Anything that moves

Google’s ‘sexist memo’: Why private corporations aren’t the greatest threat to free speech in the US

The nation’s universities, considered havens of free thought and fearless mental exploration, have demonstrated greater intolerance.

In a crazy world where religious bigots murder rationalists, cartoonists, and bloggers merely for expressing a point of view, the sacking of an engineer by Google for questioning company policy related to gender and race diversity doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It becomes important only because it happened in a nation with the strongest constitutional support for free speech, within a field often defined as an enabler of freedom, and in a company that boasts of its commitment to free expression.

James Damore’s manifesto suggested that prejudice and conditioning were not the only reasons why women were underrepresented among software engineers. There were biological causes as well. For one thing, in every society, males more than women were judged by their status, as a result of which they were willing to make greater sacrifices to reach high-status positions. Engineering jobs at Google were very demanding, and it was possible men reached the upper echelons more frequently than women not as a result of inherent biases in the system but because they were more willing to give up work-life balance to achieve high status. Attempts to equalise gender ratios through diversity programmes harmed the company by filling it with those unwilling to commit to the optimal degree.

Damore argued that because the Left was uncomfortable with biological explanations for gender differences, and because Left-Wing thought prevailed among Google’s managers, the firm discriminated against white males in the hiring process, left them without adequate support systems once employed, and clamped down on any expression of conservative ideas in company forums.

In my view, Damore accurately described differences in status-seeking and work-life balance, but got his proportions wrong with respect to the nurture side of the debate. Social conditioning from a young age, conscious as well as unconscious prejudice, and work environments unfriendly to females are far more important causes than any innate biological differences for the under-representation of women in US software engineering jobs. Diversity policies are a reasonable way to address some of society’s obvious shortcomings.

Since Damore made no demeaning comments about women, and assured readers he was not judging individual employees, a company operating in a sensible intellectual environment might have responded thus:

“Thank you for your views. Though we disagree, we respect your right to voice them. While we remain deeply committed to our diversity policy, we will look into the issue you raise of white males being provided inadequate support systems in the company.”

Instead, Google’s Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance produced an Orwellian statement saying the company was committed to,

 “fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.” 

In other words, employees could say what they wanted as long as it was what Google believed. Since Damore had crossed that line, he was summarily fired.

Private and public spheres

His sacking underlines the difference between private and public spheres that I wrote about in a recent column with reference to Indian malls. The first amendment to the US constitution states, in part, that, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. The amendment offers extraordinarily strong protection to citizens from the government in public forums. Nobody in the US need fear being arrested the way two Chinese tourists were in Germany for a Nazi salute. There is no parallel in the US to Thailand’s law punishing criticism of the king. If you choose not to stand when the Star Spangled Banner plays in a stadium, you might get a few dirty stares but the police will not arrive to handcuff you. And there is no equivalent of India’s law criminalising the giving of religious offence.

The first amendment, however, is silent about what employers can do to employees in private forums. Since Damore sent his manifesto to fellow employees through the company-owned email system, he placed himself squarely within a framework in which his right of expression was circumscribed. He describes himself as a classical liberal, a term used by those who profess an extreme faith in free markets, and therefore should have no problem accepting that Google has a right to hire and fire whomsoever it deems fit for any reason whatsoever. Firms do not actually possess such wide-ranging rights, but classical liberals believe they would in an ideal world. Then again, the guy is American, so he’s bound to sue Google for unfair dismissal, no matter what his ideological standpoint.

The gap between public and private was well illustrated during the Presidential campaign last year, after the release of a recording that many of us took to be the last nail in the coffin of Donald Trump’s Presidential ambitions. Billy Bush, the smarmy gent who pandered to Trump through his despicable comments preceding an appearance on the soap Days of Our Lives lost his job at NBC as a result of the leaked tape. Meanwhile, the guy who spoke of grabbing women by the pussy continued on his quest for the highest public office in the land.

Absurdly asymmetrical though it may seem, the episode proved that real freedom is only available in the public sphere. Those who share Damore’s ideology, and would like to privatise everything, or almost everything, have this paradox to consider: they value liberty above everything else, but while private property permits its owner virtually untrammelled freedom, it constrains the freedom of all others who occupy that space. If everything, or almost everything, were private, each individual would possess a cubbyhole of nearly perfect freedom, and endure a vast universe of nearly complete unfreedom. The Libertarian search for freedom, taken to its logical end, eliminates most freedoms most of the time for most people.

Threat to free expression

Free expression in the US today faces its greatest threat not from private corporations, which could develop a greater respect for alternate viewpoints than Google demonstrated in the Damore case but would always lay down certain markers that cannot be transgressed, but within those institutions considered havens of free thought and fearless mental exploration, the nation’s universities. The most notorious example of the new orthodoxy followed a 2005 speech by Larry Summers, then President of Harvard, a forerunner of the Google dust-up. Addressing a conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, Summers began by calling his talk, “an attempt at provocation”. He then ran through a number of the issues that would feature a dozen years later in Damore’s manifesto, alluding particularly to the greater variability found among men than women in cognitive tests. The question of gender differences in components of cognition is far from definitively settled, but most tests have found that while males and females have the same average intelligence (many tests are calibrated to ensure such a result), women do better on the verbal questions and men in visual-spatial abilities. More controversially, some studies have concluded that the distribution of abilities differs between genders. Male cognitive skills are represented by wider curves, with more idiots but also more geniuses within their population. If true, this would suggest most Nobel Prize winners would be male even in an equal society.

The issue of cognitive variability is a legitimate scientific question, and bringing it up after specifying that it was a provocation ought to have been a minimally offensive move. But Summers was heaped with abuse following those remarks, and left his post soon after, having faced votes of no-confidence from Harvard’s faculty. The scandal scuppered his hopes of becoming Treasury secretary under President Obama and of succeeding Ben Bernanke as Chair of the Federal Reserve.

While Summers is the most prominent victim of the demise of academic freedom on North American campuses, examples of thought-control pile up each week. Students demand trigger warnings, akin to food labels about allergens, be introduced in classic literary texts like Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. Hecklers drown out speeches by renowned academics like Charles Murray. Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and a number of their fellow-comedians stop performing on university campuses because they’re wary of their acts being deemed offensive. The barring of conservatives like Ann Coulter from campuses only increases the appeal of their idiotic prejudices. A well-regarded academic is forced out of her job at Yale University for having the temerity to suggest youngsters ought to be free to wear the Halloween costume they want. Asian students at Oberlin College denounce the cultural appropriation involved in the college caterer serving Banh Mi sandwiches and General Tso’s chicken. Faculty and students at Wesleyan university petition to defund the campus newspaper after it runs an opinion piece critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Back in 1940, Bertrand Russell’s appointment to the Chair of Philosophy at the College of the City of New York received strong support from within the academic community but was blocked by fundamentalist Christians and a conservative judge. I suspect that, were he alive and teaching in today’s America, Russell would have been supported by citizens and judiciary, but forced from his job by students and faculty members outraged by his provocations, not to mention his white male privilege. He wouldn’t have flourished under Google’s code of conduct, either, though his maths skills would probably have passed muster.

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