Eich, intolerance, and the growing demand for absolutism

There are plenty of reasons to oppose the actions of Mozilla in regard to Brendan Eich, but their enforcement of groupthink didn’t happen in a vacuum. In my column at The Week today, I argue that our political culture has shifted away from debate as a part of citizenship to our total identity — and the rise of absolutism as a result. Don’t think that Mozilla is alone, or that same-sex marriage is the only issue which generates this kind of demand for lockstep thinking:


To be sure, this is not a First Amendment issue, in either speech or religious expression. Mozilla is not a government entity. Employment at Mozilla is not a right to be claimed, but a practical arrangement for mutual benefit. It’s not a legal issue either, since Eich didn’t exactly get fired, even if he left under duress. Furthermore, as some have argued, Mozilla’s board does have a fiduciary responsibility to shield its investors from unnecessary risk, and having a lightning rod for a CEO certainly qualified as one of those risks. (Even if its actions ended up creating much more risk in the long run for the company’s prospects; Mozilla’s feedback site has been dominated by angry messages over the Eich affair.)

No, this is a cultural issue, one that has been brewing for a very long time. As I wrote earlier in the case of forced participation in same-sex weddings, the more we demand outcome-based tolerance, the more we will see the Eichs of this world hounded. Eich didn’t set out to mold company policy around his personal views; in fact, after winning the CEO job, Eich insisted that he would continue and expand policies of tolerance and non-discrimination at Mozilla. But in today’s winner-take-all political culture, that was unacceptable. Eich had to champion “diversity” by proclaiming his support for a politically correct consensus.

My colleague Damon Linker called the activists who demanded this lock-step conformity “gay marriage bigots” in his excellent column on Monday, but that’s not quite the right word, nor the limit of the problem. We are seeing the rise of a new absolutism in our political culture, a demand for total obedience and loyalty rather than an appreciation of different points of view. It’s not limited to same-sex marriage, or even one party. This attitude exists in both parties on issues such as immigration and budget policy. Absolutism comes up from the grass roots that demand complete and total allegiance to their views, as well as down from the heights of Washington, where the president has a terrible habit of declaring that certain debates are “over.”


It’s also seen — even more clearly — in the character assassination from the Senate floor from the President’s closest ally on Capitol Hill. Opposition to the ruling clique’s agenda is no longer merely misguided or in need of rebuttal. It’s cause to drive the heretics out of the flock, to declare their dissent “un-American.” Harry Reid shows that this problem goes way beyond Mozilla.

Not that this lets Mozilla off the hook. Its statement that declared its “organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness” while booting out one of its founders over a donation six years earlier to a referendum that won a majority of votes would make George Orwell cringe:

Conformity Is Diversity! Equality For All…Who Agree With Us! Needless to say, it is impossible to claim support for free speech, diversity, and inclusiveness while enabling a witch hunt that drives out supposed heretics. For a company whose products claim to serve an open-web philosophy, that statement is especially egregious. It stands the concepts of tolerance and diversity on their head.

Fortunately, absolutism still doesn’t sell, as Mozilla’s own feedback site demonstrates. The site logged its highest level of negative feedback in its history on Friday, April 4th, but that paled in comparison to what it got yesterday:


Here are a few of the comments from today:


How disappointing that an innovative company such as yours would be so close-minded and intolerant to a Christian who lives what he believes. You say you believe in equal rights, yet discriminate against someone who believes differently than you. Why should a minority make the rules for the majority? Wake up and realize how wrong you are and give the Christian world a much deserved apology. …

I have used mozilla products for years, I actually preferred firefox over IE. I found the statement about the circumstances surrounding the untimely departure of the CEO, very hypocritical and naive. The groups bringing pressure over a contribution made in the past, or even possible personal opinions are Facistic and intolerable. …

Intolerance is a two way street. You just practiced a rather heinous form in pressuring your CEO to resign. In a world that practices true diversity and freedom of both speech and expression, you have caved to the gestapo that demands everyone think, act, and perform alike. I’m not only sad. I’m freaking furious. I also understand economic pressure. I plan on adding mine to the people who will no longer support or use your products. The browser is a memory hog anyway. …

I’m disappointed in Mozilla for practicing and promoting twenty-first-century McCarthyism. I believed in Mozilla. I donated to Mozilla. And now I see that the “openness” and “tolerance” that Mozilla supposedly values constitute a twisted, fascist, Newspeak ethic that demands punishment of thoughtcrimes. I have uninstalled Firefox, and as soon as get my new commercial e-mail client set up in a few days, Thunderbird goes too.


I’ve been watching the site since last week, and expected the feedback to dwindle down over the weekend. I’d bet Mozilla did, too.

Former Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton aide Jon Lovett, looking at the same phenomenon from the other side of the political divide, calls this the Politics of Shut Up (lightly reformatted by me for clarity):

In the past week, the CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, one of the company’s co-founders, was forced to resign over his support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage law that passed in a 2008 California referendum before it was later struck down by the courts. But this is only the most recent example.

Here’s a list of some other people who were told to shut up, off the top of my head:
  • The Chick-fil-A guy was told to shut up about gay people.
  • Martin Bashir was told to shut up about Sarah Palin.
  • Paula Deen was told to shut up by everyone because her stuff was racist and crazy.
  • A columnist in the Guardiantold a woman to shut up about her cancer.
  • Dylan Farrow was told to shut up about Woody Allen.
  • Stephen Colbert was told to shut up about satire, I think?
  • The Duck Dynasty guy was told to shut up about gay people.
  • Alex Wagner was told to shut up about needlepoint.
  • Natasha Legerro was told to shut up about veterans.
  • Alec Baldwin was also told to shut up about gay people. This one comes up a lot.
  • Mike Huckabee was told to shut up about women.
  • The Whole Foods CEO was told to shut up about Obamacare.
  • Richard Sherman was told to shut up about winning while being black, I guess. …

The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea. Not only is it counter-productive—nobody likes the kid who complains to the teacher even when the kid is right—it replaces a competition of arguments with a competition to delegitimize arguments. And what’s left is the pressure to sand down the corners of your speech while looking for the rough edges in the speech of your adversaries. Everyone is offended. Everyone is offensive. Nothing is close to the line because close to the line is over the line because over the line is better for clicks and retweets and fundraising and ad revenue.


We used to know this. We used to relish the debate. Now that politics have become our entire identity, we’re looking for ways to make sure we don’t have to debate. It’s making us lazy, irresponsible, and absolutists when we should be improving our ideas and our ability to engage people.

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