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.
I’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.)