What the Standards are and How We Know

Google employee James Damore was fired three days ago for posting a memo on an internal listserv suggesting that entirely scientifically supported generalizations about sex-based cognitive differences might play enough of a role in explaining why Google doesn’t currently have a gender-balanced workforce that it should rethink some of its diversity initiatives. Predictably, the memo has "offended" a lot of people who find it challenging to their preferd policy regimes. The more measured response has been to claim that Damore created a "hostile working environment," and that Google was right to fire him . But a certain genre goes even further, arguing that the fact that Damore felt like he could post this at all is symptomatic of a deeper pathology. According to this theory, Google isn’t doing enough to thought-police its employees.

Erica Baker:

Saying "we want an environment that allows all opinions and a free exchange of ideas" to that question means a company has deemed racism and sexism viable opinions, worthy of being freely exchanged, instead of the hatred and bigotry that they are. That message will be heard loud and clear by the targets of said hatred and bigotry, and will be antithetical to any other attempts at building a diverse and inclusive company.

Cate Huston:

The problem is not necessarily that people can say what they think, the problem is that you hired someone and they worked there for nearly four years, believing that women — half the population — and people of color are somehow less than. Something that no doubt played out in their actions (how many interviews did this guy do, for example), and yet, if anyone with power noticed they did nothing.

Now step back. Is this so ridiculous? After all, there are some ideas that we dismiss out of hand – ideas about which there is either no room for debate, or where we don’t trust the debate to unfold in a constructive way, or where the implications are so troubling that they’re best worked out by experts out of the public eye, or, most commonly, where society has long reached a consensus and there is nothing productive to gain by reopening the discussion.

It’s this latter category that these two authors are trying to stuff Damore’s memo into. "Hatred and bigotry" are indeed things a reasonable company should ban from its internal listservs, especially if it has employees from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, as almost all companies now do. Likewise, it doesn’t really seem to be in any company’s interest to have people walking around who think that any female coworkers are ipso facto inferior.

The problem, of course, is that James Damore is guilty of neither of those things. There is no bigotry in his memo, nor any hatred, nor any grounds for believing that he thinks females are "somehow less than." If you actually read the memo, Damore makes quite clear that the cognitive sex differences he is highlighting are tendencies based on group averages, acknolwedging that even the average differences are slight, and that in any case there is great variation among individuals within the groups. Actual quote:

Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions

followed by a graph illustration for the more visually inclined.

Alright, but this begs the question. What if Erica Baker and Cate Huston honestly think that it’s "bigoted" and "hateful" and an indication that someone thinks women are "less than" to even suggest that there are sex-based cognitive differences? And if they do, what if large numbers of people agree with them? A company wouldn’t tolerate an employee arguing that all Jews should be forcibly deported to Israel, for example, so what makes this opinion OK? Is it OK? And how do we know the difference?

To me, the most frustrating part of this debate is that we’re letting people like Erica Baker and Cate Huston get away with blurring exactly these lines. Right-thinking people read their complaints and dutifully nod and admit that deciding what’s acceptable is a "hard problem," agree that this is a "tough issue." But it’s really not.

Leave aside for a minute that they’re both, like so many others, deliberately and with malice aforethought misrepresenting what Damore said (they either haven’t read the memo or don’t mind distorting what they read). The way to tell the difference is by writing down the rules and watching people’s reactions. The people who want you to think that Damore crossed some kind of line are conspicuously unwilling to come forward and spell out what that line is. They trade in ambiguities. What happens if you make it explicit?

A thought experiment, then. Imagine we’re talking about signing up for competing subreddits on Reddit that are both about general, domain-nonspecific political discussion. There’s /r/diversityA and /r/diversityB. To post on either, you have to agree never to mention anything on a list of specified taboo topics; mentioning anything on these topics will get you immediately and irrevokably banned. /r/diversityA‘s list includes "members of Diversity A must never advocate, expressly or by implication, for human slavery. It is assumed without argument that ownership of another human as personal property is in all circumstances morally indefensible." /r/diversityB‘s list allows free discussion of slavery, including advocating for it, but bans discusson of sex- or gender-based cognitive differences – maybe formulated like this: "Members of Diversity B must never suggest that there are any biologically-based cognitive differences between males and females, even on the level of measurable average between-group differences. Any such measured differences are assumed, without argument, to be primarily result of socialization, not biological determinism." Now, suppose rather than letting people choose between these lists we instead write the software to assign people to one or the other entirely at random, and we present each of these not as /r/diversityA and /r/diversityB but just as /r/diversity? The server takes care of deciding which group a logged-in visitor is participating in. Later, we survey participants in each to ask whether they’ve felt constrained, even censored, by the group posting rules. Do you – does anyone? do even Erica Baker and Cate Huston? – honestly think for a moment that the two groups will report the same (or even comparable) level(s) of intereference? Of course not. And that is because while advocating for slavery is actually "hateful" and "bigoted" and the kind of subject that society has made up its mind to reject and move on, arguing that there are cognitive differences between the sexes is not. Most people who will seriously argue that they might need to argue for slavery on a political forum are hardcore libertarian- and philosopher-types who are actually dead opposed to slavery like the rest of us but find it useful as a shocking rhetorical hypothetical. The number of civilized people who think we should go back to recognizing slavery is vanishingly small. But this is simply not so with bioligically based cognitive sex differences – and not just for the simple reason that there is reams of scientific evidence that they exist. It’s something that jives with people’s everyday lived experiences as well, and people frequently feel the need to express themselves on the subject. This expression is usually not done maliciously, nor is it motivated by "hate" or "bigotry." It is something that people – people in general – feel is an observable fact of life, and when they’re told they must pretend not to see the world that way, they feel coerced and silenced. It requires uncomfortable behavior modifications that strike people as controlling and unfair.

This is how we come to call what Google is doing "censorship," and "social engineering," and why so many people feel that it crossed a line. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with anyone’s First Amendment rights. By and large, people agree that companies can set the rules for what kind of talk is acceptable at the workplace and during work hours. What’s got people fired up about this is the feeling that Google’s decision to fire Damore is based on rules and norms (a) that weren’t clear and (b) that would’ve been unacceptably controlling even if they had been clear.

Semantics is an admittedly slippery subject, but in general we all agree that if you’re using a phrase to mean something subtly different than what it normally means without alerting anyone to the shift, you’re being deceptive. When you put up a discusson forum for people to use, they expect to be able to discuss. That’s what discussion forums are for. When you don’t specifically label something as off-topic, people assume that that thing is acceptable for discussion if people in general find it acceptable. Note – crucially – that "acceptable" doesn’t mean "non-controversial." We mean "acceptable for discussion," which includes a large number of things that people disagree about. Again, airing disagreements is what discussion forums are generally understood to be for. When you – as Google did – announce that freedom to be different and to express your difference without fear of summary rejection is one of your corporate values, you underscore this understanding of what is and is not acceptable in a discussion forum. Now, this isn’t cut-and-dried: Damore was aware that the topic was controversial and that his viewpoint was offensive to, and would likely be met with resistance by, certain people in the Google hierarchy. That is why he took care to phrase his arguments in a polite and inclusive way – to signal that he recognized the ambiguity and meant no offense. James Damore played by the rules – both the explicit and the implicit ones. Google is in the wrong because it changed the terms of the agreement ex post facto.

Primarily, it is this kind of trading in ambiguity that we need to push back against where political correctness is concerned. I’m not saying that it would be OK, exactly, for Google to set up a discussion forum and rule biologically determined sex-based cognitive differences off topic for discussion. That would pretty clearly violate a cultural norm. It’s nevertheless their prerogative – legal and otherwise – to do so, provided they’re clear about what they’re doing. What makes all this so reprehensible is that Google was engaged in a kind of moral rent-seeking. They wanted credit for being the kind of place where open discussion was tolerated – because people in general like and support open discussion – they just didn’t want to pay for it. They wanted the (reputational) reward without doing the (human resources) work. But the truth is that if you’re going to hire censorious people who push their opinions on others – and when you’re hiring people professionally trained in "diversity" that’s what you’re doing – you’re going to have to pay for "free discussion." Pay for it in the form of there being company-internal conflict when someone says something that "offends" the type of person who responds to disagreement with emotional grandstanding rather than argument. I think you can have both open discussion and these kinds of people, but it requires rigorous, consistent, and open norm-policing. Google has just shown us that it can’t do "consistent," it can’t do "open," and that it therefore can’t really maintain discussion forums in the traditional sense of the term. It has discussion forums in the sense that Neues Deutschland had an opinion section: you know, anything goes, so long as it doesn’t contradict the party line. Which is a pretty honking big restriction on "anything."

You can’t run a discussion forum worthy of the name when things that everyone agrees should be on the table aren’t, and without explanation or warning. It is, bluntly put, a lie. The tragedy here is that no one warned anyone about this. Sure, maybe James Damore could’ve read between the lines like the rest of us do and figured that out – but the question we need to ask is why should he have to? Why should any of us have to? Why can’t Google just be honest about the fact that their discussion forum isn’t a real discussion forum? Why can’t they be upfront about what the limits are? Why do we, as a society, stack the deck in favor of the prevaricators? Why do we continue to provide cover for this kind of doublespeak? This, in a nutshell, is what’s insidious about SJWs, and why it’s important for the rest of us to push back. We need to stop pretending like they’re basically well-intentioned people who are just not communicating very well. That’s incorrect. What they are in fact doing is deliberately miscommunicating – pretending to be for one thing while actually being for another.

The thing about community norms is that they’re, well, community norms. That means, the corporate diversity officer doesn’t get to decide unilaterally what they are. Nor does a motivated minority of people in the company. The company has the prerogative of laying down the law on what you can’t say at the workplace, of course, but I think we all generally agree that laying down the law involves, well, laying down the law. You have to actually say so if you’re going to forbid people saying things that the community finds acceptable to say. Leaving it up to ambiguities and deciding after the fact that something was wrong won’t cut it. It’s a small-minded, dirty, corrupt and underhanded way to operate, and we shouldn’t accept it.

Will ambiguities happen? Of course. We’re all humans, we all speak human languages, and we all know that honest disagreements arise all the goram time over what the wording of this, that or the other policy really meant. But the proper way to handle those kinds of disagreements is surely not to fire the person who had no reason to believe that what he was posting was not tolerated. If the company didn’t spell that out, then the onus is on the company, not the errant employee. Google is probably not even within its legal rights (in California, anyway, which bans politically-motivated termination) to fire Damore – but even if they were, it should be clear why they were wrong to do so. The responsible way to react is for the company to say "Look, we failed to be maximally clear about what’s not allowed on company message boards; this incident has exposed that. For the record, you may not express these opinions in public at Google. Damore will keep his job and you will treat him with the respect you owe all your other coworkers, and if anyone needs counselling or consultation on these points it’s provided." What they did instead – "bye, dude, sorry you’re not one of the cool kids!" – is wholly unacceptable. By any reasonable standard.

This is not a minor issue. It’s the issue of our time. It’s the difference between living in a fair and free country and one that’s cliquish and secretive. If that’s still not clear to you, consider this – who did more to create a "hostile environment" at Google – James Damore, who posted a thoughtful, carefully worded, scientifically grounded piece on the company listserv? Or Joel Becker, who posted this tantrum in response in which he accuses Damore of "racism" and "bigotry" without any kind of evidence, argues that he should never be promoted again and then flat-out refuses to work with him, even though they’re in the same department. Which is the fireable attitude? The one that says "hey, this might be why our diversity programs aren’t working – I realize it’s controversial, but please consider it?" Or the one that says "Fuck. No. I will not work with duly-employed co-worker even though that is my job and I know it!" Now consider that Damore is fired and Becker isn’t. Everyone can see that there is a problem here – a very serious one.

We have to fight it.

2 thoughts on “What the Standards are and How We Know

  1. I find all of the reaction to this frustrating and disturbing, even from people I used to work with and respect. One former female coworker posted a link to a NYMag article (http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/08/google-anti-diversity-memo-is-total-garbage.html) which essentially uses a “shut-up” argument as a response (“Women in tech are already busy enough with their, you know, jobs, so stop adding to their to-do lists by making them explain, ad nauseam, why they deserve to have — and be paid fairly for — those jobs in the first place”). The activists see this as one more battle in the culture war, but I keep sympathizing with the 27 year old dude that couldn’t have known that his life would be upended in a very public way by participating in a discussion of a controversial subject. I know better now, I could have easily made the same mistake at 27.

    • What a deliciously ridiculous article. Summary: “I believe this negatively impacts my life, but I can’t be bothered to even identify what the problem is, but people should still be fired.” The world is burning.

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