In the Bible, being a prophet was not a
sought-after job. Prophets were
chosen by God to deliver messages that more often than not turned out to be
unwelcome. And sooner or later,
the same lack of welcome greeted the prophet himself as he stood in the city
gate telling the people things they didn’t want to hear. Bad things tended to happen to prophets
when they got on the wrong side of the establishment. The prophet Jeremiah, after telling King Zedekiah to
surrender to the attacking Babylonians, was accused of treachery and thrown
into a muddy well, where he was left to die. Only the intervention of a friendly official rescued him
from a miserable death.
I don’t think former Google engineer James
Damore has any special line to the Almighty, but by now he has experienced the
same thing that the biblical prophets discovered: say things that the leadership doesn’t want to hear, and
sooner or later you’re going to pay for it. In response to a ten-page memo he posted entitled “Google’s
ideological echo chamber” in which he criticized the atmosphere created by
gender-diversity programs at his company, the Internet lit up with a storm of
attacks on him, and Google ended up firing him. But exactly what did he say? First, some background.
Like many companies these days, Google has
initiatives and programs in diversity, including ones that attempt to change
the fact that the percentage of women in computing is about 24%, according to
an organization called Girls Who Code.
The desired change, naturally, is an increase to something closer to the
representation of women in the overall U. S. population, which is 50.8%.
I say “naturally” because there
is a widely held assumption that when the percentage of women in a desirable
field of endeavor—CEO suites, being rich, holding political office, or working
at any job that the culture perceives to be desirable—falls below 50.8%, this
proves that there is injustice somewhere that needs to be rooted out so that
the percentage will more closely approach the magic 50.8%.
If you look at this assumption on its own
in the cold light of logic, you can start to see some holes in it. Some of the highest-paying jobs in the
country are in professional sports.
Where are the protests that there aren’t any women playing for the Green
Bay Packers? I don’t want to start
a trend, you understand. And
professional football itself is losing popularity in view of the revelations of
long-term brain damage it can cause.
But the point is that many of the assumptions and assertions surrounding
issues of gender diversity are based on something besides mathematically exact
logic. And that’s a good thing,
because logic and undisputed facts can take you only so far. Something else is needed in order to
discuss these matters intelligently:
an ability to articulate the foundations of one’s moral judgments. But these days, that ability is much
rarer than the ability to code.
I have read Mr. Damore’s memo, and at one
point he refers to “moral biases.” Judging from his words, he is neither a political scientist
nor a philosopher, but he recognizes that more than logic is required to deal
with human-relations issues such as diversity and gender roles. In his memo, he wrote some things that
are undoubtedly unpopular in the Silicon Valley setting of Mountain View: “On average, men and women
biologically differ in many ways.”
He cites personality differences that women show compared to men, many
of which are positive:
agreeableness, ability to work in teams, and so on. And he admits that males tend to rank
higher on aggressiveness and the willingness to put in long unpleasant hours to
get ahead in an organization. He
winds up his memo with a recommendation to “[h]ave an open and honest
discussion about the costs and benefits of our diversity programs.”
It is a matter of public record that Mr.
Damore was let go by Google shortly before Aug. 7. Legally speaking, Google is probably not breaking any law to
fire him, as California has what is called “employment at will,”
which means an employer can fire you at any time for any reason, or no reason
at all. Nevertheless, firing him
doesn’t contribute to an atmosphere at the company that would encourage an open
and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of diversity programs.
Along with Mr. Damore’s memo, the website
Gizmodo posted a statement from Google’s diversity officer, in which she said
of the memo, “I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about
gender.” But she didn’t say
what those incorrect assumptions were.
Engineers are trained to be logical, using
known facts about the world to create useful products. But human life is about more than logic
and reasoning. What Mr. Damore
calls “moral biases” are really each person’s conclusions, drawn from
his or her world view, about what constitutes right and wrong. And while “Googlers” (as they
call themselves) may be mental giants when it comes to logic, programming, and
the skillful exploitation of the Internet to generate revenue, neither Mr.
Damore nor his opponents in the company are able to articulate the bases of
their moral principles any better than they could when they were in high
school, or perhaps earlier.
Instead of a reasoned debate based upon
clearly expressed moral principles, what happened when Mr. Damore posted his
memo was the Internet equivalent of a riot, at which point Google called in
their human-resources cops to quell the riot by arresting (firing) the riot’s instigator—the
cyberspace equivalent of dumping Mr. Damore down a muddy well. He won’t die from it, but he’s
certainly been soiled in the sight of many. And it’s far from clear that the conservative media outlets
which have started to lionize Mr. Damore as a martyr to their causes will
encourage meaningful debates about gender diversity either. Mr. Damore may have left one echo
chamber only to walk into another one of a more conservative bent.
It’s possible to have a reasonable, logical
debate about gender diversity, but only if everyone can lay their moral cards
on the table first. And these
days, we lack the vocabulary and often the courage to do so.
I referred to
reports about James Damore’s firing carried by the San Jose Mercury-News at http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/08/07/googles-anti-diversity-engineer-should-he-be-fired/
and Bloomberg News at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-08/google-fires-employee-behind-controversial-diversity-memo. The percentage of women who code is
and Gizmodo carried Mr. Damore’s original memo and the response by Google’s
diversity officer at http://gizmodo.com/exclusive-heres-the-full-10-page-anti-diversity-screed-1797564320. The story of what happened to Jeremiah
after he said unpopular things is in the 38th chapter of the Old Testament book
of the same name.