Thoughts About Brendan Eich

Ah, hell… I guess it doesn’t matter now that he’s stepped down, but I had a thought or two about Brenden Eich that I wanted to bring up before it all dies away because I can easily see this happening again.

The controversy in a nutshell, for those who haven’t been keeping up. Brendan Eich, the creator of JavaScript, a founder of Mozilla, and CTO of the open source company responsible for Firefox and Thunderbird since 2005, was appointed CEO a little more than two weeks ago. In 2008, he donated $1,000 to the organization responsible for California’s Prop. 8 (the proposition reversing a state court decision allowing gay marriage) and possibly another $1,000 to an anti-gay marriage candidate (I’ve read conflicting reports).

What has people upset is that they can’t believe someone who doesn’t believe in inclusiveness has been appointed to lead a community leading open source organization dedicated to those values.

I am… unconvinced.

In fact, if anything, I feel for Eich.

Let me quickly state that I have long supported gay marriage. I don’t like the idea of anyone defining who consenting adults should and shouldn’t be having relationships with, much less backing that preference up with the force of law. And people and love is complicated. But making certain kinds of love (again, among consenting adults) illegal is cruel and can be, well, arbitrary.

But the case for Eich is more complicated. As CEO he stated his support for Mozilla’s LGBT policies. He’s also been in a leadership position through most of the period during which the gay marriage decision was decided and the proposition was passed and apparently had no objections towards the company’s policies in this same area. There was no reason to believe that he would have acted any differently as CEO.

“But,” goes the argument. “He was in favor of denying a class of people certain rights.”

Yes, yes he was. Which is dumb when you think you deserve rights that you are actively denying others. But, it’s not like he was alone in his thoughts. First of all, Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court decision that overturned sodomy laws from being enforced in one’s own home happened only in 2003. Prior to that, police, suspecting that you might be engaged in gay sex could knock down your door and haul you to jail, charging you with what was then a sex crime.

And, according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll that has been tracking this since 1996, in 2005 between 56-68% of respondents didn’t believe that gay marriages should be recognized. A Rasmussen Poll from the same era found that only 23% supported legal marriage, 35% civil unions, and a total 41% not supporting any recognition at all.

Obviously, we’ve come a long way. But, in 2008, we still hadn’t come that far. The same Gallup poll still only showed 46% support for legal recognition and the Rasmussen Poll showed 30% in favor of gay marriage and 28% for civil unions.

Today, the world’s a different place. A Washington Post/ABC News poll from February-March 2014 showed that 59% of American supported gay marriage, a literal sea change in public opinion in the last nine years. If we wanted to take it back twenty years, the change in numbers would more resemble a cultural revolution.

This, I would hope it goes without saying, has been a good thing. Anything that expands individual civil liberties is a net benefit to society.

But what about Brendan Eich?

All I can think, especially because no one has claimed that he’s pushed his views in the workplace, is that he has been slower on this cultural change than the rest of society. It’s a bummer that such a forward looking technologist couldn’t get on board with this but, as I said, he wasn’t alone. Because he hasn’t said why he supported Prop. 8, we don’t know exactly why he gave his money but it’s entirely possible he just wanted the law to remain how it had been, an understandably conservative stance when seeing the world change before your eyes. Remember, gay marriage wasn’t allowed in California because the legislature, nominally the voice of the people, voted it into law. It was because of a San Francisco state judge’s ruling, something that was far from popular in California or elsewhere.

I bring up this context because I feel it’s important. People are holding Eich responsible for donations he made literally in a different time, where society was much more divided on the subject than they are today. If there hadn’t been a law governing who could be in a committed relationship with whom, this never would have been a political issue in the first place. But, since it was, he exercised his rights to participate in the process. Then he and seven million other Californians (52% of the 79% turnout) voted to maintain what was then the status quo. He was wrong on the issue, both in terms of morality and time, but as far as anyone knows he’s never personally tried to oppress his coworkers to those under him at Mozilla.

Personally, I think he was railroaded. And, because society has changed so quickly on this issue, I don’t think he’ll be the last. And for a guy like Eich, who has contributed so much to the area and Mozilla as a whole, I think it’s a shame.

Proponents of gay marriage have won. Rightly. They’ve changed minds and opened hearts. But if I were them, I’d be careful who they step on performing their victory dance. Because we might lose some otherwise good people who disagreed on a difficult issue.