TUESDAY, 15 APRIL 2014

Have we lost our ability to disagree?

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We have devolved.

That’s not news, except to those people who haven’t been paying attention. How long ago did we actually exercise our right to disagree with facility and reason, in this representative republic, this exercise in democracy? And especially, with dignity?

Voltaire allegedly said ”I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Though he did not, his biographer did. But it’s a noble sentiment.

So about the concept and reality of dignity, let’s look at what’s happened lately in the cultural meltdown over social moral issues, or anything that even refers to the word ‘moral.’ Fires ignite. Flamethrowers start lighting their torches. That’s bad enough. But one of the disturbing things among many, is that we’ve lost the meaning of words in the first place, so what’s moral isn’t sometimes what’s legal, and vice versa. Which leads inevitably to the throwdown challenge, who decides.

As if there’s no reference point. As if it’s a matter of consensus maybe? Because that’s what drives our culture.

Just as the Little Sisters of the Poor lawsuit put the spotlight on government encroachment on religious liberty, the meltdown that put white hot light on the decline of our civilization is the whole Brendan Eich/Mozilla affair over the issue of gay marriage. This need not have happened this way.

So, what happened?

A rundown:

First Things ran this, under ‘Anonymous’, such is the atmosphere of fear of retribution these days.

Silicon Valley is in an uproar. Angry blog posts have been written, resignations tendered, and boycotts organized, with no sign that the furor is likely to abate. Seeing such ruckus, a casual observer might assume that some fallout had finally resulted from the shocking revelation that several of the largest names in the technology industry—including Google, Apple, Intel, and others—have secretly colluded to drive down wages among software engineers and executives for the better part of the past decade. In fact it concerns nothing of the sort, but rather the appointment of a man named Brendan Eich to the role of CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, makers of the popular Firefox web browser.

The one thing all sides can agree on is that Eich, on paper, is very well suited to the job. His most notable technical achievement is the invention of the Javascript programming language, and while some of us might sniff at the poor design decisions which made that language notoriously unpleasant to work with, it is incontestable that it forms the underpinnings of much of the modern web. Indeed, a great deal of the complexity in a modern web browser is devoted to interpreting JavaScript as quickly and correctly as possible, and a staggering amount of work has gone into finding ever more baroque methods of optimizing its execution. Eich himself is quite familiar with all of this labor, having served in senior technical roles at Mozilla since he co-founded it. In fact, he has worked there almost continuously for the past sixteen years—an aeon in Silicon Valley—and is widely-known and liked within the company, the non-profit foundation that controls it, and the broader community of programmers around it.

Why, then, the ruckus? Amazingly enough, it is entirely due to the fact that Eich made a $1,000 donation to the campaign urging a ‘yes’ vote on California’s Proposition 8. When this fact first came to light, Eich, who was then CTO of Mozilla, published a post on his personal blog stating that his donation was not motivated by any sort of animosity towards gays or lesbians, and challenging those who did not believe this to cite any “incident where I displayed hatred, or ever treated someone less than respectfully because of group affinity or individual identity.”

That is honesty. He’s saying, basically, ‘everyone has an opinion, a belief, and this is mine. By holding this belief I have in no way dishonored any person, or treated them disrespectfully.’

Then he reached out further.

Upon being named CEO last Wednesday, Eich immediately put up another post which among other things pledged in direct terms first that he would ensure Mozilla continued offering health benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees; second that he would allocate additional resources to a project that aims to bring more LGBTQ individuals into the technology world and Mozilla in particular; and third that he would maintain and strengthen Mozilla’s policies against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s worth emphasizing that Eich made this statement prior to the storm of outrage which has since erupted, and that with these policies and others Mozilla easily ranks among the most gay-friendly work environments in the United States.

Emphasis added there, because that’s a remarkable effort to show goodwill. It wasn’t made in response to outrage, but in advance of it. How many work environments have that policy in the US? Or anywhere?

None of this, however, would do him any good. Since then, the Internet has exploded with statements expressing horror, sadness, and anger at Eich’s appointment. Two board members of the Mozilla foundation have resigned, ostensibly because they felt the search committee was unduly weighted with insiders, and dozens of more junior employees and volunteers have left as well. Several major corporations have released official statements encouraging Eich’s resignation, though it is difficult to tell whether they are motivated by genuine moral outrage or by the potential for cheap publicity. Of course the tech media, preternaturally hungry for pageclicks, cannot get enough of the story.

One of the most widely-shared and lauded of the countless statements issued in response to the appointment was written by Owen Thomas, managing editor of Valleywag, a self-described “tech gossip rag.” This is such a remarkable document that I can’t help quoting from it extensively:

Go there and read it if you will. This post is long enough already.

Andrew Sullivan responded to the torching of Brendan Eich with his own horror.

The guy who had the gall to express his First Amendment rights and favor Prop 8 in California by donating $1,000 has just been scalped by some gay activists. After an OKCupid decision to boycott Mozilla, the recently appointed Brendan Eich just resigned under pressure:

‘In a post at Mozilla’s official blog, executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker confirmed the news with an unequivocal apology on the company’s behalf. “Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it,” Baker wrote. “We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.”

‘The action comes days after dating site OKCupid became the most vocal opponent of Eich’s hiring. Mozilla offered repeated statements about LGBT inclusivity within the company over the past two weeks, but those never came with a specific response from Eich about his thousands of dollars of donations in support of Proposition 8, a California ballot measure that sought to ban gay marriage in the state.’

End of statement. To which Sullivan responds:

Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

Thank you, Andrew Sullivan. That is intellectual honesty. You made my point. Those who rightly expressed outrage at being bullied are now bullying others. Simply because they can. Which makes them just like their former opponents, certainly no better.

Joel Kotkin says it’s The spread of ‘debate is over’ syndrome.

In many cases, I might agree with some leftist views, say, on gay marriage or the critical nature of income inequality, but liberals should find these intolerant tendencies terrifying and dangerous in a democracy dependent on the free interchange of ideas.

There’s the key to understanding or at least beginning to see what’s going on here. There is no free interchange of ideas. Some ideas are not only vilified, but crushed to the point where those who hold them must be professionally ruined or destroyed.

This shift has been building for decades and follows the increasingly uniform capture of key institutions – universities, the mass media and the bureaucracy – by people holding a set of “acceptable” viewpoints. Ironically, the shift toward a uniform worldview started in the 1960s, in part as a reaction to the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the oppressive conformity of the 1950s.

But what started as liberation and openness has now engendered an ever-more powerful clerisy – an educated class – that seeks to impose particular viewpoints while marginalizing and, in the most-extreme cases, criminalizing, divergent views.

Harsh words maybe, but well stated certainly.

Mollie Hemingway wrote this exceptional, challenging commentary and analysis.

Libertarian Nick Gillespie said he was “ambivalent” about Eich’s removal but that Eich’s resignation simply “shows how businesses respond to market signals.” And even conservatives weren’t rallying behind Eich on the grounds that marriage is an institution designed around sexual complementarity so much as by saying that even if he’s wrong, conscience should be protected.

At the end of the day, they’re all wrong. Or at least not even close to understanding the problem with Eich’s firing. Political differences with CEOs, even deep political differences, are something adults handle all the time. Most of us know that what happened held much more significance than anodyne market forces having their way. And Eich shouldn’t be protected on the grounds that one has the right to be wrong. See, Eich wasn’t hounded out of corporate life because he was wrong. He was hounded out of corporate life because he was right. His message strikes at the root of a popular but deeply flawed ideology that can not tolerate dissent.

And what we have in Eich is the powerful story of a dissident — one that forces those of us who are still capable of it to pause and think deeply on changing marriage laws and a free society.

Now Mollie gets into territory that rivets my attention, the work and writings of Vaclav Havel…

…the Czech playwright, poet, dissident and eventual president. Havel, who died in 2011, was a great man of freedom, if somewhat idiosyncratic in his political views. He was a fierce anti-communist who was also wary of consumerism, a long-time supporter of the Green Party who favored state action against global warming, and a skeptic of ideology who supported civil unions for same-sex couples.

“The Power of the Powerless,” written under a communist regime in 1978, is his landmark essay about dissent. It’s a wonderful read, no matter your political persuasion. It asks everyone to look at how they contribute to totalitarian systems, with no exceptions. It specifically says its message is “a kind of warning to the West,” revealing our own latent tendencies to set aside our moral integrity. Reading it again after the Eich dismissal, I couldn’t help but think of how it applies to our current situation in the States.

“The post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline,” Havel wrote, using the term he preferred over “dictatorship” for the complex system of social control experienced in Czechoslovakia. We also have a system that is demanding conformity, uniformity and discipline — it’s not just about marriage law, to be honest. It’s really about something much bigger — crushing the belief that the sexes are distinct in deep and meaningful ways that contribute to human flourishing. Obviously marriage law plays a role here — recent court rulings have asserted that the sexes are interchangeable when it comes to marriage. That’s only possible if they’re not distinct in deep and meaningful ways. But the push to change marriage laws is just one part of a larger project to change our understanding of sexual distinctions.

This commentary is just about the best analysis of the critical issues at hand out there right now. It should be engaged. The cultural battles have devolved into incoherence.

OK, let’s step back. What does any of this have to do with views on marriage? Well, I know that we’ve had years of criminally one-sided media coverage, cowardly political leaders and elite cultural views that have conveyed to you that the only reason anyone might think sexual complementarity is key to marriage is bigotry. You may have even internalized this message. You may need to hold on to this belief for reasons of tribalism or pride. But in the spirit of Jon Stewart’s poster shown up at the top, which reads, “I may disagree with you but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler,” let’s go on an open-minded journey where we seek to understand the views of others without characterizing them as Hitler-like. It’s difficult in these times, but we can do it.

She leads the reader through this dialectic journey.

So what is the difference between marriage and other relationships? There’s no question marriage has been treated dramatically differently than other relationships by governments and society. Why? Is it that it features a more vibrant or emotional connection? Or is there some feature that is a difference in kind – that marks it out as something that ought to be socially structured? We usually don’t want government in our other relationships, right? So why is marriage singled out throughout all time and human history as a different type of recognized relationship?

Well, read her article for the whole critical thinking exercise.

This is what marriage law was about. Not two friends building a house together. Or two people doing other sexual activities together. It was about the sexual union of men and women and a refusal to lie about what that union and that union alone produces: the propagation of humanity. This is the only way to make sense of marriage laws throughout all time and human history. Believing in this truth is not something that is wrong, and should be a firing offense. It’s not something that’s wrong, but should be protected speech. It’s actually something that’s right. It’s right regardless of how many people say otherwise. If you doubt the truth of this reality, consider your own existence, which we know is due to one man and one woman getting together. Consider the significance of what this means for all of humanity, that we all share this.

Now if one wants to change marriage laws to reflect something else, that’s obviously something that one can aim to do. We’ve seen the rapid, frequently unthinking embrace of that change in recent years, described one year ago in the humanist and libertarian magazine Spiked as “a case study in conformism” that should terrify “anyone who values diversity of thought and tolerance of dissent.”

Hang in there, even if you’re emotionally charged at this point. Because this appeals to reason and not emotion.

What is marriage? That’s a good question to answer, particularly if you want to radically alter the one limiting factor that is present throughout all history. Once we get an answer for what this new marriage definition is, perhaps our media and other elites could spend some time thinking about the consequences of that change. Does it in any way affect the right of children to be raised by their own mother and father? Have we forgotten why that’s an important norm? Either way, does it change the likelihood that children will be raised by their own mother and father? Does it by definition make that an impossibility for whatever children are raised by same-sex couples? Do we no longer believe that children should be raised by their own mother and father? Did we forget to think about children in this debate, pretending that it’s only about adults? In any case, is this something that doesn’t matter if males and females are interchangeable? Is it really true that there are no significant differences between mothers and fathers? Really? Are we sure we need to accept that lie? Are we sure we want to?

We are, she posits, slipping under ‘mob rule.’ But still at a warning point.

There’s much to be thankful for in aftermath of the madness of the Eich termination. For one thing, many people have rightly figured out that what happened there is terrifying. It’s not just natural marriage advocates but even some of same-sex marriage supporters most vocal advocates.

Such as the aforementioned and quoted Andrew Sullivan.

Far more than the political folks on either side, though, is the importance of what happened to the apolitical. In one sense, the most frightening aspect of the Eich termination was the message it sent to people throughout the country: Shut up or you will lose your livelihood. But in another sense, this dissident moment may spark something previously thought impossible.

Havel says that party politics and the law are the weakest grounds on which to fight against group think. Instead, he says that the real place for dissidents to fight for freedom is in the space where the complex demands of the system affect the ability to live life in a bearable way — to not be fired for one’s views, for instance. “People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being,” Havel said.

Exactly. Authentically.

It’s in this sense that Eich’s most important political work was not making a paltry $1,000 donation in defense of natural marriage laws. It was in refusing to recant.

Consider first the response of one of the activist’s calling for Eich’s head. After he resigned, activist Michael Catlin wrote that he never thought his campaign against Eich would go “this far” and that he wanted “him to just apologize.” So he was “sad” that Eich didn’t say the magic words that would have allowed him to keep his job. Yeah, he really said that.

And then think about how horrified people were that Eich lost his job for his views that men and women are different in important ways. Regardless of our previous views on marriage, we saw in Eich a dissident who forced us to think about totalitarianism and our role in making society unfree. Did we mindlessly put up red equal signs when we hadn’t even thought about what marriage is? Did we rush to fit in by telling others we supported same-sex marriage? Did we even go so far as to characterize as “bigots” or as “Hitlers” those who held views about the importance of natural marriage?

We must be able to engage these ideas, consider these questions, debate them and disagree, to hold onto and preserve our dignity and civilized society.

Whether Eich and other dissidents will crack our thick, hardened crust remains to be seen. Perhaps there will need to be dozens, hundreds, thousands more dissidents losing their livelihoods, facing court cases, and dealing with social media rage mobs. But all of a sudden, the crust doesn’t seem nearly as impenetrable as it did last week.



This article is published by Sheila Liaugminas and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

 
 

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It seems we are there. Let’s engage the debate of ideas. Share yours in the comments, or send thoughts, recommendations, encouragement and well-intended humour to Sheila@MercatorNet.com.


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