The cause of gay rights has moved from strength to strength in the last decade, progressing from the passage of statewide same-sex marriage laws to the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act in the historic Windsor ruling. Scant months ago, even archconservative Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was forced by public outcry to veto a notoriously homophobic bill passed by her own party. This week brought another landmark on the path to equality: In the ousting of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, the movement has achieved its first Pyrrhic victory.
Eich, who took the job only last month, made the classic mistake of exercising his right to free speech. In 2008, he contributed to the campaign to pass Proposition 8, a referendum that blocked gay marriage in California until it, too, was swept aside by the Supreme Court. His $1,000 donation was already a matter of public record, stoking some umbrage in the tech community when it was reported by the Los Angeles Times a few years ago; it wasn’t until his ascent to the top chair at a fading tech company, however, that the wider Internet sniffed the possibility for moral panic. The dating website OkCupid ripped Eich in a letter to its users, encouraging them to turn to other browsers. Soon Mozilla board members were stepping down, the company was issuing frantic statements confirming their “commitment to inclusiveness,” and the momentum had become too great to stop. Citing a spontaneous urge to “take some trips with [his] family,” Eich yesterday announced he was leaving the company he helped create.
This is a chilling proposition for a number of reasons. For one, we have no reason to think that Eich was remotely prejudicial in his professional life. There have been no claims that he discriminated against gay employees or otherwise abused his authority in the service of his views. Even sincere and prominent critics of Eich’s donation conceded that the organization is overwhelmingly on the side of the angels and that direct action against it would be counterproductive. Mozilla is on record supporting marriage equality for LGBT couples, and certainly pursues no agenda against gay people. What’s more, their chief executive was by no means a crusader on the issue. Aside from this lone exception, he seems to have led an apolitical life, probably out of sheer pragmatism. Mozilla, in other words, is no Chick Fil-A, and Eich no Dan Cathy.
But even if he were like Cathy—even if Eich’s politics were far more odious, and if he shouted them from every rooftop—this would be wrong. Leaving aside the lazy moralism of divining a man’s character from a single, six-year-old political contribution, or the reductive illogic that weds an entire company’s policies to the beliefs of its founder, there can be no place in a pluralistic society for the mass hounding of a private citizen. For that is what Eich is, surely; he is not a candidate for office or a crafter of public policy. And yet we presume to vet his opinions, to apply to him a litmus test that, indeed, many of our elected officials would themselves fail.
Of course, Eich is a public figure, and his personal choices have political significance in one sense: As the head of a notably open, progressive company in a socially liberal industry, he could hardly do his job effectively after being made a symbol of prejudice. With cascading bad press and the potential for serious losses, the internal decision by Mozilla and Eich to part ways was inevitable and, in a business sense, quite correct. This doesn’t excuse the authors of a reckless hysteria.
Some will say that the call to boycott is a politically valid act, just as Eich’s donation was. This is true, as far as it goes. Individuals are allowed to withhold their business from actors with whom they disagree; faced with a political system too procedurally paralyzed to express the will of its constituents, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people feel more empowered as consumers than voters. But why is it now insufficient to debate our adversaries and coexist with them? Why must we now shame, censure, silence? When we fail to listen, we will necessarily also fail to persuade. Life is long, Internet outrage is cheap, and these campaigns of faux-activism do nothing to make the world more just.
They can absolutely engender an unearned sense of accomplishment, though. In the wake of Eich's resignation, OkCupid issued a statement pronouncing themselves, with immaculate smugness, "satisfied" with the results of their attack. How marvelous for them, to be satisfied. Yesterday, at the very moment of their triumph, the Republican governor of Mississippi signed into law a "religious freedom restoration bill" that the LGBT community rightly fears will lead to state discrimination against them under the guise of religious protection. But because of the courageous actions of a number of online commentators, a computer programmer in California lost his job. So everything will be all right.
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