Home > Corporate World, Social Issues > When to Tolerate Intolerance

When to Tolerate Intolerance

April 5th, 2014
If someone in a position of authority makes public statements of intolerance towards a class of people, should that person be forced to step down? Most people would say yes, as they are demonstrating an outward intolerance which could easily translate into discrimination against that class of people. But what if the same person made a contribution to a cause associated with intolerance? Is that the same thing? Arguably so; it may be a political contribution, but it is effectively an active statement of support. However, should a person be barred from career advancement, or from holding any position of authority, because of their beliefs? The answer to that is clearly “no.” Somewhere in there is a line that is crossed, and it's not all that easy to identify. If the authority holds public office, there is a somewhat higher standard, as there would be if that authority makes decisions that can easily affect people of the class they disapprove of. Public statements are willful, outward expressions, signaling an intent to more than just hold a personal belief. However, we are also talking about taking actions which could, albeit in a limited fashion, deprive someone of a specific career. In stating any public opinion on this, I believe it is important to carefully specify how certain lines are being crossed and exactly where they are. Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich was promoted to the position of CEO in the organization. Eich, however, had made a $1,000 donation in 2008 to support California's Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriages. As far as I can determine, that's all that there is; he has made no other public statements on any such issue, nor has he apparently taken any other actions which might impact anyone. Eich had served for two years as the chief technology officer for Mozilla, with the donation known. However, when he was made CEO, that apparently was too much for some. Half of the foundation’s board members quit and a large number of employees and local citizens expressed their outrage. As a result, Eich stepped down as CEO, arguably forced out by those unhappy with his personal beliefs. The question is, is that justifiable? It could be argued that as CEO, Eich would be in a position to make specific decisions that significantly effect people in the LGBT community, at the very least those who work for his company. As an official in a private organization, however, can he be punished for something that is simply more likely? A public official must live up to a higher standard, must avoid even the appearance of discrimination. Does the same standard apply to the head of a private organization? Can someone be denied a position because of what they may do? I think not. Eich could be in a position to steer the company towards certain policies or toward supporting certain movements. The question is, should he be judged based on what he actually does, or what he could potentially do? Again, I think a person in such a position is only accountable for what they actually do. Also, as the CEO, he represents that organization, is the public face of it, and therefore whatever beliefs he has also reflect on the organization. This is perhaps the strongest argument for forcing Eich to step down, as such representations can seriously affect the organization, fair or not. Personally, I am loathe to participate in anything like this, which, frankly, smacks of persecution. No one should be discriminated against because of their beliefs. I think a key factor, however, lies in the fact that this was not simply a belief that Eich held, but rather a belief he took action on. His donation would have publicly stripped an entire community of a valued civil right. This was not just a private belief: Eich was taking action to force this belief on others. This goes well beyond Eich simply believing something but having tolerance otherwise. It showed that he would willfully and actively affect the lives of others based on his belief. If a person, for example, believes that Christians are somehow harmful, this person should not be discriminated against because of that belief. If that same person is in a leadership role, then perhaps they should be carefully watched to see if they take action on the belief. However, if they try to get a law passed which, say, bans Christians from holding public office, that is a completely different matter. Of course, this gets into a sticky area: what specific political causes could trigger such a response? Clearly, just voting for a certain political party is absolutely unjustifiable as a cause for denying anyone a position. No, this is about supporting a specific cause. But is this just about people supporting causes we don't like? The answer is just as clearly no—if Eich had, for example, contributed to a campaign to privatize social security, that would not create anything near the same furor. One could argue that such a campaign could adversely affect large numbers of people—though pretty much any political policy could do that. There is a significant difference between supporting policies which are based upon beliefs regarding how society and its resources should be run, and supporting policies which legislate discrimination against specific groups defined by innate characteristics. The line being crossed is, in fact, specific: we're talking about a policy that discriminates against a class of people. We're talking about someone in a position of authority, someone who acts as a representative, who took willful steps in that act of discrimination. That it was a political act of discrimination rather than a private act is a distinction without a difference. Then there is the matter of which position is being denied. It is not as if Eich is being denied any job; he was not pushed out of his relatively high-profile CTO position despite his contribution being known. In this case, he was denied a leadership position—one which reflected on the company's image, one which essentially said that everyone in the organization had or would have confidence in his judgments—something clearly contrary to fact. When I first saw this story, my immediate reaction was against the call to remove Eich; I saw it as many now do, as persecution based upon beliefs. However, as I consider the specifics—in particular, the fact that Eich took positive action to discriminate, and that he would be in a leadership position with implications well beyond any specific actions he takes in that position—I changed my mind. I probably would still not personally call for his ouster. However, I would not judge any such call as unjustifiable.

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  1. Troy
    April 5th, 2014 at 14:47 | #1

    nicely walked through. this is indeed a complex subject.

    maybe people [should] have a right to privacy to not have their political donations disclosed like this. we can easily construct cases were people donating to e.g. Obama, anti-corporatocratic, or pro-choice causes would encounter unwanted push-back.

    we seem to be moving away from monetary limits, so that would be the next step I guess.

    even with limits as they are, donors could get donor IDs from the gov’t and use them to identify themselves to donees.

  2. Troy
  3. Brad
    April 12th, 2014 at 15:54 | #3

    I think your analysis breaks down here:

    > Eich was taking action to force this belief on others.

    No, he wasn’t.

    He made a donation to influence those making their *choice* (their vote). There was no ‘force’ involved.

  4. Luis
    April 13th, 2014 at 09:50 | #4

    Brad:

    I see what you mean, but you misunderstand what the word “force” applied to. The force was not applied to people voting; the force was applied to people having or not having the right to marry, something which should be a fundamental right of all people.

    His donation was the action; the law was the force. He contributed to (and therefore agreed to, believed in, and advocated for) a law which would translate his beliefs into a law which would strip others of their rights.

    The choice rightly belongs to those getting married, not to others who believe their religious or other beliefs empower them to make the choice for others.

  5. Brad
    April 13th, 2014 at 18:39 | #5

    Luis,

    What you’ve said shows that you’re conflating what should be two separate issues – Eich’s donation versus the vote itself. You’re allowing your distaste for the topic of the vote to color your opinion of the parties supporting one side of that vote, and it’s stopping you from cleanly decoupling the two as I believe you should. Almost everything you said in your reply was about the subject matter of Proposition 8 and how it shouldn’t have been held at all. Little about Eich except this:

    > His donation was the action; the law was the force.

    But that’s not true; or at least, certainly not complete. His was but one tiny fraction of the overall ‘action’ that might have enabled the law. It seems poor play to damn him for his small piece of the action just because his part was visible. What sort of lesson is that to America? “Citizens should skulk in the shadows if they want to play a part in public debate”?

    Do you believe all citizens who voted YES should lose their jobs? If not, then it’s inconsistent for you to argue differently about Eich. His support of the proposition was a further step removed from the outcome than that of the actual voters themselves.

    You don’t believe the vote should have been held in the first place (“the choice rightly belongs to those getting married, not to others …”). But the democratic processes of the state permitted the vote to be held. Decision made. Battle fought and lost. But some people didn’t like that decision, and decided to fight it all over again two levels removed. It shouldn’t have been raised anew with Eich’s action. It’s incorrect to muddy the waters that way. Symptomatic of poor losers to shoehorn their anger over their previous loss on Eich. Or is this vengeance? Ugly either way.

    It’s a bit frightening, actually -

    > He contributed to (and therefore agreed to, believed in, and advocated for) a law which would translate his beliefs into a law which would strip others of their rights.

    As did everyone else who contributed – i.e. *voted* – for that law.

    “I exercised my democratic right to support Proposition 8″ — SACK HIM.

    “I exercised my democratic right to vote YES for Proposition 8″ — SACK HIM.

    Eich was pushed down a slippery slope. But the people who know they are ‘right’ – who didn’t want to allow anyone to vote on the issue at all – aren’t too worried about that I guess. They know they are right. No need to vote! Just do what we say! And if you don’t – YOU’LL PAY for speaking your mind!

    Whatever happened to that inspirational quote – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? A great pity that this seems to be no longer the case in America. Eich spent $1,000 to have his say.

    Once you allow the entirely legal actions of people to be seen as ‘wrong’ – as judged by a fraction of the public, and not by society’s actual *laws* – with those people punished for same … well, why have laws at all?

    Is the USA a country ruled by law or by (a fraction of) (loud) public opinion?

  6. Luis
    April 14th, 2014 at 10:44 | #6

    His was but one tiny fraction of the overall ‘action’ that might have enabled the law. It seems poor play to damn him for his small piece of the action just because his part was visible. What sort of lesson is that to America? “Citizens should skulk in the shadows if they want to play a part in public debate”?
    It does not matter if his were the only vote or one of millions, if his contribution was $100 or $1,000,000. It’s not about scale of responsibility, it is about his willingness to force his own beliefs on others in a way that strips them of their civil rights and how that affects his ability to represent a major organization in a leadership role.

    As for public debate, anyone is welcome to engage in it, but no one has the right to be free of the consequences if they make statements that others consider unacceptable. If someone joins public debate and says that blacks are unintelligent or Jews are money-grubbers, is it wrong for others to react negatively to that?

    Do you believe all citizens who voted YES should lose their jobs? If not, then it’s inconsistent for you to argue differently about Eich.
    Not at all. As I made rather clear in the post, this only applies to leadership positions which may reflect badly on an entire organization. Nor is it an absolute; it was a reaction by many people, some of whom resigned their own positions in protest. When so many people, from within and without, make such strong statements, the viability of someone in a leadership position becomes that weak, they may not be able to lead well. You have a right to a job, but you do not have the right to a leadership position. Big difference.

    But the democratic processes of the state permitted the vote to be held. Decision made. Battle fought and lost. But some people didn’t like that decision, and decided to fight it all over again two levels removed. It shouldn’t have been raised anew with Eich’s action. It’s incorrect to muddy the waters that way. Symptomatic of poor losers to shoehorn their anger over their previous loss on Eich. Or is this vengeance? Ugly either way.

    You are conflating opposition to the idea of stripping a whole community of their cherished civil rights to being a sore loser. If Mississippi held a vote to make it illegal for black people to have children and it passed, would you have the same reaction? Or would you see it as outrageous and condemn anyone who tried to make that happen? Would you be willing to have your organization led by someone who not only voted for that, but made substantial contributions to convince others to vote for it? Would you excuse anyone who supported the idea as simply participating in “public debate”?

    I think your two primary oversights in this issue are (1) the idea that you are participating in public debate shields you from negative reactions to objectionable positions, and (2) that this is about anyone losing any job, as opposed to a very specific leadership role in a high-profile organization.

    There is a point at which a reprehensible enough expression can be a real detriment to holding a position where you are called upon to inspire, lead, and represent a large number of people.

  7. Brad
    April 21st, 2014 at 12:58 | #7

    > It’s not about scale of responsibility, it is about his willingness to force his own beliefs on others in a way that strips them of their civil rights …

    And again, he *didn’t do this*. There was no ‘force’, no improper ‘way’. It was entirely legal and correct procedure to lobby for, to support, either side of the proposition, detached from the power of actually “stripping” those civil rights, which was always in the hands of the voters.

    > As for public debate, anyone is welcome to engage in it, but no one has the right to be free of the consequences if they make statements that others consider unacceptable.

    Oh dear. You’ve waved a red flag in front of me with that one. :-)

    Just as I have total contempt for thugs who escalate a verbal discussion/debate to physical violence because they don’t have the smarts to reply in the same vein, so too do I completely reject the premise that a noisy mob has the right to exact revenge – your ‘consequences’ – outside of the original arena of public debate.

    I.e. -

    > If someone joins public debate and says that blacks are unintelligent or Jews are money-grubbers, is it wrong for others to react negatively to that?

    They can react – negatively – *the same way*. They can put up their own money, make their own donations, mock the statements in the press, the media, the internet, etc. Everything up to baying for his blood. Attack the argument, not the man.

    It’s a sad society that allows those people to escalate matters to destroying the careers of their opponents just because they don’t like what they hear. No matter how justified, how righteous, they may feel. I’ll never agree with that. I’m unhappy that you do.

    > Would you be willing to have your organization led by someone who not only voted for that, but made substantial contributions to convince others to vote for it?

    Basically, yes. I wouldn’t like it, but I would act in accordance with my core faith that work and ‘home’ can be, and have a right to be, separate. I would point out that those screaming for his head “just because he MIGHT do something we don’t like” would be basing their arguments entirely on fear and absolutely no evidence.

    And then I would watch him like a hawk. :-)

    You probably won’t remember this, Luis, but one of my first comments on your blog, years back, was in opposition to your support for the separation of church and state. I didn’t see any problem with the small inclusions of Christian elements in US schools and criticised your ‘slavish’ worship of the US constitution/amendment.

    Ultimately you convinced me (after slapping me down for the ‘slavish’ barb :-) ) that you were correct, on the grounds of the ‘slippery slope’; that if the separation were not *rigidly* maintained, kept strictly in accordance with the objective/absolute wording of the law, over time the composition of school matters would become ever more religious.

    I didn’t like this, but you explained that history was on your side; “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” happening time and time again over the years.

    I can’t help but think of that old Luis while reading your views here. It seems to me that you’ve switched sides. The mob shouldn’t old sway over established law; people shouldn’t be jousted from their jobs on popular appeal.

    Oh, unless it’s about this one particular issue (which Luis finds particularly repulsive). That’s an exception, it’s okay, the rules don’t matter for this one.

    Tell me, Luis … what happens next month when the mob decides to persecute someone else because they don’t like his stance on some other issue? Not the topic of homosexual marriage which has so spurred your righteous outrage in Eich’s case. When your noisy brethren are braying with a volume you find you no longer share? Are they still right? Should they still have the power to cause people they don’t like to be sacked? When you no longer endorse their cause to such an extent?

    That’s the core injustice of your current stance – you’re letting a noisy minority of lobbyists have direct power over people’s lives. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, Luis. The lobbyists attempt to sway the votes of the people, but they aren’t supposed to have the power you’ve given them. Getting rid of the bloke with no vote, no decision made by the people. (*All* the people.)

    (Of course, having a democratic vote to expel Eich from his job wouldn’t be legal in the first place. Another clue as to the injustice of the matter.)

    Your first reaction to Eich’s removal was the correct one, Luis; you rightly saw it as persecution against an individual by a mob, unsupported by law, based on fear of what *might be*.

    But then as you ‘considered the specifics’ you allowed your emotional outrage to let you ignore the law/principles of the matter. It’s so BAD, what he proposed was so ABHORRENT, well, it’s okay then. As I’ve mentioned, the majority of your prose on this matter dwells on that specific topic – homosexual marriage. *Substitute another issue* and your argument is missing half its guts. You can no longer see the forest for this specific tree. There’s no objectivity here.

    Luis, there are so many reasons to knock this action on the head. So many reservations, as you’ve noted. No legal lines crossed. The donation made years ago. No other public statements made. Absolutely zero interference with his job. The absurdity of jettisoning the man for the *potential* harm he *might* cause. (That last amazes me; I have to keep checking that we’re not characters in the Tom Cruise movie ‘The Minority Report’.)

    But you ignored all of those principles and forged ahead on your gut feelings, driven purely by this one specific cause of homosexual marriage. A proper objective determination would be detached from the specific issue du jour.

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