Saturday, April 5, 2014

The solution to the problem of outcasting is not more outcasting

So, the new (since March) CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich made a $1000 private donation in 2008 to the Proposition 8 cause. So, he is--or at least was in 2008--against equal protection of the law for (some) of his fellow citizens. A somewhat problematic proposition; one of a series of such propositions with a long and ugly history.

This private donation has come to light and the witch-hunt was on. Where once being outed as queer would have destroyed one's life and career, now being outed as actively (in a giving-a-donation-sense) anti-queer apparently can result in losing your job, as he has been forced out of his CEO position.

Outed as anti-queer
Brendan Eich: Outed as anti-queer
The hi-tech businesps is very queer-friendly, particularly in Silicon Valley, in the heart of liberal-gentry California. Even so, it is hard to see what Mr Eich's private political views has to do with his competence as a CEO, unless one form of illiberal moral puritanism has just been swapped for another. Apparently so, as having the wrong opinions seems to be a sackable offence.

Indivisible freedom
Time for a little lesson in what being a free and open society means. It means folk will have different views, even different views on whether categories of people are entitled to equal protection of the law. The ability within a media-saturated society to generate hi-tech hate mobs creates a threat to being a free and open society if the common opinion of the best-organised-hatreds win; if they can drive people out of their jobs. Hi-tech outcasting is no better than the traditional low-tech variety.

It also gives aid and comfort to the "can't trust the queers" voice. Yes, much of the outrage over Eich's ouster is deeply hypocritical (though not all): a highly paid straight white guy loses his job and they shriek to the ether their being offended, and the wrongness of it. The simple human consequences of traditional queer outcasting typically utterly pass them by. So, they say such things as:
We will not stand by and allow this kind of persecution to go unaddressed.  Nor should you.
Starting the piece on how outrageous it all is with:
Imagine going to work one day only to be, in effect, fired -- not because of anything you did or didn’t do at your job, but because of something you did in your personal life.
Yep, that was the fear and experience of gay folk for generations. But that is precisely the problem with moral exclusion, it generates an impoverished epistemology (if not an entirely crippled [pdf] one), rendering one (selectively) blind to human experience. Hence the call is made that:
You were terminated for no reason other than your personal religious, moral or political beliefs.  And the evidence is irrefutable.
Sue ‘em.  Sue their brains out.
All the time while the push is on to block queer folk from suing if it contradicts "religious liberty"--defined as the freedom to outcast. The "bigotry for me but not for thee" position.

Catholic defender of liberty
Catholic defender of liberty
For one impoverished epistemology is not better than another. The problem with the US "culture wars" is so much of it is not about stopping moral exclusion, about stopping moral bullies; it is about who gets to be the moral bullies, who gets to do the outcasting. About whose bigotry gets to be on top. Lord Acton's comments on how limited the support for liberty typically is describe the contemporary American political landscape nicely:
At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success. No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty. If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge, as much as in the improvement of laws.
Yes, this is about liberty, precisely in the sense Lord Acton meant it:
By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.
And it is about liberty as the friend of diversity, and enforced conformity as liberty's enemy:
The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.
That would include minorities of sexuality, gender identity or opinion. For, as Lord Acton also put it:
It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.
Strongest animus wins
So, it is perfectly true that many of those currently squawking in Eich's defence have been more than happy to invoke the minority status of queer folk to pathologise their nature, experience and aspirations and the "right" of the majority to deny them equal protection of the law. To, as Scalia J has put it, to show their "disapproval" of "homosexual conduct":
Of course it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings. But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible–murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals–and could exhibit even ‘animus’ toward such conduct. Surely that is the only sort of ‘animus’ at issue here: moral disapproval of homosexual conduct, the same sort of moral disapproval that produced the centuries old criminal laws that we held constitutional in Bowers.
Well, now the social realities have shifted, and folk are showing their "disapproval" of "anti-equality conduct". An animus which is most emphatically a moral disapproval. The sexual and gender correctness of the right is not superior to the political correctness of the left; in fact, they use the same mechanisms and meta-logic.

For bigotry is always and everywhere a moral claim--it is a claim about who does, or does not, have what moral standing. The notion that error has no rights is both the fundamental principle of tyranny and a moral claim.

It not that error has rights, but that people (should be) free and freedom is nothing if it does not include the freedom to be wrong. The problem is being able to see the mote in the other eye but not the beam in one's own.

A moveable feast
The most fundamental reason to defend equality before the law and freedom for all is precisely this: that moral exclusion is a moveable feast. That just because you have been the ones successfully doing the moral excluding does not mean you will remain so, that you will not become the morally excluded.

So, no doubt many of those outraged by the ousting of Eich will completely fail to "get" the deeper lesson. But those engaged in the hi-tech witch-hunt, shrieking that error has no rights, have also failed to get the real moral point of the fight for queer folk to have equal protection of the law.

The answer to one lot of moral exclusion and outcasting is not a "new, improved" version of the same. That is just the same errors and entitled hate, re-labelled and re-packaged. The fight to be the moral-bullies-on-top is a fight that should never be fought; and everyone who does, deserves to lose.

ADDENDA: Wondering when the "statute of limitations" will apply to supporting Proposition 8.
A nice piece on the perils of workplace purges.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. Thanks Lorenzo. After George Brandis' declaration that people have the right to be bigots I've been finding myself in the position of saying that I agree with the premise, just not his conclusion, and there's not been a lot of understanding for that pov! This post nicely covers that ground.

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