fuzzy notepad

[blog] Mozilla and free speech

What a fucking clusterfuck.

In case you were absent from the Internet the past two weeks, or for some reason don’t care about tech shenanigans, the following has happened:

  • Six years ago: Brendan Eich, inventor of JavaScript and founding member of Mozilla, donated $1,000 to support Prop 8, the amendment to the California state constitution that sought to define marriage to exclude same-sex couples, and that apparently would have voided 18,000 existing same-sex marriages.

  • Two years ago: Someone dug up and published a list of everyone who donated to Prop 8. The tech community noticed Eich, CTO at the time, was on the list. There was some furor, enough that Eich responded on his blog. Nothing else really happened, and it blew over.

  • March 24: Eich was made CEO. People still remember that whole Prop 8 thing. All hell breaks loose.

  • April 1: OKCupid adds a big splash page for Firefox users, asking them to maybe switch browsers in protest of Eich’s appointment. All hell escalates.

  • April 1: Eich does an interview with CNet in which he says he’s the best man for the job. The interviewer asks him pointedly about Prop 8 several times, and Eich deflects. All hell escalates further.

  • April 3: Eich steps down as CEO. All hell becomes sort of morose quietness.

  • April 3: The world outside the tech community catches wind of all this. All hell breaks loose, again.

I’m pretty interested in that last part, but first:

Why this happened

I participated in the Twitter crapstorm. Several people have told me that this means I, personally, am responsible for Eich’s departure. I feel this makes me eminently qualified to comment. Plus I’m in the Firefox credits which is pretty cool too.

I try pretty hard to be reasonable. Like, really hard. (It probably goes to waste, since people who agree with me will still think I’m reasonable, and people who disagree with me still won’t.) I don’t call people “bigots” or “homophobes”; I think those are ugly words mostly used for othering and smearing. I don’t like calling people “racist” or “sexist”; only their actions. I don’t even like referring to “the left” or “the right”, as though all of America were comprised of two homogenous masses jiggling uselessly against each other.

From that perspective, it looked to me like this all happened because: people were hurt.

I trust Mozilla. I believe in Mozilla. I wouldn’t use those words to describe Frito-Lay or Pepsi or Microsoft. Mozilla is unique: their whole thing is pushing a philosophy. They have an agenda, and they’ve risked their market share to push it. Even Eich was in the middle of such a battle, over video codecs. Everything they build is open source; most of their meetings are public and have public notes; all their bug trackers, where employees do actual work, are publicly-accessible. How many companies do this? Ubuntu, with its fraction of a percent of market share? Firefox has anywhere from a fifth to a third, depending on who you ask. Of the entire Web-connected world.

It’s true: the Mozilla Manifesto doesn’t say anything about gay marriage. You got me.

But it speaks of helping people be part of a larger society, of giving the same opportunities to everyone regardless of who they are, of enriching lives and working together.

You can see how, taken more broadly, this might tend to attract people of a more progressive bent.

How many such people are there in the Mozilla community? Are there very many? Even a majority? I don’t know. There was at least one.

In a world where even GitHub prizes their source code and doesn’t want to open source their own text editor, Mozilla was a beacon of hope that maybe it didn’t always have to be like that. Maybe you could do everything in the open, let anyone participate, and it would be okay.

When Eich was revealed to have donated to prop 8, when Gerv’s blog post opposing gay marriage ended up on Planet Mozilla, I did wince. There was a little kerfuffle. And it blew over, and it was okay, because anyone can participate in Mozilla.

(By the way, fuck Gerv. We’ll get back to that later.)

And then Eich became CEO, the head and face of the company, and I felt alarmed and betrayed. Prop 8 sought to actively remove a right (or privilege, if you must) that had been hard won. That doesn’t strike me as aligned with the spirit of what Mozilla is all about, even if not mentioned in the letter.

Eich responded, expressing his “sorrow at having caused pain” and his commitment to keep Mozilla inclusive. I found this slightly dubious, not least of all for the lack of mention of what he’d actually done. Does he regret it? Does he still feel the same way? If so, he would surely say so. The message is then “I’m committed to making Mozilla supportive and welcoming, but in my off hours I want to keep you from ever being able to get married,” which does not sit particularly well.

Still, it was something, and I kept a wary eye on things.

But then came the CNet interview. It contained such gems as:

Do you think we should judge executives by their political beliefs?

Eich: For Mozilla, it’s problematic because of our principles of inclusiveness, because the Indonesian community supports me but doesn’t have quite the megaphone. We have to be careful to put the principles of inclusiveness first.

What? Indonesia is who we’re worried about? A place whose capital city considers anyone LGBT to be mentally handicapped? We’d better not offend them. Boy, I feel more included already.

If you had the opportunity to donate to a Proposition 8 cause today, would you do so?

Eich: I hadn’t thought about that. It seems that’s a dead issue. I don’t want to answer hypotheticals. Separating personal beliefs here is the real key here. The threat we’re facing isn’t to me or my reputation, it’s to Mozilla.

You haven’t really explicitly laid it out, so I’ll just ask you: how do you feel gay-marriage rights? How did you feel about it in 2008, and how do you feel about it today?

Eich: I prefer not to talk about my beliefs. One of the things about my principles of inclusiveness is not just that you leave it at the door, but that you don’t require others to put targets on themselves by labeling their beliefs, because that will present problems and will be seen as divisive.

And this blew me out of the water.

He doesn’t want to talk about his beliefs; he just wants to enshrine them in law. Enshrine them in the California constitution, no less. But not talk about them, because that might present problems.

Eich, you are (or were) the CEO. You are Mozilla. You can’t leave it at the door, because the company’s work is about what’s outside that door. Mozilla goes out into the world to try to spread its message; you went out into that same world to try to legally define people out of marriage.

I believe this interview is what most directly caused Eich’s resignation. It was slimy and dismissive of the people who were hurt or even scared. (But hey, maybe Eich will make a great CEO somewhere else.)

A Mozilla employee wrote a thoughtful post suggesting that Eich stepped down because his inability to disarm this situation directly made him a bad CEO. Calming the mob is half the job, and he failed spectacularly at that.

So, two days later, he stepped down. He wasn’t fired. He wasn’t pressured. He left to take the heat off of Mozilla, possibly his finest act as CEO.

It’s nothing to celebrate, really. This has been one big sad affair. It sounds like Eich may have left Mozilla entirely, which is a loss for them.

I wish he had tried. Donated $1000 to a charity for homeless LGBT youth. Explicitly congratulated same-sex spouses on their marriages. Said he regretted trying to enshrine his beliefs in law (assuming that were true), even if he still held them.

But he didn’t. He tried to avoid speaking about the secret everyone already knew. It didn’t help.

I wish him well in his future endeavours. At least, the ones that don’t try to interfere with others’ lives.

The media gets ahold of it

And then this happened.

The Twitters have been abuzz for three days now, full of people who’ve never heard of Mozilla, couldn’t give less of a crap about who they are or who Eich is, but have found a reason to be angry at the bogeyman.

I’ve especially loved all the mentions of McCarthyism (the Republican who tried to use government force to interfere with the lives of strangers), witch hunts (where we burned innocent women alive for being outside the norm), or lynch mobs (where conservatives tried to preserve the status quo with public beatings, because that’s literally what “conservative” means). Man you must have some cushy-ass lives if publicly torturing and murdering people is roughly equivalent to having a rich famous white dude not be able to run this particular company. His name will still be on Wikipedia long after we’re dead and gone. Cry me a fucking river of tiny self-playing violins.

Anyway. I flipped through a few news outlets’ reports on this. Some of them defended what had happened as unique to Mozilla, or tried to understand what was going on — rightly so. Some left out a whole lot of context. I know this for certain because I foolishly engaged some people in the #mozilla tag and discovered a number of individuals who believed any of:

  • Eich had been fired. (He stepped down. Really. No pressure either. Claiming otherwise is immensely dismissive of how difficult this all must have been.)
  • Mozilla has shareholders, to whom they must answer. (Privately-owned.)
  • Eich had been CEO for some time. (Two weeks.)
  • The Prop 8 donation was only discovered just now. (Almost two years ago to the day.)

In other words, our sordid tale (previously confined to the tech and Web community) has been churned into your typical bland right-vs-left sludge, to fuel the fire that is American political discourse. It doesn’t matter what Mozilla was about, or how the community genuinely felt about it. The upshot on the outside is merely that The Left is coming to fire you for not loving the gays. Fabulous.

The ire has taken a few distinct forms, but by and large, whether from people who support gay marriage or not, they center on a single issue.

The free speech argument

Brendan Eich was punished for his free speech.

If you believe or propagate that, I’m gonna use my free speech right here to say you are completely full of shit. Or maybe you’re just a reactionary moron. I don’t know. Either way I kind of resent your thoughtlessness. Knock that off.

The obvious rebuttals are, well, obvious, and have been covered elsewhere. Allow me to recap.

  • Rallying against Eich was also free speech. Legal free speech, since that qualifier seems to come up a lot. There is no qualifier that says speech stops being free the day people might actually listen to it.

  • Read the fucking Constitution. Free speech is about what the state may do, not what people may complain about. You don’t have a right to not have people complain about what you say. Which is great, because you’re doing that right now!

  • No one forced him out. We didn’t amend the constitution to ban him from having a job. (That would be ludicrous! Who would ever do such a thing?) The board didn’t pressure him, despite how much flimsier that makes the narrative. He quit to save Mozilla’s image in the eye of its community. Way to piss on that.

  • It wasn’t just speech, or just an opinion. Well, I suppose money talks, ho ho. With a public donation. That tried to amend the fairly public constitution. And then became CEO of a company that you could not-wrongly call an activist organization.

  • This was not a conspiracy by The Left. Whatever shadowy puppet masters that ominous phrase refers to, they didn’t know what the hell was going on until three days ago either. This was between Mozilla, its community, and a bunch of horny single people who ignored the thing on OKCupid that looked like an ad.

    Moreover, it wasn’t because of Prop 8 directly; it was because he incensed the community. If he’d fought Prop 8 and that had outraged the community, the effect would’ve been the same — but the backlash would be rather different. If he’d had the wrong fucking haircut and that had outraged the community, the same thing would’ve happened.

Oops, spoilers. That’s getting into the climax a bit early.

An aside: intolerance

This came up a lot, as it does. If you’ll pardon the lack of better names, the “right” like to scoff at the “left” for being tolerant of everything but people who think differently. Tolerant of everything but thought. That sort of cutesy saying. These are then followed by admonitions of hypocrisy, which as we all know is the gravest sin in America.

Which brings me back to Gerv and the fucking thereof. At the top of his post he edited in the following:

The belief that marriage is between a man and a woman is protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. Discriminating against someone simply because they hold that belief or express it in a reasonable way would be unlawful discrimination.

I’m sure that anyone who is an opponent of discrimination would not want to do such a thing.

I’ll say it again: fuck you, Gerv, you smarmy asshole.

Did you catch the problem here? I’ll spell it out for you: he doesn’t give a shit about tolerance, or opposing discrimination. He only cares insofar as people tolerate him. He wants to be left alone to fuck with other people.

And he is wielding it as a weapon to shut everyone up.

This is the true form of “tolerance”, a word I strangely never hear from the people who try to practice it. It’s only cited by people who want it for themselves, so they are never called out for anything they do to anyone else. And they laugh and grin and pat themselves on the back when they can bust it out, using a value they never cared about against someone else.

Tolerance” was originally a thing we rallied to give to everyone else. Wielding it in this way makes it all about you.

The real argument

Yes, anyway.

There are two reasons this was not a question of free speech.

The first is that he was CEO of a company that relies critically on its community, and he pissed them off. Whether or not you agree they should’ve been pissed off, pissed off they still were. As CEO, it was his job to answer to them. That’s what a CEO does.

The second, which nicely dovetails with the first, is that there are other things he could’ve done that would’ve caused this.

Say he’d funded a constitutional amendment that would prevent marriages between people of different religions. (And say all the people griping now had actually been paying attention at the time.) That’s still very controversial to some faiths, and even enshrined in law in some places. (Apparently Sharia law forbids Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men.) But it would earn a crapstorm from everyone: people who saw their own marriages in jeopardy, people who saw it as just plain unreasonable, people who saw it as an attempt to jam religion into law.

(You can make an obvious analogy that involves race, too. But hey, let’s not.)

If he ended up stepping down over such a thing, I seriously doubt anyone would be smarming about his right to free speech, to freely espouse his political views.

Because this is not about free speech, but tenable speech. There is no defending the banning of interfaith marriage, because very little of the population agrees with it. No one would even call it political speech, the way people scoff at referring to NAMBLA’s agenda as political speech.

It’s only “politics” — or even better, “just politics” — when there are still enough people on both sides to still be seriously arguing about it. Claiming that women shouldn’t be able to vote isn’t a “political view” nowadays; it’s being a colossal asshole. But clearly it used to be tenable.

The question, therefore, is whether opposition to gay marriage is still tenable. That is, can you speak of such a thing in polite society, without earning scornful looks and losing friends?

It looks like, at least in some non-trivial circles, the answer is rapidly becoming no.

And apparently that scares the hell out of some people.

The other side

I will mention that this is a thorny issue. I got tangled into a few conversations with people whose values are diametrically opposed to my own, because I’m a sucker, but also because I’m fascinated by why other people would come to such different conclusions given roughly similar information.

Several people insisted that opposing gay marriage is not necesarily the same as hating LGBT people outright. I picked at this, and learned something uncomfortable that I suppose I knew already.

There are opponents to gay marriage who genuinely believe that it will be the downfall of Western civilization. That is, they literally believe they are saving the world. Of course they put tradition ahead of other people’s lives, with that on the line.

The unfortunate thing is that they even explained this relatively scientifically: that virtually every civilization has been an experiment in whether monoamorous heterosexual marriage makes for a stable society, with a fairly good success rate. There have, of course, not been any trials on anything else, but they aren’t willing to even give it a try due to the perceived immense risk.

What can be said to that? What could possibly change such a person’s mind? It’s not outright unreasonable; in fact I’d compare it to the scientists who scoffed at the idea of rocket propulsion in space, for the obvious reason that there’s nothing to push off against. We know better now, but that wasn’t outlandish at the time. It was completely uncharted territory and people inferred as best they could from what they had.

People are well-intentioned and messy. It would be so much easier if the people we didn’t like actually did just hate us and have it out for us.

If you like when I write words, you can fund future wordsmithing (and other endeavors) by throwing a couple bucks at my Patreon!

(illus. by Rumwik)