Free Speech Morality Religion

Liberal bullying can still be bullying

To quote a September 2013 version of me,

there’s an arms-race of hyperbole going on, especially on the Left, and therefore especially in matters pertaining to social justice. This is understandable, especially because the Right has bombarded the world with similar hyperbole for long enough. But the trend is not a good one, and we should resist it.

It’s not good, partly because we denude language through doing so. More importantly, though, it’s not good because it gives an intrinsic advantage in argument to those who shout the loudest, and who are willing to claim that they are most fundamentally or critically hurt. And in the long run, it’s not good because the only rational (or sadly, so it might seem) way to respond to a climate of hypersensitivity is to shut up, and not say anything at all, for fear of offending someone.

EichI’m not at all sure where the dividing line is between expressing justified grievances and bullying someone out of a debate – or out of a job, as happened to Brendan Eich, ex-CEO of Mozilla, yesterday. While it’s true that some viewpoints are not worth entertaining, that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone who holds those viewpoints shouldn’t be allowed to, and shouldn’t be allowed to campaign for them without fear of reprisals.

Homophobia is wrong, and harmful – you’ll find plenty of posts over the years highlighting the offence, hurt, injustice and sometimes even murders that can be attributed to homophobia, from the relatively trivial cases of Error Naidoo to the properly odious Scott Lively, who had a part in inspiring the criminalisation of homophobia in Uganda.

However, it’s not at all clear to what extent Brendan Eich is a homophobe at all, unless we define homophobia simply as the belief that certain legal entitlements should be reserved for heterosexual people. Again, I must stress that I personally reject that belief – discrimination based on sexuality is premised on an entirely arbitrary characteristic, and is thus unjust and should be unlawful.


Because as usual, there’s a background issue that needs to influence our reading of a case like this, and that issue is that Eich is a Christian, who believes that marriage is something ordained by God, and reserved for a man and a woman. And for as long as we (or in this case, the USA) respects freedom of religion, that’s not only a legitimate belief to hold, but also a legitimate position to campaign for, and to donate money to defending.

Perhaps we should weaken our respect for freedom of religion, and insist that a church or a minister who wanted to marry anyone should also be willing to officiate marriages for gay couples. If you won’t marry a gay couple, you can’t marry anyone. Perhaps we should argue that if you get tax breaks from government, you should lose them if you discriminate on arbitrary grounds such as sexuality, or race, or gender.

But that’s not where we are, yet, and (some) churches are still operating in a grey zone where their archaic morality is grudgingly accommodated, even in progressive democracies. Maybe it shouldn’t be – but for as long as it is, Eich has a warrant for believing (on his, archaic, standards) that it’s not unjust to deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and that it should be unlawful for them to marry.

This is the cause that Eich was supporting, in that he gave a $1000 donation, in his personal capacity, to a campaign in support of Proposition 8 (that sought to outlaw gay marriage) in California. He wasn’t alone – Proposition 8 passed, meaning that over 50% of voters voted in favour of it, before it was later overturned by the courts.

All of those people who voted for Prop 8 were – and no doubt, still are – wrong. But of those thousands of people, Eich might be the only one who was hounded out of his job, after his donation came to be public knowledge. The dating website, OKCupid, displayed a banner to Mozilla Firefox users, telling them  to change their browsers because of Eich’s position. This and similar moves (e.g. Rarebit apps, who pulled their apps from Firefox), as well as sustained criticism on social media, led Eich to resign (or so we’re told – he might well have been pushed, judging by the Mozilla chairperson’s statement that “We failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community”).

So, in essence, Eich lost his job for being a Christian (of a certain sort). One of my closest friends would (I think – I haven’t checked this detail) hold the same view regarding gay marriage, and is certainly no homophobe in any other sense. I think he’s wrong about marriage and who it should be reserved for – but I would think it even more wrong if he were not able to hold the view he does, for fear of losing his job.

Yet, of course we should be able to express our dissatisfaction, even sometimes outrage, at the things people do and support. As I said at the top, I don’t know where we draw the line. But Eich operating in his personal capacity is a separate thing to his role at Mozilla, and his personal democratic choices are legitimate ones until the law says they are not. He was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs, which are constitutionally protected.

If you think that’s wrong, you need to campaign against freedom of religion, not against Eich.

(Related – an earlier piece on the Chick-fil-A homophobia.)

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

10 replies on “Liberal bullying can still be bullying”

Jacques, I’m grappling with this and haven’t formed an opinion. What do you say to the argument that had Eich donated money to a cause that prevented black people from establishing equality on some or other issue, then it would be a straightforward matter that he should have either apologised or shouldn’t serve as CEO of Mozilla?

One immediate difference is that your example eliminates the inconsistency that troubles me above: namely that *if* we’re going to support freedom of religion, then what the religion implies should be protected also. There’s a legal presumption (that I don’t agree with) in favour of the one form of discrimination (against gay marriage, for the church), and not the other (racial discrimination).

But even without that inconsistency, I’d still want him to be able to exercise his rights. Courts and governments – who are supposed to serve all of us – not, but private citizens are a different matter. Mozilla might not want to hire bigots, for understandable reasons, and if they knew he had these views, it was certainly daft to appoint him.

And, as I try to say, I do think we can and should campaign against things like this. But a question that something like this raises is, how did we get to know about his donation in the first place? Someone was presumably snooping, and exposed him for it (on the assumption that he wouldn’t be daft enough to disclose it) – it’s the call-out culture, and the mob mentality aspects, that worry me.

Not a clear answer, sorry – I’m grappling with it too!

Does the source of the information really matter? That he wouldn’t have revealed it himself is, to me, immaterial. If I make a donation to something – I’m quite happy to publicly say why – that’s called integrity. But, having it out in the public – he either stands by his original decision or indicates why he has changed his pov. That he’s declined to do so – merely saying trust me and see how I operate, suggests he’s not willing to publicly own his actions. Not something I’d want in a CEO anyway. In a way, he’s been pushed ‘out the closet’. Can’t put that cat back in the bag. This isn’t a matter of legally convicting him for his opinion – there isn’t a ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’ here.

Thanks Kevin, and I’m inclined to agree that the source doesn’t really matter (i.e. I’ve changed my mind on that). By the way, the source has since become clear – it was public knowledge, as a public register of donations for and against has been available since 2008.

Freedom of religion, of the sort that is constitutionally protected, does not include the right to be free from public criticism for acting publicly upon your religious convictions.

There might be a good argument that boycotting Mozilla was an overreaction by those who made that choice, but the boycott was nonetheless an exercise of free speech and freedom of association, both of which also arise from the 1st Amendment here in the U.S.

The question is of course, what will be the reaction from the folks who helped hound Eich out of his job, when someone who shares their views is hounded out of a job by people who do not. Because it has happened before, and will happen again.

One would think that they would be at least somewhat sanguine about it, repeating platitudes about “well, like the result or not, those folks were also exercising their rights to free speech.”

One could think that, but I think one would be very ignorant of human behavior to do so. It’s never okay when MY ox is gored, only yours.

I also think this has taught people that they shouldn’t give to any cause, regardless of its aim if that cause might be even slightly controversial, because it will cause them problems later in life. Which I don’t think was the message anyone wanted to send, but that would be why we call them *unintended* consequences. It could also reinforce the generally odious desire of companies to require people to open up their personal lives to them far outside of what they should, when it comes to hiring decisions. “We don’t want another Brendan Eich after all.”

So very many lessons taught by this, quite a few of them not what people would, or should, want.

I also don’t like the way people get bullied for holding an incorrect opinion. I think there’s a bit of a problem when we say that freedom of speech and opinion is important but then punish someone for holding an opinion which we disagree with. There’s also the issue of whether it’s even relevant. Was he using his position in Mozilla to discriminate? I doubt that his views on gay marriage had any effect on the company. Or do we just expect every person to be perfect and hold the same views as us on every issue? I don’t think that’s reasonable at all.

Thanks Jacques. I think the response was a bit OTT, but Eich and the FF board caved quickly to not very much pressure – I think they could have made a better fist of it. Every critic of the company had the right to express their views too. No-one clearly delineates their personal views from how they take form in the workplace. Gene Robinson makes a valid point – US corporations are deemed to be persons, and owners are now demanding the right to make their personal views impact on the personal lives of employees. CEOs personal views shouldn’t be out of bounds then.

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