Mozilla and the Art of Culture War
In the first paragraph of Mozilla’s blog post announcing Brendan Eich’s resignation, the company offered an apology of its own: “We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.” Continuing to keep an unrepentant Eich on board would, for Mozilla, would violate their integrity.
The developers at Rarebit, who began the boycott, expressed their surprise that their movement had forced Eich out of the company he founded, when there was such an easy solution available.
We never expected this to get as big as it has and we never expected that Brendan wouldn’t make a simple statement. I met with Brendan and asked him to just apologize for the discrimination under the law that we faced.
Eich had already promised to maintain Mozilla’s anti-discrimination policies, in letter and in spirit, but, for the Rarebit developers and other critics, repentance was required. The Rarebit developers stressed that Eich was free to keep his personal beliefs but that he should apologize for supporting this law. But apologies aren’t a realistic end condition for most political fights.
When the Supreme Court finally rules on the Hobby Lobby case, there’s no reason the victors have any obligation to apologize to the losers. The owners of the company don’t owe their employees an apology for trying to strike contraception from the company insurance plans, and the employees don’t need to beat their breasts and ask forgiveness for desiring it. Not all policy disputes have to be settled with personal reconciliation, and, if they are, that repentance won’t come in a pro forma memo.
Rote repentance or destructive dialogue is all that is possible, when the inferential distance between cultural combatants is too large. As America secularizes, the new “Nones” are particularly vulnerable to mischaracterizing religious opponents. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell offers a new look at how similar errors in judgement lead to the Waco massacre in 1993.
[T]he religious scholar Nancy Ammerman interviewed many of the F.B.I. hostage negotiators involved, and she says that nearly all of them dismissed the religious beliefs of the Davidians: “For these men, David Koresh was a sociopath, and his followers were hostages. Religion was a convenient cover for Koresh’s desire to control his followers and monopolize all the rewards for himself.” … Because the F.B.I. could not take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, it had no meaningful way to communicate with them.
In a pluralistic society, we need to learn how to communicate with the people whose beliefs we abhor, even if only for pragmatic reasons, to avoid the kind of confusion that led to tragedy at Waco. When antagonists refuse to engage the logic behind views that they find repugnant opportunities for engagement are limited on both sides.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu warned military commanders, “When you surround the enemy always allow them an escape route. They must see that there is an alternative to death.” Demanding public self-criticism, or conversions-expressed-as-apologies doesn’t leave a way for enemies to coexist or retreat. By treating apologies as trivial concessions and objections as irrelevant, those ascendant may find that they turn their enemies into David Koreshes and Thomas Mores.