The hues of the rainbow, once considered the seal of peace between God and humanity in the Bible, have, in just a few years, become the symbol of an ideological conflict among people in a society where the “shame axis” spins according to the dictates of the public agenda.

Traditional attitudes on topics like sexuality are being pushed out of public discourse by a new form of liberal censorship that allows only sterile opinions to be heard, warned Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, before the members of the House of Commons. “As seen on several occasions, the freedom to speak harmlessly is not one that seems worth the effort,” he said.

His stance came in the wake of a series of cases in the UK where Christians were penalised or dismissed from their jobs for expressing the view that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

In Trafford, Greater Manchester, a man was laid off after stating on his private Facebook account that he believes same-sex unions in churches are already “a step too far.”

In another case, Gary McFarlane, who worked as a counsellor for couples, was fired after mentioning that he might have a conscience issue in providing sexual therapy to gay couples.

But the case that perhaps most clearly demonstrates Lord Neuberger’s warnings as relevant and justified is that of Brendan Eich. After spending only two weeks as the CEO of the nonprofit organisation Mozilla (the maker of the Firefox search engine), he resigned due to the pressure exerted on him because of his disagreement with same-sex marriages.

This case, garnering international media attention and scrutiny from both supporters and opponents of gay marriage, was the first of its kind and set a precedent. It also perfectly illustrates the kind of situation Lord Neuberger was referring to. Brendan Eich was allowed to have an opinion, but only a sterile one, and this right wasn’t deemed worth the effort to fight for. Thus, a resignation followed, demonstrating not only how social pressure works against traditional values but also how it encourages liberal censorship.

Thought police

Eich’s resignation came amid discussions stemming from his act of donating $1,000 in 2008 to support Amendment 8, which prohibited gay marriages in the state of California. At the time of the donation, made in his personal capacity, Eich’s opinion was in line with the majority of the population that voted in the referendum to ban same-sex marriages. In contrast, in 2013, 61% of Californians approved of same-sex marriages, according to data recorded by Field Poll, an independent corporation that has been operating since 1947. Thus, just six years later, Eich’s opinion, which has remained consistent, is considered countercultural and must be eradicated.

The spiral of silence

The process by which a minority opinion on a moral norm becomes a majority one has remained unchanged throughout history. Historian Alexis de Tocqueville speaks of the period in France when contempt for the teachings of the church was in vogue. In his 1856 book on the history of the French Revolution, Tocqueville wrote, “Those who still retained respect for the teachings of this church began to fear that they were the only ones who still held this attitude, and, being more afraid of isolation than of error, they claimed to share the feelings of the majority. Thus, what was merely the opinion of a minority of the French nation began to be considered the will of all.”[1]

This process is known today as the “spiral of silence.” Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who was director of the Institute for Demoscopy in Allensbach (the equivalent of the Gallup Institute in America), published the theory in 1974 in an article titled “The Spiral of Silence, a Theory of Public Opinion.” To a large extent, the article theorises Tocqueville’s observations.

The theory of the “spiral of silence” asserts that public opinion is formed based on individuals’ observation and evaluation of the social environment, on how viewpoints group into majority and minority opinions. Reactions to this climate shape behaviour and lead either to greater confidence in speaking publicly or, conversely, to silence. People who share the dominant viewpoint (presented and supported by the mass media) speak about it, publicly support it, while those with a different opinion remain silent for fear of being isolated or publicly sanctioned.

An added dimension of Neumann’s theory compared to Tocqueville’s observations lies in the analysis of the predominant role of the mass media (especially television) in accelerating the formation of the spiral of silence. Firstly, through repetition, the media instils stereotypes in the minds of the audience that distort the perception of reality. Secondly, by selecting topics, the media determines what is important and sets the public agenda. Thirdly, the media influences the individual’s perception of the prevalence of opinions (what is majority and what is minority) and what can be said in public without the risk of collective sanction.[2]


So it is that Eich found himself unable to lead a global IT company because of a “blemished” record. Suddenly, being against same-sex marriages has somewhat become equivalent to having a criminal record, both potentially hindering you from being appointed to a position, regardless of qualifications and professional expertise. (Eich is the co-founder of Mozilla and the inventor of the JavaScript language.)

In court

Public opinion possesses the prerogatives of a true public tribunal, issuing judgments and compelling us to conform to dominant opinions and behaviours.[3] The same dynamic applies to Eich’s resignation, where supporters from both sides have publicly aired their arguments for and against how Eich was cornered by the board (under pressure from dissatisfied employees and customers over his appointment as CEO) and forced to resign. The only way Eich could have retained his position would have been to publicly acknowledge that he was wrong in 2008 and that, like President Obama, his views on gay marriage had “evolved,” now realizing the error of his ways. Because Eich did not do this, he was publicly sanctioned and isolated.

But it wasn’t just he who was punished, but also the pro-gay activists who defended him, realizing the disaster of such coercion. “Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame?” Andrew Sullivan asked, referring to Eich. Andrew Sullivan, a homosexual, is one of the most widely read bloggers in the US and one of the most prominent voices for gay rights, with a large following among politicians, even the president. “The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today—hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else—then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us,” he wrote on his blog.

Sullivan and other pro-gay activists who criticized the treatment of Eich were torn apart by homosexual or pro-gay journalists, disillusioned or even shocked that such a victory could be dismantled by advocates of the cause. “But societal standards evolve, and if the Mozilla dust-up is any indication, we are on the cusp of a new epoch in which public figures may no longer give voice to their anti-gay animus and expect to be treated with respect, much less to be kept on as the leader and public face of a major organization. This is a good thing; the sooner everyone gets the memo, the sooner Panti, I, and the rest of us can go about our lives in peace,” said J. Bryan Lowder, the gay editor of Slate magazine.

Eich’s resignation demonstrated that not only have we reached the stage of public punishment for those who refuse to abandon their moral or religious beliefs but also shows that not even pro-gay conservatives or conservative homosexuals are accepted anymore. The victory must be resounding, and the defeat of those with differing opinions must be total. As journalist Tim Teeman points out, “the ‘shame’ axis around homosexuality has positively shifted from those who are gay to those who are anti-gay.”

All in one pot

The press and most pro-gay activists lump together all those who do not think like them. Anyone who is not in favour of homosexual marriage is labelled homophobic and bigoted and cannot be accepted in society, just as individuals with racist thoughts cannot be accepted. The comparison is powerful and carries the weight of history stained with the blood of black people, but it is not accurate. Being against homosexual marriage means opposing a practice, not being homophobic or hating a class of people (homophobia can indeed be compared to racism). Opposition to gay marriage has more to do with religious beliefs and a definition of marriage that takes into account its procreative function. The position against gay marriages has nothing to do with the idea that homosexuals are seen as inferior, as black people were considered during slavery. 

Double standards

In theory, every individual has equal rights, all of which should be respected simultaneously. However, in practice, it’s evident that freedom and equality don’t always see eye to eye. Double standards are clearly at play in Eich’s case. The company issued a public statement post-resignation, which is both illogical and a classic example of these practices: “Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard,” they wrote on their official website. It seems that this was one of those occasions where those involved opted for equality at the expense of freedom of expression.

The statement continues with a promise: “We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.” How does this fit with the forced resignation of an employee precisely because of his religious beliefs? It doesn’t fit at all, and those accusing Eich of potentially becoming intolerant because of his beliefs are engaging in conjecture, despite having evidence to the contrary. For 15 years, since co-founding Mozilla, Eich had not spoken about his beliefs because he didn’t deem them relevant to the workplace. He only spoke up when he realised that people were upset about him taking over the company. And when he did, he promised equality above all, cooperation with LGBT communities and allies, to understand what Mozilla could do better to support them, a personal commitment to anti-discrimination policies, and a personal commitment to finding new initiatives to reach out to those who feel excluded or marginalised. “I know some will be skeptical about this, and that words alone will not change anything. I can only ask for your support to have the time to ‘show, not tell’; and in the meantime express my sorrow at having caused pain,” Eich said.

Just two weeks after this statement, he was forced to resign. Not for intolerance, because he hadn’t practised it, but strictly for his beliefs. Through his resignation, the company signals that, in reality, it will not hire someone into leadership positions who publicly espouses a Christian or Muslim view, for instance, on homosexual marriages.

The forgetfulness that kills

“My hope is that both liberty and democracy can be preserved before the one destroys the other.”[4] This statement is as relevant today as it was in 1955 when Walter Lippmann penned it in a series of essays collected under the title “Public Philosophy.” The political scientist’s interpretation of public opinion has had and continues to have an unparalleled impact compared to other works, evident in the fact that decades later, his writings are still used to interpret current events. 

It’s no wonder that a mechanism like the “spiral of silence” operates in society when the rationales of democracy are applied with preferences. Not long ago, conservative socialists were the ones arguing that people should be able to be fired based on the values and standards of customers, partners, or the served community. Now liberals support this because, “in their exaltation of finally holding power, they have forgotten what liberalism means.”

In the sudden amnesia of liberals, people like Eich must suffer because they have not forgotten what democracy entails. And they must suffer because they think differently, because they exercise their legal right to advocate for a cause that pertains to their own conscience, while having done nothing illegal and not discriminating against anyone. If pro-gay activists have the freedom to cast aspersions on those who dare to oppose them, then those who oppose them must have the freedom to defend themselves, to fight back, and to publicly denounce the dictatorial pressure they are subjected to.

[1]“Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion-Our Social Skin, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984.”
[2]“Alina Bârgăoanu, Paul Dobrescu, Mass media și societatea (Mass Media and society),, Bucharest, 2003.”
[3]“Noelle-Neumann E., op.cit., p.64.”
[4]“Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy, Little Brown, Boston, 1955.”

“Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion-Our Social Skin, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984.”
“Alina Bârgăoanu, Paul Dobrescu, Mass media și societatea (Mass Media and society),, Bucharest, 2003.”
“Noelle-Neumann E., op.cit., p.64.”
“Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy, Little Brown, Boston, 1955.”