9 April, 2014
Let’s talk about freedom for a second.
There has been some concern about Brendan Eich’s short stint as CEO of Mozilla. Specifically, there is a worry that his stepping down represents a degradation of his right to Free Speech, as enshrined in his country’s constitution.
I can’t help but be confused.
Was he arrested? Has he been stripped of his other rights, like the right to free assembly, or the right to worship whatever deity he chooses? Can he no longer walk the streets as a free human being? I’m pretty sure the answer to all these questions is “no”.
Freedom is a funny thing. It’s a two way street, and not just in the “great power/great responsibility” way (although that too). Freedom is, among other things, the freedom to screw up. Freedom as we're talking about here isn’t freedom from all consequence: it’s freedom from state mandated consequence. It’s the ability to say what you want and not lose any of your rights as a result.
Brendan Eich’s freedom has not been curtailed: what has been curtailed is his privilege.
Eich had the freedom to choose his actions, and he did so. He chose to give some of his wealth to support campaigns that sought to suppress the freedoms and rights of those he objected to. He chose to believe that some subset of “freedom” is sufficient for some subset of society.
He chose to become the public face of a corporation which places the importance of working “in a way that benefits everyone” at its core.
And when it became clear to his employers that the man and the job description didn’t match, he chose to cease being CEO.
When you live in a world of privilege, it’s incredibly easy to conflate those privileges with rights. There’s no simple line to draw based on personal experience, and when we see someone who is “one of the good guys”—except with some objectionable views—it’s very easy for other people who live in the same world of privilege to jump to their defence.
Freedom of speech is not an insistence that we all just get along, that everything which people say must be subject to debate and consideration. My freedom to speak does not imply your obligation to agree, or even to listen.
Freedom is the right to choose, but all choices have consequences. Will this have a “chilling effect”, as some commentators worry? Possibly. But if said chilling results in rich, straight, white men thinking twice before assuming that their privileges include the right to suppress others with impunity well, I can’t say I think that’s all bad.
People in America are promised the freedom to hold their own opinions. They are free to change if and when they see fit, not forced to at gunpoint, or under threat of imprisonment. Eich chose to value his opinions highly enough to sacrifice some of the privileges he enjoyed, and I have to admit a grudging admiration for the strength of his resolve.
When it comes down to it, though, my judgement doesn’t really matter. Neither does yours, nor does the massive river of opinion eagerly offered up by anyone with access to a keyboard, microphone or soapbox over the past few days.
History is the true judge of the views of people like Eich, and I expect that, as before, history will not be as kind to them as I have tried to be.