Mozilla controversy threatens LGBT groups’ integrity

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As seen in the May 2 print edition

Max Stahl, comment editor

 It doesn’t take a lot of courage for me to come out and say I support marriage equality—not in today’s political climate. America’s attitude toward gender and sexuality, for the vast majority of its history inflexible and repressive, is becoming increasingly liberal at an astonishing rate. But the job is far from finished. Thirty-three states still forbid gay marriage, and across the country gender nonconforming and transgender Americans are denied health-care services, as well as basic rights and dignity. And, of course, certain stigmas about queer lifestyles persist among a large percentage of the population. Therefore, with an eye to the future, LGBT groups must bear in mind that their perception is just as important as their accomplishments.

Let the case of Brendan Eich serve as a warning.

On March 24, Eich was named CEO of the open-source, nonprofit software company Mozilla, known for its web browser Firefox. Aware that Eich had donated $1,000 to support California’s Proposition 8, which until last year had prevented gays from marrying, LGBT groups lashed out at Mozilla. Employees of the company voiced similar complaints about working for a man who actively sought to deprive gays of their rights, and, perhaps most potently (for some reason), the dating website OkCupid urged users to boycott Firefox until Eich was no longer CEO. On April 3, after having served as CEO for 10 days, Eich responded to the pressure and resigned his position.

A victory for gay rights, it would seem. If only it were so simple.

This time, the consequences went a step further (as far as we know) than they have ever gone before: the victory cost a man his job. There are greater complexities surrounding this point, which I’ll delve into later, but for now I’ll focus on some of the tangible effects of the incident. One: as already mentioned, Mozilla lost a qualified CEO. Two: the palatability, and in fact preferability, of supporting gay rights in today’s social and business spheres was reaffirmed. And three: groups and individuals opposed to the LGBT movement gained a treasure trove of ammunition against it. “See what a gay orthodoxy in America looks like?” they can now say (not that they weren’t saying it already). While I think in general they take their arguments too far, I can’t help but agree with the essence of their frustration. Gay rights is about allowing people to embrace who they are, and this should extend even to those whose beliefs come in direct conflict with what is quickly becoming the cultural norm. As backward as I may think Eich’s philosophy is, I don’t have the right to require that he hide or change his perspective. I can try to convince him that he’s wrong, just as he can try to convince me that I’m wrong, but neither of us deserves to suffer for our beliefs. Tolerance means allowing people of all different outlooks to interact and to potentially work toward a common goal despite their differences.

There are still 29 states where employees can be fired for being gay and 33 where employees can be fired for being transgender. If LGBT activists hope to eventually get the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed through the House (the Senate has already approved it), they must be sensitive to hypocrisies like demanding that a supporter of Prop 8 lose his job. Assuming moral superiority, even in this case, is a precarious enterprise.

As complex as the issue may already seem, the specific circumstances of Eich’s resignation further muddy the waters. Upon first glance, Eich appears to be beyond qualified to run Mozilla. A computer genius, Eich created Javascript, the programming language used by all web browsers, in the early days of the internet. He later played an integral role in founding Mozilla and developing its software. So why did he resign in the face of pressure, when he never intended to allow his social views to influence the work environment? The answer, at least partially, seems to lie in the nature of Mozilla as a company. Mozilla, unlike most well-known software producers, is a non-profit corporation. Its primary objective is to produce free, high-quality, open-source software for public use. It has, in light of this, constructed a progressive persona for itself, and Eich simply did not fit that persona. As the face of the company, he would not have been able to attract prospective employees as well as someone who supported gay marriage. His views, like it or not, prevented Mozilla from achieving its goals.

That’s the reality of the situation. It’s an unfortunate reality, and one that needs to change before the gay rights movement becomes just as oppressive as the forces it’s trying to counter. Undeniably, everyone who criticized Eich had the right to do so; that’s free speech. But Eich was equally within his rights to donate to Prop 8, and those who say he should suffer for that speech are missing the point. The real problem seems to be that we’re allowing politics to infiltrate the work environment. Mozilla’s self-labelling as a progressive company seems to me an excuse to cleanse itself of any unsavory opinions. A self-proclaimed conservative company would not have had such an easy time firing an employee who opposed Prop 8. And that’s what we should want. Ultimately, we need a separation of business and politics—or at least social politics; keeping business out of economic politics would be counterintuitive. Mozilla is a progressive corporation primarily because it makes its free, open-source software available to everyone. Its focus is, or at least should be, on technological progress. When it was thrust into controversy over social progress, it distracted itself and its clients from its product, from its true purpose. That distraction won’t disappear just because Eich is gone.

I can’t blame Eich or Mozilla for what happened. They’re the victims of a culture that, in the words of Brookings Institution senior fellow Jonathan Rauch, promotes “intolerance in the name of tolerance.” What shocks me is how willingly employees at Mozilla, some of whom had worked with Eich for years, played into this culture. These employees don’t have as much right to complain about Eich as they think they do. Drawing from my example above, if employees of a different company complained that their boss was too liberal for them, or that their boss’s race or sexuality made them uncomfortable, most people would respond with a resounding “too freakin’ bad.” Somehow, these factors are irrelevant to most Americans when there’s an objection to an employee whose qualities would generally be favored by liberals, but when Mozilla’s personnel expressed dissatisfaction with their boss’s conservative politics, it’s a completely different issue.

This is especially ridiculous, because there is no evidence that Eich would have imposed his beliefs on his employees or acted on them in any way that could have been construed as an abuse of his position as CEO of Mozilla. In several public statements, Eich indicated that, on the contrary, he would tolerate other viewpoints, and that he even intended to work “with LGBT communities and allies, to listen and learn what does and doesn’t make Mozilla supportive and welcoming.” He promoted an “active commitment to equality in everything we do, from employment to events to community-building.” Yes, in the past Eich may have acted politically in a way that I strongly object to, but it appears that, unlike some others at Mozilla, he would have kept his politics out of the workplace. That’s what we should look for in a CEO. In a perfect world—or at least a world in which merit takes obvious precedence over ideology in professional spheres—Eich would have been the right man for the job. It’s just too bad his company, LGBT groups and the consumer population at large didn’t recognize that before he lost his job.

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