Probabilistic Ruminations on the Mozilla Fiasco

I’m doubly unease : I don’t know how I feel about the whole Mozilla fiasco, and I hate that I don’t know how to feel about it.

I can’t talk for all gay people, but I struggle to find a balance between two biases. On one hand, obviously, there’s the tendency to take homophobia personally. But on the other hand, maybe surprisingly,  there is desensitization. After hearing about, witnessing, or experiencing a high enough number of nasty incidents, some involving maiming and death, and many involving loss of appreciable measures of wealth, prestige, sanity or health, one gets a bit… hardened.

My rule of the thumb says “switch sexual-orientation for race and adjust your outrage accordingly”. And I assure you that if I heard some CEO had paid a thousand bucks to bring back racially segregated marriages, my outrage would be clear-cut : I would call for that person’s head to roll.

So why do I hesitate (while feeling horrible for hesitating) in giving the same verdict for Brendan Eich ?

My hesitation does not come from the belief that opposing same-sex marriage is compatible with embracing LGBT people (as many marriage equality opponents would love us to believe). At least this, for me, is crystal clear : if you oppose same-sex marriage, you are asserting that in some sense same-sex relationships deserve less recognition than heterosexual ones. And that’s homophobia. If you do it for religious reasons, you do it for homophobic religious reasons. (And please, don’t even think of bringing up that stale “different but equal” bullshit : if you must be a bigot, own your bigotry.)

Neither I think that the correct frame of discussion is the one of free speech. Even if we agree in joining the acrobatic virtuosity of the US Supreme Court in stretching the definition of speech so to accept the act of financing a political movement as an act of speech, that frame still does not provide a convincing defense for Eich.

Yes, for me, freedom of speech is sacred, “I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”, etc., etc., et al. It implies the right to the free exercise of expressing one’s ideas, even when those ideas show one’s a complete jerk. But here’s the catch : it does not imply the right to some kind of magical protection from criticism and consequences from expressing ideas that show one’s a complete jerk. Take note of that disclaimer, kids, it’s important.

If we have to consider free speech the act of Eich donating money to prevent same-sex couples from acceding to the protections of civil marriage — with very unpleasant concrete, material consequences for those couples ; then we must,  as well, consider free speech people calling for Eich to get the hell out of Mozilla foundation, even if the concrete, material consequences for him are, well, unpleasant.

The usual oligophrenics are of course shouting “Gay Gestapo !”  I’ll only cursorily comment on the bad taste of this wording, by warning that anyone who dare to use it in my presence should expect in return an overly long unsolicited lecture about Paragraph 175. (I must also comment that when it is the turn of those hypocrites to call for people’s heads, they reserve for themselves metaphors conveying only righteousness, never censorship or violence).

So, if I am not willing to buy Eich’s antinomy that he opposes same-sex marriage all the while completely embracing LGBT people ; and if the problem here is not violating his freedom of speech ; then where does my hesitation come from ?

Let’s come back to my outrage-adjustment rule, i.e., be as outraged for an act of homophobia as you would for an equivalent act of racism. I think there are two difficulties here.

First, and obviously, not all acts of homophobia are equal, like not all acts of racism are equal. Paraphrasing the puppets of Avenue Q, everyone is a little bit homophobe, including you and me. Defending segregation is not the same as defending slavery. Opposing same-sex marriage is not the same as defending the criminalization of homosexuality. Things have gradations.

Second, and here’s the root of my discomfort : the status of what is socially acceptable or not in terms of homophobia is changing fast. This is good, of course, but it means we must be careful not to to make presentist/ethnocentric judgements. And cut some slack as different people adapt to the new mores faster than others.

If we are to judge people by their acts — and not simply judge the acts of people, and I mean if we are to jump into the exercise of estimating P(A, X), where N is the unobservable measure of a person’s niceness, A is her observable’s acts, and X is all other prior information ; then we must be very careful to ensure that X encodes the social mores of the space and time when the act was committed, and not the mores of our present space and time. Otherwise we will fall into the fallacies of presentism (time) or ethnocentrism (space). Thus, the relevant likelihood to estimate here is not P(Eich gave 1000 bucks to repeal same-sex marriage | Eich is a nice guy, California, 2014, X), but P(Eich gave 1000 bucks to repeal same-sex marriage | Eich is a nice guy, California, 2008, X) [that model assumes that niceness at his age is stationary].

Then there is forgiveness.  Societal views on homosexuality are (fortunately) evolving fast. Scant decades ago — less than my age — gay bashing in Brazil was a wholesome sport practiced by bored guys in look for a thrill. In many parts of the world it still is. Meanwhile, many countries now have hate-crime laws, non-discrimination acts, and civil same-sex marriages. In some places, the f- word has become as much as taboo as the n- word. Some people are having a hard time to adapt.

I’ll be the last one to defend the ridiculous non-sequitur that “tolerance implies tolerating the intolerant”. But, for me, accepting, provisionally and conditionally to further dialog, some intolerance is compelling in two senses : charitable and utilitarian. Charitable because no-one is perfect, everyone is little bit racist, everyone is a little bit homophobe, everyone is a jerk now and then, everyone says and does things that they will regret later, etc. The Golden Rule applies. Utilitarian because if we can engage with people and help them to cross the bridge to tolerance, in the end we gain more than if we alienate them to the fringes of radical intolerance.

So is my verdict that the boycott to Eich was wrong, and that we should had instead let him occupy the CEO position, all the while keeping the dialog with him ? It is not that simple. Unless I have missed something, Eich has never really solved the issue of whether or not he is against marriage equality today.

This is the point that really troubles be : I think that the likelihood P(Person is against same-sex marriage | Person is nice, California, TX) is becoming vanishingly small as time T progresses. However, anyone should have the right to hold — privately — any thought, even the most horrifying, even the most nauseating, without being subject to any sanctions whatsoever. If freedom of speech is sacred and untouchable, freedom of thought should be A(sacred,untouchable). As long as Eich keeps his thoughts private, for me, it makes no difference if he wants each and every LGBT person lining up to the gas chambers : thoughts are unobservable and people should not be judged by them.

But Eich has in the past acted on those thoughts. He has donated money to prevent LGBT people in California from marrying. He has donated money to Pat Buchanan’s and Ron Paul’s campaigns in the 1990s (ultimately it were those donations who gave him the coup de grâce). His poison was very much observable in the past.

Honestly, I’m glad his gone — but I’m still not sure it was the right decision to ask him to go. Which loss function should we had applied to his case ? I wish I knew.

* * *

In my first term as a Computer Sciences undergrad, my colleagues thought it would be hilarious if they changed the screen savers of all our lab computers to show in big blinking letters a phrase calling me a gay slur. This went on for weeks.

Today, it strikes me that my colleagues could decide it would be okay to play such a prank, and do it without any shame or fear of punishment ; that the faculty and  administration, aware of the deeds, could think it would be okay to do nothing about it ;  that I could think it would be okay to be mildly annoyed, shrug it off, and not lodge a formal complaint. All this happened less than 20 years ago : if it happened today, I am sure the case would make national press.

I don’t want to be draconian with Eich. If I held my alma mater and old classmates to my today’s standards, I would hate them all. And I don’t. I have scientific cooperations with my former professors. When my former classmates and I meet, we treat each other cordially. I have no means to inspect the inside of their minds to check if those people still bear animosity against gay people, but if they do, they hide it really well. If I have evolved so much in 17 years, shouldn’t I give them at least the benefit of the doubt ?

MozillaVsBrendanEichBut neither I want to be lax with Eich, lest my leniency become a betrayal of everything LGBT people have earned so arduously.

Featured image —  Money Crush by Rocky Lubbers,  Ideal Husbands by See-ming Lee.

7 thoughts on “Probabilistic Ruminations on the Mozilla Fiasco

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been trying to figure out how I actually feel and how I ought to feel about this whole Eich / Mozilla thing and I think this is the first sensible thing I’ve read about it (my personal opinion of course).

  2. There’s something completely alien to my culture in this story. Not sure if it is something personal or something belonging to the different cultura DNA among european and american natives, but the whole Eich/Mozilla thing looks plain idiotic to my european eyes.

    And this immediately leads to a Y-junction. Either you believe that Eich’s behavior and its consequences were unintentional, or you believe it was somewhat or somehow to some extent intentional.

    Let’s start with innocent take.
    I really can see no reason why anybody’s personal beliefs should in any way influence his/her professional path. As a CEO, Eich should be subject to the judgment of its Company’s board ONLY assuming that they have metrics that DO NOT INCLUDE “personal opinions about same sex marriage”. As such, Eich’s personal opinion, is a personal opinion. Full stop. There are roughly about 6 billions “personal opinions” in this World that are worth as much as a Eich’s personal opinion. Hence I can see no reason why Eich should have refrained from supporting whatever cause he felt worth $ 1000. Therefore what the whole story and the reactions it triggered show is that there is a widespread culture that is utterly unable to discern where’s the border in between private and professional life.
    Strictly personally, hence 1/(6 exp 9) worth opinion I’m inclined to fall in this case.

    The intentional case.
    First and foremost, Mozilla has spiraled into a fiasco, not because of Eich belief about gay marriages, but because of Eich’s lead as a CEO.
    1. He failed to innovate.
    2. He failed to make the company profit after Google retired its chip in the Mozilla Foundation
    3. He failed to build an ecosystem around MozillaOS for mobile devices [about this specific issue, being myself total geek, I’ve been among the first 80 owners across Europe of a MozillaOS powered smartphone. MozillaOS had been boosted as a most open mobile platform, apart from realizing shortly after the purchase that I was locked out of the updates because of… guess what? The boot loader of my devices was locked. Eventually I found out it wasn’t Mozilla’s fault but ZTE’s, but still, if you fail enforce a deal with your hardware partner of choice for the European launch of your new flagship product, it adds up to just one word:”FAIL”. And CEO’s fail specifically.]
    4. He failed to draw any significant partnership with content providers.
    I make much more generous donations for those couple of causes I cherish, and I am definitely not in Eich’s salary band, hence this leads me to believe that Eich mildly supports a cause – anti-gay-marriage lobby by incident – with a modest donation. It all speaks of a move to turn around a total failure as a professional into a failure because of some interference of a lobby. What do you think will anybody remember in a few weeks or months from now? Eich’s failure as a CEO or Eich’s support to anti-gay lobby?

    • I see your point here, and this mixing up of spheres also bothers me, because I also believe that employers should refrain to judge their employers by acts on the personal sphere that don’t directly reflect on their professional performance. Let’s not forget though, that it was the outrage from the Mozilla community and the public that ultimately lead Eich to resign, not a decision from his boss.Doesn’t this make a difference ?

      I mean : I can demand that my employer (UNICAMP) respect the separation between my personal and professional activities. But can I expect that, as a bunch of individuals, UNICAMP’s community (faculty, administration, students, etc.) refrain to react if (fictitious scenario) I printed — as a hobby, totally outside of my job — a pamphlet defending the advantages of racially segregated marriages ? I think that this latter expectation is naïve. If I had a colleague who professed — on the side, out of the university — things like Young Earth Creationism or Scientific Racism, my professional respect for that person as a scientist would greatly disminish. Would that be unfair ?

      The intentional case is too perverse to contemplate. 🙂

      • @Eduardo,

        it does make a difference if the most criticism come from your own community rather than you employer directly. What doesn’t change instead, is the domain of private vs public realm.

        Even worse, if a group of developers ( I assume ) enacts to boycott the software they develop hence damage the corporation that keeps a roof above their heads and a pair of shoes at their feet, then the unacceptable behavior is to the most grave extent perpetrated by the employers.

        That’s why I said:”there is a widespread culture that is utterly unable to discern where’s the border in between private and professional life”. The group of developers that initiated the boycott as first are utterly unable to discern that whatever their own personal opinion is about Eich’s opinions, is strictly and solely personal, and by no means it should in any way affect the revenues and eventually the profitability of their employer that IS NOT Eich, but is Mozilla Corp. which, by the fact of being a corporation IS NOT an individual, hence it is not beholder of whatever opinion.

        Probably Eich found himself in an uncomfortable position and without the support of other key board member, possibly, for the disappointing results of his short appointment, and he hasn’t had any other option than to resign. Otherwise, if the board had sided with him I’m sure there could have been a way to make a group of undisciplined employees understand that the reason why they get a paycheck is not to investigate anyone’s private opinions, but to write good code, of which… Mozilla has quite a strong deficiency lately.

  3. I was very troubled on how to think about it – the double standard between freedom of speech and homophobia; it seems that this case have hit some kind of foggy border between those. The fact that he has recently published on his blog [1] a commitment to promote equality while CEO of Mozilla combined with the arguments presented by you can only make me wonder: Was{/Has} he changing{/changed}? If so, was it right to let him go? (or have him go, depending on the viewer) I don’t yet know how to answer those…
    And thank you for posting this – a very solid and mature opinion on the matter. Those are hard to find nowadays. 🙂

    • Thank you ! Ultimately this is, for me, the most important question : did we miss the opportunity to form an ally ? Although there is always the question (as Pascar has posed aboved, and also New Yorker in their blog post) if he was adequate as a CEO independently of his instance on same-sex marriage.

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