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April 11, 2014 3:06 PM The Principles Behind the Mozilla Controversy

By Martin Longman

Conor Friederdorf’s latest column is frustrating because he makes several good points, but all in the service of what is really a stupid framing of the argument. He begins by questioning whether or not liberals are being consistent with their belief in tolerance when they attempt to stigmatize opponents of gay marriage, and then he insists that liberals are making a sloppy comparison between gay and interracial marriage.

Liberals generally think of themselves as proponents of tolerance, pluralism, and diversity. Some liberals are also eager to stigmatize and punish opponents of gay marriage. Is that a betrayal of their values? If so, these liberals tend to argue, it is no more problematic than the decision to exclude white supremacists from polite society.

On the topic of interracial marriage he makes a very good point.

My position has always been that civil unions are not enough—that gays ought to have full marriage equality. But the pro-civil-union, anti-gay-marriage faction is instructive. Opposition to interracial marriage never included a large contingency that was happy to endorse the legality of black men and white women having sex with one another, living together, raising children together, and sharing domestic-partner benefits as long as they didn’t call it a marriage.

He’s right about that. Opposition to interracial marriage was rooted in tribalism and racism, which meant that it wasn’t really about marriage but actually was concerned with sex and procreation. “You are from that tribe, and you should not mess with our woman or mix your blood with our tribe.”

Yet, from the perspective of two people in love who want to get married, this distinction pretty much disappears because it doesn’t really have any relevancy. Society disapproves of their relationship in both cases, and in both cases society is using the law to prevent them from doing what others are legally entitled to do.

But Friedersdorf isn’t really concerned about the victims in this argument, unless you mean the victims who are stigmatized not for being gay or of different races, but for wanting to deny gay people the right to get married. He’d probably argue that he’s opposed to stigmatizing people on all sides of the argument, and he makes another good point when he talks about the effectiveness of stigma.

What I think, in fact, is that stigma is an overrated tool for effecting change, because once you’ve gotten to a threshold within a community where lots of powerful people will stigmatize a behavior, the point had already been reached where it would be defeated without stigma. Disagreements over Mozilla aside, it’s wonderful that Silicon Valley is a place where large majorities demand the equal treatment of gay employees. The rightness of their doing so isn’t diminished by the fact that it’s relatively easy now to stand up for gay rights in the Bay Area, compared to attempts to stigmatize something that would implicate many colleagues.
Those who rely on stigma are tied to a tactic that is employed most when needed least, often against groups already marginalized within a community; no wonder stigma it is correlated more strongly with signaling self-righteousness than effecting change.

The problem with this analysis is that it treats stigma strictly as a tactic that people “rely” on. But that’s not how I really see this issue.

There are many products that I will not use because I don’t like the people who own or run the company that makes those products. I am not trying to stigmatize anything; I am simply refusing to give my money to people I don’t like. If Brendan Eich had remained as CEO of Mozilla, I’d have a very good reason to not use Firefox. But I wouldn’t know I had a good reason to avoid Firefox if no one told me about Mr. Eich’s political donation to Prop 8. Presumably, Mr. Friedersdorf has no objection to transparency in political donations, nor to people telling each other about other people’s political donations. So, really, what he objects to is not that the information was available or that the information was disseminated. What he objects to is that there was some kind of organization to disseminate the information coupled with a request that people not do business with Firefox. It’s hard for me to understand why the fact there was some organization and advocacy involved is such a problem.

We know that Sheldon Adelson is a right-wing kook, and we can ask people to avoid his casinos without anyone thinking it’s a problem. We don’t hear much protest of the boycotts of Koch Brothers products or of the companies that advertise on Rush Limbaugh’s show. It appears as if Friedersdorf, and others like him, are arguing that it’s wrong to tell people to avoid buying products for political reasons.

And that’s the problem, because what they think they are objecting to is that someone lost his job because they held a political position. But that’s a very incomplete way of looking at it. First of all, to be accurate, Mr. Eich resigned. He was not fired. But he resigned under pressure so we can allow that he lost his job. More to the point, he was under pressure to resign not because he had made a political donation, but because that political donation was contrary to the values of the company he was supposed to lead, and was also threatening to cause ongoing bad publicity, damage to the company’s brand, and lost revenues. Most of that was going to happen simply because people became aware of his donation, not because they asked him to recant his opposition to Prop 8.

If you think I’m begging the question here, consider that only the CEO of a company (or maybe a couple of very visible high-level managers) is going to be of any interest to the public or capable of causing a company boycott. It’s a mistake to judge what happened to Mr. Eich as something you can universalize to all employees. In other words, CEO’s have to be held to a different standard from other employees when it comes to political activity precisely because their political behavior can alienate their clientele, investors and employees. There really isn’t any principle involved here that applies to normal people’s right to make political donations without losing their job.

It’s actually somewhat difficult to argue that there is a principle that can even be universalized to CEO’s. People organize boycotts of companies for political reasons all the time, and many more boycott them quietly, and it almost never costs the executives at those companies their jobs. Mr. Eich lost his job because Mozilla has a fairly unique culture.

I think part of this is a simple revulsion at the idea that the culture has shifted so quickly under people’s feet that what was reasonable political difference of opinion a few years ago is being defined as bigotry today. But that’s also what happened when interracial marriage was legalized, and stigma played a legitimate role in that process. In that case, as in this, racism had not only been “legitimate” in much of the country, it had been codified in law in half of it. And then it wasn’t.

The main principles here aren’t with people’s right to disagree without being defined as a bigot or losing their job. The principles are the right of people to not do business with people they don’t like, and the right of two people in love to get married regardless of their genders. If you can figure out how to respect the first two of those principles without injuring the the second two, let me know.

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