Mar. 24th, 2014

tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Tolerance: the ability to accept, experience, or survive something harmful or unpleasant -- Merriam-Webster English Dictionary

Today, Mozilla announced the promotion of Brendan Eich to the position of CEO. In the first half of 2012 (during my first months as a full-time engineer at Mozilla), Brendan was publicly criticized for having donated a large amount of money to support the anti-universal-marriage Proposition 8 referendum. My friend and former colleague Christie Koehler summarizes that in her blog post from today.

If I might summarize something that Christie and a few other queer Mozillans said about this, they trust Brendan as a leader because he doesn't insert his views on their relationships into professional situations. And in my experience, this is true: he hasn't made any comments in the workplace that I was present for, or aware of, about other people's sexuality.

But we know that Brendan has already inserted his views on our relationships where those views don't belong: into the workings of the government, by means of making a political donation. If I can't trust him not to spend money on making sure that I wouldn't be able to visit my dying partner in the hospital, why would I trust him not to insert his views on the genuineness of my relationships into the workings of the company?

I can't read minds. But I do have a hard time understanding how somebody could sincerely believe that queer people in relationships love each other -- that their love is just as real and valuable as the love that heterosexual people in relationships have for each other -- and yet, financially support legislation that subjugates the first group in order to elevate the second. If someone doesn't believe that I am capable of being in a loving relationship, how can that person and I have a working relationship based in mutual respect?

How much technical work do you have to contribute to earn the right to have your bigotry overlooked? Everyone, of course, has the right to be a bigot. But everyone else also has the right to hold bigots accountable. Political opinions are absolutely a valid criterion for whether or not to promote someone to a position of greater power -- when those political opinions involve whether or not a certain group of people gets to be considered human.

False Dismissal

You might say: "Isn't that exaggerating, Tim, to say that Brendan doesn't consider you to be a human being? He just opposes your relationships being accorded the same legal status as his own."

But if marriage isn't a big deal, why the hell does the right wing fight so hard -- and spend so much of their hard-earned money -- to keep it a privilege available only to heterosexuals? Their behavior shows that it is a very big deal. The freedom to marry is part of what it means to be an adult in Western culture. In general, infringement on the freedom to be with the partner of one's choice is not well-tolerated, so long as everyone involved is considered legally able to consent. The one exception is when the relationship isn't between a cis man and a cis woman. For those people who would only consider entering into a committed relationship with someone of the same gender, that policy sends a message that their relationships are not as valuable -- are not something that the state wishes to encourage. And so, in a way, those people are prevented from being considered full adults. A slightly different message gets sent to those of us whose relationships aren't constrained by gender: the government tells me that some partners I might choose are acceptable and worthy of encouragement (women), and others aren't. Actually, in my case, there's a third message: it's unclear to me whether I'd be allowed to legally marry at all if I tried, because not all of my government documents reflect the same sex marker, and I have every reason to believe that the rules would be applied in such a way as to cause maximal harm to me.

If you care about human rights, you ought to find this state of affairs to be an insult to the sanctity of human intimacy. It is a very big deal.


Mozilla is a company that claims privacy as one of its core values. Someone who advocated for universal Internet filtering of obscene content, for example, would probably not be able to ascend to the position of CEO of Mozilla. That is because most Mozillans probably wouldn't trust such a person to carry out Mozilla's mission, which involves defending a certain set of ethical principles and not just maximizing profit.

Does everybody deserve privacy, or just heterosexual people? Contributing money to ensure that, if I had a male partner who was severely hurt in a car accident and on the brink of death, I wouldn't be able to see my partner before he died -- well, I'd say that's a pretty serious violation of my privacy, since the restriction is contingent on my partner being male. So long as that person consents to enter into a relationship with me, I ought to be able to have a relationship with someone of any gender -- the details ought to be private to me, and not something that the state can incentivize.


"Why don't you let Brendan keep his personal life separate from his professional life, Tim?" Well, I'll be happy to do that when he stops interfering in my personal life. Shouldn't he be able to give money to whom he chooses? Isn't it prying into his personal life to hold him accountable for those choices? Well, it sure must be hard to have people snooping into your personal life, where they don't belong. I wonder what that's like? When people like Brendan abuse their power to try to enact policies that limit my freedom, that may be an abstract moral game for them, but it actually affects me and people like me. I can't possibly separate Brendan's views from my personal life -- by making the political contribution that he did, he took that choice away from me -- so (if I was still a Mozilla employee) I'm not sure why I would be expected to afford him the privilege of separating his views from his professional life.

In this case, as it often is, the imaginary chasm between personal conduct and professional conduct effectively shields people who abuse their power from the consequences of their actions. The fictional divide between the codes of ethics people apply in their private and public lives is, in this case, an excuse to hurt people without being held accountable for it. Brendan is the same person whether he is writing a check to an anti-marriage-equality group or giving a speech on behalf of Mozilla. His conduct in both realms reflects on his character. I don't see any evidence for the idea that each person can sustain one set of ethics for operating personally and a different one for operating in the workplace while maintaining their integrity.

The importance of trustworthy leadership

I'm borrowing the phrase "trustworthy leadership" from Matthew Garrett's "The Importance of Trustworthy Power Structures", which is essential reading.

If you are saying that you can trust somebody who spent money to ensure the continued policing of my relationships, what you're really saying is that you don't think my privacy is important. If you are saying that a person who doesn't believe that queer people are fully human can be a trustworthy leader for an organization you value, you are really saying that it's okay to dehumanize me. Especially in an organization that says it's fundamentally about preserving openness and freedom in one of humanity's most important communications media, it is simply unjustified to ignore a leader's views on whether people deserve the freedom to choose who they form relationships with.

By the way, this is not about Brendan's personal opinions or any desire on my part to change them -- I'm much more interested in structures than in individuals. Saying "I disagree with his views, but look how useful this person is" is also something that reflects on the nature of the people around him, especially those at a similar level of power in the organization. Ultimately, it's not about one person, but about an entire community that is happy to tell its queer contributors that their safety isn't as important as one person who is deemed so useful to the organization that he is exempt from upholding the ideals of fairness and equality. Did anybody who was involved in selecting him for this position think about what kind of message this would send to queer Mozilla employees, or queer Mozilla volunteers, or queer people who are thinking about joining the organization?

I respect Christie, Lukas, and other Mozilla folks who have commented with their support for Brendan. I also respect anyone who chooses to stay silent and continue their involvement with Mozilla -- earning a livelihood isn't easy for most of us, and it's an understandable choice to continue at a place that generally feels comfortable even if one can't countenance decisions made at the executive level. But I have to express my dissent nonetheless. To me, the question of whether or not I deserve to be a full citizen isn't something that we can agree to disagree on. Asking me to accept what feels like hate to me (regardless of whether the person engaging in actions that threaten my well-being feels they are being hateful) in the name of "tolerating differences" or "diversity of opinion" is an act that twists words past the point where they mean anything. Hate doesn't deserve the dignity of being welcomed as an acceptable difference of opinion. To me, denying the dignity of even a single human being is an act of violation against the humanity of every one of us.

Fifty years from now, if I'm fortunate enough to be around, I expect to be explaining to my grandchildren why heterosexual people were once afforded special privileges. I'm as certain of this as I am of anything else that I can't prove: much as nobody could be found after Watergate who voted for Richard Nixon, it won't be long until nobody will admit having voted for the acts of legislative violence against vulnerable minority groups that are today considered within the acceptable range of political variation. So why not stop hating now and avoid the rush? And why not stop enabling other people's hate, while you're at it? I say "enabling" because that is what it means to tolerate hate as a difference of opinion; there is no way to be neutral about the dehumanization of any group of human beings. Bigots who are "tolerated" feel empowered and supported in their hate; we needn't retaliate against their bigotry with violence, but neither should etiquette keep us from letting them know that their behavior is unacceptable.

The question of whether queer people should be treated as people is not a political issue, at least not in the sense that it's petty or procedural. I can agree to disagree with people who hold differing views even on some very important issues, such as gun control or traffic laws. I can't agree to disagree on the question of whether I'm a person under the law. Disagreeing with my humanity isn't like disagreeing about whether a programming language should have static typechecking. My refusal to tolerate people who want to erase my civil rights isn't some hip form of bigotry on my part. Rather, it's the only way for me to respect myself.

Postscript: Again, I don't think it's a bad thing that some Mozillans who are queer are expressing willingness to set aside the past and work with Brendan because they believe in those aspects of Mozilla's mission that can be separated from universal human rights. It would be a nice gesture on Brendan's part if he would acknowledge the sacrifice these individuals are making by donating $1000 to an organization that supports LGBTQ rights. Surely he can do that without having to agree; since he wants us not to read anything into his donation to the campaign for Proposition 8, we can certainly grant him the favor of not reading anything into his support for a pro-LGBTQ organization. It's only fair in return for the favor that queer Mozillans are doing by working with him despite their disagreement.

I find it telling that several queer Mozillans have felt they needed to make a statement that they are willing to work with Brendan even though he sees their relationships as inferior to his, whereas Brendan has made no accompanying statement that he will treat queer employees equally to heterosexual employees, putting aside his views about their ability to love others. Nor has there been a statement from any other executive that they feel that Brendan will be able to treat queer colleagues as first-class citizens in the workplace even while treating them as second-class citizens when participating in the political process. A relationship where only one party is expected to compromise while the other stands its ground unconditionally is an abusive relationship.

n.b.: I'm not a Mozilla employee any longer, though I was an intern at Mozilla in 2011 and was a Research Engineer at Mozilla from January 2012-November 2013, when I resigned in order to move to a startup.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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