Thursday, April 10, 2014

Deacon Duncan Doubles Down

Wherein a critical mass of wrong brings me out of retirement.

My attention was draw to a sequence of two posts by Deacon Duncan which embody many of the worst habits of thought that I've observed in the atheist community. He's just so wrong, on so many levels, and sometimes in multiple ways at the same time, that I find the need to respond at length to what he says, beginning with The rise and fall of the nerd Eich and then moving on to Subverting the democratic process.

He starts out reasonably enough, if not particularly eloquently, pointing out that there are differences of opinion regarding whether Brendan Eich's treatment was fair and/or warranted1. But then he goes off the rails in paragraph 6:

Where Eich crossed the line was in going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas, to the point of actively participating in a coordinated effort to humiliate and oppress innocent people. Proposition 8 had one purpose, and one purpose only: to isolate those who fall in love differently than heterosexuals do, and deny them the fundamental human rights the rest of us take for granted. At the point where you actively attempt to bring tangible harm to others, you've crossed the line from being a bigot the rest of us should tolerate, to being an enemy of open and enlightened society. Stupid opinions are bad enough, but stupid actions, deliberately undertaken for the purpose of harming others, deserve the consequences they receive. [ Emphasis his - GG ]

Let me at this point remind the audience exactly what it was Eich did: He wrote a check in support of a ballot initiative, well before he was even employed by Mozilla. That is all2. Deacon Duncan sets an incredibly low threshold for activity that counts as bringing "tangible harm" to others; it seems that any advocacy of a position, no matter how restrained or remote in time, is fair grounds for termination or any other consequences that people might choose to impose. There's a sort of vindictiveness about his approach in that there's no notion of proportionality; any deviation from a particular line of thought merits boundless retribution. And he speaks with such certainty, seemingly leaving no room for the possibility that reasonable people might disagree with his assessment of the situation. I mean, really, his stance seems to pretty much be "say something we don't like and we're perfectly justified in destroying you", what with all the verbiage about Eich being an "enemy of open and enlightened society" and all that. You'd think a rule like that would come back and bite you on the ass, right?

Following a few paragraphs of strained analogies he comes this close to the full Godwin:

Or suppose it was someone who was not only anti-Semitic, but had volunteered his time and financial support to ensuring the passage of laws requiring Jews to wear bright yellow star-of-David badges on their clothes, so that no one would accidentally mistake them for Gentiles when doing business with them.

Again, he wrote a check. Let's have a little sense of perspective. The piece de resistance of the first post is the concluding paragraph:

We should be tolerant of words and ideas, and should respect the dignity and worth of all individuals, even when their ideas are unsavory and unhealthy. Actions, however, are more than just words, and actions can and should have consequences in proportion to the harm that they cause to others. If Eich were a bigot who kept his views to himself and who acted in ways that respected the equality and dignity of others -- including gays -- then yes, I'd be fine with keeping him on as CEO, and I'd agree that the backlash against him was excessive. But that's not the case. The backlash stems from his actions in overtly and deliberately attempting to deny to others the same dignity and liberty he expects for himself. He reaped what he sowed, and he deserves what he got.

He's paying lip service to the notion of open discourse, but this fundamentally contradicts what he said earlier: "Where Eich crossed the line was in going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas, to the point of actively participating in a coordinated effort to humiliate and oppress innocent people". Eich's sin was externalizing his opinions; that's about the only way to interpret the phrase "going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas". The only other alternative seems to be to make some kind of a distinction between talking about a subject and writing a check, which involves us believing that verbal/written advocacy (tolerance of "words and ideas", y'all) is somehow not "active participation" but writing a check is. I call bullshit; Deacon Duncan would say the same damn thing if all Eich had done was make a public statement in support of Proposition 8. Just look at his analogy about slavery; in that case the problem isn't even material endorsement but just being on record as holding an opinion. And while we're at it let's talk about acting "in ways that respected the equality and dignity of others":

Baker said that she had not known about Eich's views on gay marriage throughout most of their working relationship, until the donation came to light last year.

"That was shocking to me, because I never saw any kind of behavior or attitude from him that was not in line with Mozilla's values of inclusiveness," she said, noting that there was a long and public community process about what to do about it in which Eich, then CTO, participated.

That's a quote from Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker; as far as I know no one has dug up anything to the contrary. So far from being tolerant of words and ideas, it seems like Deacon Duncan is willing to come down on Eich like the fist of an angry god solely on the basis of a single financial donation. So much for discourse.

Now here's where it gets interesting. In the comments I pointed out to Deacon Duncan that he was setting an awfully low bar for employers in terms of what kind of behavior was grounds for termination. Here's his response:

It's not that it's ok to fire people for political activities outside of work hours, it's that it's legit to fire people for actively seeking to do significant harm to large numbers of innocent people, as Eich did. I think that's a pretty clear dividing line.

I found myself desparately trying to come up with some sort of political activity that Eich could have engaged in that wouldn't also have met Deacon Duncan's threshold for "significant harm". Moreover, it seemed to me that "significant harm" was totally subjective, so quoth I:

That construction is even worse; "significant harm" is in the eye of the beholder. Now all some Hobby Lobby type has to do is decide that a pro-choice activist has done "significantly harm" to large number of "pre-born children" and poof, no more job.

Deacon Duncan didn't respond, but I did get a response from one "Nick Gotts":

No, significant harm is not "in the eye of the beholder". The fact that some people see significant harm where there is none, and fail to see it where there is, does not make this a matter of personal taste any more than creationists' failure to see the evidence for evolution means evolution is "in the eye of the beholder".

No no no no no nononononono... arrrrrggghhh! This, THIS!, drives me up the fucking wall. How can atheists and skeptics, people who are so careful about epistemology in scientific settings, suddenly cast that all aside and claim the mantle of moral certainty? Nicks Gotts said it, but the same sentiment is lurking behind what Deacon Duncan wrote as well. This idea that somehow they've managed to grab ahold of universal truth and people who disagree with them are just self-evidently wrong. Not even any attempt to explain their position, just flat out truth-by-assertion.

Anyhow, let me summarize the essence of the first post and the responses to my comments: It's not OK to fire someone for political activity, unless that political activity causes significant harm to large numbers of innocent people. You can cause significant harm by something as innocuous as providing material support to a campaign, or even just expressing the wrong opinion, but don't worry about that because it only happens to bad people who disagree with Deacon Duncan Nick Gotts.

Fuck me... moving on...

Deacon Duncan's second post is worse than his first. Ed Brayton weighed in, saying that the reaction to Eich's behavior was "out of proportion" (excuse me while I do the "I told you so" dance), at which point Deacon Duncan starts talking out of his ass about the democratic process:

You've probably heard the quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, to the effect that "democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried." It's true. Democracy is the best we've been able to come up with so far, but it's flawed. In particular, it's subject to demagoguery and to injustices perpetrated against minorities by the majority, for whatever reason.

I'm going to take a stand on principle, and say that our goal, as a society, should be to oppose that sort of abuse of the democratic process, even when it is technically legal. It is never a legitimate use of "free and fair election" to subvert the process in order to demean minorities and deprive them of their fundamental human rights.

Hold up there Deacon. Yes, there are a lot of valid critiques regarding democracy as its practiced in America, but that's not what we're debating here. The question is whether its ok for an employer to rain down hellfire and damnation on an employee for participating in the very process of which you're so fond.

ENDA is a legitimate use of the democratic process, because it goes the other direction: it seeks to restore and/or protect minorities against discrimination and second-class status. Proposition 8 was the exact opposite. It didn't even have any significant benefit to the majority. It was purely a spiteful and bigoted attempt to make gay people suffer for being gay. It is never legitimate to use the democratic process in this way.

So Deacon, what you're saying is that I can engage in the democratic process as long as whatever it is I'm doing meets with your approval? But wait, hold on... if you already know what counts as a legitimate use of the democratic process why do we need the process at all? You can just tell us what to do and we can go back to watching TV.

Setting aside the snark for a minute, Deacon Duncan has a very particular view of democracy and doesn't seem to realize (or at least fails to acknowlege) that there are plausible alternatives. In particular, its clear that he's an advocate for substantive democracy i.e. a democractic process which exists to serve an end indepedent of the process itself. Atheists have (or should have) the same problem with substantive democracy that they have with other teleological theories, namely the epistemic justification of the end being served. But even ignoring that criticism he seems to be very certain about his ability to discern legitimate and illegitimate uses of the democratic process, as if no reasonable person could disagree with his assessment. It's not even clear that he has any coherent theory for separating one from the other. Consider the rubric which he lays out in the paragraph which follows:

I agree with Jim: we should indeed think long and hard before we demand that someone be removed from their job for exercising their constitutional rights. But having thought long and hard, we should recognize three things.

  • Nobody has a constitutional right to demean and discriminate against anyone else, including gays.
  • Nobody has a constitutional right to subvert constitutional processes in order to institutionalize unconstitutional discrimination.
  • You reap what you sow.

The first bullet is just wrong; demeaning speech is expressly protected by the First Amendment in a wide variety of contexts. There are a number of Federal cases on this topic, for example American Freedom Defense Initiative v. MTA and Doe v. University of Michigan.

Bullet two is... confused. You keep saying that word, "subvert", but I do not think that it means what you think it means. Prop 8 proponents didn't stuff ballot boxes or intimidate voters; they brough a referendum to ballot through the process defined in Article II of the California Constitution. Deacon Duncan isn't alleging some violation of that procedure, or arguing that the CA Constitution somehow violates Federal constitutional protections in this regard, so by definition what they did was fully constitutional.

And now let's turn our attention to the last bullet point: "You reap what you sow". For the love of Dog, can you taste the irony? An atheist referencing a Bible verse to justify what is essentially a policy of unlimited retribution? Because that's all it is, a fancy way of saying that people, by defintion, get what they deserve. How about Jessica Ahlquist? She reaped what she sowed, right? Or Ryan Bell? Or Amanda Donaldson? No, of course not, because they're the good guys, right?

In the end Deacon Duncan's argument across both posts amounts to one long, special plead, which is really the ultimate source of my ire. Things that he should think about:

  • He is not the sole arbiter of truth. See "pluralism, reasonable".
  • Propositions are propositions, rules are rules, assertions are assertions... we don't get to pick and choose who they apply to. If you're going to say that political speech should be protected in the workplace then that goes for your enemies as well as your friends.
  • If you're going to carve out an exception to a rule it needs to be justified with something more than "because I said so".
  • Saying something is unconstitutional requires that you spend at least 5 minutes googling relevant caselaw.

1 Lest I be accused of defending Mr. Eich: I don't particularly care about him one way or the other and belive that it was Mozilla's prerogative to get rid of him.
2 Lest I be accused of being anti-gay-marriage: I think the state should get out of the marriage biz entirely, but until they do LGBTQITSLFA individuals should get the same treatment as everyone else.
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