Sunday, April 13, 2014

Balancing Between Freedom of Speech and Equality

Mozilla tried -- and failed -- to thread the needle.

The controversy over Brendan Eich's departure from Mozilla, the mother company of the Firefox web browser, has kicked up a lot of dust on both sides of the equality issue, more specifically as it pertains to gays and gay marriage.

Eich, a leading light in the tech world, gave $1000 for the Prop. 8 campaign, which fought -- and won, briefly -- to ban gay marriage. Recently, Eich was elevated to Mozilla CEO. His views on gays came out; he was quickly dispatched as CEO.

Mozilla chose between freedom of speech (or beliefs) and equality, and equality won. Now everyone has an opinion, it seems, on the correctness of such an outcome. I found this U.S. News and World Report op-ed on it quite satisfyingly balanced:
In short order, Eich resigned and Mozilla issued a statement saying the company "didn't move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech … Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard."
The predictable result is that what had been a criticism from one quarter has now erupted into a storm of complaints from people (gay and straight) who feel strongly about free speech and from others who see an opportunity to attack gay advocates and political correctness.
Figuring out how to stand for both equality and freedom of speech is hard, to be sure. I admit to a little ambivalence here. I recognize Brendan Eich for the tech hero he is. Both Firefox and JavaScript have enabled programming dabblers like me to do modest web development. And as an older person, I was late, as so many were, to the gay rights party. I'm sympathetic to others, like Eich, who haven't gotten there yet.

At some point during Eich's resignation process, he must have had a chance to say, "I've rethought this and my position has changed." He decided he couldn't go there. Given that, where does Mozilla go? That they decided to go with equality means the company wanted to stand on its beliefs, not its tolerance for diversity of viewpoint.

Trouble is, both positions are defensible. Mozilla can call its decision principled. Yet it left it in a tight spot, an easy target for all sides in the debate.

Ross Douthat, earnest-appearing young man that he is, tried to square the circle and get a dig at the hypocrisy on the left. Douthat finds a random Harvard undergrad who gained fifteen minutes of fame by saying she preferred social justice over academic freedom, a position on the left not unlike a common position on the right: I'm with you if you agree with me. Otherwise, you're going to Hell! (The liberal's Hell, I presume, would be a secular one, while a conservative's is likely to be a literal one.) Our dear Ross is so in favor of diversity. It's lying that outrages him!
I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a C.E.O. whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, and Brandeis’s right to rescind degrees as it sees fit, and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, and a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.
But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.
And with the pretense, increasingly, comes a dismissive attitude toward those institutions — mostly religious — that do acknowledge their own dogmas and commitments, and ask for the freedom to embody them and live them out.
It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.
I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.
It's easy for Douthat to suffer from the vapors over this "toxic" progressivism. He agrees with Eich's position on gays. I find the whole process of deciding between equality and diversity quite messy and easy to demagogue, and the choice of words, especially by Douthat, to be confusing on purpose.

If your belief in "diversity" or "pluralism" means you accept and support gay equality, you're in the clear, I'd say. But if one of your "diverse" views puts you in the anti-gay camp, then your vocabulary choices have laid you bare. You are, sir, playing games. That's where I see Douthat in this case. His "pluralism" leaves him room to be anti-gay and against equality. If Mozilla goes for equality, they're the "toxic" ones? Give me a break.

Hey, Ross, I don't Chick-fil-A's anti-gay stance means they support diversity.

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