Civil rights and CEOs

On the appointment of Brendan Eich

I don’t know Brendan Eich. I do know his work. He created JavaScript. He has overseen the creation of the Rust programming language, which is my favorite programming language in the world. He has spearheaded the effort to “rationalize” JavaScript (officially ECMAScript), introducing badly-needed features like modules, as well as powerful innovations like template strings. Overall, he has helped to catalyze the web as the world’s dominant application programming model, and has tirelessly fought for open standards, protocols, and platforms.

Of course, Eich is also famous for donating $1,000 in support of California Proposition 8, a ballot measure that would have constitutionally outlawed same-sex marriage in the state of California.

With today’s announcement that Eich has been appointed CEO of Mozilla, Eich’s 2008 contribution has once again become newsworthy. Debbie Cohen, Mozilla’s Chief of People, now reports to Eich. In addition, while Eich was not exactly a private individual before, he is now the main public face of Mozilla.

I am not going to accuse Eich of hatred, or of being a bigot. I don’t know him, and I have no reason to believe that he is a hateful person. I know that the Rust community, led (until recently) by Graydon Hoare, has gone out of their way to celebrate diversity and to make it clear that bigotry and hatred will not be tolerated. This speaks well of both Hoare and Eich.

I am not outraged by today’s news. But I am saddened, and disappointed, and confused.

I am saddened because of a blog post that Eich wrote in 2012. In this post, he expresses his unwillingness to respond to people who he feels are hateful and abusive. He states that he is not hateful or bigoted, and cites as evidence his participation in the internet community over the past 30 years. Notably, he chooses not to say anything about why he made his donation, other than that “the donation does not in itself constitute evidence of animosity”. Elsewhere in his post, he says:

“I challenge anyone to cite an incident where I displayed hatred, or ever treated someone less than respectfully because of group affinity or individual identity.”

And yet, this discussion happened precisely because of an incident in which Eich treated a group of people disrespectfully. Suppose that there were a ballot initiative that would outlaw having more than two children. Anyone with additional children would be forced to choose two, and the state would find new homes for the remainder. Wouldn’t such a campaign be deeply disrespectful towards families with multiple children? If I donated $1,000 to that campaign, would I not be participating in that disrespect?

I am disappointed, because Eich’s post suggests that he is unaware of the privilege that he holds. Eich is male, and he is wealthy, and he is white, and he is most likely straight, and he is most likely cisgendered. None of these are bad qualities! But they do mean that Eich is exempt from many struggles that the less privileged face on a daily basis. Eich does not have to worry that federal legislators will force him to have a baby that he does not want. He does not have to worry about being denied job opportunities because of his gender or skin color. He does not have to worry that he will not be able to visit his loved ones in the hospital, because the law does not recognize his marriage. He does not have to worry that he will be assaulted in a public restroom because of his gender presentation.

I think it’s wonderful that Eich never has to worry about these things, and I wish that no one in the world had to worry about them. But in reality, many people do, and I am disappointed that Eich does not seem to be aware of that fact.

I am confused, because Eich is a very smart and talented person, and yet he seems to be unaware of the impact that his words and actions can have. As the CEO of a major technology company, he is now an important public figure. His words will be listened to. His actions will affect Mozilla, and by extension, the broader internet community.

Eich asks people to put aside this issue because it is unrelated to the work that Mozilla does, but it is related, especially when the chief of HR reports to him. Surely, Eich knows that in the absence of an explanation, many people will assume the worst. Maybe Eich is religious, and he supports full civil unions, but feels that the word ‘marriage’ should be reserved for opposite-sex couples. Maybe Eich feels that marriage should be completely abolished. Or maybe Eich feels that homosexuality is unnatural and it should be outlawed.

There’s obviously a huge gulf between these positions, but we have no idea where Eich falls, because he has not told us. How do we know that Eich will not remove transgender care from Mozilla’s health insurance? How do we know that Eich will not eliminate medical benefits for same-sex partners of employees? If I worked at Mozilla, or if I were applying for a job there, I would be very concerned about these issues. Talented people will choose not to work at Mozilla because of his stance, perceived or otherwise. Clarifying his beliefs could go a long way towards quelling these fears. Choosing not to say anything is just as much of a political statement as anything that he could say.

I wish Brendan Eich the best of luck in his new job. I believe strongly in the work that Mozilla is doing, and I hope that they succeed. But most of all, I hope that Eich will reconsider his decision to stay silent. I want Mozilla to remain a place where everyone is welcome, and I hope that Eich will realize the role that he must play in making that happen.