Any time there’s an attempt to hold someone responsible for his actions — whether it’s Orson Scott Card, Dan Cathy, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, Brendan Eich of Mozilla, or just some random jackass who refuses to bake a cake or take wedding photos — there inevitably follows a backlash, a debate on how far we’re willing to take this whole “equality” thing, exactly.
Debate is good. If for no other reason, it deprives the remaining hold-outs against progress of their last, feeble attempts to seed doubt that we’re making progress in the right direction: the claim that as conditions improve for minorities, the voice of the majority is getting silenced. Debating, without simply resorting to name-calls of “bigot” or “misogynist” or “racist,” will gradually reveal that it’s not enough just to have a voice. You have to be saying something worth listening to.
On the surface, it’d seem like these debates are over the exact issues we should be concerned about: genuine inclusiveness and equality. Conservatives can go on lamenting how their rights and values are being chipped away, thinking of society as nothing more than a never-ending, cyclical struggle that does nothing more than shift power from one group to another. Liberals are supposed to be better than that. We can’t just be concerned with lifting up minorities at the expense of everyone else; we have to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.
But the result is the opposite, because these arguments are always based on a false equivalence: that a disenfranchised group being blatantly and systematically deprived of the most fundamental institutions of society is no more severe than a rich person potentially losing a source of income as a result of his own decisions. I don’t believe it’s always done deliberately or even consciously, but regardless of intent, the outcome is the same. It says, “Yeah, of course I believe in equality… but there are people out there who are being severely inconvenienced!”
Just the Same
In the week following Brendan Eich’s resignation as CEO of Mozilla, William Saletan wrote a series of articles on Slate.com, defending Eich and calling out liberal hypocrisy. Without exception, they’re all variations on arguments that have been used to rationalize or justify Proposition 8, or to label the boycotts of Card or Chick-fil-a as nothing more than intolerance.
“Purge the Bigots” is an attempt at satire with all the nuance and insight of the Wikipedia entry for the Cliff’s Notes version of A Modest Proposal. In what he seems to consider an incontrovertible mic-drop of an argument, he presents several charts listing all the donations to Proposition 8 from employees of various different companies. In terms of arguments undermining gay rights, this one’s a two-fer: on the one hand, it says, “Lots of people voted for or donated to Proposition 8; if a majority of people were in favor of this thing, can it really be as objectively evil as some are trying to make it out to be?” On the other, it’s the same “defense” of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-a that was raised and summarily dismissed dozens of times: “Why single this one out? I can’t possibly boycott every single company on the suspicion that it might have a bigoted employee.”
“Is Brendan Eich Queer?” is a link-baiting headline attached to the argument that maybe Eich is one of the “good ones.” By all accounts, he always treated LGBT people fairly. Isn’t it possible for someone to be a “social conservative” and not a raging bigot and homophobe?
The most frustrating, and the reason I started writing this post in the first place, is “Brendan Eich and the New Moral Majority”. (At the risk of stating the obvious: great band name). Saletan quotes three writers justifying Eich’s resignation due to his being a liability to the image of the corporation and being at odds with “community standards.” Saletan then exclaims, j’accuse, les homos! by pointing out how the exact same concerns over image and community standards have been used to justify firing or otherwise discriminating against gay employees. This proves that the public pressure put on Eich was nothing more than a blatantly hypocritical witch hunt.
At the end of the post, Saletan makes a passing concession to the idea that okay maybe it’s not exactly the same thing:
Losing your job for being gay is different from losing your job for opposing gay marriage. Unlike homosexuality, opposition to same-sex marriage is a choice, and it directly limits the rights of other people. But the rationales for getting rid of Eich bear a disturbing resemblance to the rationales for getting rid of gay managers and employees. He caused dissension. He made colleagues uncomfortable. He scared off customers. He created a distraction. He didn’t fit.
It used to be social conservatives who stood for the idea that companies could and should fire employees based on the “values” and “community standards” of their “employees, business partners and customers.” Now it’s liberals. Or, rather, it’s people on the left who, in their exhilaration at finally wielding corporate power, have forgotten what liberalism is.
Here’s the problem: it’s not that people on the left have forgotten what liberalism is. It’s that a lot of people on the left, right, and middle have apparently forgotten exactly what is at stake here.
The key issue justifying Eich’s resignation has little if anything to do with “community standards.” That is nothing more than bullshit moral relativism, the idea that liberal tolerance means that there’s no such thing as absolute morality. Liberalism doesn’t mean “anything goes,” nor does it mean that right and wrong are simply a matter of who’s in charge. There are still things that are objectively wrong. One of those things is donating a thousand bucks to make sure that your neighbors are stripped of their dignity and their opportunity to take part in the same institutions that every person is inherently entitled to.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Gay Marriage vs Marriage Equality and The Good Guys vs The Bigots
Saletan makes it clear — and not in the “I have lots of black friends” way — that while defending Eich, he’s still a supporter of gay marriage. None of us have any reason to doubt that; it’s not even in question. But I will say that while Saletan supports “gay marriage,” these pieces suggest that he doesn’t support actual marriage equality.
The distinction isn’t just a matter of politically correct name-wrangling, an attempt to shout “bigot” whenever somebody uses the “wrong” term. Instead, it defines how we think about the issue. “Gay marriage” is a special interest. It describes it as an attempt to create something that didn’t exist before, to redefine an institution, to encroach on something to which we were never entitled. Opponents of actual marriage equality have spent years using this artificial distinction for fear-mongering and as a stalling tactic. If they win, consider everything that you lose. It’s the kind of constant one-upsmanship that leads someone to say, for instance, that advances in gay rights have resulted in the left “finally wielding corporate power.”
“Marriage Equality” isn’t just more inclusive, it’s more accurate. It’s not a special interest fighting for dominance; it’s an attempt to guarantee that everyone is entitled to the same things. Rational people can still have differing opinions as to the advantages and disadvantages of introducing a new social institution; trying to argue against the equality of everyone will always be irrational.
That distinction is crucial, because it’s what keeps this a progressive issue as opposed to simply a liberal or conservative one. (Let’s not forget that the argument that stable, mutually respectful relationships are crucial to a healthy society is an inherently conservative argument). Supporting “gay rights” as distinct from civil rights dooms us to repeat the same decades-long struggle over and over again, every time some new special interest group decides they want to be treated like human beings. It means that the Civil Rights movement is distinct from abolition is distinct from the feminist movement is distinct from women’s suffrage is distinct from transgender rights and so on.
So “Eich isn’t all that bad a guy” might be true. But it’s irrelevant. Good people can still do bad things. Chick-fil-a does a lot of great stuff for the community; Dan Cathy’s attitude towards marriage equality is still dead wrong. I have little problem dismissing Orson Scott Card as an unrepentant bigoted asshole, and Phil Robertson’s speeches about homosexuals as perverts give me little hesitation at dismissing him as an ignorant bigot. But Eich, on the other hand, has made several statements about the importance of workplace equality, and he apologized for “pain he caused” (in vague terms, which I’ll get to later). That’s all fine, but only if you’re trying to assign some kind of D&D alignment to people, with the Lawful Goods against the Chaotic Bigots.
What Eich has never done, as far as I’m aware, is directly address one key fact: he donated $1000 to make sure that I couldn’t get married.
And I don’t think that it’s petty revenge or vindictiveness or an unnecessary witch hunt to remind people how seriously fucked up that is.
Saletan links to an article on Slate by Mark Joseph Stern, which attempts to remind people just how toxic and outright degrading the Proposition 8 campaign was. Saletan mentions it in passing, to give Eich a pass for having neither written nor approved the ads. Apparently he’s absolved of all responsibility because he only helped pay for them. Maybe the implications just weren’t made sufficiently clear as he was cutting the check: you do know that this is a movement to write blatant discrimination against a minority into our state’s constitution, right?
But for me, $1000 is still a pretty big deal. It’s the difference between opinion and personal conviction, and not coincidentally, it’s the point where I start to take it personally. When there’s been an earthquake or a typhoon, I’ve only been able to give about $100 to the Red Cross. So however much I wanted to see strangers recover from a natural disaster, Brendan Eich wanted to see strangers relegated to second-class citizen status ten times more.
Having to re-watch those pro-Proposition 8 ads is a reminder — at least for those of us who believe everyone deserves empathy, not just Eich — of what it was like to be told for thirty seconds every few minutes that your personal relationships were a matter of open debate and a crisis for our society. And their justification was the fear that they might have to explain to normal children that you exist.
Just to make sure our outrage scales are all properly calibrated: are we all still aware that this is being compared to a rich guy possibly losing a source of income, not as a result of who he is, but as a result of a decision he chose to make?
Saletan sarcastically suggests that by unfairly singling out Eich, we’re not doing our due diligence in rooting out all the people who financially supported Prop 8. With all due respect, fuck that. It was bad enough being assaulted with paid advertisements telling us “You are different and lesser” and “You’re corrupting our children” without having to seek that shit out.
And that’s where the idea of “community standards” comes back into play. Not in the sense, as Saletan suggests, that Eich is merely a victim of the changing tide of public opinion, suddenly finding himself persecuted for happening to be on the losing side of a culture war. I mean “community standards” in the sense that we’re all actually part of a community, secure in the knowledge that we’re all working together and all treating each other with mutual respect. You don’t have to be shouting “bigot” to acknowledge that it’s damaging to that sense of community to know that your neighbor, colleague, or worst of all, boss has actively worked to degrade and diminish you as a person.
All through the course of Proposition 8, it was a semi-comforting lie to believe it can’t happen here. It must’ve come from aggressive LDS church leaders in Utah, or some homogenous group of politically-manipulated conservatives down in the central valley, or some broad demographic in LA or San Diego who were manipulated by their church into believing that people getting married was somehow a threat to their religious beliefs. But in the San Francisco Bay Area? In an industry that’s inherently progressive? Impossible.
While we’re rending our garments in lamentation of how Eich has been turned into a social pariah, why not take just a second to consider what a shock it was for all the thousands and thousands of people to find themselves the victim of an orchestrated attack? To have their families put up for public vote? While we’re pointing to Mozilla’s vapid PR statements of a commitment to equality in the workplace, why not consider what it’d be like to have to wonder which of your colleagues and bosses are paying lip service to equality while simultaneously campaigning to intrude on your personal life?
It was bad enough seeing a bunch of people happily lining up to eat chicken sandwiches in honor of making sure I’d never have any hope of getting married. Why would I go looking for that kind of disrespect?
Believe me, I would much prefer not knowing. I’d prefer to go on thinking of it as some fictitious and faceless mob of Mormon-Catholic-Baptist farmers who’ve never actually spoken to a gay person, than to be confronted with the knowledge that my boss is saying, “Yeah, your job is safe because it’s legally required. But whatever you’ve got going on at home, don’t you dare call it a ‘marriage.’”
But after I do find out, then what?
I’m Glad That’s Over!
It seems that a lot of Eich’s defenders are walking away from the overturn of DOMA and DADT and Prop 8, wiping their hands after a job well done. While it is becoming increasingly clear that opposing marriage equality in the United States is a losing battle, the battle still isn’t over by a long shot.
A majority of states still have constitutional amendments banning marriage equality. And because of this insistence on “community standards” and moral relativism, each state is going to have to go through the same degrading process, with couples who’ve been together for decades having to explain why they’re entitled to the same things everyone else takes for granted. (All while the people introducing these constitutional amendments insist that it’s gay people who are “redefining” marriage. Even after all this time, the blatant hypocrisy still astounds me).
Every time a boycott is proposed or a controversy is brought to light, there’s the sentiment that people aren’t really interested in equality; they want reparations. It’s not enough to secure equal rights for gay people; we have to persecute anyone for even believing that homosexuality is a sin. As our friend Ross Douthat whined: “the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.” Liberals have gone from fighting for equality to forming posses to root out throughtcrimes.
It’s clearly bullshit. It’s an argument based on the idea that everything is about winning or losing, and not about everyone being treated fairly. And I’ll reiterate to Mr. Saletan: being fired for who you are is nothing like being pressured to resign for something you’ve done. If someone’s mugging me, we’re not having a difference of opinion as to who should own my wallet; I’m being attacked. It’s not petty vindictiveness for me to hold the attacker responsible and do whatever I can to make sure I’m not attacked again.
I don’t have any interest in pointing a finger at Eich and shouting “bigot;” even if he were an outright bigot, there are way too many of those to point at. Any deeply-held personal grudge I’ve got against Eich has a lot more to do with dynamic typing than anything else. But that doesn’t mean he should be given a pass. He did a shitty thing, and he responded to it in a shitty way.
There’s been the argument that Eich’s donation to Prop 8 was completely irrelevant to his job. You could make a convincing case that that’s true for the CTO of a tech company, although again, consider going into work knowing that your boss donated his personal money towards invalidating your marriage. But it’s absolutely absurd for intelligent adults to suggest that it’s irrelevant to being the CEO of a company. Company image and vision is what CEOs do.
And it’s the CEO’s job to respond to things like this. Again, to my knowledge, Eich has never directly addressed his support of Proposition 8. At first he said nothing, then he tried to act as if it weren’t anyone’s business. He gave some vague, meaningless comments about equality. Eventually he said he wanted to “express his sorrow at having caused pain,” in an apology which was enough to convince Sullivan. (But then, Sullivan is the one who admitted to weeping at Obama’s non-committal politically convenient flip-flop, which only happened after Joe Biden “gaffed” by displaying actual conviction). There’s little reason to doubt the sincerity of Eich’s apology. It still doesn’t answer the question.
I think people are entitled to an explanation. That’s part of why we respect the secret ballot but insist that financial donations are public. It’s why opponents of marriage equality always want the issue settled via referendum instead of by so-called “activist” judges — because judges are obliged to explain themselves. I want to know exactly why Eich supported such a blatantly discriminatory proposition, and what’s to keep him from doing the same in the future.
If Saletan’s “not such a bad guy” argument is to be believed, and there’s a wide gulf between someone who yells about “faggots” and someone who’s just a social conservative, then it’s even more pressing. Because if that’s the case, then in Eich’s mind, supporting something as obviously wrong as Proposition 8 was not at all contradictory with his public claims about equality. That’s the kind of thing his employees deserve to know. He needs to either support his decisions, or recant them. If he can’t handle or refuses to address this issue, then he has no business being CEO of such a visible company.
When I started writing this post several days ago, I was going to use Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-a as a counter-example. I still think Cathy’s an asshole, but I was going to say that at least he took a stand that Eich never did. He ended years of speculation about Chick-fil-a’s financial donations by saying, directly, this is what I believe and this is why we did it. A company that sacrifices sales for the sake of staying closed on the Sabbath is, if nothing else, a company that stands by its convictions. So, because Cathy apparently exists solely to foil me at every step, he cowardly back-pedaled on that. He tried to give a folksy, “I’ll just leave that to the politicians!” quote and reversed the only thing he did during that whole fiasco that would’ve earned him any respect at all.
Cathy believes he can scurry back into hiding, believing that the problem isn’t the harm he does, but people finding out about the harm he does. Eich had the opportunity to address this issue head-on, but felt as if he didn’t owe it to anyone. He felt that his political opinions aren’t any of our business, even though our relationships are totally his business to dissolve and deride.
Any discussion about social justice or civil rights will inevitably trend towards hyperbole, so there are plenty who think this is much ado about nothing. That completely undermines how shocking — crushing — it was to find out that Proposition 8 had passed. (And on the same day Obama was elected, because somebody in control loves poetic irony). It had seemed impossible. There was a lot of heated rhetoric, and of course it was demoralizing to go through a nasty campaign season having so much hatred directed towards you, but there was no way it could actually pass. Not in California, of all places.
Something that blatantly discriminatory doesn’t pass just by virtue of a state full of Phil Robertsons and Rick Santorums running to the polls. Yes, there are tons of outright bigots and homophobes, but you don’t win an election with just one end of the bell curve. It takes the support of all the people who can rationalize what they’re doing, who can say that it’s not blatantly discriminatory, that it’s justified, that it’s necessary, that they’re the ones who are being attacked.
To prevent such a gross violation of justice as Prop 8 from happening again, and to overturn it in the majority of states where those gross violations are still in effect, you have to hold people accountable for what they’re doing. You have to dispel their bullshit rationalizations and justifications and address it in simple terms of right and wrong. You don’t do that by telling them that their opinions take precedence over someone else’s freedom. You don’t do that by pretending that their inconvenience is just as bad as the actual degradation they’ve inflicted on others.