Silicon Valley is in an uproar. Angry blog posts have been written, resignations tendered, and boycotts organized, with no sign that the furor is likely to abate. Seeing such ruckus, a casual observer might assume that some fallout had finally resulted from the shocking revelation that several of the largest names in the technology industry—including Google, Apple, Intel, and others—have secretly colluded to drive down wages among software engineers and executives for the better part of the past decade. In fact it concerns nothing of the sort, but rather the appointment of a man named Brendan Eich to the role of CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, makers of the popular Firefox web browser.
Why, then, the ruckus? Amazingly enough, it is entirely due to the fact that Eich made a $1,000 donation to the campaign urging a ‘yes’ vote on California’s Proposition 8. When this fact first came to light in 2012, after the Internal Revenue Service leaked a copy of the National Organization for Marriage’s 2008 tax return to a gay-advocacy group, Eich, who was then CTO of Mozilla, published a post on his personal blog stating that his donation was not motivated by any sort of animosity towards gays or lesbians, and challenging those who did not believe this to cite any “incident where I displayed hatred, or ever treated someone less than respectfully because of group affinity or individual identity.”
Upon being named CEO last Wednesday, Eich immediately put up another post which among other things pledged in direct terms first that he would ensure Mozilla continued offering health benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees; second that he would allocate additional resources to a project that aims to bring more LGBTQ individuals into the technology world and Mozilla in particular; and third that he would maintain and strengthen Mozilla’s policies against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s worth emphasizing that Eich made this statement prior to the storm of outrage which has since erupted, and that with these policies and others Mozilla easily ranks among the most gay-friendly work environments in the United States.
None of this, however, would do him any good. Since then, the Internet has exploded with statements expressing horror, sadness, and anger at Eich’s appointment. Two board members of the Mozilla foundation have resigned, ostensibly because they felt the search committee was unduly weighted with insiders, and dozens of more junior employees and volunteers have left as well. Several major corporations have released official statements encouraging Eich’s resignation, though it is difficult to tell whether they are motivated by genuine moral outrage or by the potential for cheap publicity. Of course the tech media, preternaturally hungry for pageclicks, cannot get enough of the story.
One of the most widely-shared and lauded of the countless statements issued in response to the appointment was written by Owen Thomas, managing editor of Valleywag, a self-described “tech gossip rag.” This is such a remarkable document that I can’t help quoting from it extensively:
You’ve already said that you won’t bring any personal exclusionary beliefs to the workplace. But your actions in 2008 were not personal or private: They were public acts of speech, for which your constituents are rightly holding you accountable now. You did not merely express a personal view on same-sex marriage; you attempted to persuade others to support your point of view. . . .
Stop saying that this was merely a private matter that won’t affect your work as Mozilla’s CEO. That’s disingenuine and beneath a leader of your stature.
Say that whatever chain of logic led you to conclude that your personal views required you to support Proposition 8 was flawed, erroneous, incorrect. You may well maintain those same views—that’s your prerogative—but you don’t have to draw the same conclusions from them today as you did six years ago.
Go further. Say that you support the rights of people to enter into same-sex marriages everywhere. Say that you will not only support employees in the United States who are in same-sex marriages, but that you will also fight for the civil rights of Mozilla employees who work in societies with less progressive views.
Finally, make a donation equal in amount to the money you gave to Proposition 8 and candidates who supported it to the Human Rights Campaign or another organization that fights for the civil rights of LGBT people.”
(Here is the rest of Thomas's piece.
Grammar and diction unworthy of an editor aside, one of the most striking things about this passage is its tone, or perhaps we should say its genre. The remedies demanded (public recantation, propitiatory sacrifice) are of the sort necessitated by ritual defilement, rather than the giving of offense. It is also clear that Thomas does not merely wish Eich to say that he has changed his views, he truly, sincerely, desperately hopes that Eich be transformed. The key realization is that the howling mob which Thomas has ginned up is only partially an instrument of chastisement. It is also intended to educate. Thomas is in this to save souls.
Whether or not Eich keeps his position, this episode is instructive for those who hold out hope for a détente in the culture wars. The flawed analogy between the movement to end discrimination against African-Americans and the movement to allow gays and lesbians to marry is sincerely believed by many. But it is not merely a convenient piece of rhetoric or a skillful legal strategy. The moral force of the civil rights movement did not permit any sort of accommodation or compromise with bigots, and contemporary social conservatives who believe that they can negotiate more favorable terms of surrender have fallen prey to wishful thinking. What Thomas’s statement and others reveal is that the same-sex marriage movement has inherited that same genuine moral outrage, that same crusading zeal. While supporters of traditional marriage would like to convince the world that they are correct, they may soon find it difficult enough just to establish that they are not monsters. What is certain is that this will not be the last time that a public example is made of a dissenter from the new moral order.