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Opposing anti-gay views isn't bullying

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When a coalition of people put pressure on an organization to get someone fired, is that “bullying?” That is today’s question.

In case you haven’t heard, the story goes like this: Once upon a time there was a man named Brendan Eich. He co-founded Mozilla, the company first behind the Netscape browser and later behind the Firefox browser, and was one of the originators of the Javascript programming language. He also donated a bunch of money to the California Proposition 8 campaign, which had the goal of making gay marriage illegal in California.

Recently, he was appointed to be the CEO of Mozilla. All hell broke loose. People couldn’t believe that such a popular and progressive technology company would appoint an anti-gay activist as CEO. Moreover, he refused to apologize or comment on his donation. He claimed that his personal beliefs were “unrelated” to his role at Mozilla.

Major companies started encouraging people to not use Firefox in protest. In social media, there may as well be fire raining from the sky and dogs and cats living together.

As a result, as of today, Brendan Eich stepped down as CEO and quit the Mozilla board of directors. Mozilla executive chair Mitchell Baker said: ”It’s clear that Brendan cannot lead Mozilla in this setting. The ability to lead—particularly for the CEO—is fundamental to the role and that is not possible here.”

Let’s start by getting a few of the “givens” out of the way.

Everybody agrees that Eich’s opinions on gay marriage would really have no impact on the specific job that he did with Mozilla. The people who wanted him to step down did not think that he was going to use Mozilla as some kind of sinister mouthpiece to advance an anti-gay agenda.

The people who wanted Eich to step down also were not claiming that he had no “right” to hold whatever personal beliefs he wants to hold. True, they may have been interested in “shaming” him somewhat for his beliefs, but the simple fact that they wanted him  to step down from the company DOES NOT MEAN that they think he doesn’t have a right to hold those beliefs.

This is an important distinction, that many commentators get wrong: many people assume that the LGBT activists protesting Eich’s appointment as CEO believe that it should be “illegal” or otherwise “not allowed” to be anti-gay or to give to anti-gay causes. This is not true.

If you asked any of the people demanding Eich’s resignation whether he has a “right” to his own personal opinions, the answer would undoubtedly be “yes.”

But that does not, by extension, mean that he has the “right” to be the CEO of a public company. A public company, by definition, is answerable to stockholders. A public company is, by virtue of plain economics, answerable to the feelings and opinions of its customers.

Look carefully at what Baker said, above. She did not say that Eich was asked to step down because “We do not tolerate bigotry here!”  She did not say any such thing.

What did she say? “The ability to lead—particularly for the CEO—is fundamental to the role and that is not possible here.”

It is not possible, because enough of the customer base, enough of “public opinion,” was against him.

So let’s be frank about what happened: Eich was pressured into stepping down because he holds an opinion that is unpopular.  In much the same way that someone who thought all blacks should be slaves or all Jews should be shot might also be asked to step down, for their unpopular opinions. This is not unusual. This is not scandalous. This is completely normal business-as-usual. This is how the world works: companies are answerable to the feelings and desires of their customers.

And right now, in this day and age, technology customers tend to not want to do business with anti-gay bigots. (The same cannot be said, by and large, for fast food consumers or for knick-knack collectors. Different industries have their own demographics.)

There is absolutely no ground for being “outraged” that this is how things work. This is capitalism in substantia. Customers express their desires, corporations take those desires into consideration based on how it may impact their bottom line. If something is going to be bad PR, it will affect the bottom line. If a CEO is unable to lead, it will affect the bottom line.

Eich’s decision was quintessentially an economic decision. It was not any more unusual than it would be if a company asked a CEO to step down after cheating on his wife, or sleeping with a boat full of prostitutes.

So is it bullying? The word “bullying” has become fairly fraught in the last decade, with everyone want to co-opt the term. There is no doubt that it has been misused by people on every end of the political spectrum.

There are people on the left who claim that saying “I think that, according to some interpretations of the Bible, being gay is a sin” is bullying.  IT IS NOT.

There are people on the right who claim that calling someone a racist is an act of bullying. IT IS NOT.

Everybody seems to want to claim the word for their own agenda.

So I will let you decide for yourself if Brendan Eich was bullied into resigning, but I will leave you with this thought:

If you think this is an example of “bullying,” then all capitalism is bullying. The very act of people rising up and saying “I will not buy your product!” must therefore, by extension, be bullying. Encouraging your friends to buy one brand of toothpaste rather than another, therefore, would also be “bullying.”

Because these are all examples of the same process: the customers expressing their will, and that having consequences for the companies that sell to them. This is what it means to have a free market.

This post was originally featured on the author's blog and republished with permission.

Photo by Johnath/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)