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In Defense of Retaliation for Bigotry

28 April 2014

In the aftermath of the Eich controversy, I saw in Facebook and blog posts by the more level-headed among the people I respect or consider my friends a reaction against his removal for homophobic statements. The idea is that penalizing someone in a prominent position for personal beliefs is a bad precedent, and that our principles against persecution for personal beliefs should supersede our principles against bigotry. Initially I sympathized with this view.

Recently, the same debate is about to see fresh light, as Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly spouted a racist tirade which was surreptitiously recorded and leaked. Now NBA players and fans are calling for the harshest sanctions possible from the NBA commissioner and some are even suggesting that Sterling should be forced to sell his stake in the team.

As I was prodded to think about this issue again, it occurred to me that there is potentially a valid argument for harshly sanctioning people in leadership positions who are known bigots: bigotry is likely to have a negative impact on leadership. I have made no attempt to study this hypothesis, but it seems reasonably testable. Assuming that bigotry is in fact a significant negative trait in a business leader, it doesn’t actually seem too problematic that bigots get forced out of leadership positions or sanctioned when their bigotry is revealed. If being a bigot implies that Eich or Sterling are unfit as leaders, their removal or sanction doesn’t necessarily constitute persecution. It might be an appropriate response. Certainly the media outcry in the Eich case was excessive, but I think that’s a separate problem.

I wanted to be a bit more explicit about my hypothesis. One argument is that having bigots in leadership positions is negative for profits. This could be tested by first defining a metric for bigotry, e.g. by looking at the text of their on-record comments, looking at a single source (e.g. Wikipedia biographies), looking at political donation records, etc; then, looking for correlation between this bigotry metric and either (a) overall corporate profits or (b) some proxy for bigotry-specific business harm, such as rate of harassment and discrimination lawsuits at the firm. Of course, this focuses on the issue of profits. One may also argue that having bigots in positions of power is bad for the cause of minorities too, though this seems more difficult to measure and also harder to justify in the sense of retaliations such as removal from job/office. One article I saw reported that Sterling has been successfully sued for discriminatory practices in his real estate business; I’m not sure whether this is common for large developers, but on the surface it appears to be anecdotal support of my hypothesis.

I think I might still fear the persecution/mob-rule problem more, and still lean in the direction of opposing the ouster of Eich. The magnitude of the consequences for Sterling remain to be determined. But I do see the potential for a strong objective case in favor of such responses to displays of bigotry.

Stir the pot!

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