The trouble is, whether certain ideas are odious or unacceptable is itself usually a matter for debate. Take the two cases here. Many people do not see Brendan Eich’s opposition to same-sex marriage as homophobic or Hirsi Ali’s opposition to Islam as Islamophobic. Even if you think they are homophobic or Islamophobic, there is no value in simply shouting ‘Oh but they are’ and proscribing such views. That makes no more sense than Hindus demanding that Wendy Doniger’s book be banned because it supposedly disparages Hinduism, or Islamists demanding that Maajid Nawaz be disciplined for supposedly offending Muslims.
There is a difference between creating a society in which we have genuinely reduced or removed certain forms of hatreds and demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to other people’s expectations of what is acceptable. To demand that something is unsayable is not to make it unsaid, still less unthought. It is merely to create a world in which social conversation becomes greyer and more timid, in which people are less willing to say anything distinctive or outrageous, in which in Jon Lovett’s words, ‘fewer and fewer people talk more and more about less and less’. The Culture of Shut Up fashions not a less hateful world but a more conformist one. And there is chasm between the act of conforming and that of transforming.
Ideally, it would be great if we could “genuinely reduce” prejudice and hatred without simply demanding that people shut up. Realistically, no matter how committed a society is to maintaining a healthy culture of open discussion and debate, there will always be a significant minority who can’t be reasoned into agreement with the majority and will thus be intimidated into silence or ostracized. Eventually, they will accept that the social costs of being racist or homophobic simply aren’t worth the open expression of the sentiment, and over time, people will adjust to the new consensus as they always do. However, it still doesn’t feel right to endorse the intimidation/ostracizing, as inevitable as it may be. This is the part I wrestle with myself. I agree with the general point of Malik’s post (and his stance on free speech in general), but I think he sidesteps this point and is left vaguely gesturing in the direction of a world in which no one is ever compelled into behavior without their fully conscious, rational assent. How do we realistically come to terms with the fact that a tolerance omelet may require a few broken Eichs? How much resistance do we offer to the latest trial-by-Twitter even as we know that, ultimately, societal norms always have and always will require a certain amount of non-rational social pressure to become fixed into place?
If we are forced to accept the inevitability of these social costs, perhaps the best we can do is to moderate their scope and intensity. In the cases of people like Eich or Justine Sacco, what exactly are we trying to achieve? Ferzample, I heard it said that elevating Eich to CEO of Mozilla was the step too far, that it was too close to the company endorsing his political views. Fair enough, but how much effort, in general, should be devoted to scrutinizing someone’s political views or personal life? How far should we go in attempting to dig up dirt on them if it’s not readily apparent? And how long do the punitive sanctions last? If Eich or Sacco land in new high-profile, lucrative jobs, will they attract more negative attention? That is, will they be perceived to have gotten off too easily and thus require more hounding? I just don’t get a sense that most people have bothered to consider things like that. What concerns me is the ad-hoc nature of what constitutes justice in these situations. I suspect that a lot of people just want to enjoy judging and punishing (especially as social media creates the conditions where doing so brings status and other social rewards), and I worry about the possibility of the terms of punishment remaining open-ended and subject to extension.
May 2, 2014 @ 5:25 pm
Ad hoc justice – is there any other kind?
While I agree with most of what you say, I still want to make a distinction between having political opinions, and being against equal rights. The latter is clearly deserving of less consideration because the very nature of the position is indefensible and malicious: "I have the right to deprive you of your rights."
But, while I don't want to see people dropped into an oubliette, neither do I want them to be in powerful positions where their prejudices affect other people's lives and might possibly be celebrated in private because of their power.
May 4, 2014 @ 12:46 am
Well, it seems to me that that's when it shifts from being a free speech issue to one of privacy as well. I was thinking about this because of how some of Mozilla's gay employees were apparently supportive of Eich. Say you had a case where some boss was revealed to have prejudices. In fact, to shift the focus away from Eich's situation in particular, let's say you have a guy who thinks affirmative action is bullshit and he resents having to abide by hiring policies based on it. To use the earlier example, say someone stole his diary and gave it to Gawker. But then when they scrutinize the situation, they don't see any evidence that he's ever acted unfairly in a professional context, or that he's ever clearly refused to hire a qualified black candidate. No employees have any complaint about the way they've been treated. (I know this may be very unlikely, but humor me for the sake of argument.) Is that just cause to force him to step down? Because that would seem to me to be a case of punishing someone for what you fear they may do, and that would be a step too far.
(My point is just to establish the possibility that someone's opinions do not necessarily lead to acting on them, that some people could be mature enough to keep business separate from personal life.)
May 4, 2014 @ 12:26 pm
The board of a corporation certainly has the right to fire someone for what it thinks he may do, or how he is perceived by the public. No one else's opinion really matters.
May 4, 2014 @ 3:31 pm
True, but is it a dangerous trend for us to celebrate that fact? Or to cynically use it for tribal advantage? Freddie and Jonas Kyratzes have both suggested that this is almost a free-market libertarian vision of free speech, where only the independently wealthy can afford, or even deserve, to say what they think without fear of reprisal. And the independently wealthy, demographically speaking, are probably not a very liberal bloc.
May 4, 2014 @ 7:36 pm
Their points are valid, but the outrage machine is nothing new. Clinton AG Jocelyn Elders was fired in response to conservative outrage at her opinions on masturbation and illegal drugs 20 years ago, for example. It's always been the case that people have had to worry about their boss's politics, and backlash for expressing unpopular opinions. I agree that there is an ad hoc, case by case nature to this kind of thing, but people are going to advocate their interests and opinions. What do you expect?
May 5, 2014 @ 1:20 am
I expect the worst and hope for the best. The best, for me, would be a substantial number of people finally realizing that playing this game of selective, convenient outrage for tribal advantage is to everyone's detriment eventually (except for the independently wealthy).
May 5, 2014 @ 7:02 pm
Is selective, convenient outrage the only kind there is? You can't mean no one should be fired no matter how offensive their beliefs are found to be, so it's always going to be a judgement call. The standard should be some degree of likelyhood that the offender will treat others inequitably, should it not? http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2014/05/clearly-careerism-talking
May 5, 2014 @ 9:02 pm
Well, I'm pretty sure the outrage over the PSU/Sandusky case was bipartisan and deserved, but we're talking mainly about incidents where someone expressed an opinion or used a naughty word. In those cases, yes, I think they mostly are selective and convenient. If Rachel Maddow were caught on tape drunkenly ranting about what ignorant, awful people Christians are, would most progressives be supportive of a conservative boycott of her advertisers or an attempt to get her fired? Or would it be rationalized along tribal lines as a cynical, disingenuous ploy to take a scalp?
(Jesus, the commenters at that site are awful.)
May 6, 2014 @ 9:06 pm
If Rachel said it? Well then it would be true; no rationalization needed. Duh.
Most commenters are awful. Yours have caused you to have unreasonably high expectations.
May 6, 2014 @ 10:10 pm
Hell, we don't even have to use a hypothetical. If I weren't busy right now, I might go back and look to see whether this kerfuffle was considered fair play at the time.
May 9, 2014 @ 12:47 am
You can't mean no one should be fired no matter how offensive their beliefs are found to be, so it's always going to be a judgement call.
No, you're right. You may remember three years ago when I basically argued the other side of this. And there was that time when John Derbyshire parted ways with National Review (I think) over the utterly idiotic things he said about the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting. In both of those cases, I think the particular details and context made their firings unavoidable and unregrettable. So, no, I wouldn't always make that argument. But I do think that going after someone's job to satisfy a surge of outrage is becoming too knee-jerk of a thing in general.