Brendan Eich was that man, and for a very brief number of days he was the CEO of Mozilla—until word leaked out about his tangible support for Proposition 8 and for discrimination against gays. The uproar was immediate and impossible to ignore. Other board members resigned rather than work with/for him. OkCupid put up a notice, visible specifically to FireFox users, naming and shaming Eich for his anti-gay efforts and urging users to switch to a different browser. Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere erupted with calls for his resignation and for boycotts. Eich resigned after only 10 days in office.
The aftermath has even some liberals frowning. True, it’s a sign of the times that bigots can no longer act with impunity when trying to promote discrimination against gays. That’s a positive step and a sign of the long overdue decline in society’s willingness to condone bullying and harassment. But has the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction? Have gay rights activists stepped over a line, and become guilty of “witch hunts” themselves? Is it anyone else’s business what Eich’s personal beliefs are and how they relate to his job, if he himself is careful to maintain a professional separation between the two?
There are those who say that profession and politics should not mix. Diversity is a source of strength and of benefit to all who participate, even when some of those participants may hold personal views that are backwards, bigoted, and unwise. Eich’s personal stand on gay marriage (they argue) should not be a factor in considering his qualifications and suitability for a leading role at a major open source company. And I agree, up to a point. There is a fine line between politics and profession, and those of use who care about diversity should respect that line.
In this case, however, I think there is a very sharp and clear line, and it was Brendan Eich, and not his detractors, who crossed it. Diversity and tolerance are about respecting the equality, dignity, and value of people. People are more important than ideas, even when those ideas are wrong and offensive (for some values of “wrong” and “offensive”). Thus, to be properly tolerant, we should overlook the ideas in order to be fair in our treatment of the people.
Where Eich crossed the line was in going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas, to the point of actively participating in a coordinated effort to humiliate and oppress innocent people. Proposition 8 had one purpose, and one purpose only: to isolate those who fall in love differently than heterosexuals do, and deny them the fundamental human rights the rest of us take for granted. At the point where you actively attempt to bring tangible harm to others, you’ve crossed the line from being a bigot the rest of us should tolerate, to being an enemy of open and enlightened society. Stupid opinions are bad enough, but stupid actions, deliberately undertaken for the purpose of harming others, deserve the consequences they receive.
Imagine someone who wanted to be CEO of Mozilla, but was on record as believing that whites should own non-whites as slaves. Could such a candidacy survive public scrutiny in our modern culture? Would it be a “witch hunt” if it did not? But that’s not a parallel case, because Eich didn’t just believe in denying gays the right to get married, he actively participated in a partially successful attempt to actually deny them that right. The parallel case would be a racist participating in a successful attempt to re-legalize slavery, and then taking over as the head of Mozilla.
Or suppose it was someone who was not only anti-Semitic, but had volunteered his time and financial support to ensuring the passage of laws requiring Jews to wear bright yellow star-of-David badges on their clothes, so that no one would accidentally mistake them for Gentiles when doing business with them. If he were the CEO of Mozilla, and people were demanding his resignation, would it be fair to refer to his detractors as Nazi’s?
Or suppose a sexist believed that women should not be allowed to vote (because ovaries or something). How well would that go over? Maybe a lot better in today’s Tea Party conservative world, but again, suppose he not only held this kind of anti-female bias, but was an active supporter and funder of a successful attempt to pass laws banning women from the voting booth? Would it be a witch hunt if there was widespread outcry against him?
We should be tolerant of words and ideas, and should respect the dignity and worth of all individuals, even when their ideas are unsavory and unhealthy. Actions, however, are more than just words, and actions can and should have consequences in proportion to the harm that they cause to others. If Eich were a bigot who kept his views to himself and who acted in ways that respected the equality and dignity of others—including gays—then yes, I’d be fine with keeping him on as CEO, and I’d agree that the backlash against him was excessive. But that’s not the case. The backlash stems from his actions in overtly and deliberately attempting to deny to others the same dignity and liberty he expects for himself. He reaped what he sowed, and he deserves what he got.