Signs of a healthy democracy

LIAM HEHIR
Last updated 13:52 07/04/2014

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OPINION: A couple of weeks ago I attended my cousin Elizabeth's wedding.

At the reception, I found myself seated with a prominent local trade unionist, a Mana Party operative and a Left-wing writer.

Naturally enough, there was some banter on matters political - but none of it was vicious.

There were other things to talk about. Everyone had a good time.

That is how things should be.

Around that table there was a massive gulf about how we thought and felt about certain things.

But it was not like the chasm was going to be bridged over the course of an evening - so why create rancour for no good reason?

More to the point, however, my fellow guests were all either family or friends of the family.

Like most people, they are genuine, sincere and honest in their personal dealings.

Yes, they are political activists - but they are also parents, neighbours, sports enthusiasts, church parishioners and so on.

There are so many aspects of human existence that are more important than politics.

A healthy, pluralistic society recognises that.

We don't shun people over disagreements about tax rates or the pace of change of longstanding social institutions.

This might be something that conservatives might be more attuned to than liberals.

If you can't bite your tongue every time a history professor makes some kind of snide remark about your beliefs, you are not going to get far in a liberal arts education. If you refuse to watch movies just because the star has praised Fidel Castro, you are going to miss out on the entire Lethal Weapon series.

However, I think most people would agree there is much to be said for appreciating the gifts and value of people who don't happen to share your worldview.

That is what is ominous about last week's axing of Brendan Eich as chief executive of Mozilla Corporation, which makes the Firefox web browser.

Had Eich mismanaged company funds, botched a product launch or lied about his credentials?

No, no and no.

Eich resigned after Mozilla was boycotted over a private political donation he made some five years ago. It must have been pretty bad, you might think.

Did he donate to the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party or al Qaeda?

Again: no, no and no.

Instead, Eich was revealed to have donated US$1000 to a 2008 campaign to preserve traditional marriage laws in the state of California.

This was hardly a fringe view given the initiative won decisively at the ballot box.

Even now, with public opinion having largely changed on the matter, it remains the opinion of millions of decent and ordinary people. Moreover, that stance reflected the then stated position of United States President Barack Obama. Strangely, nobody is calling on him to resign despite the fact he repeatedly proclaimed opposition to same-sex marriage before changing his mind on the subject in 2012.

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It is a long-remarked-upon irony that those who are most boastful about their tolerance and pluralism prove illiberal and censorious when they are in a position to impose orthodoxy. Of course, the boycott was privately organised and as such is a function of consumer power and freedom of contract.

Such actions can be powerful tools for good. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, was a landmark civil rights action to desegregate public transport in the United States in the face of offending municipal authorities.

But there is no suggestion that Mozilla is actually discriminating against anybody.

So what justifies singling out this single person for defenestration in this public way?

This was not a leader of the traditional marriage movement.

He did not make public remarks about his beliefs (unlike Obama).

Nobody has ever reported that he brought his private politics to the workplace. Eich made a donation (a small one, in the scheme of things) to a mainstream political cause.

He did not do so on behalf of his organisation, but in his own name.

In effect, a man has been bullied out of his job in retaliation for having had the "incorrect" opinion on a matter entirely unconnected to the company he worked for.

Obviously I am somebody who finds politics very interesting.

I could not write a weekly column on the subject if that were not the case. Debate is a sign of a free and healthy democracy.

But in a healthy democracy there is also a limit to where politics penetrates. Some of the most unfree societies are those where opportunities for work, leisure and respectability depend on whether one subscribes to the approved ideology.

A world where your privately held views make you open game for public vilification is a world where it becomes harder to break bread and share a meal with those we disagree with.

- Manawatu Standard

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