Playing for Keeps: the Ouster of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich

Editorial

As has been widely reported, Brendan Eich, the founder and recently-appointed CEO of Mozilla, stepped down yesterday amid a public relations firestorm regarding his opposition to gay marriage.  The implications of this – that a private CEO could be forced to resign for personal social or political beliefs held ten years ago – are chilling and wide-ranging.

Briefly, Eich is credited as being the creator of the JavaScript programming language.  According to wikipedia, he then helped found mozilla.org in early 1998, serving as chief architect, before spinning out the Mozilla Foundation in 2003 (The Mozilla Foundation describes itself as “a non-profit organization that promotes openness, innovation and participation on the Internet.”).  In 2006, Eich became the CTO of the newly-founded Mozilla Corporation.  In March 2014, he was named CEO, and the story begins in earnest.

A few years back, it had been publicized that Eich donated money in support of California’s Proposition 8, the proposition which was presented to the voters in the state seeking define marriage as “between a man and a woman.”  Eich donated $1,000 in support of Proposition 8.  This amounts to a veritable drop in the bucket compared to the total of $83 million donated both for and against Proposition 8, but it is an important marker of his position nonetheless.

Mozilla was aware of this donation when they named Eich CEO a few weeks ago.  Apparently, they underestimated the backlash that would result.  Social media erupted against Mozilla’s appointment of Eich, with some sites going so far as to ask users not to use Mozilla until Eich was removed.  For example, OkCupid’s landing page showed users the following message, stating, in part:

“Hello there, Mozilla Firefox user. Pardon this interruption of your OkCupid experience.  Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples. We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid.”

Eventually, Eich and/or Mozilla caved to the pressure, with Eich stepping down.  Inc.com asks whether this is the first time that social media led directly to the ouster of a corporate executive:

“Eich’s departure appears to be one of the first instances where social media has been used to oust a company executive, and that’s exactly why entrepreneurs should be paying attention. What a CEO says and does, especially in the age of social media, is hardly private anymore.”

I think the question is bigger than social media.  I believe that the implications of Eich’s ouster are far reaching – and somewhat chilling.

Eich founded this Mozilla, and JavaScript and a commitment to a free and open internet are his life’s work.  Mozilla said as much in its press release announcing Eich’s resignation:

“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.

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.”

As far as CEOs go, Eich should have been the most insulated from his own personal and private beliefs becoming intertwined with his professional qualifications.  In addition to being part of Mozilla’s open and inclusive environment from the beginning, his life work with Mozilla Corporation was dedicated toward openness, innovation, and participation.

Some employees as Mozilla — they call themselves Mozillians — either supported or were neutral toward Eich’s personal beliefs. One high profile gay employee, contrasting Eich’s personal beliefs agains this professional goals, wrote as follows:

“For the record: I don’t like the fact that Brendan supported Proposition 8, and I stand strongly for gay marriage. And, while I don’t actually know what Brendan’s politics are, as he is normally quite private about them, I have always assumed they are very different from mine on a wide range of issues.

But Brendan and I very aligned on something very political: defending the free and open internet. This is one of the most important issues of our day. And it is what Brendan and I — and countless other Mozillians around — the world are working on together.”

Other employees did, in fact, call for his ouster.  Three board members resigned as well, although Mozilla denied any connection between their resignation and the appointment of Eich as CEO.

Ultimately, the boycotts of Mozilla and ouster of Eich venture into dangerous territory when it comes to the First Amendment and political speech.

It is clear that Eich is, and will be forever remembered as being, on the wrong side of history with regard to that issue.  But part of free speech is notjust being able to speak your mind or vote with your wallet — it is to tolerate the rights of others, even those who you disagree with, to speak their own opinions.

In this case, the company that Eich founded, and his own personal livelihood, have been harmed by those who disagreed with his political opinion.  This is not okay.

[FN] Many people who support Eich’s ouster have compared it to bans against interracial marriage, or slavery, or HOlocaust denial, or various other atrocities throughout history.  And yes, I believe that the denial of same-sex couples to marry in America up through he 2010’s will be regarded as a similar kind of injustice.  But these issues are not comparable.

Although 2008, when Eich made the donation, feels like yesterday, it might as well have been a hundred years ago.  It was not until 2010(!!) that national polls began to show majority support for same-sex marriage.  A Gallup poll from May 2008 showed 40% in favor, 56% against.  In 2004, it was 33% for, 61% against.  In 1996, it was 27% for, 68% against.

Less than a decade ago, the opinion that gays should not be allowed to marry was not just a majority — it was an overwhelming majority.  Eich donated money to Proposition 8 in 2008, and Proposition 8 passed.  From 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act, to 2008’s Proposition 8, to today, much has changed.

So, The Read Zone, what is the point of all of this?

We shape, and are shaped by, the society that we live in.  I for one, happen to be in favor of gay marriage.  But I do not begrudge Eich his own political and personal beliefs – beliefs that he has subordinated for the greater good at the helm of an extraordinarily progressive company, one which provides benefits to same sex couples even in every state, even where not mandated by the law.

Persecuting Eich for his — at the time majority — political belief outside of work sets a dangerous precedent.  What happens when you advocate for a cause that you believe in, but then end up being on the wrong side in the future???

An us-versus-them mentality — where successful advocates roam around punishing their former political opponents — is bad news for business, for discourse, and for America as a whole:

“Balkanized businesses, which only hire employees or leaders that are politically palatable to their donors and customers aren’t economically or socially efficient. Instead of creating weak-tie relationships across ideological divides, they segregate people who disagree, fostering a fear of contamination by association. This exclusionary approach raises the stakes of political conflict dangerously high. When the losing side of a debate is blacklisted, all disputes become wars of annihilation.

When Eich donated to Proposition 8, his state was split on the issue; the measure passed by a 4.5 percent margin. If, less than a decade later, the losers of that fight are unemployable, the next group on the losing side of a historical shift has every reason to fight dirtier, while time is still on their side.”  (Source)

You can sugar-coat it if you like, but those who encouraged Eich’s ouster want him punished, and want him to be unemployable.  Never mind what he did in the past at work, or has done subsequently, and never mind his commitment to same-sex benefits at Mozilla or his lifelong commitment toward laudable goals like open internet.  They wanted blood, and they got it.

“A healthy body politic requires that there be room to be wrong and still belong to normal society and commerce. A society that won’t live together can’t learn from each other.”

Gay people have been around as long as people. Gay people have been in America since it was America, since 1492, since 1776. It was not until like 2011 that a majority of people considered that gay people should maybe have the right to get married.  Nonetheless, under the rubric suggested by the people who ousted Eich, a full 68% of Americans, unless they have recanted their positions since 1996, should be punished for those views.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  This important and historic quote, however, was merely a paraphrase of a longer one, by controversial abolitionist Theodore Parker.  I think the full quote is quite enlightening:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Just like Theodore Parker, and Dr. King, my eye reaches but little ways.  It so happens that today, in 2014, our society has evolved and has discovered — to the joy of so many who were wrongfully denied rights before — that marriage equality is right and that love is love and that same-sex couples should not be denied the right to marry.  But piling on Eich is vindictive, and it is wrong, and it will serve to chill political speech to the detriment of all.

We all hold many positions, and none of us know which ones will be accepted by society at large in the future.  I hold many positions today that I believe are right — but, for instance, who is to say what will happen with a woman’s right to choose in the future?  If I am pro-choice today, and it turns out in the future that pro-life “wins” the great debate, should anyone who shares my view be considered unemployable and run out with pitchforks by the “winners”?

All that we should be judged on is our commitment to live within the social compact, and to treat others with love and respect.  Eich was wrong, but if Mozilla thought he was the right man to lead, he should have been given a chance to do so.

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Editorial opinions are the opinions of the writers alone, and do not represent the opinions of The Read Zone.  We would love to know what you think.  Sound off below.

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