Brendan Eich is no longer the CEO of Mozilla. His tenure was short. But if you believe the media swarm surrounding his quick departure, you would think he left in a blaze of burned bridges and violent protests. I must have missed all that. Mr. Eich was asked to step down because the members of his board of directors made the decision that he could no longer govern their company. That's how boards are supposed to work.
There was no mainstream gay rights organization calling for his head. No one "bullied" Mr. Eich out of Mozilla's headquarters. To say so is an insult to those of us who have been bullied in real life. And no cabal of intolerant gays proclaimed that disagreement with us merits unemployment. That seems to be a bogeyman conjured up in the prolific brain of Andrew Sullivan.
Although this was a legitimate board decision, Mr. Eich did do two things wrong: He took actions that were specifically intended to harm others and he made it worse by refusing to discuss those actions. Those who turned to demonize a straw man of intolerant "gay activists" miss these two facts.
Their argument is essentially about tolerance for evolving opinions and it goes as follows: We cannot punish people for simply disagreeing with us. If we do, we become no better than intolerant conservatives who hate us simply because of who we love. It would have been better to teach Mr. Eich, to sit down with him like mature adults and make our case, thereby showing him that he, like millions of other people, were wrong about us.
Let me say that I agree. I am a proponent of guiding our former opponents on a path toward acceptance with calm, cool rhetoric and a mature approach. I wrote about it here, with respect to Senator Rob Portman's evolution on gay marriage. But it is not clear to me how we can discuss something with someone who refuses to come to the table. Plus, this is not a matter of having differing opinions. Mr. Eich made a jump from having an opinion to taking actions to hurt another group of people. To assert the equivalence of belief and action is not only plain wrong, it is inconsistent with how free speech norms have developed in this country.
This story, then, boils down to three simple facts:
1. Mozilla's Board of Directors did exactly what boards are supposed to do;
2. Mr. Eich took actions that made him unfit to lead a unique community like Mozilla; and
3. Actions have consequences.
CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...
There is no doubt that being anti-gay in your beliefs and your actions now puts you on the short end of public opinion. It also puts you behind the American business community. Financial services companies wrote amicus briefs in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases. Their leaders raise millions for marriage equality. Discriminating against folks is bad for business. So, in that sense, some could see the fall of Brendan Eich as a reminder that the business community has reached a consensus on gay rights.
But Mozilla is a unique business. It is a non-profit; it is the creator of Firefox, an open source web platform. It employs a phalanx of programmers, engineers, and techies who also believe in an open Internet. Mozilla is a community, and the board of directors of a community is charged with maintaining the values of that community, including, among many other ways, appointing an executive that shares and expresses those values. Mr. Eich, the board realized, neither shared nor could adequately represent the community he was hired to lead. No amount of programming skills and Internet vision could compensate for his central and basic inability to be a chief executive.
That is why opposition to his appointment came from Mozilla employees.
The media circus surrounding his departure is, therefore, utterly puzzling. But it drops from puzzling to disappointing when I see the entire affair being twisted into a pretext to condemn and criticize gay people, who really were pretty absent in this whole affair.
Mr. Sullivan, a man with many smart ideas and an important voice, calls it "repugnantly illiberal" to demand that a chief executive toe the progressive line on gay marriage and gay rights. He, instead, thinks we should be in the business of tolerance, that quintessentially liberal value of live-and-let-live, and maturity, not "shaming" a man simply because of his beliefs.
Let's accept, just for the moment, that these intolerant gays exist — there is, after all, intolerance everywhere.
First, this story is not about beliefs. Lots of people believe lots of different things and norms of freedom of conscience guarantee our right to believe whatever we want. This is a story about actions that were specifically intended to discriminate, harm, and keep down a disadvantaged minority. Ensuring that actions have consequences is not just a democratic right, it also happens to be a law of physics.
But it is Mr. Sullivan's presumption of liberality as the best path for gay rights that is his Waterloo. Equality is not simply about tolerance. I do not have to tolerate an avowed Nazi, who donates money to a movement to deport blacks to Africa, as the president of the company I work for. I can protest, I can leave, and I can tell the board that he needs to go. The board, in fact, should know that. As a society, we have determined that taking actions that deny the inherent dignity of Jews, African Americans, and women is simply inconsistent with our values and certainly inconsistent with good business. Including gays in that list is long overdue progress.
Ari Ezra Waldman is a professor of law and the Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. Ari writes weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues.