Understanding that the law treats corporations as people puts Brendan Eich’s ouster from Mozilla in perspective: It’s not personal—it’s just business.
That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn’t even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town! Someone put a bullet through his eye. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard it, I wasn’t angry; I knew Moe, I knew he was head-strong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen; I didn’t ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business! —Hyman Roth, The Godfather: Part II
By now, most of us have heard the story of how Brendan Eich was forced to resign recently as CEO of Mozilla when his support for California’s anti-marriage equality Proposition 8 was outed by dating site OKCupid. There’s a certain irony in the “outing” of someone whose political actions mark him as a homophobe, delicious no doubt for gays and supporters of gay rights. But the flip side of schadenfreude is misery, and a man was forced out of his job for holding beliefs that others find distasteful. In another ironic twist, Eich found support from a surprising corner when Andrew Sullivan wrote on his blog that Eich had been “scalped by some gay activists,” and fired off the following salvo: “If this is the gay rights movement today — hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else — then count me out.”
To me, the mix of reactions begs the question of whether as a society we can go too far in upholding the value of tolerance when upholding that value results in devaluing and causing material harm to a person. It’s not as if Eich was tied to a fencepost and beaten, or anyone wrote “Bigot” in chalk on his sidewalk or spray-painted “Gay Hater” on his car. We all recognize violence and public shaming and humiliation of an individual as wrong. But his flameout as CEO was a highly public event, in which a campaign was mounted to punish Mozilla financially unless Eich was removed. Was the outrage that a person in a public leadership role could hold such beliefs, or that he should be rewarded for them with a lucrative job? Many politicians still refuse to support marriage equality, and no one expects their recall or impeachment, though voters do have an opportunity to turn them out of office. The only recourse against a CEO is to boycott the business he or she runs and try to force the company to capitulate.
The Salon article that followed Eich’s downfall raised these same questions, wondering whether we can demand that public figures adopt politically correct beliefs even if they do not hold them personally.
One wonders what a more satisfying response might have been, one that would have left Eich still with a job at the end of this week. Because it’s one thing for the rest of us to work for the cause of equality and to support it wholeheartedly, but it’s something else to expect other people to believe things that aren’t in their hearts. If Brendan Eich would still vote “yes” today on Proposition 8, that’s still his right as a California voter. Does it follow that he would then not have been able to fairly carry out his job? Does it mean he should have been encouraged to step down because his private beliefs aren’t in line with his organization’s more liberal public face? Or should he have given an answer that would have been more satisfying to the supporters of marriage equality, even if it had been completely insincere? Writing in the Times Thursday, Nick Bilton and Noam Cohen noted that Eich’s departure is “likely to intensify a debate about the role of personal beliefs in the business world and raise questions about the tolerance for conservative views inside a technology industry long dominated by progressive and libertarian voices.”
The firing of a person for personal beliefs that are protected as free speech raises the corollary of whether a litmus test—a phrase made famous in the context of considering the stance on abortion of potential Supreme Court justices—can or should be used when hiring. Would it be fair—or, again ironically, discriminatory—for potential employers to inquire about such things in an interview or to review a potential hire’s social media presence and political contribution history for evidence of intolerance? And where do we draw the line? Do we differentiate between a scholar who opposes affirmative action and a CEO who opposes gay marriage? And can a company decide not to hire a CEO who is outspokenly pro-life or pro-choice?
There are no easy answers. But in the case of Brendan Eich, I can offer a helpful legal context for his removal. U.S. law treats corporations essentially as people. This gives companies certain rights and protects them in many ways, but it also leaves them exposed when it comes to principles and values. If we think of a company as a person or at least a personality in the marketplace, that personality—and what it stands for—is embodied in the CEO. He or she is the public face and, like it or not, who the CEO is and what the CEO believes in and upholds becomes intimately associated with and impossible to disentangle from the company’s public persona and reputation. If the CEO is involved in a scandal, the CEO has to go, because the company needs to protect its image. Similarly, if the CEO is outed as a bigot, the company cannot afford to be seen as supporting or even tolerating bigotry. Eich’s departure was therefore a business decision for Mozilla, as evidenced in the New York Times article by Nick Bilton and Noam Cohen.
Once Mr. Eich’s support for Proposition 8 became public, the reaction was swift, with a level of disapproval that the company feared was becoming a threat to its reputation and business.
Put another way, forcing Eich to leave was a sort of immune system response on the part of Mozilla when faced with a threat to the organism’s survival. Such is the role of personal beliefs in the business world. A CEO is entitled to hold whatever beliefs he or she chooses, but when those beliefs threaten to poison and compromise the health of the corporate body, the antidote must be administered quickly, the cancer excised, the threat neutralized before the disease spreads and becomes terminal. CEOs are free to speak with their votes and their dollars, just as consumers are free to speak with their petitions and their wallets. So what felt to many like public humiliation of an individual was actually public humiliation of a company that chose to install a bigot as its CEO. In this sense, it was less Eich’s actual beliefs and more Mozilla’s choice of Eich that the marketplace found so objectionable. And it was a choice, because Mozilla was apparently aware of the donation when they chose Eich to be CEO.
The Times article goes on to describe the difficulty Mozilla had with its decision. As I read the passage below, I find it informative to think of the individual executives inside the company struggling to find the appropriate corporate stance and speak in the unified voice of company as person.
The conflicting values between free speech and gay rights were a riddle that was hard for many Mozilla officials to solve, and there is no indication that Mr. Eich behaved in a biased manner at work.
In one blog post, Geoffrey MacDougall, the head of development for Mozilla, described the confusion within the organization. “The free speech argument is that we have no right to force anyone to think anything,” he wrote. “We have no right to prevent people from pursuing their lives based on their beliefs.”
But the free speech issue is a red herring. Yes, Brendan Eich the individual is entitled to believe and say anything he likes; he cannot be silenced. But he is not entitled to have those beliefs tolerated and through toleration condoned by a company when those beliefs threaten the company’s profits and the material well-being of thousands of employees, not to mention the morale of employees who may be sickened by the idea of working for a person who expresses those beliefs. The whole idea behind society passing laws and establishing policies that promote tolerance and fairness and either directly or indirectly punish prejudice and discrimination is to shrink the sphere in which intolerance and hate can operate. It then becomes a kind of survival decision for the individual: If I am to be able to work and flourish, I had best reconsider my position. I had best become—tolerant. A person may still believe privately that gay marriage is immoral, but that same person must accept—albeit unhappily—that gay marriage is a legal right.
The Salon article opens with the sentence, “Tolerance is a tricky concept.” Ultimately, I disagree. Tolerance is easy. It’s being a CEO today that’s tricky.
— Tom Fiffer (@tomaplomb) April 8, 2014