Saturday, April 5, 2014

In Defense of Mozilla

I’m no fan of JavaScript. It’s a language that has been pushed far beyond anything its creator could have envisioned, and it shows. But there’s still something to be said about a language that has become the foundation of the modern Internet. And there’s something to be said for having been the dude who invented the whole thing.

That’s why it was not at all surprising that Mozilla’a board recently appointed Brendan Eich, their long-time CTO and the inventor of JavaScript, as their CEO.


It was a bit more surprising that the same board then turned around and fired him only a few days later. The sin for which Brendan Eich was removed is that six years ago, he had made a donation to Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that defined – or rather, acknowledged the reality – of marriage as one man and one woman.

Now, there’s lots that ought to dismay us in this episode, none more worrisome than the fact that this decision was taken in the name of tolerance and diversity. In a blog post announcing this decision, Mozilla wrote:

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.

That’s an odd way to frame removing somebody because of his political and (presumably) religious views. On the contrary, this decision makes it abundantly clear that there are certain religious views – namely, those of any orthodox Jew, Muslim or Christian – which are not at all welcome at Mozilla. I'm still trying to understand how neither Mozilla’s board nor Eich’s detractors didn't see the irony there. Their blinders are more complete than I would have suspected.

This decision also raises concerns about the possibility of any real dialogue with folks on disparate sides of the issue. Mozilla’s logic would have made a certain sense if Brendan Eich had been a neo-Nazi or a member of the KKK, if his position had been so exclusionary and repellant that no quarter should be given, no compromise possible or desirable. This is apparently what Mozilla’s board believes, that opposition to gay marriage is a moral outrage, an evil so pernicious that it truly can be rejected in the name of diversity and tolerance.

That’s silly, of course. Even Barack Obama, until roughly a year ago, claimed the same perspective for which Brendan Eich was sacrificed. (Nobody believed him, but I don’t think that changes my point.) I don’t know what percentage of folks worldwide are opposed to same sex marriage, but I’m guessing that it’s well north of 75%. One may be forgiven for regarding dubiously any claim to universal tolerance and cosmopolitan diversity which rejects tout court three out of every four human beings on the planet. As Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

In short, if you think a witch hunt, purge, or inquisition is in order, that’s your business. But have the guts to call it by its right name, and don't pretend you're being tolerant.

But there’s another part of this decision that we ought to respect.

Mozilla took these actions because they felt that, as a corporation, they needed to support a particular understanding of morality. It's a highly idiosyncratic and provincial understanding of morality, of very recent origin and dubious provenance. It is an understanding of morality that I do not share. They were disingenuous and hypocritical to wrap their decision in the language of diversity and inclusiveness. But I very much affirm their desire, as a private corporation, to take actions based on what they believe to be moral, just and right.

This is nothing new. That's precisely what folks on the left have been arguing for decades that companies need to do. Corporations need to act according to the precepts of basic morality. They need to treat employees with respect and pay them a living wage. They need to take proper care of the environment. They need to act, in other words, as if they had a moral obligation to society. Corporations are not - or should not be - amoral agents. They are moral actors, and need to act as such.

And I agree. Corporations do have an obligation to justice. They cannot be indifferent to concerns about human flourishing. They must be concerned with the environment and society in which they are placed, and must give due weight to these considerations, even when they may affect the bottom line.

But consider this. This is nothing more than what Hobby Lobby wants to do, the same Hobby Lobby who is routinely mocked by the left for its lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby’s owners want their company to act in a way that they believe is moral, right and just, and reflects an appropriate concern for human flourishing. It’s entirely legitimate to argue that these beliefs do not, in fact, promote human flourishing. But it’s a very strange argument to hear from my friends on the left recently, that corporations cannot have beliefs about morality and should not act in a way that reflects moral concerns. That argument might make sense if these same people hadn't been making exactly the opposite argument right up until the moment Kathleen Sebelius decided that free birth control was more important than religious liberty.

To be clear, I don't always know, in any specific case, whether a given religious freedom claim should be allowed to prevail, whether the actor in question is a company or an individual. In general, though, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - passed almost unanimously by both parties - provides a good framework for deciding these questions. It says, in effect, that the government can't impose a burden on the expression of religious beliefs (even in a religiously neutral law) unless it (a) has a damned good reason to do so, and (b) can't get the same result any other way. So the government can outlaw human sacrifice, even if it impinges on the free expression of Aztec religious beliefs. But it can't, say, outlaw the use of peyote in Indian religious ceremonies. (That last was the case that got RFRA passed.)

Now, clearly, if Hobby Lobby was claiming that they get to decide whether women can get birth control, that would be an overreach. But despite what you regularly hear from the left, they aren’t. Actually, (a) Hobby Lobby is perfectly fine with paying for contraception and already does, (b) the only "contraception" they have an issue with are drugs that probably work by causing abortions, and (c) Hobby Lobby's objection is not to women getting those drugs, but to Hobby Lobby being forced to pay for them. Well, that's a different matter, and I expect the Supreme Court to find rationally. Hobby Lobby - and the Green family - has a genuine religious interest, there's no compelling government interest, and even if there were, there are lots of other ways to accomplish it.

On the other hand, I would expect the courts to find very differently in a case involving Jehovah's Witnesses who objected to an insurance policy covering blood transfusions, or to a Christian Scientist who objected to paying for insurance policies at all. In those cases, there is a genuine religious interest - I don't want to deny that there isn't - but there is also a compelling governmental interest, and regrettably, there may not be any other way to accomplish it.

I’m not saying that any given First Amendment claim to religious freedom or to primacy of conscience should always prevail. I am saying that it should be considered, and given due weight, even if the entity making the claim is a for-profit corporation. This is exactly what the Mozilla Corporation believed it was doing; and that is why I want to affirm their desire to do so, even though (in this particular case) their actions were silly, dangerous and counter-productive, precisely on their own terms.

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