See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Mozilla, Mob Rule, and the Veil of Ignorance

On Thursday, Mozilla released a corporate-speak laden statement announcing that Brendan Eich resigned under pressure as the CEO of Mozilla Corporation.

Brendan Eich has chosen to step down from his role as CEO. He’s made this decision for Mozilla and our community.

Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.
Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.

We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.

While painful, the events of the last week show exactly why we need the web. So all of us can engage freely in the tough conversations we need to make the world better.

In other words, our consumer base became angry about something that matters, but needs a remedial lesson in civics. Eich has been removed and we really wish we had avoided this whole thing by knowing how big of a deal you were going to make of it, and we’re hoping that throwing his corpse to the mob will forestall calls for a full on employment purge of anyone who is insufficiently egalitarian.1

So, some background. Mozilla is a loosely constituted community of users and developers of free software the best known of which is Firefox. The community is backed by a non-profit, the Mozilla Foundations, which has a for-profit subsidiary, Mozilla Corporation. At any given time, assume that a media piece you read on Mozilla will conflate the last two and vaguely understand that the first is involved somehow. I’ll refer to “Mozilla” as the gestalt entity made up by all three of these elements. Mozilla was founded by, among others, Brendan Eich, who helped shepherd the community from its origin as website, then as a Lead Technologist and director of the Mozilla Foundation, and then as the first CTO of Mozilla Corporation, and then he was appointed CEO in 2014. Oh, and he is largely responsible for the creation of JavaScript.

Two weeks later, he was fired. Sorry, he resigned, as a result of reporting done in March 2012 about Eich’s donation of 1,000 dollars to a political campaign in 2008. That campaign was California Proposition 8, which passed, amending the California Constitution to restrict marriage to “one man and one woman” before being ultimately struck down through complicated legal maneuvers not on point here.

It is important you note what I didn’t say in my recap. I did not say that Eich steered Mozilla funds or community members to engage in political advocacy. I did not say that Eich planned on changing Mozilla employment policies. I did not say anything in the story about Eich, about Mozilla at all, despite his close and lengthy association with Mozilla including helping bring it into being. No, this is a story about what Eich did with 1,000 dollars of his own money and how it cost him a job because the mob wanted a scalp.2

Brendan Eich may well have some sins to answer for, and for some of those perhaps he should pay his price publicly.3 It is quite another thing to say that the price for those sins is his job, and that Mozilla is responsible for making him pay it. For those of us who are worried about, say, for-profit companies claiming special protection because of their owner-officer’s religion one might hesitate before too quickly melding personal actions and the company.

The problems with Eich’s firing are well covered elsewhere on the web, Leah Libresco’s piece for The American Conservative, written before the firing, covers the society-wide problems well, so I want to take a turn towards the theoretical.

Jonathan Rawls is a giant of a moral philosopher, behind the curiously modest sounding idea of “justice as fairness”. I can’t begin to cover the full extent of his contributions to political and moral thought, but know that his reach is vast and is lurking in the background of many discussions you’ll have day-to-day, whether you know it or not. One of his famed contributions is that of veil of ignorance, a thought experiment used to organize a fair society.4 The central conceit of the veil of ignorance is to imagine that before we are born, we know nothing about the life we will be born into. We don’t know what mental or physical abilities, social standing, even psychological propensities and moral qualities. Not knowing anything about who you might become once born into the world – how would you organize a fair society? And that, Rawls argued, is what a fair society looks like.

Where Rawls used the veil of ignorance as a device to organize a just society on the large-scale, I’d like to use it to describe a difference between two camps within the American left coalition. While typical number-line thinking suggests that there are left-liberals and center-left moderates, I find it far more useful to divide the camps into their intellectual predispositions – you might say their moral instincts – rather than ideological temperament. To wit, you have progressives – those who believe in forging a better, more equal society, and liberals, those who believe in forging a better, more free society.5

Progressivism and liberalism are intertwined and often act in concert, but in issues like Eich’s firing the moral instincts behind the two ideas diverge dramatically. For progressives, from behind the veil of ignorance they determine that a fair society is one where the weak or not preyed upon by the strong, because you don’t know whether you will be one of the strong or one of the weak. Eich preyed upon the weak, so the weak push back, and that, more or less, is that.

For the liberal, from behind the veil of ignorance, there are always more problems, because while the liberal also believes that it is wrong for Eich to give money to bad causes, they take seriously that they don’t know if they will be like Eich at any given moment. The weak version of this proposition is that from behind the veil of ignorance you don’t know when it is your ideas that will be unpopular, so a fair society is one where people are maximally free to express their ideas without regard to what is popular, but I want to take it a step further. The strong proposition is that from behind the veil of ignorance, you don’t know when it is that your ideas will actually be wrong, so it is best that we are maximally free to actually be wrong.

This is of course a dangerous idea – but I think ultimately it is a healthy one for thoughtful people to play with. Humility is often touted as a virtue derived from emotional disposition, but I think it is better to think of it as an active commitment that must be carefully crafted and well maintained. It is much easier to remember to withhold judgment when it is your friends and family you would end up judging – maintaining ideologically diverse friendships is the hairshirt I wear to counteract the high of self-righteousness.6 Rawls said that the veil of ignorance was a thought experiment to be used from the original position – that is, before one exists. I tell you now that the veil of ignorance is a grand metaphor for how your life is actually going – the future is closed to you, and the past has slipped out of reach. Justice comes from embracing that ignorance as your teacher.



7 responses to “Mozilla, Mob Rule, and the Veil of Ignorance

  1. Pingback: A Quick Note on that Ex-Googler Memo Thing | See Infra

  2. Dennis 04/01/2015 at 12:18

    From my point of view (although I don’t know how many other liberals I speak for) this scandal had a lot of irony to it, because to me, the legitimacy of the gay rights movement relies on the idea that what you do in your private life is outside the purvue of legal and societal judgement. Whether or not I think extramarital gay sex is less moral, healthy, and constructive than marital straight sex is besides the point; it’s not my place to judge something that won’t possibly impact my life. The idea that someone’s sexual orientation has a profound influence on someone’s job is ridiculous. As I write, I’m sitting in a chair, which was assembled by a chair maker, who knows how to make a chair. I don’t care if, on their own time, the chair maker spoke no English, or was a Hitler worshipper, or was a sexual deviant of the most depraved stripe; when they were on chair company time, they made me a chair, and that’s all I care about. Likewise, I don’t care if the CEO of Mozilla Corporation was a bigot, personally, as long as he wasn’t a bigot professionally.

    Of course, that kind of libertarian rhetoric is, prettymuch every time you hear it, just a smokescreen for reaganism. Eventhough I agree with the principle, it would be naive of me to expect it to get practically applied all the time.

    And I don’t want to repeat what you’ve already said too much, if I haven’t already, but a lot of people, “progressives” I guess, would say that the legitimacy of the gay rights movement does not on the idea of a right to privacy. They would say that whether or not gay extramarital sex is worse than straight marital sex is the entire point; being gay is no worse than being straight, therefore punishing gaiety is injust. But being a homophobe is worse than being unprejudiced, therefore punishing homophobia is just.

    But I think it’s giving a lot of people too much credit to suggest that they actually thought it through. I think the people who agitated to get Bendan Eich fired were prettymuch taking the same Californian concept of “contamination” that they thoughtlessly, superstitiously apply to food and stuff, and applying it to politics. Like, “He’s contaminated with evil. Fire him before he contaminates all of Mozilla.” Scandal was never something that people were especially logical about.


    • K. Chen 04/02/2015 at 21:53

      Thanks for the comment Dennis. There was a particularly cruel irony to the whole thing in that Eich/Mozilla was such a big player in the open/free software community. I know from many encounters that many, many sorts of atypical/off-model folks on sexuality, orientation, race, gender, political opinion, disability axes found a great refuge in that community because of its privacy oriented ways. It was a latter generation of developers that was instrumental in pushing Eich out.

      I don’t know how hard they thought it through, but I tend to assume that moral instincts are genuine and charitably construct the arguments from there.


  3. Brian 04/06/2014 at 22:37

    As a leader, a CEO is meant to embody the values and the vision of the organization. Eich certainly had the vision, but he did not share the values. And that is not what any company wants in a CEO. Mozilla’s board of directors first made the mistake of promoting Eich to the position of CEO (certainly knowing of his Proposition 8 donation beforehand), then was slow-footed in the public’s reaction to that decision, and then Mozilla’s public-relations department solidly planted that foot into the organization’s mouth when it announced that Mozilla was a company that supported all sorts of views. In the end, Mozilla created this monster and, having dispatched it, made the terrible announcement that it tolerated monsters. Just not the one that they had kicked out the door.

    Eich had the courage to stick to his convictions. The disclosure of those convictions resulted in the loss of his position at Mozilla because he was working at an organization that, regardless of the PR spin, valued equal rights over freedom of expression. Or, for the cynic, valued its donating customer base over the freedom of expression of the new CEO.


  4. Max 04/04/2014 at 14:01

    I think you’ve also identified two different schools of thought on how social change occurs.

    A progressive would say that it comes from the broad populace, thus, we should celebrate that in this case a political fight has been won and the mob (a progressive would use the term ‘people’ or ‘populace’), having come to the right side of an issue, is slowly working its will.

    A liberal, on the other hand, might think that social change comes from the top down: it will always take support among the elite for any social movement to get traction. While Eich is a member of the elite trailing public opinion here, gay marriage was first picked up by a small group of elites, and only after years of said elites campaigning was the broader populace (or ‘mob’) won over. By eliminating space for members of the elite to hold bad unpopular ideas, we also eliminate space for the elite to make good unpopular ideas popular, and, a liberal would say, that’s the only way it will ever happen.

    Just something that I thought about while reading this.


    • K. Chen 04/04/2014 at 16:05

      I’ve been thinking about this, and I think it is an important insight, but I would tweak it. While I do in fact identify as liberal (as one would assume based on my post) I don’t think much about protecting elites qua elites per se. Or at least I don’t think much of them even if I believe certain elite institutions (universities for example) serve the public interest best by having strong cultures of freedom and independence. This might be a blind spot, of course.

      I think that there is a deeper divide, although I hesitate to declare it a wedge between liberals and progressives. You framed the issue in such a way where there is a right (be accepting of gays and support gay marriage) and a wrong (the opposite of that) but I want to suggest that however appropriate that might seem for this, or any other issue, it is a trap. In fact, there are multiple conceptions of the good – and I value most a society where one is as free from authority, be it governments, employers, or the mob, to pursue as many diverse conceptions of the good as society will bear.

      What I think the liberal values more than the elite is the fight itself – a dynamic system where minority voices are present, even if the fight gets rough. I have no problem with the public announcing their displeasure with Eich – it is when the consequences are raised to the exercise of authority – in this case with employment, specifically at the corporation he helped found that it gets difficult. The soft version, and I believe, but only weakly so that it is common among progressives, is to separate the world into two buckets. The first bucket are the things that matter a lot – health, safety, and equality – where there is a right answer. The second bucket is everything else, which just comes down to personal preference. The strong version discards these categories as meaningless.


      • Max 04/10/2014 at 20:00

        I get the value of the debate, and I knew when I used the term ‘right’ that I was speaking sort of tangentially to what you had originally said. However, while there are many conceptions of what is ‘good’ and ‘right,’ in this case, as in most cases, I happen hold a particular conception, which I regard as being better than the alternative (which is why I don’t hold the alternative conception). At some point, I have to say ‘I think the things I believe are correct, which is why I believe them.’ Given the emerging social consensus, I felt comfortable using the term ‘right,’ here. Mostly I was too lazy to find a thesaurus.*

        Unrelatedly, I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts you have on the Ayaan Hirsi Ali/Brandeis University situation (and note that I’m equally uninformed about that situation as I was this one).

        *I have no idea if this paragraph makes sense; I’m sort of hoping that you just get my gist.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: