On Brendan Eich, equality, and freedom

posted 04 April 2014, updated 04 April 2014

Well, that sure happened fast.

Ten days ago, Mozilla announced that its co-founder and CTO since 2005 Brendan Eich had been appointed CEO by the board. The move was met with widespread outrage from the LGBT+ community and its supporters, who had been incensed in 2012 to learn that in 2008 Eich had donated to California's proposition 8, a successful attempt to strip gays and lesbians in California of their right to marry.

Mr. Eich first tried a non-apology, saying he was sorry he "caused pain" without actually saying he was sorry he donated in the first place. Two days later, half of Mozilla's board resigned over the decision. This week he tried another non-apology, this time claiming the mission of Mozilla itself could be at risk. But the writing was on the wall, and today he "resigned", though it doesn't sound like he had a lot of say in the matter.

Like many gay people, I have a lot of conflicted feelings about this. I have no reason to believe anyone will particularly care about my position on the matter, but this blog has always been about helping me think things through, so here's what I've thought.

The mistake made was not made by Brendan Eich

Mr. Eich can believe anything he wants. If he wants to back up that belief with public action in the form of political donations he has every right to do so. But he should know that his actions have consequences. And this is a key point: belief is not the same as acting on that belief. You can believe as hard as you like, but when your actions lead directly to the suffering of thousands of people, it is only rational to expect those people to be very, very angry at you.

The people who messed up here are the board of the Mozilla Corporation. Everyone had known about the donation for several years and there had been a lot of fuss at the time. Presumably, given the resignations, it wasn't an easy decision. But it was clearly the wrong one. A CEO is a public-facing, highly visible role. Appointing such an obviously controversial figure should never have happened. Once it had happened, and it became clear that the uproar would prevent him from doing his job effectively, the only remaining option was to fire him, which, despite the language, is what seems to have happened (most people write their own departure announcement).

Brendan Eich is not a bad person

Eich is a brilliant technologist, and everyone I've spoken to who has interacted with him in any capacity say he is kind and friendly to everyone, regardless of background. He also invented JavaScript, which despite its many flaws made the web a much more interesting place, and is now doing the same on the server side. The fact that he is evidently such a nice guy is why a lot of people I know and respect immediately defended him. It's hard to reconcile somebody you like personally having really abhorrent political views.

And make no mistake: these views are abhorrent. Whether based on religion or not -- and he hasn't said, so I won't assume -- Mr. Eich's actions show he believes LGBT+ people are less than heterosexual people, undeserving of equality. Whatever his basis for believing it, his repeated refusal to recant or apologize shows he strongly believes it, that it wasn't a mistake. But the problem is that he then acted on that belief, and in doing so stripped thousands of people of their right to marry the person they love. It doesn't matter whether you're a nice guy in person, your actions were hostile.

So where does that leave us? Nice guy, brilliant technologist, appalling politics? Well, it should leave you out of the way. I could just about reconcile myself with Eich being the CTO of Mozilla; the organization was largely his (and Mitchell Baker's) idea, and he was good at technical things. He could have stayed as CTO indefinitely, but he chose not to. He'd effectively run the place for years anyway; becoming CEO was merely a symbolic change. But symbols are important.

This is a huge blow to Mozilla, but they should recover

They have at once hugely damaged the well-deserved public respect and goodwill they enjoyed by making a terrible decision. Their capacity to make sound decisions in general will be rightfully questioned. Simultaneously, they have lost a co-founder and an invaluable technical resource.

We owe a great debt to the Mozilla foundation. Thrown overboard from the sinking ship that was Netscape, the Mozilla browser eventually gave birth to Firefox, which for years was the lone light of advancement in the field of web development. As somebody who holds the web very close to my heart, I have to acknowledge that they saved it. I owe them a debt. And to the degree that Brendan was the driver of that process, I owe him too.

But freedom to love who I want is more important than freedom from poorly-designed web standards, or the ability to block ad networks, or open source software, or online privacy, or anything else the Mozilla foundation concerns itself with. To claim otherwise is offensive. They are not even the same class of problem. If the triumph of equality meant the death of Mozilla I would make that trade in a heartbeat. I don't think it's necessary, though. Mozilla will lick their wounds and recover, as will Mr. Eich, who I'm certain will go on to do more great technical work while holding views that annoy me.

This is not "reverse discrimination" or "bullying"

There has been a lot of pushback of this kind on twitter, with a lot of ridiculous hypotheticals. I don't know how many times we have to say this, and in how many ways, but here are some: calling you a jerk for your belief that I am sub-human is not the same as you believing I am sub-human in the first place. Your freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences of that speech. There is no right to not be offended by things. Your religious expression is not more important than my equal rights, and in any case my having equal rights does not affect your ability to express those beliefs. Taking away your privilege is not equivalent to oppressing you. It's not bullying. An adult punching a three year old is bullying; it's not bullying if the three year old punches back. Power matters, and until very recently you had all of it, and you still have more than your share.

This is a culture war, and we won

But I don't want to claim that there was any great liberal or democratic principle at stake here. Had there been more people who disliked gay people than who liked them, this would have gone the other way. Are there other corporations where the CEO is anti-gay and nobody cares? Sure. Would I be outraged if conservatives got a CEO at some other company fired for her liberal views? Absolutely. Was this mob rule? It most certainly was.

But in this instance -- not all instances, but this one -- mob rule is fine with me. Because Mr. Eich is wrong, utterly wrong about this matter, and my friends and I are right. And now every board at every tech company in America is going to remember this lesson: don't fuck with the gays. In the past few decades they learned it's not okay to be even a little bit racist, or sexist, and now it's not okay to be homophobic either (of course, they often are still racist, sexist and homophobic, but at least they know). I believe that's the way things should be, and as long as I can help things be the way I want them to be by simply loudly and repeatedly expressing my opinion, I'm going to keep doing so.

Because we don't usually get to be here. For decades LGBT+ people and minorities of all stripes have been shouted down, excluded, and systematically discriminated against, denied homes and jobs and rights of all kinds. It was unfair, and unjust. Now the tables have turned, and I'm not going to let some misplaced sense of honor get the best of me. You lost, we won, and me and my multi-colored, sexually fluid, blurry-gendered friends are still very much at a disadvantage, so we're going to take any victories we can get.

Our freedom to be ourselves is more important than you being okay with that.