In these benighted United States, one of the more consequential stories of the past year was the resignation of Brendan Eich from his role as CEO of Mozilla Corporation after a heated protest movement had begun against him. This movement, made up of gay-rights activists, didn’t like that Eich had donated $1,000 to an anti-gay marriage cause back in 2008. After intense pressure, and despite his plaintive promises to uphold civility and fairness at the company, Eich stepped down.
The incident raised a fundamental question: Is it ever proper for someone to be fired, or pressured into resigning, for his or her political beliefs? If so, under what conditions is this acceptable?
A bit of distance from an event often means a clearer view of it. Even now, long after the episode relinquished its hold on the news cycle, it remains relevant because similar scenarios will occur in the (probably near) future. The United States continues to become a place in which the distinction between private life and politics is being steadily obliterated. As this happens, all personal questions will become political ones, with political implications and consequences: holding a view not approved by the in-group will entail some kind of life-rupturing censure or ostracism.
Eich resigned under pressure for holding the private view that marriage is between a man and a woman. After he resigned, I took to Twitter to oppose the whole rotten affair—even though I personally support the right of gays to marry. On “social” media, I was immediately assailed by someone so marinated in his own self-righteousness I could almost taste it through the screen. This person asked what he believed to be a devastating question: What if Eich had contributed to a white supremacist group?! Would I support mob-induced unemployment of him then?!
It is a matter of objective fact that there is no one in Western civilization more despised than a white supremacist. And yet, in general, I would still have a problem with such a person losing his employment for holding personal beliefs that had no bearing on his ability to discharge his duties and treat his fellow employees civilly. This returns us to the fundamental question: When, if ever, is it proper to fire someone for his political views, or force him into resignation?
If it were revealed, for instance, that an elected official, whose salary is funded by taxpayers over whom he exercises power, is a secret member of a neo-fascist cult that wants certain people thrown in death camps, it is to be expected that he would be pushed from his role as a public servant. Someone paid with public money, and entrusted with political power to affect the lives of so many people, should not be so obviously in favor of violence against the people he was elected to serve.
Does the nature of one’s position, then, determine one’s eligibility for mob-induced unemployment? I don’t pretend to have a definite answer, but it would seem the nature of the job is at least one factor in determining these cases.
Other cases, however, are not so clear. What if our hypothetical neo-fascist is not an elected official with a taxpayer-funded salary but a high-ranking board member of a private chain of pastry shoppes? His views have absolutely nothing to do with pastries. He keeps his views private. He treats his employees with respect and does not try to implement his views as internal business policy. Again, it is expected that there would be some kind of protest against him. But is it an a priori truth that someone with such views, with bills to pay and perhaps children to feed, deserves automatic and unconditional dismissal from his employment?
Let’s take this a bit further, since a death-camp-supporting neo-fascist is an extreme and unrealistic example. What if the managing director of a clothing company believes that the Iraq War was a good idea? After all, I know many people who would argue that such a person is no better than a supporter of mass murder, which is what they believe the Iraq War to have been. What if Eich’s replacement as CEO of Mozilla had been an opponent of abortion? What if he believed any of a hundred things that are not currently fashionable and therefore automatically thrown under the category of “hateful”?
The salient point is this: What is the limiting principle? Hounding someone from his job for holding certain political views is almost always an ugly thing, especially when those views are privately held, as Eich’s were, and have nothing to do with the functioning of the company itself or the heretical employee’s place within it.
Once again, I raise these questions because mob-induced unemployment is becoming a regular feature of our society. Before it is normalized as the price one pays for believing Very Bad Things, it might be a good idea to think about whether we are greasing that slippery slope too gleefully.
It doesn’t help that most people are married to pre-determined interpretations of these episodes. The reactions to the Eich affair from various political factions were predictable. Most libertarians immediately issued the boilerplate response that Mozilla was simply responding to market forces. Capitalism in action! Yes, we get it: Businesses respond to market forces. Boring. Others expressed a similar view, based on their reading of the U.S. Constitution and its social implications: Eich had expressed his free speech by donating money to a particular political cause, and the protesters were just practicing their free speech in return by opposing his views and demanding his ouster. Free speech in action!
It is technically true, at least in the United States, that “free speech” does not entail freedom from the consequences of your speech. If, say, you were to verbally assault your workplace supervisor, you couldn’t claim First Amendment protection when that supervisor decided to fire you for insubordination. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a restriction placed on the U.S. Congress. Therefore, the argument goes, cases such as this are not technically “free speech” cases, since neither party had government restrictions placed on its speech.
But it is not as simple as this. Nobody is arguing that it was illegal to hound Eich and Mozilla until the former resigned from his job. The question is whether mob-induced unemployment is a moral, reasonable, and, above all, proportional response. What is legal is not necessarily moral, and vice-versa. Similarly, what a market will bear is not necessarily moral or desirable (see “slavery” and “human trafficking”).
Eich holds a view that millions of people in the United States hold. How many of those millions should be stripped of or forced from their jobs? The aforementioned example of the death-camp supporter is an extreme case meant to test a general principle. Reality is usually much less clear. Abstract principle only gets you so far, since life is not a mathematics problem, to be solved by strict application of equations and formulae. Life is messy, full of grey areas and marginal cases that aren’t easily resolved with a priori reasoning.
Do we want to live in a society in which the range of acceptable opinion narrows by the day? Again, what is the limiting principle? Should employees be screened for their political views before being hired? If you believe certain views are grounds for unemployment, why oppose such screening? In other words: What percentage of people who disagree with you deserve to be unemployed? Sadly, this is not a rhetorical question.