Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Multi That Owns Us

So I guess I'd better write something about the Great Mozilla Flap of 2014.  In case you haven't heard, Brendan Eich, the recently-elevated CEO of Mozilla, which produces the Firefox browser, came under attack because in 2008 he donated a thousand dollars to support the anti-same-sex-marriage Proposition 8 in California.  After a little more than a week of controversy, including calls to boycott Mozilla products, Eich stepped down.  Which was a relief for me, because after checking the main alternatives, I wasn't sure I was willing to switch to another browser; I have some problems with Firefox, but I'm used to it and I don't much like Chrome or IE.

Conor Friedersdorf summed up the controversy reasonably well here; I also liked this post by Ampersand at Alas, a Blog, which helped me sort out my own position.  It reminded me that I'd written much the same things in this post right after the success of Prop 8 at the polls in 2008. Entertainingly, Andrew Sullivan got upset over Brendan Eich's departure, though he helped lead the attack on the liberal gay-marriage supporter Alec Baldwin for using homophobic language, even unto Baldwin's losing his TV program. (Maybe because Baldwin is a high-profile Hollywood liberal and Eich is a right-wing libertarian who supported Ron Paul?)  Baldwin singled out Sullivan for contumely as part of the "fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy." And the fuss hasn't died down yet, as shown by xkcd's latest cartoon, linked above, which has been getting shared widely on the Intertoobz, including sf writer John Scalzi's blog.

For a computer/math geek and science cultist, xkcd has wandered off into irrationality with this cartoon. Part of what he says is fair enough, I guess: I agree that the First Amendment only applies to government censorship, so being fired for your political or other views is not a violation of your First Amendment rights.  This has been brought home repeatedly in the controversies over Paula Deen, Juan Williams, Phil Robertson, and others lately.  (Oddly, when the racist writer John Derbyshire was fired from the National Review two years ago for his expressed views, few right-wingers came to his defense.)  Nor is it a violation of your freedom of speech to be kicked out of an Internet forum, or if your letter to the editor of a newspaper isn't published, or if you're attacked in the "mainstream media" for attacking your political opponents.  So far so good.

But xkcd made some odd statements, starting with "It doesn't mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit" and climaxing with "It's just that the people listening think you're an asshole, and they're showing you the door."  On a narrow literal level, the first statement is also true, but "bullshit" is perniciously irrelevant, as is "asshole."  It doesn't matter whether what you say or write is "bullshit," but the question arises: Who gets to decide that what you've said is bullshit, or that you're an asshole?  At Scalzi's blog I posted a comment, asking whether Phil Donahue was fired from MSNBC in 2003 because he was an asshole?  And how many people who are grimly celebrating the fall of Brendan Eich now, threw hissyfits over Donahue's losing his TV show because he gave a forum to opponents of the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq?  Many liberals and progressives did at the time, and they're still upset a decade later; I'll cite Chris Hedges for special notice because of his overwrought claim that "TV news died" when Donahue was shown the door.  As if the corporate media had ever given a platform to critics of US wars; Hedges surely must know better.

Another commenter at Scalzi's blog bit.  They wrote:
@Duncan, more like MSNBC’s viewers were letting MSNBC know they thought he was an asshole, and MSNBC decided that it did not want to present programming by someone their viewers thought was an asshole. Unless you’re implying that he lost his show because the government applied pressure to MSNBC?
No, I wasn't implying anything of the kind; as far as I know, the government applied no pressure to MSNBC.  There was no need to.  The decision to get rid of Donahue seems not to have had anything to do with "viewers" thinking Donahue was an asshole; it came from the upper reaches of management, as revealed by a leaked internal memo which warned that Donahue presented a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.... He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives."  The decision was framed in commercial terms, that at a time when MSNBC wanted to "reinvent itself", Donahue might put off an "anticipated larger audience who will tune in during a time of war" by linking pundits to war coverage, "particularly given his public stance on the advisability of the war effort."  So far I haven't seen any of Donahue's advocates acknowledging that a corporate network has the right to determine the face it shows to its audiences, and to dismiss employees like Donahue who don't fit its plans to reinvent itself.  But that was last year, after all.

There are other examples I could give.  Michael Moore, who is widely regarded as an asshole by conservatives and liberals alike, publicly opposed the Iraq war before it became safe to do so, and endured death threats, vandalism of his home, and (unsuccessful) physical attacks as a consequence.  (He was also harshly criticized by liberal heroes and Iraq war supporters Keith Olbermann and Al Franken, whom I consider assholes.)  But while I doubt that those who've justified the firing of various right-wing bigots would be comfortable defending the response Moore faced because of his 'bullshit,' I wonder how many of them are even aware of it?  And it's true, death threats and bomb plots go way beyond what xkcd is talking about.  But c'mon, the audience at the Academy Awards had every right to boo Moore because they didn't want to hear this asshole spout his bullshit, right?

I hope this points to the problem not only with xkcd's specific point about bullshit and assholes, but to the broader defense of private businesses demoting, firing, and otherwise showing the door to people whose opinions and political stances rile others.  After all, John Scalzi has been called an asshole often enough, and though he runs his own blog he doesn't own the Internet hardware that stores and transmits it -- it's in the hands of private companies, who then could reasonably give him the boot if enough people complained that he was an asshole and they didn't want to read his bullshit anymore.  A common argument used about Internet forums is that if your comments get deleted or you get banned from the comment section, you can always start your own blog.  And that's true, but what if you can't find a host for your bullshit?  This happened to Wikileaks a few years back, for example; and why not, since Julian Assange is widely considered an asshole by right-thinking people?  Why should they have to listen to his bullshit?  They were just showing him the door.

Throwing around words like "asshole" and "bullshit" in this situation is a rejection of rational debate.  I've pointed before to the way many people all over the political spectrum confuse a person's opinions with their style of presentation, which are separate issues.  And while it's convenient (which is to say, lazy) to dismiss free-speech issues by characterizing the offending speech as "bullshit," it's irrelevant.  It seems to me to echo the distaste for critical thinking I've seen exhibited by many good liberals and progressives, who want to impose, with varying degrees of force, their opinions on the benighted troglodytes who aren't as rational as they like to believe they are.  (And no, this has nothing to do with being "open-minded."

Many of Eich's critics argued that his offense went beyond speech into action: he donated a thousand dollars to support the campaign for Proposition 8 in 2008, to ban same-sex civil marriage in California.  I've seen quite a lot of GLBT people say that because he tried to take away their rights, he had no right to be CEO of Mozilla.  (I would agree that he doesn't have a right to be CEO of Mozilla, but that doesn't seem to be what these people meant -- I think it's more like the person who wanted Paula Deen to "lose everything.")  I suppose that case could be made, but matters of principle must apply across the board, not just to specific cases, so let's consider some analogous possibilities.  Can a company fire an employee who contributes to an organization seeking to raise taxes on businesses, or on the top income brackets?  Such an employee could reasonably be accused of trying to deprive businesses or rich individuals of their right to keep as much of their income as possible.  How about union organizers (to say nothing of strikers), who also seek to limit the power of business owners and management, thereby affecting them in their pocketbooks?  Though labor law has limited the freedom of workers to organize and strike, our society and the law recognizes at least in theory that people have the right to assert their rights at what may be the expense of their opponents.  Not all freedom is a zero-sum game, where one person gains only if another loses, but sometimes it is.  People have the right to advance themselves at others' expense in such situations.  It's certainly not true that a person who does so has automatically forfeited his freedom of speech or action.  And contrary to another liberal-left claim I've often seen, freedom of speech does extend to "hate speech" and advocating the diminution or removal of other people's rights.  Those others have the corresponding freedom to respond with more speech, including hateful speech as they often do.  That's part of the messiness of living in a free society.

I guess I should clarify that I'm not displeased that Brendan Eich stepped down; I think that the criticism of Mozilla and the pressure it produced were legitimate.  But I do think that some of those who agree with his demotion are not clear about what the issues are, what they were doing, or how the same tactics can and will legitimately be turned against people they support.

I don't think there's an easy answer to this problem, but I do think that the power corporations and other private, ostensibly non-government entities, can exercise over people's expression is a matter that ought to concern those who care about public debate.  It appears to me that many liberals and "progressives" and even leftists are all too accepting of corporate power over corporate employees, because it's not government power.  lt's just not possible to separate the public and the private that neatly.  And what these recent controversies -- not just Eich, but Deen and Robertson and others -- indicate to me is that for many if not people, their positions on any given case are determined by where they stand on the issue.  If they approve of the opinions of the person fired, they get indignant; if they don't, they celebrate and justify the firing.  Which is their right, of course; but it doesn't bespeak a principled commitment to freedom of expression.