Is ‘intimidation’ to blame for ouster of Mozilla chief over gay marriage?

The forced resignation of Mozilla’s CEO over his views on gay marriage has sparked a passionate debate that doesn’t always break down along the lines you would expect.

The media framing of the saga of Brendan Eich has been that a bigot got what he deserved (that is, when it was covered; the network evening newscasts couldn’t find time for the Mozilla story last week). But even some of those who deeply believe in same-sex marriage say it’s a case study in intolerance.

Eich was pushed out of the company that makes the Firefox browser after a week in the top job because he contributed $1,000 to California’s Prop 8 back in 2008. He has not spoken of gays in disparaging terms or made his workplace unfriendly to gays. He simply supported the position backed by Barack Obama until the spring of 2012: that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

I believe that same-sex marriage will eventually become the law of the land, given the shift in public opinion and that most younger people regard it as a non-issue. But you can believe that and also think that those who hold different views should be treated with respect—just like in the divisive debate over abortion.

Andrew Sullivan, the gay blogger who has been an advocate of same-sex marriage for decades and is married to his husband, is appalled by what happened to Eich:

“Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.”

For Sullivan to accuse some of his fellow gays and gay-rights advocates of fanaticism and intimidation is an incredibly strong statement—and a tribute to his long record of independent thinking.

Americablog’s John Aravosis, who got into a heated debate with Amy Holmes on yesterday’s “Media Buzz,” takes a different view—and at one point compared opposition to same-sex marriage to the Holocaust. Holmes shot back that the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Obama when his position was also in favor of traditional marriage.

Aravosis writes: “Normally, I wouldn’t really care how a corporate CEO felt about marriage equality.  Don’t get me wrong, I care.  And I’d laud a CEO if she came out in support of it.  But I don’t think I’d launch a campaign against a company simply because its boss wasn’t quite there yet on marriage. I know lots of people who aren’t there yet – though that audience is slimming down fast.

“But Brendan Eich wasn’t simply ‘not there yet’ – he played an active role in creating and enforcing discrimination against millions of gay Californians.  So his offense was pretty severe, and it went arguably beyond ‘speech’ – he joined the ranks of anti-gay activist.

“But does that mean he can’t be CEO of a company?

“Well.  I think once you reach the level of CEO in a visibly-named company, there’s greater internal sensitivity to anything in your life that could harm the business.”

The company chastised itself for giving Eich the top job, and celebrated his departure:

Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it. We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.

“We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.”

Eich, for his part, told the Guardian before he quit: “I don’t want to talk about my personal beliefs because I kept them out of Mozilla all these 15 years we’ve been going. I don’t believe they’re relevant.”

In National Review, Reihan Salam says Eich could have minimized the damage but chose not to:

“I was a supporter of same-sex civil marriage long before our incumbent president — at least a decade before, if memory serves. I continue to support same-sex civil marriage. But I find the campaign against Brendan Eich instructive…

“Had Brendan Eich decided to apologize — had he decided to say that he had come around on the issue, and had he added that his donation to the Proposition 8 campaign was a profound mistake that he would regret for the rest of his life, and which he will atone for by making a large donation to one of the organizations pressing the case for same-sex civil marriage — he could have spared himself all of this trouble…Agree with him or disagree with him, Brendan Eich was willing to pay a price for his beliefs.”

That is true; he could have saved his job by mouthing the right words.

In Slate, Will Oremus acknowledges that the pendulum has swung dramatically in recent years—but insists it doesn’t matter:

“There was a time when supporting gay marriage made you a radical. Then there was a time when it made you a progressive. Now we’ve reached a point where not supporting gay marriage makes you unfit to lead a major Silicon Valley organization.

“Some will say we’ve come too far, too fast—that it’s unfair to pillory someone for a political view that was held by the majority of Californians just six years ago. They’re wrong…

“The notion that your political views shouldn’t affect your employment is a persuasive one. Where would we be as a democracy if Republicans were barred from jobs at Democrat-led companies, or vice versa?

“But this is different. Opposing gay marriage in America today is not akin to opposing tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan. It’s more akin to opposing interracial marriage: It bespeaks a conviction that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others. An organization like Mozilla might tolerate that in an underling, and it might even tolerate it in a CTO. But in a CEO—the ultimate decision-maker and public face of an organization—it sends an awful message.”

We’ll give the last word to a Mozilla staffer, Erin Kissane, who penned a tortured blog post before her boss stepped down:

“As a queer employee of Mozilla, I don’t actually feel particularly vulnerable, but I know many people in the wider community have been stung as well as intellectually offended by this choice. So my first duty is to them: to the people harmed. Neither Brendan nor our board have apologized for the ramifications of their actions, which is certainly their call. But I am sorry for the harm done. To everyone who has flinched away, and everyone re-traumatized by these events, I offer a complete and sincere apology: I have chosen to walk under this banner, and that makes me complicit, and I am so sorry for the pain I know this has caused…

“Brendan, I grew up in a very conservative religious home and many of the people I love the most can still be described as very religious and very conservative. I think your views on this issue are wrong, and that your actions have done harm, but I can no more caricature you as a terrible person driven by homophobia and hatred than I can break off relations with my cherished family members because they take actions similar to yours.”

Her conflicted stance underscores that this is not a clear-cut issue.

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