Mozilla's Gay-Marriage Litmus Test Violates Liberal Values

The forced resignation of Brendan Eich will have a chilling effect on political discourse.
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A half-dozen years ago, Brendan Eich donated $1,000 to the campaign for Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that set out to ban same-sex marriage. It passed with 52 percent of the vote, but was later overturned by the courts.

I hated and opposed that ballot initiative. That same year, in fact, I spent more time arguing in favor of gay marriage than any other issue. In private, I tried to persuade various family members and acquaintances that they ought to cast ballots against Proposition 8. At Culture11, a now-defunct web magazine where I worked, my boss Joe Carter and I went countless rounds during spirited intra-office debates about whether there was, in fact, a strong conservative case for gay marriage, a position that I maintained and that he rejected. And I published a lot of pro-gay marriage commentary for public consumption. 

Discussing the issue with such frequency, in public and private, as far back as 2003 or 2004, I've had many occasions to observe that an individual's position on the policy question turns out to be a flawed proxy for his or her attitude toward gays and lesbians. 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.)  

These interactions came to mind on Thursday, when Eich, the pro-Proposition 8 donor, stepped down as CEO of Mozilla, a company he co-founded, because various stakeholders at the company objected to his political donation from six years ago.

At that time, a majority of Californians and an even bigger majority of Americans, including Barack Obama, the commander-in-chief who "evolved" to end the ban on gays and lesbians in the military, believed that gay marriage ought to be illegal. (In fact, that same year, around 40 percent of Americans thought gay sex should be illegal.) Now? "The backlash against Mozilla, which produces the Firefox Web browser, included calls for his resignation from developer groups and Mozilla's employees," the San Jose Mercury News reported, "as well as a widely discussed block on Firefox browsers by the dating site OKCupid, which asked users to switch their choice of Web browsers to show their support for gay marriage."

Eich was not saved by a blog post he wrote making these commitments to Mozilla employees:

  • Active commitment to equality in everything we do, from employment to events to community-building.
  • Working with LGBT communities and allies, to listen and learn what does and doesn’t make Mozilla supportive and welcoming.
  • My ongoing commitment to our Community Participation Guidelines, our inclusive health benefits, our anti-discrimination policies, and the spirit that underlies all of these.
  • My personal commitment to work on new initiatives to reach out to those who feel excluded or who have been marginalized in ways that makes their contributing to Mozilla and to open source difficult. More on this last item below.

In other words, no one had any reason to worry that Eich, a longtime executive at the company, would do anything that would negatively affect gay Mozilla employees. In fact, Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker, his longtime business partner who now defends the need for his resignation, said this about discovering that he gave money to the Proposition 8 campaign: "That was shocking to me, because I never saw any kind of behavior or attitude from him that was not in line with Mozilla’s values of inclusiveness." It's almost as if that donation illuminated exactly nothing about how he'd perform his professional duties.

But no matter.

Calls for his ouster were premised on the notion that all support for Proposition 8 was hateful, and that a CEO should be judged not just by his or her conduct in the professional realm, but also by political causes he or she supports as a private citizen.

If that attitude spreads, it will damage our society.  

Consider an issue like abortion, which divides the country in a particularly intense way, with opponents earnestly regarding it as the murder of an innocent baby and many abortion-rights supporters earnestly believing that a fetus is not a human life, and that outlawing it is a horrific assault on a woman's bodily autonomy. The political debate over abortion is likely to continue long past all of our deaths. Would American society be better off if stakeholders in various corporations began to investigate leadership's political activities on abortion and to lobby for the termination of anyone who took what they regard to be the immoral, damaging position?

It isn't difficult to see the wisdom in inculcating the norm that the political and the professional are separate realms, for following it makes so many people and institutions better off in a diverse, pluralistic society. The contrary approach would certainly have a chilling effect on political speech and civic participation, as does Mozilla's behavior toward Eich. 

Its implications are particularly worrisome because whatever you think of gay marriage, the general practice of punishing people in business for bygone political donations is most likely to entrench powerful interests and weaken the ability of the powerless to challenge the status quo. There is very likely hypocrisy at work too. Does anyone doubt that had a business fired a CEO six years ago for making a political donation against Prop 8, liberals silent during this controversy (or supportive of the resignation) would've argued that contributions have nothing to do with a CEO's ability to do his job? They'd have called that firing an illiberal outrage, but today they're averse to vocally disagreeing with allies.

Most vexing of all is Mozilla's attempt to present this forced resignation as if it is consistent with an embrace of diversity and openness. Its public statements have been an embarrassment of illogic, as I suspect the authors of those statements well know. "Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech," the company wrote. "Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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