Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Overdue: Brendan Eich, tolerance, and how hearts are softened

I really did want to put in my two cents about the Brendan Eich debacle as it unfolded last month, but I ultimately preferred not to disrupt the poetry month festivities with a post written in the defense of an alleged homophobe.

At this point it's old news, and all the usual commentators have already commentated. Some of the best remarks came from Andrew Sullivan—someone with whom I often disagree, but who was absolutely, 100% correct in his characterization of the episode as a deep and disturbing affront to the spirit of liberalism. This would have been an amazing opportunity for social liberals to have taken the high road, to have done the right thing, to have practiced what they preached. They could have taken Eich at his word when he professed his dedication to Mozilla's tenets of inclusivity and diversity, and asked to be judged by his performance going forward rather than by a political donation he made as a private citizen six years ago. Instead, the Twitter collective belched out a miasma of acrimonious comparisons to Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, and...well, that was that.

Sure. Eich's removal was the result of the free market performing exactly as it's supposed to, and the market was only acting upon the verdict of the court of public opinion. But in this case the court would have done itself much more of a service by showing clemency where it was called for.

(Since it's probably fresh in your mind: if you'd like to compare Eich with Donald Sterling, I refer you to William Saletan—another blogger who usually leaves a bad taste in my mouth—who astutely addresses such analogies here, and does no less fine a job with the final analysis of the Eich affair here, as long as we're counting.)

Anyway, this is last month's conversation, and it's all been said already. But there's still one thing I'd like to share:

My tenure at the Quaker center overlapped with the nine-month stay of a Korean-Ukranian evangelical family. The father was very upfront about his beliefs: people who don't accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior are lost; damned forever. He felt the same way about gays, too. Even though there was never any overt antagonism between him and the several openly gay members of the community, anyone who had taken a class, attended a workshop, or had a candid conversation with the man knew how he felt about the issue.

After several months of living in the community—which required him to work alongside and engage with all of its members, including the gays—he began to soften his tone. It wasn't a complete turnaround: all he did was pivot from his initial fire and brimstone convictions regarding gays towards a declaration of non-judgment: "we're all sinners; who am I to condemn someone else?" Obviously I don't expect him to become a gay marriage advocate (or even much of a sympathizer) any time in the immediate future, but progress was made. The evangelist changed his mind. It was a start in the right direction, and it absolutely would not have happened if the community had booted him out during the first couple of months for not sharing its own views on the social and religious acceptability of homosexuality.

I'm frequently heartened by this generation's passion for social justice, but I'm more and more concerned by the manifestations I see of a vituperous "hate the haters" mentality. You don't soften hearts, you don't win minds that way. Just as nobody will ever really be led to see the light through hellfire sermons, you don't convert the prejudiced by pillorizing or shunning them. Antagonism only makes enemies. Tolerance, patience, and a willingness to engage win allies. If you'd like to see a practical example, please allow me to point you towards Daryl Davis.

In their mob-minded response to the Eich affair, social progressives made an embarrassing misstep. If the right wants to caricature the left as an army of goose-stepping PC thugs, the left practically struck a pose for them.


  1. A) I fundamentally disagree with what you’re saying, and B) you’re really smart, and I really respect you, so I’ve spent a couple of hours mulling over my response.

    To start with: I believe that thinking a gay person is going to burn in hell is equivalent to thinking that gay people are, in some way, fundamentally subhuman. I believe that saying gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married is also equivalent to thinking that gay people are, in some way, fundamentally subhuman.

    There are some gay people, like the ones in your Quaker community, who are happy to working under or living with people who hold these beliefs. I think that that’s commendable.

    There are also many gay people who do not feel comfortable working under or living with people who think they are subhuman. Many gay people are forced to choose between losing their job or their home and dealing with these people. I believe they have a right to be upset about their situation. I believe they have the right to be angry.

    Did you know that in 29 states you can legally be fired for being gay? That means that thousands of gay people are forced to work under someone who a) believes they are subhuman and b) can fire them for it. That is a fucking intolerable situation, and I couldn’t imagine feeling safe or secure under those conditions.

    Your suggestion seems to be that gay people should adopt a “wait-and-see” approach for people like Brendan Eich. “Yeah, he doesn’t think you deserve basic human rights, but that might not affect how he treats you professionally! Wait and see! Give him the benefit of a doubt!”

    It is not the responsibility of minority groups to be nice to people who regard them with disdain. Telling gay people or women or trans people or any oppressed group to be more “tolerant” and “patient” with their oppressors strikes me as rather thoughtless.

    I found this quote from a blog post that I believe summarizes it quite nicely:

    “Anger is valid, anger is important, anger brings social change, anger makes people listen, anger is threatening, and anger is passion. Anger is NOT counterproductive; being “nice” is counterproductive. Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them.”


  2. We're jumping around a bit here. Hm.

    First: I don't think it's fair or even accurate to conflate people with conservative views on marriage with people who just flat out hate gay people. There's plenty of overlap, but one doesn't necessarily require the other. (The Eich reaction piece in The Atlantic describes this nicely: 'Gay-marriage supporters may have been more likely to be tolerant of gays. But I encountered people who'd say things like, "Look, I don't want gays looking at me in the shower at the gym, but why should I care if they want to marry each other?" And I also encountered gay-marriage opponents who were, apart from opposing marriage equality, model parents to gay sons or daughters, exceptionally supportive to gay friends, and wonderful bosses to gay subordinates.' This will seem perfectly rational to some readers and weirdly inconsistent to others. For the latter, note that people are often weirdly inconsistent.)'

    Marriage isn't a basic human right. When you strip away all the legal stipulations and benefits, it becomes a symbolic tribal ritual. One can very well subscribe to and advocate a conservative perspective of the marriage rite as a pact between a male and a female without necessarily committing a hate crime -- particularly when one believes that gay life partners should be entitled to all the same legal benefits as a married couple, as Eich did.

    Aside: there was once a sizable contingent of the gay movement that opposed gay marriage. I don't think we would accuse any of them of believing in the subhuman status of gay people.

    Don't agree with Eich? Me neither. But that's not the point. There is absolutely no reason to believe he brought his views about gay marriage to bear on how he treated gay Mozilla employees. (In fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.) If that weren't the case, then this wouldn't have gotten stuck in my craw like it did.

    What disturbs me about Eich's railroading is the vindictiveness it expresses. The specific issue isn't as important here as the general principle. He was extirpated for not believing what people demanded he believe. His actual behavior didn't matter.

    Anger can be constructive insofar as it can serve as a motivating force, but you can't say the same about vindictiveness. Unless we're willing to tolerate and work with the people we disagree with (because the only way they're going to go away is if we change their minds, and that in itself requires getting along with them to some extent), we're asking for tribalism instead of civil society.

    1. Looking back over my sources, I have to correct myself and say that it's uncertain if Eich supported civil unions. There's no evidence to suggest he did, but no evidence to suggest he didn't. Still -- translating Prop 8 support as wholesale disdain for gay people (that would have negatively impacted gay Mozilla employees) isn't entirely fair.

    2. I'm about to go to bed so it's too late for me to offer a substantive reply, but I just wanted to say that I really appreciate the thoughtful response! I'll stew on it some more in the morning.

  3. I completely agree. This is a criticism that I myself have levied against super-aggressive militant feminists, whose exaggerated antics and hateful speeches only manage to make their alleged enemies and oppressors gain reasons to hate their cause even if they initially had none. To pretend to erase a person based on their alleged inexcusable comments or opinions is just petty retaliation that lowers the original victims to the level of their aggressors, initiating or continuing an escalating chain of hate. They have gazed for too long into the proverbial abyss.

    1. Well said. I appreciate the power of outrage as a tool for fighting any societal system that has become harmful for the members of that society, but targets must be chosen with great care. Nothing about Eich's actions justified the kind of outrage he received following his promotion. Reacting to something with unwarranted fervor is often more counterproductive for a cause than failing to react at all.

      The groups that succeeded in harassing Eich out of his job would have been better off keeping a silent watch over his actions as CEO. If at any point he ever disparaged gay Mozilla employees as predicted, THEN the campaign to remove him could have been unleashed with proper fury. Not only would that have been fair, but it ultimately would have sent a much more powerful message about what is and isn't tolerable in the workplace--and probably gotten both sides a lot more media attention to boot.