On Brendan Eich and anti-anti-gay bullying

Brendan Eich

When a coalition of people put pressure on an organization to get someone fired, is that “bullying”? That is today’s question.

In case you haven’t heard, the story goes like this: Once upon a time there was a man named Brendan Eich. He co-founded Mozilla, the company first behind the Netscape browser and later behind the Firefox browser, and was one of the originators of the Javascript programming language. He also donated a bunch of money to the California Proposition 8 campaign, which had the goal of making gay marriage illegal in California.

Recently, he was appointed to be the CEO of Mozilla. All hell broke loose. People couldn’t believe that such a popular and progressive technology company would appoint an anti-gay activist as CEO. Moreover, he refused to apologize or comment on his donation. He claimed that his personal beliefs were “unrelated” to his role at Mozilla.

Major companies started encouraging people to not use Firefox in protest. In social media, there may as well be fire raining from the sky and dogs and cats living together.

As a result, as of today, Brendan Eich stepped down as CEO and quit the Mozilla board of directors. Mozilla executive chair Mitchell Baker said: “It’s clear that Brendan cannot lead Mozilla in this setting. The ability to lead — particularly for the CEO — is fundamental to the role and that is not possible here.”

 


 

Let’s start by getting a few of the “givens” out of the way.

Everybody agrees that Eich’s opinions on gay marriage would really have no impact on the specific job that he did with Mozilla. The people who wanted him to step down did not think that he was going to use Mozilla as some kind of sinister mouthpiece to advance an anti-gay agenda.

The people who wanted Eich to step down also were not claiming that he had no “right” to hold whatever personal beliefs he wants to hold. True, they may have been interested in “shaming” him somewhat for his beliefs, but the simple fact that they wanted him  to step down from the company DOES NOT MEAN that they think he doesn’t have a right to hold those beliefs.

This is an important distinction, that many commentators get wrong: many people assume that the LGBT activists protesting Eich’s appointment as CEO believe that it should be “illegal” or otherwise “not allowed” to be anti-gay or to give to anti-gay causes.  This is not true.

If you asked any of the people demanding Eich’s resignation whether he has a “right” to his own personal opinions, the answer would undoubtedly be “yes”.

But that does not, by extension, mean that he has the “right” to be the CEO of a public company. A public company, by definition, is answerable to stockholders. A public company is, by virtue of plain economics, answerable to the feelings and opinions of its customers.

Look carefully at what Baker said, above. She did not say that Eich was asked to step down because “We do not tolerate bigotry here!”  She did not say any such thing.

What did she say? “The ability to lead — particularly for the CEO — is fundamental to the role and that is not possible here.”

It is not possible, because enough of the customer base, enough of “public opinion”, was against him.

 


 

So let’s be frank about what happened: Eich was pressured into stepping down because he holds an opinion that is unpopular.  In much the same way that someone who thought all blacks should be slaves or all Jews should be shot might also be asked to step down, for their unpopular opinions.  This is not unusual. This is not scandalous. This is completely normal business-as-usual. This is how the world works: companies are answerable to the feelings and desires of their customers.

And right now, in this day and age, technology customers tend to not want to do business with anti-gay bigots.  (The same cannot be said, by and large, for fast food consumers or for knick-knack collectors. Different industries have their own demographics.)

There is absolutely no ground for being “outraged” that this is how things work. This is capitalism in substantia. Customers express their desires, corporations take those desires into consideration based on how it may impact their bottom line. If something is going to be bad PR, it will affect the bottom line. If a CEO is unable to lead, it will affect the bottom line.

Eich’s decision was quintessentially an economic decision. It was not any more unusual than it would be if a company asked a CEO to step down after cheating on his wife, or sleeping with a boat full of prostitutes.

 


 

So is it bullying? The word “bullying” has become fairly fraught in the last decade, with everyone want to co-opt the term. There is no doubt that it has been misused by people on every end of the political spectrum.

There are people on the left who claim that saying “I think that, according to some interpretations of the Bible, being gay is a sin” is bullying.  IT IS NOT.

There are people on the right who claim that calling someone a racist is an act of bullying. IT IS NOT.

Everybody seems to want to claim the word for their own agenda.

So I will let you decide for yourself if Brendan Eich was bullied into resigning… but I will leave you with this thought:

If you think this is an example of “bullying”, then all capitalism is bullying. The very act of people rising up and saying “I will not buy your product!” must therefore, by extension, be bullying.  Encouraging your friends to buy one brand of toothpaste rather than another, therefore, would also be “bullying”.

Because these are all examples of the same process: the customers expressing their will, and that having consequences for the companies that sell to them. This is what it means to have a free market.

 



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  1. Todd says:

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on this. If this public outcry had come as a result of the CEO being black, gay ‘pro-gay,’ Jewish, Muslim, etc., or donating to causes related to any of these, I think you would be very much inclined to call it bullying. What’s more, I doubt you would think highly of Mozilla for giving into such pressure.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      There is no need to wander into the world of the hypothetical: people are fired for being gay or pro-gay all the time.

      And I think it’s a shame… but I don’t think it’s bullying.

      • Todd says:

        Yes, this sort of thing does happen all the time, which is why we’re not dealing in the hypothetical. This is a parallel.

        Now, if what I’ve pointed out doesn’t qualify as bullying then I can’t imagine what does. Perhaps you have another name for it, but whatever term you apply to this sort of behavior, you could never call it right, proper or defensible.

        To turn around and say that it is defensible when it happens to someone who believes differently than you do is a double-standard.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          You’re really projecting a lot onto me from the get-go. “If what I’ve pointed out doesn’t qualify as bullying then I can’t imagine what does”… how about, for example, actual bullying? For example, using physical intimidation or the threat of violence against someone?

          But I agree with you that the more interesting discussion here isn’t about what the proper definition of “bullying” is, but rather whether it is “defensible or right”. So let’s go there. More specifically, let’s talk about what are “acceptable” and “not acceptable” reasons for someone to be fired.

          In many places in America, there is a concept of “at will employment”, which is usually summarized as “either party can terminate the employer-employee relationship at any time for any reason.” It means I can fire you if you annoy me. It means I can fire you if you become a liability to me in a PR sense. It means I can fire you if I just can’t deal with the fact that you are a fan of “My Little Pony”.

          But, even with “at will employment”, there is a big gigantic footnote attached to that: you can’t fire people simply for belonging to a “protected class”. We have set up the notion of “protected classes” to acknowledge the fact that, in society, there are certain groups who get discriminated against for things that are PART OF WHO THEY ARE and that they cannot change, and that that shouldn’t be allowed. This traditionally includes things like: being disabled, being female, being black. As time goes on, other things have been included in some states, including being old. There are lots of “protected classes”, and what they have in common is that they identify characteristics of a person that the person CANNOT CHANGE, and made no choice about, and we as a society consider it wrong to discriminate against them in employment scenarios based on that alone.

          So here is the million dollar question back at you, Todd: Are you saying that “people who are against gay marriage” should be considered a “protected class”?

          If you do, then I’d love to hear how you justify it.

          But if you do not, then the scenarios you’ve illustrated are NOT parallel.

          • Todd says:

            First of all, if he performed this act out his own religious or political convictions, then he is already a protected class in this case.

            Second, though I think the first point makes this one unnecessary, protected classes are not the only thing protected from at-will employment laws. Many legal actions are also protected, and donations to politically motivated causes are usually among these.

            However, I don’t really think this is about protected classes, since we’re discussing ethics rather than law. Protected classes are a band-aid approach to reconciling law and ethics (There are a plenty of arguments I could bring up to address them but I think you and I might find some fundamental differences on that issue).

            One thing to consider on the matter, though, is this: No class becomes a “protected class” until after it has endured a significant amount of wrongful discrimination and hardship. It’s not until the problem of a certain group of people being mistreated gets way out of control that we start thinking about putting them on the “protected classes” list.

            A society that is truly committed to ethical behavior should never have to reach that point. Would it not be better for us to recognize now that it’s wrong to put a person through this kind of thing simply because they did what they honestly felt was right?

          • Greg Stevens says:

            “Would it not be better for us to recognize now that it’s wrong to put a person through this kind of thing simply because they did what they honestly felt was right?”

            This, right here, is the crux of our philosophical difference, I believe. As long as we are speaking abstractly about “the way a just society should work” (rather than getting dragged down into the details of at-will employment law *smirk*), I’d like to respond emphatically to this statement.

            ABSOLUTELY NOT. People “honestly feel” a lot of really crappy things. Some people “honestly feel” it’s ok to stone gay people to death. Some people “honestly feel” it’s their right to shoot anyone who they think isn’t Christian. Some people “honestly feel” that beating their children until they bleed is perfectly fine.

            This ties into a similar argument that I’ve heard from the right: the idea that nobody should be disrespected for their “sincerely held beliefs”. It is nonsense. People “sincerely feel” a lot of really stupid, destructive, and even illegal things. There are people who feel, deeply and honestly and in the core of their heart and soul, that women have no place having jobs other than secretary or housekeeper.

            The mere fact that someone “really truly deeply” feels something is not – and should not be – sufficient reason to respect it or protect it.

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