Catastrophic Success

A few weeks ago, Mozilla fired its CEO, Brendan Eich, in response to a wave of criticism about his donation, in the year 2008, of $1000 to the successful campaign to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying in the state of California.  Public discussion of this event has not yet died down.  For example, Richard Kim of The Nation has made interesting remarks about it here and here.  So I suppose I can put my oar in.

When the matter first came up, I would have guessed it was going to play out like this: A variety of groups and individuals would find fault with Mr Eich.  He and the company would respond with assurances that his private political views would have no effect on company policy, and would point to his record of working well with members of sexual minority groups.  Criticism would continue to mount, and calls for a boycott of Mozilla would pick up steam.  Mr Eich would apologize for having supported the 2008 campaign, would make a large donation to some pro-equality group, Mozilla would announce a new, souped-up policy to protect the rights of same-sexers among its employees, and the company would pay a bunch of professional gays and lesbians to come and lecture its executives about the plight of sexual minorities.  After a few weeks, the controversy would have faded, Mr Eich would be getting on with business, and corporate types would have been reminded that there is a cost to siding against gender-neutral marriage.  That may have turned out to be an unpleasant sort of game, but it’s a game that has been played many times and that would have ended with an unambiguous, if rather small-scale, win for the rights and political clout of same-sexers.

In reality, the first two parts of this scenario played out according to the prediction, but Mr Eich did not apologize or make a large donation to a pro-equality group, the company did not soup  up its policy on the rights of same-sexers, and no grand inquisitors of gaydom have been invited to Mozilla.  The whole game was short-circuited by Mr Eich’s departure.

There is a military term of art which I believe has an application here: catastrophic success.  George W. Bush popularized this term in 2004, describing the previous year’s invasion of Iraq.  When an enemy force capitulates more rapidly and more completely than one expects, thereby creating a chaotic situation with which the victorious force is not prepared to cope, that is a catastrophic success.  And that is what the end of Mr Eich’s tenure at Mozilla has presented to his opponents.   I remarked on this in a comment on one of Richard Kim’s pieces, where I said, among other things:

Would-be CEOs are no more likely to react to Eich’s fall by becoming pro-equality than they are to avoid pro-equality causes that may become controversial five or ten or twenty-five years from now. So the big-budget parts of “the Gay Movement” may very well be drying up surprisingly soon.

That is to say, while the anti-Eich campaign may have been an attempt to send the message that same-sexers should be taken seriously, the message that ambitious corporate types are likely to receive is that they should avoid controversy altogether unless it directly promotes the company’s bottom line.  So we’re likely to see a lot less corporate sponsorship or donations from executives to groups that promote the rights of same-sexers as a consequence of the Eich departure. Again, I don’t blame the anti-Eich campaign for this- if the matter had played out as I had expected, it would have been a plus for those groups, and it was certainly not unreasonable to expect that it would play out in that way.  On the other hand, it’s hard to see how we can find fault with Mr Eich and the company for declining to play the game according to the usual rules.

Of course, political quietism is not the only possible way for ambitious corporate executives to respond to the Eich affair.  If most companies are staffed by executives who decline to support any cause other than their own profits, then there will be passionate sections of the public who will be attracted to firms that aggressively identify themselves with one side or another of a particular issue.  We see that already, of course.  I suspect the Eich affair means that we’ll see a lot more of it.  If you live in a part of the country where same-sex rights are popular, then you’ll see companies that either go out of the way to identify themselves with those rights or are walls of silence regarding them.  If you live in a more conservative part of the country, you’ll find the opposite.  And that, I suspect, may reverse the tide of public opinion that has carried same-sex rights so far in recent years by creating social spaces in which the cost of supporting those rights increases.  I don’t know how best to respond to this, but I very much suspect that Mozilla’s response shows that threats of boycott will not help.