 Californian ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Many proponents of same-sex marriage were not happy about this and agitated for his removal.

There are two sides to this debate: (i) those who believe that Eich’s resignation was unequivocally a good thing and (ii) those who are troubled by its implications for the freedoms of speech and belief. On this blog I am much more interested in exploring how people think, rather than what the conclusion may be. The Eich case is a great example of where reasoning can go awry in support of a seemingly worthy cause. Ultimately I think the crux of the matter revolves around one crucial question: Is opposition to same-sex marriage bigotry, on par with, for example, racism?

First I want to show that some of the arguments marshalled against Eich are problematic upon closer inspection.

1. Eich voluntarily resigned, he wasn’t fired. I don’t see the issue.

Well… he only resigned because of intense pressure, both external and internal, for him to step down because of a certain belief he holds (and which he actively supported). This is why people care about what happened to him.

2. Eich is entitled to his free speech/beliefs, but he is not entitled to be free from the consequences of them #1: Clearly it was unpopular with the market. Mozilla was within their rights to respond to public disapproval and encourage him to step down.

This one superficially makes sense but is unsatisfying to me. Yes, it is an explanation of what happened: “It was bad for the company, so we had to change”. But if we’re arguing in the political/moral realm about someone’s speech and beliefs, do we really want to make business sense the arbiter for what is justified or not?

A lot of things make business sense. But that doesn’t necessarily make them good, or right. I’m not saying this argument is wrong, I’m saying it is not enough.

So dumping our toxic waste into this river will help our bottom line? It’s a no-brainer then, amirite?

3. Eich is entitled to his free speech/beliefs, but he is not entitled to be free from the consequences of them #2: He was no longer fit for the job because he had lost the faith and trust of employees.

This is another seemingly reasonable argument. Factually speaking, it may be the case that some employees were troubled by Eich’s belief and the actions he took. And this could result in distrust and compromised performance at work. But consider this: isn’t every relationship a two-way street? As much as Eich’s attitudes and beliefs have been dissected and examined, what about the employees under him?

I’m sure the same employees who have concerns about Eich would fully subscribe to the notion that at work, what matters is your performance, not your beliefs. Is that too idealistic a notion? Perhaps. In an “ideal” world, beliefs should not matter, nor the position of the one who holds the beliefs (whether CEO, manager, desk grunt, or janitor). In the real world it’s not so simple. Beliefs don’t matter… until they eventually do.

This argument only makes sense if we accept that those employees should be able to do the very thing they would profess not to do: be intolerant of another person’s belief in the workplace.

But wait a minute. Surely some beliefs cross the line don’t they? We shouldn’t have to tolerate everything should we? Here we get to the crux of the issue.

4. What if Eich had donated to the cause of the KKK, or neo-Nazis, or to ban interracial marriage? Wouldn’t that be just cause to remove him?

Translation: (a) Bigotry (e.g., KKK, Nazism, etc) is wrong and should be resisted; (b) opposition to same-sex marriage is bigotry; (c) anyone holding bigoted beliefs should be mocked/marginalised/silenced/punished; (d) as a person in a prominent position (CEO), the natural and just punishment for Eich is removal from that position.

The key premise, I submit, is (b). Ultimately how you view Eich’s predicament — and the arguments you muster in favour or against — flows from your position on (b). For the record, I am sympathetic to both sides.

For those who have faced pain and injustice their whole life because of their sexual orientation, and for the many more that empathise with their plight, knowing that the law cannot recognise their affirmation of love and commitment to their partner must be disheartening indeed. The same-sex marriage movement is simply another chapter in the fight to claim equal rights for all people. Those who oppose it are either unenlightened folks or religious freaks.

On the other hand, I do see a distinct difference between supporting the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage and the kinds of bigotry that have been listed. It’s difficult to understand if you believe Christianity is all nonsense, but just for this moment try to see it from the other side.

Notwithstanding historical actors who have done bad things in the name of Christianity, its core teachings — e.g., that everyone is made in the image of God, and that we ought to love our neighbours as ourselves — are fundamentally opposed to any kind of prejudice or discrimination. Abolitionism in the Western world and the American Civil Rights Movement were strongly influenced by such ideas.

“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands” — Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)

Christians also believe in the order that God created. And yes, that includes the institution of marriage between a man and a woman. If you’re a non-believer, does that seem unfair and ridiculous? Absolutely. Is it equivalent to racist bigotry, which many faithful believers had devoted their lives to fighting? I’m not so sure.

What kind of future do you want?

Commentators have been quick to note that regardless of whether Eich’s predicament is justified or not, it is another demonstration of just how far society has come in terms of recognising and legitimising same-sex beliefs. Indeed, as Ross Douthat observed, such beliefs have “won” — they are gaining popular acceptance in Western societies and are being translated into concrete policies.

I want to quickly touch on point (c) above (i.e.,”anyone holding [what I consider to be] bigoted beliefs should be mocked/marginalised/silenced/punished”). My concern, which I share with Andrew Sullivan, is the intolerance that undergirds the anti-Eich crowd. Skimming through the comments to various articles on the topic, I’ve come across:

  • Those who are gleefully sinking the boot in — “I don’t want to be magnanimous, I want to crush them”
  • Those who have seemingly forgotten that two wrongs don’t make a right — “But conservatives do X/Y/Z, isn’t it hypocritical for them to complain about this?”
  • Those who are downright inquisitorial — “I’ll forgive Eich when he apologises, comes around on this issue, and make amends by giving a large donation to an organisation promoting same-sex marriage”.

We’ve been at this juncture many times before in history. Now that a particular belief is in the ascendancy, how should its proponents deal with the dissenters? The future of a civil, pluralistic society depends on the answer.