The Quality Of Mercy

Apr 6 2014 @ 10:09pm

hounding-of-a-heretic-SD

Thank you for the hundreds and hundreds of emails about the Mozilla-Eich affair. My readers overwhelmingly disagree with me for a host of reasons. But I have to say that this time, the more I have mulled this over, the more convinced I am that my initial response to this is absolutely the right one. And not just the right one, but a vital one to defend at this juncture in the gay rights movement.

So let me concede all of the opposing arguments that have been deployed to defend the public shaming and resignation of Brendan Eich. To recap those points: This was not the “gay left” as such, but the “techie straight left” more broadly. Sure (I’ve been to San Francisco). He wasn’t fired; he resigned. Undisputed. Mozilla is not your usual company. Obviously not. Being CEO is different than being just a regular employee and requires another standard. Sure. It doesn’t matter because we’re all marching toward victory anyway. Well, probably. This was a function of market forces and the First Amendment. You won’t get me to disagree about that.

So why am I more convinced that what just happened still matters, and matters a lot? I think it’s because these arguments avoid the core, ugly truth of what happened. Brendan Eich was regarded as someone whose political beliefs and activities rendered him unsuitable for his job. In California, if an employer had fired an employee for these reasons, he would be breaking the law:

1102. No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity.

Now Eich was not in that precise position. He resigned as CEO under duress because of his political beliefs. The letter of the law was not broken. But what about the spirit of the law?

The ability to work alongside or for people with whom we have a deep political disagreement is not a minor issue in a liberal society. It is a core foundation of toleration. We either develop the ability to tolerate those with whom we deeply disagree, or liberal society is basically impossible. Civil conversation becomes culture war; arguments and reason cede to emotion and anger. And let me reiterate: this principle of toleration has recently been attacked by many more on the far right than on the far left. I’m appalled, for example, at how great gay teachers have been fired by Catholic schools, even though it is within the right of the schools to do so. It’s awful that individuals are fired for being gay with no legal recourse all over the country. But if we rightly feel this way about gays in the workplace, why do we not feel the same about our opponents? And on what grounds can we celebrate the resignation of someone for his off-workplace political beliefs? Payback? Revenge? Some liberal principles, in my view, are worth defending whether they are assailed by left or right.

I’m then informed that opposition to marriage equality is not just a political belief. It’s a profound insight into whether someone is a decent moral person or a bigot. And this belief is also held with absolute certainty – the same absolute certainty of righteousness that many Christianists have.

Let me just say I’ve learned to suspect anyone with absolute moral certainty, whatever position they take. My last book, The Conservative Soul, was precisely an argument against such certainty on the right. What it does is extinguish the space for people to think, change their minds, entertain doubt, listen, and argue. It is absurd to believe that a third of the country recently “hated” gay people and now don’t. It’s incredibly crude to posit that you’re a bigot to oppose marriage equality in 2013, but not in 2008. I remember this argument being used by the hard left when they opposed marriage equality in the 1980s and 1990s (and, yes, they did so then and they were not bigots either). The majority hates us, and will never be persuaded, we were told. Stop your foolish crusade! And yet a decade and a half later, so many minds have changed. So why on earth would we seek to suddenly rush this process and arbitrarily declare that all those we have yet to persuade are ipso facto haters?

And one ugly manifestation of absolute certainty in near-theological movements is their approach to dissidents. Dissidents in these absolutist groups are outlawed, condescended to, pressured, bullied, lied about, trashed, slandered, and distorted out of any recognition. In this case, a geeky genius who invented Javascript and who had pledged total inclusivity in the workplace instantly became the equivalent of a Grand Master in the Ku Klux Klan. And yes, that analogy was – amazingly – everywhere! The actual, complicated, flawed human being was erased by thousands who never knew him but knew enough to hate him. Because that’s all they need to know. No space was really given for meaningful dialogue; and, most importantly, no mercy was given without total public repentance.

I’m sorry but I’m not less disturbed by this manifestation of illiberalism today than I was on Thursday. I’m more so, especially given the craven, mealy-mouthed response of so many to it (yes, Frank, you buried the lede). Read this astonishing post from Mozilla’s Mark Surman. Eich may have been “one of the most inspiring humans that I have ever met” and “a true hero for many of us” but that was not enough:

Many calm and reasonable people said “Brendan, I want you to lead Mozilla. But I also want you to feel my pain.” 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.

Surman says this despite the fact that Eich himself wrote the following:

Here are my commitments, and here’s what you can expect:

  • Active commitment to equality in everything we do, from employment to events to community-building.
  • Working with LGBT communities and allies, to listen and learn what does and doesn’t make Mozilla supportive and welcoming.
  • My ongoing commitment to our Community Participation Guidelines, our inclusive health benefits, our anti-discrimination policies, and the spirit that underlies all of these.
  • My personal commitment to work on new initiatives to reach out to those who feel excluded or who have been marginalized in ways that makes their contributing to Mozilla and to open source difficult. More on this last item below.

I know some will be skeptical about this, and that words alone will not change anything. I can only ask for your support to have the time to “show, not tell”; and in the meantime express my sorrow at having caused pain … I am committed to ensuring that Mozilla is, and will remain, a place that includes and supports everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, economic status, or religion.

And this was not enough. I’m sorry but Surman is full of shit – as, I might add, is his profoundly intolerant company. Eich begged for mercy; he asked to be given a fair shot to prove he wasn’t David Duke; he directly interacted with those he had hurt. He expressed sorrow. He had not the slightest blemish in his professional record. He had invented JavaScript. He was a hero. He pledged to do all he could to make amends. But none of this is ever enough for Inquisitions – and it wasn’t enough in this case. His mind and conscience were the problem. He had to change them or leave.

A civil rights movement without toleration is not a civil rights movement; it is a cultural campaign to expunge and destroy its opponents. A moral movement without mercy is not moral; it is, when push comes to shove, cruel.

For a decade and half, we have fought the battle for equal dignity for gay people with sincerity, openness, toleration and reason. It appears increasingly as if we will have to fight and fight again to prevent this precious and highly successful legacy from being hijacked by a righteous, absolutely certain, and often hateful mob. We are better than this. And we must not give in to it.