The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brendan Eich, Mozilla, and the right to be wrong

Everything about this is a bummer.

It began badly. OkCupid posted a notice to users who were accessing it through Firefox asking them to switch browsers, pointing out that Mozilla’s new chief executive was an “opponent of equal rights for gay couples. We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid.”

“Politics is normally not the business of a website,” the note continued, “and we all know there’s a lot more wrong with the world than misguided CEOs. So you might wonder why we’re asserting ourselves today. This is why: we’ve devoted the last ten years to bringing people — all people — together. If individuals like [Brendan] Eich had their way, then roughly 8% of the relationships we’ve worked so hard to bring about would be illegal. Equality for gay relationships is personally important to many of us here at OkCupid. But it’s professionally important to the entire company. OkCupid is for creating love. Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.”

Enemies! Failure! What brought this on?

A $1,000 donation to Prop 8 by Mozilla’s new chief executive, Brendan Eich.

According to StatCounter, 12 percent of U.S. users access the Internet through Firefox, so maybe some of those 8 percent of relationships came about between Firefox users. But instead of being excited that a tool created in part by someone who did not support gay rights could actually, ironically, bring same-sex couples together — why don’t we shut it down? That’s better.

First, your sandwich had to agree with you. Then the people who wrote your movies had to agree with you. Now people are being hounded down from their executive positions at companies they helped create, because they don’t agree with you?

Eich has already stepped down, and Mozilla has issued a baffling statement in which it notes that:

Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. 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.

What? “Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality.” No, no, no, and no.  If we waited until everyone were equal, no one would say anything at all, ever. Meaningful speech leads to greater equality, as Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic notes. Mozilla’s statement continues:

Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.
We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.

Look at this roster of diversity more closely, and there are two things that don’t belong. Age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location — these, generally speaking, are things that people do not choose. You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be from Kansas. Religious views, political views, on the other hand — why, that’s a choice! You could stop right now, if you wanted. Nothing’s keeping you. Why protect something that people aren’t stuck with?

Because that’s the hardest thing to protect: the right to choose for yourself. And if you’re not allowed to choose wrong, then you don’t have a meaningful choice. 

“Yes,” Mozilla says. “We are fine with people who have different beliefs. What we object to is people who have WRONG beliefs.”

Nope. Sorry.

If only it were true that people had to believe what you believed in order to be good at what they do. The world would be much simpler. Not only would Orson Scott Card write good books, but he would give speeches preaching tolerance and inclusion, and you could pay him without gumption. Chick-fil-A’s sandwiches would taste good and come without a side of guilt. 

But clearly this is not the case. The answer is not to punish people who disagree. It’s to make certain we can get along whether we agree or not — if for no better reason than that one day you’re going to be wrong. That’s the first step on the road to equality: recognizing that someone who disagrees with you — someone who thinks things that you believe are lousy — is still capable of doing certain things well. 

The instant you start rewarding and punishing people for anything other than their ability, you make life uglier for everyone. You get not the best products but the Most Correct ones. To paraphrase Mrs. Patrick Campbell, I don’t care what you do in the privacy of the voting booth as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.

I have heard people making the case that opposing gay rights falls under the heading of Things So Embarrassing to Believe That They Belong to a Special Category, With Racism and Sexism. There are certain ideas that you simply can’t hold any longer and still be able to remain a practicing member of today’s society. Go back to 1940. You’re not welcome here. You are holding all of us back.

I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of special categories, for the simple reason that until we invent time travel, you can’t just prevent people from walking the earth believing things. You can wish ill on them — listen to that OkCupid statement! Enemies! Failure! — but then what? The only way to get someone who believes something awful to stop is to try to change his mind or wait for him to die. Saying “You can’t keep your job if you continue to think that” doesn’t count.

Racism and sexism and homophobia are poisonous, lousy ways to see the world. But do they change your ability to code? To advocate for an open Internet? To make a sandwich?

Another argument goes that it is uncomfortable to work for someone who does not believe you are entitled to the same rights that he has.

This I sympathize with. But it seems Mr. Eich was doing a good job keeping his professional life and personal beliefs separate. He told CNet that his friends were shocked and alarmed when they heard of his donation, which suggests he wasn’t wandering around waving his beliefs in everyone’s face. If he had been, and they’d impacted his treatment of people, this would be a different story. Leaving your beliefs at the door only works if you can actually leave your beliefs at the door.

“If Mozilla cannot continue to operate according to its principles of inclusiveness, where you can work on the mission no matter what your background or other beliefs, I think we’ll probably fail,” Eich told CNet.

The easiest kind of diversity to discourage is the kind you don’t see. The kind that seems easy to change. The kind that is based on the other guy thinking something that you don’t think he should think. “Well, it’s a choice,” you say. “He can choose to think something else.” 

This needs to stop — from self-interest, if for no better reason. 

This time, you are part of the crowd booing and yelling and waving the pitchforks and holding the torches high. One day you’ll be the guy hiding under the bed.

“No,” you say. “But we are different. I am right. History is moving my way. History will always go where I think it will go. I am right.”

This, historically, has been untrue. Better protect the right to be wrong, just in case.