The Quality Of Mercy, Ctd

Cory Booker Marries Same Sex Couples As NJGay Marriage Law Goes Into Effect

In the Brendan Eich affair, it seems to me, there are, beneath the fury and the name-calling, two core narratives in conflict, and they are driven by two different approaches to politics. For the sake of argument, let’s call one a progressive vision and the other a liberal one. Here’s Jon Lovett making a fundamentally liberal point:

The trouble, I think, is when ostracizing a viewpoint as “beyond the pale” becomes not an end but a means to an end; that by declaring something unsayable, we make it so. It makes me uncomfortable, even as I see the value of it. I for one would love homophobia to fully make it on that list [of impermissible opinions], to get to the point where being against gay marriage is as vulgar and shameful as being against interracial marriage. But it isn’t. Maybe it will be. But it isn’t. And kicking a reality-show star off his reality show doesn’t make that less true. Win the argument; don’t declare the argument too offensive to be won. And that’s true whether it’s GLAAD making demands of A&E or the head of the Republican National Committee making demands of MSNBC.

The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea.

Then there is another approach, in which creating a progressive culture in which some things are unsayable is the whole point of the exercise. Here’s a piece by J. Brian Lowder with that perspective. Money quote:

Tim Teeman wrote on Friday that “the ‘shame’ axis around homosexuality has positively shifted from those who are gay to those who are anti-gay.” He may be right about that, but speaking personally, I am not interested in shaming anyone; it would be enough for me if those people who are so ignorant or intransigent as to still be anti-gay in 2014 would simply shut up.

This is not a minor disagreement. It’s a profound one. One side wants to continue engaging the debate. The other wants one side to shut up. I think you also see this difference in the responses to Jon Chait’s new piece on race in the age of Obama. Progressives see the scale of the historically-loaded injustice that African-Americans face every day and cavil at any attempts to minimize or qualify the iniquity of those on the right who still deploy its rhetorical codes. Liberals still insist on some fairness, on not jumping to conclusions about an entire party’s or a single person’s racism, on seeing that human beings are not so simple as to be reduced to such ideas as “hate”, on maintaining some kind of civil discourse which right and left can engage in, which eschews too-easy charges of bigotry.

One seeks to get to a place where a conversation ends. The other seeks never to end the conversation, and, in fact, gets a little queasy when any topic is ruled out of bounds in a free society.

Maybe if we can appreciate both traditions, we can see the underlying forces behind this debate more clearly. My own instincts on the gay rights question have always been classically liberal/small-c conservative/libertarian. I think hate is an eternal part of the human condition, and that ridding oneself of it is a personal, moral duty not a collective, political imperative. I never want to live in a society in which homophobes feel obliged to shut up. I believe their freedom is indivisible from ours. Their hate only says something about them, not me. I oppose hate crime laws for those reasons. And my attachment to open debate means constantly allowing even the foulest sentiments to be expressed – the better to confront them, expose them and also truly persuade people of the wrongness of their views – rather than pressuring them into submission or silence. Others have a different vision: that such bigotry needs extra punishment by the state (hence hate-crime laws), that bigots need to be constantly shamed, and that because of the profound evil of such thoughts, social pressure should be brought to bear to silence them. More to the point, past sins have to be recanted and repented before such bigots are allowed back into the conversation.

This is a very old fault-line in civil rights movements, and it’s amazing that the gay rights movement has been able to keep these divisions at bay as we fight for basic equality. That may now begin to change, if only because an entire generation has now grown up having deeply internalized their self-worth, and are thereby rightly all the more affronted by those still resistant to it. I understand that entirely, and am glad for this shift in consciousness – especially since I spent much of my adult life trying to bring it about. It’s wonderful for me to read young gay writers insist on their non-negotiable and full equality in terms of marriage – if only because I tried to make that case decades ago to a great deal of bewilderment and dismissal from many. This is indeed great news, as Frank Bruni noted. And, when couched in positive, constructive terms, it has won more converts among more straight people than most of us ever dreamed of.

But liberalism, for me, is not a means to a progressive end. It is an end in itself.

It seeks to guard against groupthink and social pressure as dangerous threats to freedom of thought and of the individual. It aims to protect the rights of bigots as well as the targets of their bigotry. At any one point, that can seem grotesquely unfair. And it is. It is and was deeply unfair that, in order to enjoy some simple basic rights, we gays have had to explain ourselves to the world, listen to our very lives being debated as if we were not in the room, have our lives and loves traduced and distorted and picked over by people who treat us as pawns in a political game or an intellectual exercise. But, you know what? We had no choice if we were to move forward. And, boy, have we moved forward through this difficult process.

I’m not taking this position because – to count some of the milder terms thrown in my direction in the last few days – I have internalized homophobia, I want to leverage others’ suffering for web traffic, I have never done anything to advance gay equality, I am a hypocrite/privileged white male/barebacker/Uncle Tom, and on and on. I’m taking this position because it is my honestly thought-out view. It’s laid out in Virtually Normal, which is emphatically not a progressive book. And it’s because I am also convinced that a liberal approach to politics will lead to – and has led to – more actual justice and a deeper changing of minds.

We have not won the debate this past decade or so because we have constantly exposed others’ hatred, or racked up the number of people we can condemn as homophobes. We have won because we have made the positive and reasoned case for our equal dignity and rights. We have won because we have engaged, not ostracized. And we have won more definitively because of it. How much better to have allowed this free debate to continue and to have actually genuinely changed people’s hearts and minds than to have tried to impose a settlement on the unwilling and unpersuaded, and then demanded they shut up. And this is what I would try to say to my progressive gay friends: if you really want the full justice you rightly believe in, stop trying to close down a debate which we are winning and in which we still have many people to persuade. Of course there’s bigotry and ignorance out there. But calling everyone who disagrees with you a bigot rules out a chance to persuade them, drives them further into a defensive crouch, and prevents us winning the argument in the long run.

If the liberal approach had so demonstratively failed, it would be one thing. But, in this case, it has demonstratively succeeded – perhaps more than any recent social movement. We shouldn’t forget how we got here. Or believe that somehow suddenly different tactics cannot still take this debate in a different direction. They can; and if we are not careful, they will.

(Photos: Getty Images)

The Quality Of Mercy


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.