Mudita Journal

Ostracism: What does civility require? The case of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich

April 4, 2014 · Filed under: Current Events, Intellectual, Politics

Here are my thoughts on the forced resignation of new Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. I ultimately believe the differences of opinion on this topic come down to the question of civility.

The uncivil perspective: Use ostracism when someone is wrong about something important, and we think we can get away with it.

Problem is, people commonly disagree about what is wrong and what is important. If we use it on them today, they have more justification for using it on us tomorrow.

It creates an inquisition-like atmosphere of fear and conformity on all sides of all issues, because the stakes are higher, there is less room for independent judgment, and honest thoughtfulness and rationality are less likely to prevail inside each person’s mind.

The civil perspective: Avoid ostracism in all but the most extreme cases, such as when human rights are at stake and (not or) a clear majority has been firmly established.

Most of my friends agree gay marriage should be legal, as a matter of human rights. What we may disagree about is whether ostracism should be employed in our present situation, where public opinion has been fairly evenly divided, we are already beginning to win the public debate, it is only a matter of time before we prevail, and the debate has been largely civil and productive so far.

The steel-man version of Andrew Sullivan’s argument is that, by employing ostracism too early — before a majority opinion has had time to settle — and retroactively, at that, we are making honest rational decision making less likely and ultimately lowering our standards of civility.

We also create a society where people of mixed opinions no longer mingle safely. How does it ultimately help us for the CEO of Mozilla to take a job with, for example, a Christian organization? Is it not better that he live and work among people more likely to change his mind? (For the record, I don’t know whether Eich is a Christian or ever has been. I don’t think it much matters, here.)

It is very much like the attempted use of ostracism in the global warming debate. It is employed to prematurely shut down discussion and dissent. Civility requires leaving the discussion open, allowing rational opinions to change due to persuasion rather than ostracism.

I’m trying to express the steel-man version of Sullivan’s argument. And I believe this is the side I ultimately come down on, as a matter of principle. At the same time, I don’t actually know if I could enjoyably work under Eich as Mozilla’s CEO. I experience considerable revulsion against his position.

It really is a question of whether we’re willing to tolerate others, or we just want them to tolerate us.

And I’m on the line about this particular guy. But when I see people pretending that the line is 200 yards that way, I begin to think they only use words like “tolerance” when it is convenient. They want Christians to tolerate gays, but they don’t want gay rights advocates to tolerate Christians.

And that is terribly, unjustly ironic.