The Mozilla CEO was not fired, and he’s not a victim of discrimination.
I’m a big fan of Dan Savage, and a regular listener to his weekly podcast. Dan has a great moral compass and a strong sense of logic and fairness, but even Dan Savage can be wrong–and this week was he ever. This week’s show began with a fifteen-minute rant in which Dan first draws a parallel between opposition to marriage equality and support for segregation, then distances the gay community from the outcry over Brendan Eich’s appointment as CEO of Mozilla, and finally declares Eich’s resignation “a setback for the LGBT rights movement.”
This parallels a number of recent arguments I’ve heard from various other sources that say Eich’s brief and ill-fated tenure represent a new form of workplace discrimination, that employees who disagree with marriage equality should now fear for their jobs, and that the arguments against Eich’s appointment are the same arguments used to justify firing gay people.
All of these arguments are false, for varying reasons. Any regular reader here knows that I’m a staunch defender of free speech and religious freedom–but this case has nothing to do with either of those things. Here’s why the most common criticisms of Eich’s resignation, and the pressure that led up to it, are wrong:
1. Brendan Eich’s right to free speech was not violated.
Eich, like all people in the United States, has the right to speak and express himself without fear of government reprisal. [pullquote]Eich does not have the right to be free of any consequences of his speech.[/pullquote] All the people who called for Eich’s removal also have a right to free speech, so somehow suggesting that their criticisms, earned or not, were oppressing him is ludicrous. America is a “marketplace of ideas.” Eich offered his, and his employees and Mozilla’s stakeholders expressed theirs.
When people bring up “Freedom of Speech,” I like to point to David Duke as an example. Duke is a social pariah, likely unelectable in all but a few small regions, and probably unemployable at most jobs in America. His Freedom of Speech, however, has not been abridged–he’s still free to go on saying all the terrible things he believes, and he won’t go to prison or pay a fine. He’ll just have to live with the way people regard him.
Freedom of Speech does not prevent any private employer from firing, demoting, or disciplining employees for their statements. Quite to the contrary, an employee’s conduct–including and especially the things they say and do–are core to their job performance. There are, of course, laws that protect employees from being fired for certain kinds of expression, and I’ll address those in a few paragraphs.
2. Eich’s resignation is not a sign that all employees might be fired for anti-gay views.
Brendan Eich was not just an employee at Mozilla–at least not before his resignation. He was the CEO. As CEO, he was the face of the organization, the top spokesperson, the individual charged with representing the organization to its employees and the public, and with exercising judgement to lead Mozilla in the right direction.
First of all, to suggest that removing a person from the position of CEO (technically Eich resigned, but it’s fair to say he was heavily pressured) means all employees are unsafe in their jobs is simply illogical. In fact, it is demonstrably untrue. Eich was, in fact, Chief Technical Officer at the Mozilla Corporation from its incorporation in 2005 until his appointment as CEO in 2014. During that time his support for Prop 8 was widely know, and widely criticized, but Eich retained his job. [pullquote position=”right”]No other position, even a C-Suite position like CTO, is charged with representing the organization the way a CEO is.[/pullquote]
Secondly, Eich demonstrated early on just how poor his judgment was, when he refused to answer questions about his support for Prop 8. With criticism mounting from employees and stakeholders, Eich said only that his personal views were his own and refused to make further statements to mitigate the controversy.
3. The arguments people made for removing Brendan Eich are not the same arguments made to fire LGBT people.
Firing* a Chief Executive because his bigoted actions is not equivalent to firing a Chief Executive because he or she is gay, or black, or transgender. It’s easy to understand how people conflate the two, relying on the argument that “they were fired because customers wouldn’t like <x trait>,” but there are fundamental differences between being a sexual orientation, race, or gender identity and the expression of discriminatory views.
Specifically, a person’s orientation, etc is an intrinsic aspect of their being, an immutable part of who they are. A political position is just not. It’s a rational, conscious choice, and any actions taken in its support are voluntary.
I could understand this argument a little more if all Eich had done was made statements of his personal opposition to marriage equality. But that’s not what Eich did. What he did was to contribute his money to an effort to legally enforce discrimination. He took action to take marriages that were briefly legal and make them illegal, invalidating the unions of loving couples and breaking apart families–some of them the families of his own coworkers.
Eich was not pressured to leave because of some intrinsic quality about himself, but because of actions he executed in support of tyranny and discrimination.
*Another reminder: Eich was not fired, he resigned–albeit amidst heavy pressure for his removal.
4. The pressure to fire Brendan Eich was not discriminatory.
Some have argued that Eich’s opposition to marriage equality stems from his Christian beliefs, and that opposing him is therefore religious discrimination. Setting aside the lack of clarity around Eich’s religious motives, as well as the fallacy that all Christians oppose same-sex marriage, this is just not true. See item 3, above: Eich was problematic because of his actions, not because of his opinions, or his views, or any other intrinsic quality about himself.
One need only take a cursory glance at Mozilla’s staff to realize there is no discrimination against Christians. There are many Christians on staff, just as there are at virtually every American corporation. To suggest Brendan Eich is a victim of anti-Christian bias is borderline ludicrous–though in today’s America, bullies have been taught to cry “discrimination!” when their bullying comes under fire, because all too often it’s effective.
Dan Savage’s position on the issue seems to stem largely from fear. He says that Eich’s removal provides fodder and ammunition for the opponents of marriage equality, and that the right-wing will make hay from this by telling people gays want them fired. What is ironic is that, at the start of his monologue, he remarks about watching pundits extoll the virtues of segregation on television in the 1970s, and observes how no one could get away with making such statements today and remaining employed. Indeed, one has to believe any CEO of any major American corporation would be removed post-haste if he even made vague statements opposing interracial marriage, let alone contributed to a public campaign to make it illegal.
Savage’s argument, therefore, seems to be that this is right, but it’s too soon–which is odd considering he also points out that it was not the gay community who rose up and demanded Eich’s removal, but the general public and Mozilla’s own staff. It’s as if he’s decrying that a majority of Americans now support marriage equality and the equal rights of gays, because their actions might hurt public support for those same issues.
This kind of argument could be made against almost any major effort in any civil rights struggle: the forced integration of Alabama’s schools, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, the March on Washington. The prevailing hegemony will always get angry when it sees its power structures coming down, and all of these efforts mobilized opponents of civil rights and gave them ammunition for criticism. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have happened, and it certainly doesn’t mean we should be protecting the right of an anti-gay bigot to head a progressive corporation with no small number of LGBT employees.
In the end, with partisan hyperbole stripped away, Mozilla’s new CEO became wildly unpopular because he’d made efforts to legally impose his discriminatory views on others, including many of his stakeholders and employees. As a result, he chose to step down.
This is a net positive for LGBT people, and for American culture as a whole. The fact that a section of our population will misrepresent it to advance discrimination and hatred doesn’t change that fact.