Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hobby Lobby's a Person, but After Brendan Eich, We Want to Ask if CEOs Should be Held Accountable for Their Free Speech?

This is quite an interesting debate, isn't it? On the one hand, we have the owners of a large corporation, Hobby Lobby, appealing to the Supreme Court to recognize that their corporation has religious beliefs and a conscience. It's a person. And this appeal is not laughed out of court by justices who have already indicated their sympathy for the argument that corporations are persons in the Citizens United case.

But on the other hand, we now have a lively debate going on after the resignation of Brendan Eich as Mozilla's CEO that is asking, as this New York Times article puts the point, 

Should executives be held to account for unpopular or even offensive views, or does such a stand repress free speech?

It strikes me as, well, downright strange that strong movements at the very top of our culture (where CEOs live and move and have their being) want to accord personhood to impersonal corporations, while shielding the men (and, rarely, women) who run those very same corporations from any personal responsibility for the repercussions of their free speech. 

To me, this seems not too very different from the argument now persistently put forth by members of the Catholic hierarchy — an argument they've learned from their wheelings and dealings with CEOs and the lawyers who advise CEOs (and bishops and cardinals) — that someone else made them do it, when they made atrocious pastoral or moral decisions. Lawyers made Cardinal Pell act like a heartless, cold, authoritarian CEO in his dealings with abuse survivors, he recently informed the royal commission on abuse in Australia.

When it comes to exercising authority and responsibility, CEOs and Catholic hierarchical figures taking their cue from CEOs want it all: they're king. But when it comes to taking responsibility — for their bad decisions, for their unwise exercise of free speech — they suddenly want to deny all responsibility.

If I were a cynic, I'd say that the rules are rather strongly weighted in the direction of favoring rich, powerful men in our culture. They're weighted in favor of giving immense power and privilege to men who own things — to men who are typically in our society white heterosexual men — while simultaneously shielding those very same men from the consequences of their decisions and actions. But, as I say, I'm perhaps a cynic, and that's why I'm inclined to see things this way.

If I were a cynic, I think I'd tend to wonder if those who write the rules are inclined to skew the rules so that they give maximum power and privilege to the rule maker, while minimizing his risk. And I'd also want to wonder about the way in which those who write the rules, and who do have overweening power and privilege in their hands, want to convince the rest of us that the rules are unvarnished readings of "nature" and "reason" and "divine revelation" — and not rules made up by a particular group of people to prop up their unmerited power and privilege.

(But maybe if I were a powerful straight white man, or someone who identifies with powerful straight white men, I'd see things differently.)

The photo of Brendan Eich is from Mozilla by way of Wikimedia Commons.

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