A predictable reaction to the appointment and subsequent resignation of now ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has been accusations of liberal mob rule. As organizations like the Ada Initiative (of who I am a founding and continuing supporter) publicly distance themselves from GitHub over that company’s recent harassment scandal, there will assuredly be similar accusations, albeit swapping “gay mafia” with “feminazis” or some equally offensive slur.
In a society where actual mob rule is definitionally impossible and protected against by layers of public institutional authority, such rhetoric is emptier than empty. Your fellow citizens are only “the mob” when their collective voice and action threatens an imbalance of power you hope to retain over them. When reinforcing the power structures that benefit you, “the mob” are now peers, your sisters and brothers, countrymen and patriots, good honest folk. The rhetoric flows in one and only one direction.
Words are just words. Unless, of course, they’re laws. The difference between the community that spoke out on the above issues and their detractors is that no thoughtful advocate of social justice is interested in undermining the rights of her fellow citizens even if she disagrees with them. Brendan Eich wanted the unequal treatment of homosexuals enshrined in law and donated money to that cause; in response, “the mob” said that they didn’t think a person who held such a view is a fit representative of a visible organization. That statement was heard and voluntary action was taken. Nobody was fired, no lawsuits were filed.
After this incident, Eich retains his right to employment, his right to marry and to have the State recognize that marriage, his right to citizenship and all its privileges. The departing co-founder of GitHub has immediately begun a new venture, and conveyed the support of GitHub’s investors. The liberties of both are fully intact, as indeed are their social privileges. This is as it should be. But to hear the “mob rule” crowd, you’d think the outgoing executives had been stockaded and shipped off to a penal colony.
This pernicious sort of conservative rhetoric shows a weak hand. From outmoded terms like the “School of Resentment” to the freshly-coined and equally inane “grievance industry”, what’s attempted in the phraseology is a kind of institutional misdirection. We are meant to believe that an insidious group of others has coordinated an enduring campaign of terror on a wholesome status quo. In reality, what’s transpiring is quintessentially democratic: public discourse leading to voluntary action, all without violence or the suppression of rights.
Some may object to what could be described as the forced democratization of management appointments within private organizations. This assumes a naivety about the accountability of large organizations to the society they operate within and benefit from. You are entitled to run an organization that reflects your values within the bounds of the law. What you are not inherently entitled to is the opportunity to lead an important and visible organization with values and actions that deviate from social norms.
If you want to build an organization that’s capable of changing society, society will change your organization right back. Our society’s norms are gradually changing to reflect the values of social justice. Organizations – public and private – will change in kind, starting with those who choose to lead.