tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
[personal profile] tim
So far, the responses to my article "Killing the Messenger at Mozilla" on Model View Culture have been almost completely positive. (That's almost a bit disappointing, because if no one gets shirty about it, then I worry that I haven't done my job.)

But there's one response that may superficially seem compelling. I thought about addressing it in the article, but ended up leaving it out for space reasons and because I felt like I, and others, had talked about it over and over, and that at this point, if someone is still using this argument, they are simply not listening. I'm an eternal optimist, though, so I want to summarize my thoughts on it one more time. The tl;dr version is that concern over "forcing the resignations of CEOs over political donations" is a red herring. The concern is not really about political donations, but about forcing the resignations of CEOs over the kinds of political donations that white heterosexual cis men tend to make -- thus, the concern is really about excluding people in that narrow social clique of folks who have always taken for granted that they will be included in any space they want to be in.

Who pays for free speech?

A representative example of the argument is:

"...but I remain unconvinced that we really want to force the resignations of CEOs over political donations." -- Jason Pontin

(I'm picking this tweet for concreteness, not out of a desire to portray Pontin's specific comment as uniquely heinous.)

It makes me viscerally angry that this is still a tenable response to critiquing putting bigots in charge of public interest organizations. I think it makes me so angry because it's so disingenuous. Literally nobody believes that there is never an occasion when a CEO could make a political donation that is incompatible with the mission of their company or organization. The debate is about which donations are acceptable, and it frustrates me to no end that folks make such an absolutist, obviously shallow argument to avoid confronting the real issue.

The hidden assumption is that public spaces belong to heterosexual men. Everyone else dwells in public spaces at the pleasure of heterosexual men. Therefore, to exclude a heterosexual man from such a space -- especially from a leadership position! -- requires far more basis than excluding anybody else.

I want to be absolutely clear that I don't think this response is quite the same response as the even shallower (but still popular) "Everybody has the right to do and say whatever they want and keep their jobs, because free speech." This response has been addressed exhaustively (see Valerie Aurora's "What Free Speech Really Means" for just one example), far beyond what the time and effort it deserves.

The question "do we really want to drive someone out because of a different opinion?" is different because rather than appealing to shady constructions of individual rights, it raises a question about the public good. Latent in the question is the liberal (with a small 'l') notion that diversity of ideas is always a good thing. Subscribers to this, the liberal viewpoint, say that if we merely include people with a variety of ideas and opinions in our community, the best outcome will naturally happen rather than if we made any intentional effort to actually make a variety of people feel safe in that community.

Donations, by the way, are definitely speech. A political donation is political speech, and as such, is necessarily public. Don't trust me on that one -- just ask the Supreme Court. Donating money is absolutely a form of speech, and as such, should be assessed in the same way as other kinds of public speech would be.

But what about the "public" part? There is a very good reason why political donations are public. It's not, as some have suggested, a procedural accident that means Eich's donation record should be politely ignored. The privilege of privately donating money to influence the political process and thereby affect the public is inseparable from corruption. Put another way, if you are going to interfere with my life, you don't get to keep your own identity a secret from me while doing so -- if you want privacy, you always have the option of not interfering with my life. Given that I can't opt out of a law preventing me from marrying, it's only fair that the people who underwrote that law can't opt out of me knowing who they are.

While it's a bit more sophisticated than "but free speech?", "do we really want to drive someone out because of a different opinion?" is still the wrong question. I think a better question is, "Is a man who paid money to run advertisements insinuating that dozens of his employees rape children, not because they have actually done so but because they have queer relationships with adults, someone who is well-equipped to carry out the mission of his company?" Details matter.

Not only is it the wrong question, it implies a false equivalence. The subtext here (made much more explicit by various voices online) is that anti-queer bullying -- including bullying backed up with the full power of the state, such as the ultimately-unsuccessful effort to make Proposition 8 law in California -- is exactly the same thing as fighting back against that bullying. "You're just as bad as they are!", say these voices, shaming queer folks with the suggestion that we deserve no empathy, compassion or tolerance because our defiance of oppression makes us exactly like our oppressors.

Not only is it the wrong question, it's misleading, and it's hard to believe that it's not deliberately misleading. While Pontin's question explicitly refers only to donations rather than opinions or beliefs, it's hard to understand it except via an appeal to (once again) the liberal notion of diversity of ideas and tolerance for all ideas (including ideas that would, if broadly adopted, destroy liberalism). Without some belief in the inherent value of diversity of opinion, it would be hard to understand why someone shouldn't be held to account for their political donations. The statement "but I remain unconvinced that we really want to force the resignations of CEOs over their actions" would plainly be absurd. And there is no special reason to grant immunity to the act of paying other people to do things, other than (perhaps) desire to give rich people an additional way to do wrong without accountability. If there was, contract killing would be less harshly punished than any other form of murder. We're talking about actions, not ideas.

People keep talking about how Brendan Eich shouldn't have been held accountable for his views about "homosexuals", or his views about "traditional marriage", in one breath, and in the next breath about how his donation doesn't reveal anything about his views about "homosexuals" or marriage. You can't have it both ways. In point of fact, I agree with Eich's defenders about one thing: we don't know anything about Eich's views on queer people, marriage, or anything else pertaining to Proposition 8. We only know about his actions, which can and should be judged in their own right. If the conversation we're having was about Eich's "private" beliefs, we wouldn't be having it, because we wouldn't know anything about those beliefs! That's the definition of "private", after all.

If we take it as a given that the conversation is about actions rather than beliefs, the question remains of how to evaluate Eich's actions. Here are some concrete effects that the campaign for Proposition 8 had:

  • It caused more people to think that queer people are more likely to abuse children than heterosexuals are (actually, the opposite is true), and/or strengthened their existing misconceptions to that effect.
  • It provided further moral legitimacy to those who terrorize queer youth (and queer adults) with physical and verbal violence.
  • It contributed to the levels of fear and stress experienced by queer people, especially young queer people. The copious deleterious physical and emotional effects of chronic stress are well-documented.
  • It incited kids and teenagers to bully their peers whose parents are queer.

Here are some concrete effects that the campaign did not have:

  • It did not strengthen marriages between heterosexual men and heterosexual women. (As far as I know, the divorce rates are still where they were before.)
  • It did not result in the passage of the legislation it purported to pass.

The second point is worth dwelling on. Proposition 8 proposed an unconstitutional law. There was nothing particularly subtle about this. In his Perry v. Brown decision, Judge Vaughn Walker noted the absolute vacuity of all the arguments that were presented in favor of the proposition's constitutionality. If the case was Prop. 8 supporters' best effort to show that the state of California had a compelling interest in regulating intimate relationships, they failed spectacularly. It's hard to imagine that they didn't see that coming. I'm sure many people who voted for and financially supported Prop. 8 believed it would be feasible to make it the law of the land, but I think the folks who campaigned hardest for it were probably bright enough to realize it was doomed. It's hard to imagine that in their minds, the expected value of sneaking an unconstitutional law through the legislative process exceeded the expected value of conducting a smear campaign against members of gender, romantic, and sexual minorities.

It frustrates me that the folks saying things like what Pontin said refuse to own up to what the vague language of "political donations" actually refers to here: violence. This is not hyperbole -- according to the World Health Organization, violence is

"the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation." -- WHO Violence Prevention Alliance

As per the WHO's typology of violence, political donations like the ones made in support of Prop. 8 fall under the category of "collective violence": "violence committed by larger groups of individuals and can be subdivided into social, political and economic violence."

Let's try rephrasing that comment yet again:

"...but I remain unconvinced that we really want to force the resignations of CEOs over violence."

I'm not going to say that no one would sincerely make this statement -- after all, many people leapt to the defense of Scott Kveton, who was (at most) obliged to take a leap of absence. But it's harder to defend than the initial formulation. If you want to argue about whether or not it's really violence to fund a propaganda campaign aimed at encouraging scapegoating of a vulnerable minority group, I guess you can. It would at least beat disingenuously claiming that everybody should find any political activity their supervisor undertakes to be acceptable.

I do think it's difficult for some people to understand the difference between "differences of opinion" and violence aimed at a vulnerable minority group. If you have ever been in a vulnerable minority group, you know the difference. I've been over this before in "A Problem With Equality".

What if I want something that hasn't got spam in it?

As I also wrote about in "A Problem With Equality", some points of view have the effect of dominating discourse and making it hard or impossible for other points of view to flourish.

An analogy is weeding a garden: even people who love plants need to get rid of plants that use a disproportionate share of space. While there's nothing wrong with letting your front yard grow wild (so long as you aren't subject to an HOA's rules, anyway), you will probably have fewer different species of plants as a result than you would if you pulled weeds and made a deliberate effort to plant many different kinds of flowers. Likewise, people responsible for parks and open spaces make an effort to reduce or eliminate the share of resources taken up by invasive species. This isn't because they want less diversity of plant species -- it's because they want more diversity of plant species.

Ideas are like that too. If you believe that all opinions are worth listening to, I suggest that you try turning off your email program's spam filter for a week and see if you can still conduct your professional and personal life. In truth, no one believes that all opinions are equally desirable. If this was really a widely accepted truth, your city or town hall would be covered in Lyndon LaRouche flyers, you wouldn't be able to attend a conferences without someone standing up during the question and answer period to talk about chemtrails, and you would say "yes" whenever a street canvasser asks whether you have a moment to spare for the environment. The world would be a very different place. It's not just that everyone has their own set of preferences for which opinions they listen to, tolerate, or detest. It's also that everybody recognizes that the presence of some kinds of speech makes the metaphorical garden of ideas less diverse, not more, just as invasive plants make literal gardens less diverse. It's why we have spam filters, the do-not-call list, and "No Soliciting" signs. If we didn't have these things, we wouldn't have any time to develop our own ideas -- we'd be too busy listening to people trying to sell us something.

Given that the supposed goal of anti-queer activism is to make everybody heterosexual, I think the analogy with invasive species is apt. At least Scotch broom doesn't try to turn other plants into Scotch broom besides just taking away their room to grow! Really, though, I think most anti-queer activists probably know that other people's sexuality is non-negotiable, and merely seek to make queer people's lives as difficult as possible.

It's hard to grow and thrive when people around you are telling you that you should change fundamental aspects of your self or that you don't belong in your community because of those fundamental traits. It's especially difficult when those people are your managers or the heads of your company. Given the choice, you might just choose to go to a company where your managers and executives won't say those things. If they're not telling you those things directly, merely making it a matter of public record that they want your life to be harder than it is, that's not necessarily any easier to tolerate. Even if bigotry-underwriting CEOs are always nice to you to your face, never treat you in a way that's obviously unfair, their presence corrodes your ability to trust the fairness of your organization's decision-making processes. In an environment of fairness, you can be sure that if your manager criticizes your performance, it's because they think you need to work on improving something. When your leaders' support for bigotry is on the public record, it's impossible to be free from the nagging question of whether it's really about your work, or the fact that somebody up there wishes you didn't exist.

Different goals, not different tactics

Returning to Pontin's words, "...we really want to..." raises the question of who "we" are and what we want. Perhaps he and I just want different things.

I want to encourage diversity of opinion, and tactically, I would advise anyone else who wants the same thing to make a specific effort to include points of view that usually get marginalized. The points of view that enjoy majority endorsement will take care of themselves. Of course, other people might not want what I want. But I don't think it's so controversial that all other things being equal, a public organization should strive to encourage diversity of opinion within their ranks -- indeed, this is exactly what many of Eich's defenders have said.

So if we assume for the sake of argument that we all want to encourage diversity of opinion, how are we to go about doing so -- concretely, in the organizations where we work or volunteer? One approach is the laissez-faire method: just let it all hang out. But if you've ever attended a meeting without a moderator, you know that approach doesn't work. The people who can yell the loudest will get heard, leaving everybody else to fight just to get a word in.

Another approach is to maintain a social contract that explicitly calls out inclusion. It's best when such a contract is explicit rather than implicit, because it's not fair to expect people to follow rules they don't know about. I think this is a better approach than the laissez-faire approach, because having explicit policies makes it possible for everyone to be heard, not just those who can yell the loudest and longest. Part of such a social contract can be the expectation that people will refrain from public speech that has a chilling effect on the free speech of others -- particularly on the speech of those who are most vulnerable to oppression, since protecting the free speech of people who are politically powerful is superfluous. Sometimes these contracts are called codes of conduct.

Another thing that's very frustrating about the "do we really want to drive out a person for? ..." approach is that it mistakes a difference of opinion about goals for a difference of opinion about tactics. I don't think someone asking this question has the same goals as I do. I can only conclude that they have the goal of making corporations safe places for people who have any opinions that a white heterosexual man would be likely to have, while I have the goal of making them safe places for everybody who is willing to work respectfully with others. It's easy for other heterosexual men to defend Eich because they can imagine themselves being in his shoes, but can't imagine what it's like to be a queer person in a heterosexual world. I realize that it's easier for someone who looks a lot like Eich to imagine no longer being welcome in their job because the world has made progress that they haven't caught up with than it is for them to imagine dealing with the daily microaggressions that come with being part of a minority group. But it's still frustrating for me that they refuse to even try to take another point of view, given how much time I have to spend taking their point of view just so I can survive.

False equivalences

"It's important to be able to work with people who you disagree with." I can't count the number of times this has been said about the Eich crisis, and it's closely related to the idea that we don't really want to force the resignations of CEOs over political donations. It's smarmy, condescending, and erases power imbalances.

It is condescending to tell me I need to be able to work with people I disagree with when if I refused to work with people I disagree with, I would immediately be unemployed and, shortly afterward, bankrupt. Working with people we disagree with is a necessary survival skill for those of us whose basic humanity is still up for debate. Not only do we have to work with people we disagree with -- we have to work with people who disagree with us about whether we're people, about whether we're capable of telling the truth about our own subjective experiences. The smarmy folks talking down to us about how we need to be able to tolerate differences will never have to experience that.

It also erases power imbalances to implore us to "work with people [we] disagree with" -- the recasting of structural violence as "disagreement" implies falsely that a queer person who says "no, really, I'm telling the truth when I say I love my partner just as much as you love your spouse" to a heterosexual person has equal power -- is accorded as much respect and credence -- as a heterosexual person who says "gay people's relationships are just about sex, not love". There is a difference between supervising employees who vote Democratic when you vote Republican, and having a boss who (or knowing that someone at the top of your reporting chain) has taken specific action to take away your civil rights.

It is not just outright speech or actions towards the goal of eliminating queer people that hurts us (and when I say "us", I mean everybody, because an environment that tolerates eliminating a group of people because of a non-negotiable trait diminishes everybody's dignity). For many of us, it's insulting as heck when people claim to agree with us, but nonetheless go to the mat for the conviction that whether or not queer people are people should be subject to debate, should be hashed out in the free marketplace if ideas. It is hurtful when someone who claims to be my ally is more interested in fostering open dialogue about the pros and cons of accepting that I'm human than they are in showing solidarity with me.

To say that 'queers are subhuman' is a valuable perspective that improves a community is, itself, an act of rhetorical violence against queer people.

Ethical Culture Fit?

The last reason why I think it's disingenuous to treat "forcing someone to resign over political donations" as an outrage is that in Silicon Valley, people literally get fired (and I mean fired, not voluntarily resigning in order to cease hurting your organization, despite being implored by the organization's other leaders to stay on) -- or constructively dismissed, or rejected for jobs -- for having "different views" ALL THE TIME. This phenomenon is usually called "culture fit". In principle, there's nothing wrong with it, except that a very narrow culture tends to dominate and it's hard for the majority who don't fit with that culture to be in tech.

But if there's nothing wrong with "culture fit" hiring, there's certainly nothing wrong with a person recognizing that his views make him a poor fit with a culture that has changed while he has not, and voluntarily exiting. While I don't think that's exactly what happened with Eich leaving Mozilla, in principle, if an organization has a culture that supports queer people's freedom to be who they are, there is nothing wrong with declining to select leaders who oppose that freedom. At least, if you think there is something wrong with it, you should probably also criticize companies where if you aren't a bearded white guy who wears T-shirts and jeans and likes to drink with your colleagues after work, you will be ostracized to the point where it hurts your performance.

The near-universal acceptance of "culture fit" as a valid gatekeeping mechanism makes it clear that "no one should be pushed out for their opinions", or whatever, is disingenuous. They're not objecting to people getting pushed out for their opinions. They're objecting to people like themselves getting pushed out for their opinions, or perhaps to people getting pushed out for opinions they can imagine themselves holding. More so, they're protesting the fact that they no longer have exclusive control of the discourse -- that somebody other than themselves is now involved in deciding which opinions are acceptable. Most of the time, when you see someone calling for tolerance or acceptance who already enjoys a great deal of tolerance and acceptance, what they're really asking you to do is tolerate their domination of you.

Postscript

Some of the same people who wrung their hands about "people being driven out for having different opinions" when Eich resigned are approaching maximum beardhurt because Steve Klabnik is both a contract technical writer for Mozilla, and a critic of capitalism. To which I say: good.

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Tim Chevalier

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