What makes the case of Brendan Eich — the co-founder of Mozilla, and the company's momentary CEO — so remarkable is not just that he was compelled to step down for his views on gay marriage; it's the long reach of his modest foray into activism. Eich donated $1,000 to the Proposition 8 campaign in California in 2008, which sought to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage into the state's constitution.
For that single political act he faced the fury of the mob, which in demanding Eich's ouster has abandoned all pretense of tolerance to enforce its version of groupthink.
The California referendum was controversial from the moment it began, but it was no fringe effort. It won 52 percent of the vote in the same election that Barack Obama won California by a 61-37 margin over John McCain. At the time, Californians believed that they had settled the issue, at least for one election cycle. Then the Supreme Court overturned Proposition 8 five years later, seemingly settling the issue once and for all.
But this time around, Mozilla was not so forgiving, unleashing a wave of controversy. Within days, Eich had to resign his position. His replacement, Mitchell Baker, offered a ridiculously Orwellian statement on Eich's departure while trying to claim that Mozilla's board had nothing to do with it:
Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.
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. [Mozilla]
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.
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."
Eich's demise at Mozilla mirrors the slow death of tolerance and good will in American politics. It's no longer just that we talk past one another, but that we want to shut up everyone who disagrees with us — it's that we refuse to accept any outcome as acceptable other than total victory.