Categories: Culture Wars

8 August 2017

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Google is wrong to shut down debate about diversity

A Google employee who wrote a controversial memo, which accused the “don’t be evil” employer of “silencing” views and creating an authoritarian “ideological echo chamber”, has had his points proven by getting fired. Google’s response to one man’s critical opinion may not be “evil”, but it comes close.

The Twitter world and professional opinion formers in Silicon Valley called for the memo-writer’s head, preferably on a bloody stick. Yet hardly anybody bothered to read the carefully worded memo itself. Its author, James Damore, wrote, “I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more”. His major beef seems to be with the means that Google has chosen to pursue diversity, which he calls “discriminatory”. It is worth listing some of his key claims in the order he wrote them:

  • Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offence with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety.
  • This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.
  • The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology.
  • Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression
  • Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression
  • Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business. [The full ten-page memo can be read here]

Of course he also wrote stuff that I would contest about the significance of “prenatal testosterone”. And this point is arguable too:

The abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.

Though to be fair, he mostly just listed different traits that men and women supposedly possess. For instance, he stressed that women “on average are more cooperative” than men and that “on average [women] show a higher interest in people and men in things”. Those are arguments, as Claire Fox reminded us on BBC Newsnight last night, female politicians use all the time to make their case for the virtues of their gender obtaining more power at the expense of men.

It is also a fact that men and women experience the world differently. It therefore pays to debate openly how this impacts the divergent choices men and women make. And what’s the virtue of diversity if there are no differences between different sets of people? And what is the point about “open” discussion and “free” speech if one risks getting vilified and fired for saying things some people find offensive?

James Damore’s firing confirms that Google’s commitment to diversity does not stretch to diversity of opinion. Google might for now have won over the outraged protesters to its grandstanding stance. But in the long run, the firing of James Damore for expressing an opinion that differs from the mainstream will undermine public trust in Google, and create an atmosphere of terror among its staff. This is not a trivial matter, given that Google provides the world’s most popular new-media platform, supposedly, committed to supporting free speech.

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