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Posted by on May 5, 2014 in Ethics, Politics | 18 comments

Eich, Sterling, Clarkson, and a Villarreal fan

 

In the last month or so, there have been a few people punished in some way for holding or espousing supposedly racist or homophobic views. I want to examine some differences between these cases in order to try to shed some light on the (social) limits of expression, public outrage, and whether the punishment was appropriate. None of the cases involve the First Amendment (in the sense that I’m not arguing about the question of criminality), so when I use terms like ‘crime’ I mean ‘crime in the eyes of the public/the BBC/the NBA/Villarreal CF’ or whoever. To save time and space I’ll assume a basic level of familiarity with each case.

 

Eich

Brendan Eich‘s $1000 donation to the Proposition 8 campaign likely tells us that he disagrees with gay marriage. However, it doesn’t tell us why he disagrees with it, nor does it tells us to what extent he disagrees with it. It’s entirely possible that he’s an anti-gay bigot who would completely do away with gay rights. It’s also possible that he’s a traditionalist who opposes the ‘re-definition’ of marriage (and this, on the face of it, was the primary intent of Prop 8). Eich, for whatever reason, wanted to maintain the status quo on a single issue.  As Ed West writes, Eich’s crime was merely “disagreeing with an idea that didn’t exist anywhere in the world before 2001″.

Eich was either ordered to resign or did so voluntarily, out of intense public pressure (as a result of ‘liberal bullying‘). Why should he have resigned? Because he did not hold the correct view on one issue. That is worrying, not only because we aren’t infallible enough to know what really is the ‘correct’ view, but because it suggests that anyone in such a position of power must be have a pure and unblemished record as a left-winger. I consider myself left-wing but I’m also fairly sure that there are issues that would see me also cast out as a heretic. We all have our imperfections and unpopular opinions. This intolerance of the opinion of others is a form of bigotry, and I wonder whether Eich is as intolerant of the Prop 8 detractors’ opinion as many of them are of his.

I do realise that some views are so reprehensible that none of this applies – as Andrew Sullivan says, “if Brendan Eich had made comments telling his friends to keep away from faggots” then this would be different. Eich’s ‘crime’ was in a different category altogether.

Summary: Eich should have the right to his opinion on gay marriage, and I don’t just mean in the legal sense. This case highlighted the power of public outrage, casting a damning light on the intolerance and bigotry of the online mob.

 

Sterling

I don’t watch American sports so I’m unfamiliar with Sterling and his history. He was secretly recorded making egregiously racist statements in private, and it is painfully clear that this man has only disrespect for black people, born out of a deep-seated prejudice. Now, most liberals who defended Eich have noted the differences between the Sterling case and the Eich case, in order to justify a pro-Eich/contra-Sterling stance. I’ll go along with this for the most part.

I do have to have an unpopular opinion on the matter, and that’s that the punishment was inappropriate. In fact, I’m not sure there should have been an official punishment at all. Why? Because the comments, as horrendous as they were, were made in private. His only crime is that he is a massive racist (that might sound like a laughable thing to say, but think of the implications). This wasn’t the team deciding to ditch him (could they do this? I’m not sure…), which would have been entirely justified given what is revealed in his comments. This was the NBA punishing him (banning him for life and fining him $2.5m) for being a racist. That’s my only problem with it – it seemed like the wrong sort of action.

Summary: Perhaps I’m missing something about this. It just seems to me somehow wrong to punish someone for something they said in private. I agree that Sterling’s position was untenable though, which is why something had to be done. I think what happened to Eich should have happened to Sterling instead.

 

Clarkson

This has more in common with the Sterling case than it does with Eich, but I think that Clarkson is even more innocent than Eich. Clarkson recorded a take of Top Gear in which he chooses between two cars with the rhyme “eeny meeny miny mo, catch a n****r by his toe”. When I was growing up it was “tigger”, but Clarkson is a lot older than me and he’s using a previously common version of the rhyme (which incidentally I first encountered in The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok, if I remember correctly). In actual fact, Clarkson mumbled over the offensive part and you can barely make it out, and according to Clarkson himself, it was he himself who made the effort to make sure the take with the word “teacher” made the final cut.

Summary: I’m anything but a Clarkson fan, but this was a storm in a teacup. No, it wasn’t racist. No, the BBC should not fire him over this, and thankfully they haven’t.

 

A Villarreal Fan

Famous footballer Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him on the pitch by an opposition supporter (a rare but familiar act of racist abuse). Villarreal banned the fan for life. I think this was the right thing to do (though I would have commuted it to 5-10 years to allow for the fan changing his ways). What’s the difference? Well it, like with Sterling, was an egregious act of racism, only this time it was done in public. It was an act of public abuse – not merely a hateful comment in private. They are both wrong, but in this case the club had reason to actually punish the fan.

Summary: Not much to disagree with here, but I hope it highlights the points of contention in the Sterling case. This was a public act; Sterling’s was private, and though I agree that Sterling shouldn’t have been allowed to carry on, actually punishing him like Villarreal did to one of their fans doesn’t sit right.

 

  • Luther

    Generally speaking I think as long as a person isn’t taking advantage of their elevated platform to push their ugly views they shouldn’t receive the mob bullying routine.

    I think in Sterling case is a little different. His now public comments color any decisions he makes as an owner. An owner of a company that literally makes its money from the labor of the type of people he his disparaging.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    Eich is an interesting case, IMO, not because of him, but because what elected officials in the US are allowed to say without impacting their jobs and dichotomy between what happened to him and what doesn’t happen to elected officials.

    In terms of his “crime” and “punishment”, I recuse myself because I do disagree with what he said and did. However, thinking as a corporate drone myself, I would be uncomfortable working under the banner of someone who promotes something I disagree with. That said, he still has the right to his opinions.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    The status quo in California between June 19th and November 4th of 2008 was that same sex marriage was legal, in accordance with 43 Cal.4th 757 (2008) known as In re Marriage Cases. Incidentally, it was during this same narrow window that my sister-in-law got married to her same-sex partner in California.

  • kraut2

    Regarding Eich – the question was one of boycott afair. I as a user/consumer/customer have any right to take my business where the owners view does not conflict with my views or opinions.
    I.e. I would as an expat german never be a customer to a business whose owner espouses fascist views, and I would make aware fellow consumers aware of such views, leaving the decision to patronize that business to them.
    Why should I with my consumer funds support the livelihood of someone I disagree with? This is a consequence of my right of free speech and the actions permitted by that right. That is usually all that I as a consumer can do.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Ok I didn’t know that, but when I say “status quo” I just mean that it’s the ‘traditional, standard position’ that progressives like you and me are trying to overcome. That doesn’t make it right, of course, but perhaps it is less outrageous when a non-progressive advocates a bit of conservatism.

    When I say ‘bigotry’ I’m not referring to those who merely disapprove like yourself. I myself disapprove – I hated Prop 8. I’m talking about those who are completely intolerant of opposing views, and brook no disagreement.

    As far as the Storify is concerned, I’d say that is bigotry – they’re actively trying to get a guy removed for donating a small amount of money to a political campaign that they disagree with.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    I agree with that – Sterling’s position is untenable and something should be done. I just disagreed that the ‘something’ should be an actual punishment.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Regarding Eich – the question was one of boycott afair. I as a user/consumer/customer have any right to take my business where the owners view does not conflict with my views or opinions.

    Yes you do, but just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Sterling has the right to think what he likes about black people, but what he thinks is totally wrong, and he shouldn’t think it.

    My point is that people shouldn’t have boycotted Eich, even though they have the right to do so.

    With Sterling, I also think that he should have been dismissed. I’m just uncomfortable with the fact that he was punished.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    What meaning of bigotry are you using here? I don’t think it is bigoted to say that it is difficult to reconcile Mozilla’s culture & mission with the idea that gays and lesbians should be systematically disadvantaged.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    I’m not saying that’s bigotry. I’m talking about the people trying to get Eich fired over his opinion about a controversial political issue.

    I’m using this definition: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/bigotry

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    I don’t think this is just about Eich’s or Sterling’s private political opinions. There is some significant risk that they will not be able to check those privately held opinions at the door when they come to work, and indeed, I’ve seen nothing in the relevant literature that shows we can consciously override our racial or sexual prejudices when making executive decisions.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    He’s not in the business of marrying people of the same sex, so I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Perhaps he’s a rabid anti-gay hate-monger, but I’ve not seen any good evidence this is the case.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    There is a fair bit of conceptual space between “treats gays and lesbians in the workplace equally to heterosexuals” and “rabid anti-gay hate-monger.” It is easy to fail to live up to the gold standard while remaining well above the level of hate-monger.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Sure, either way, I don’t see good evidence that he’d discriminate in the workplace. We’re not even sure that he discriminates outside of it.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    I love that Alves casually picked up and ate the banana.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Anything formally titled “Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry” sounds pretty discriminatory to me.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Yeah – lots of other footballers posted photos of themselves with bananas after that, in solidarity. Neymar started a hashtag #weareallmonkeys. Pretty cool!

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Me too, but we shouldn’t assume that Eich agrees with 100% of the campaign. I was very vocal in my support of #Yes2AV (alternative vote), but I thought the campaign used lots of terrible arguments to support the position.

  • kraut2

    “Sterling has the right to think what he likes about black people, but
    what he thinks is totally wrong, and he shouldn’t think it.”

    In reference to large companies and their CEOs or any other officer that holds corporate power I still see it justified and usually the only response that has some chance of success to boycott such a company to make them aware that certain opinions are not appreciated.

    Those CEOs as a single person wield influence that is disproportionate compared to that of the individual consumer, and this imbalance can be mediated by the threat of boycott or any other crowd sourced action to protest against unpalatable opinions.
    He has the right to his opinion, but we as clients/customers/consumers have the right to express our disgust forcefully and make the comapny the corporate officer is serving aware that we have opinions too.

    I as a customer am under no obligation to help finance with my disposable income the livelihood of a corporate officer who takes advantage of his position of power to espouse positions and funds organizations that support and lobby for those opinions that are odious to me and other consumers.

    The only excuse I can see that Eich voiced his opinions before he took up the position with Mozilla, but then again – Mozilla is responsible for his hiring to a position of power and should have been aware that those opinions voiced and acted upon could be in conflict with their corporate policies and mission statements.
    Please differentiate between employees of a company without power within a corporate structure who usually cannot make their voices heard and CEOs who wield individually disproportionate power and influence.