Protesting Too Much

Ellen Pao lost her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins. I take what I understand to be the majority view on that: she successfully demonstrated to me – and to most outside observers – that there was a bit of a sexist culture at Kleiner Perkins, but she failed to meet the legal standard of proof (that sexism is the explanation for her inability to get promoted there), and the case was correctly decided against her.

She has a writeup of the experience that’s worth reading, if ultimately unlikely to change minds. There’s a lot one could say about it, so here’s what I choose to say.

There’s a bit early on where she’s describing playing a rather silly power game to do with choosing seats at the table recommended to her at a seminar by Sheryl Sandberg. It doesn’t work out for her, mostly because the alpha in the group counters by talking about Jenna Jameson – she of the truly spectacular fake boobs. Obviously, it’s an inappropriate topic, and Pao seems to be suggesting it’s a semi-conscious maneuver to put her "in her place." Conversation drifts to prostitution, and they all talk about what kind of girls they like. When they land (the meeting is on a plane), the guys go off on their own, presumably to buy sex. Pao is obviously not included.

It’s a good illustration of a way that women are excluded in the corporate world. You really have to wonder why Kleiner Perkins would bother to hire a woman at a salary like hers just to shut her out. But it’s also a good illustration of something else – something much more relevant to the past couple of weeks: the utter ineffectiveness of outrage politics. I quote the end of the relevant section:

Somehow, I got the distinct vibe that the group couldn’t wait to ditch me. And once we landed at Teterboro, the guys made plans to go to a club, while I headed into Manhattan alone. Taking your seat at the table doesn’t work so well, I thought, when no one wants you there. (When Sandberg’s book Lean In came out, that same Jenna Jameson–obsessed CEO became a vocal spokesperson for it.)

One of the many frustrating things about the Damore affair is the moral certainty of everyone who spoke out against him that he’d discriminate against women in any hiring interviews. To be fair, I don’t know the guy, so I can’t say for certain – but personally, I have just the opposite impression. Damore strikes me as someone who would be scrupulously fair in hiring. It’s true that he’s not a Cognitive Sex Difference Denier – he’s familiar with the highly-replicated research that shows that women and men, on average, have different preferences. But he also clearly understands how group averages work, and he knows that these differences are just tendencies. You can see him explain this more clearly than he does in the memo in a recent Business Insider interview, in which he directly says that "group averages with high overlap" entails that many men will have higher neuroticism than many women – in fact, it will be fairly common to find men who do, and so you have to treat each job candidate as in individual and evaluate him on his own strengths.

So it’s really unfortunate that Damore fails many people’s smell test on hiring where the Jenna Jameson-loving CEO that Ellen Pao talks about does not. The difference, of course, is that the CEO is both political enough to know what to say in public and amoral enough to say it even though he privately thinks it’s crap. The guy who openly discusses hiring prostitutes at a closed-doors meeting thinks nothing of turning around and pretending to be a Sheryl Sandberg fan when the cameras are on.

All week I’ve been trying to enumerate all the reasons to myself why I think free speech is a beautiful thing – not just as a legal principle, but also as a cultural value. This is definitely one of them. A lot of truly valuable people are socially retarded, and they speak with an earnestness that the pearl-clutchers can’t stomach. Society benefits from prefering honesty to politic statements, and heavy doses of social censorship rots the core. Constant fostering of superficial agreement is bad for the soul. It’s a bit like high tax rates – if the rate is reasonable, people tend to pay it, and if it’s too high, they tend to cheat, and there’s a point at which taxes are high enough that the system as a whole rewards dishonest people (because the honest ones pay up and so fall behind their tax cheat competitors). Likewise with speech – if even completely scientifically validated topics are disallowed, the system is rewarding the wrong qualities. It’s rewarding disingenuousness, deception, and social climbing, rather than truth-seeking, discussion, and problem-solving. If I were a woman in tech, I would SO MUCH rather have Damore on my hiring committee than … whoever it is Pao is talking about – because while Damore’s brazen sharing of uncomfortable scientific evidence on a(n internally) public message board might be offputting, I would trust him to hire me based on my coding skills. This other guy seems like the kind of person who would be less impressed by my talent than my breast size, or my possibly my ability to make the company fit extremely superficial criteria for "diversity" in photoshoots. And so it really sucks for women in tech that men like Damore get fired while creeps like the "gentleman" Pao is describing thrive easily.

On a completely different level, while I won’t call it a general rule, I’ve noticed a tendency in guys who present as feminist in public to be creepers, and I think a lot of times it’s down to what I’ll call "John Lennon Syndrome," based on this refreshingly honest quote from him in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview:

That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace.

No doubt he did "sincerely believe in love and peace." But that’s the banal, pop-psychological point. What people choose to make a priority as often as not has more to do with their own inner struggles than what they see in the outside world. Defending the speech rights of nazis on Facebook last week, I basically got accused of being a crypto-racist by a friend of 17 years, not because I had actually said anything racist, but because for her when Nazis show up you drop everything and condemn them, and you worry about speech rights later. Since her top priority is "fighting racism," she tends to see anyone who chooses to highlight anything else as a closet racist. By this logic, though, she’s ironically much more likely to be a closet racist than me. Fighting racism is a higher priority for her than me because she sees it in herself, and I don’t.

We saw this in action this week as Joss Whedon’s ex-wife exposed his serial cheating. Lots of people profess to be shocked, but I’m really not. This kind of thing happens entirely too often: the dude who’s always going on about women’s rights and women’s problems turns out to be the guy who objectifies them the most. It’s not really that complicated – he sees this as an issue because it IS one … for him. And so it’s the same irony. Women are actually safer on a date with the guy who compliments her on her dress than the one who needs her to understand that he gets that she’s more than just a body – and that’s because the former guy isn’t hiding anything. He doesn’t even know there’s anything to hide, because he’s not struggling with a dark side on this. He’s just sexually attracted to women – no creepy complications.

They didn’t call it the "German Democratic Republic" for nothing, you know – and they certainly didn’t call it that because the name fit. If someone has to go out of his way to present as something, chances are better than half he isn’t actually that thing. It’s a lesson as old as the hills, and yet people seem incapable of ever learning it. We want free speech – as a culture, not just as a legal regime – for a whole host of reasons, but one of the better ones is that communication is complicated. It’s already hard enough to describe the world without throwing up constant roadblocks to people being honest. So, let’s really stop doing that.

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