As I See It: Free Speech in Restricted Times
October 9, 2017 Victor Rozek
Though it saddens me to say it, I’ve had the exact same experience of just about every president I can remember—regardless of party affiliation. Sooner or later, at some point during their administration, I just can’t stand them anymore.
I can’t stand to see their face on TV, or hear their voice any longer. I can’t stand the lies, the empty promises, the soaring rhetoric that produces nothing of lasting value, the threats, the chest pounding, the epic incompetence, the ability to inspire but not to lead. I can’t stand the policies they represent, the compromises they make, the triumph of expedience over integrity, the willful ignorance, and the eternal capitulation to moneyed interests. In short, I neither believe nor want to hear anything else they have to say.
Which is a terrible admission to make, living as I do in a country that values free speech. But I suspect I’m not alone.
We have become so polarized that any opinion on any major issue is automatically dismissed by a large segment of the population based solely on its point of origin on the political spectrum. Which is why James Damore did us all a big favor.
And who is James Damore? Ah, how quickly we forget. Damore is the former Google engineer who published his controversial opinion on diversity hiring and women in the technology sector. He wrote a document provocatively titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” which was posted to an internal online discussion group but, as these things tend to do, vent viral.
As you may recall, Damore accused Google of having a left-wing bias, in part for promoting diversity programs that were doomed to fail because they sought to override biological norms. He argued that biology, not exclusively sexism, contributes to the paucity of women in the technology sector, as well as their modest numbers in leadership positions.
On the one hand, that’s pretty benign stuff. Nothing particularly new here. Accuracy aside, the paternalistic model in which men lead and women follow has been around just about as long as human evolution. As has the notion that men and women are best suited for certain tasks. And, to dismiss biological differences outright would be foolish.
On the other, pigeonholing people based on biology is a very slippery slope that leads to master races and genocide in the extreme, and discriminatory labor practices as the biological norm. And while biology may make men better suited for such pursuits as ditch digging, to suggest that math and science proficiency or management skills are biologically conferred smacks of conceit.
Regardless, Damore wasn’t hysterical about his position, he was calm and thoughtful and based his argument on his interpretation of science. His reasoning went something like this: Biology has shaped men and women to be psychologically different. Those differences make them contrarily suited to the type of work that is core to Google. Yet the company insists on fashioning a workforce with greater numbers of women in technical, engineering, and leadership positions than these differences can sustain. He concludes that the effort is hurting the company.
Not surprisingly, a good many people agreed with Damore, and many more disagreed. It might have been both educational and cathartic if Google employees could have found a way to respectfully debate the issue – to listen to one another’s perspectives without blame, judgment, or accusation. To listen for purposes of comprehension, not rebuttal. Or, as Stephen Covey famously said, to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
But the present reality is that just by accusing Google of a “left-wing bias” Damore assured himself that about half his readers would embrace him as a courageous truth teller, and half would dismiss him as a reactionary whack job. But what happened next was perhaps even more divisive than Damore’s original screed: Google fired him.
The issue now moved beyond free speech, to what is acceptable free speech in the workplace, and who decides? Clearly, when speech becomes disruptive and prevents others from doing their jobs, a case can be made for dismissing the offender. But what if it’s only unpopular speech?
The answer to who decides is ultimately the courts. Damore is understandably unhappy about losing his job and is seeking legal remedy. Interestingly, a confidential survey of 4,000 Silicon Valley employees, including 441 Google employees who responded, showed that the majority disagreed with the firing.
There is some evidence to suggest Google’s decision might have had more to do with its own legal predicament than anything Damore actually wrote. The fact that Google is facing a lawsuit by the Department of Labor alleging it underpaid female employees could well have made it more sensitive to suggestions that women were biologically unsuited if not inferior. Appearing to foster a culture that devalued women would certainly not help their defense.
Regardless of Google’s motivation, Damore told an interviewer, “Lots of upper management was shaming me.” And therein lies the saddest and most telling aspect of this incident. People on both sides of the ideological divide have devolved to shaming one another for thinking and expressing thought. It’s not merely an attempt to refute an argument, but the speaker as well. Not only is reasoning condemned but, by extension, the person is vilified. As a consequence, people are judged to be evil for holding a particular thought.
Whether gender representation should be a corporate priority is certainly a question for legitimate debate. But if Google’s intention was to shut Damore up, it backfired. Damore instantly became the darling of right-wing media with far more exposure than he could ever expect at Google.
Regardless, in a time when free expression is under attack from such powerful sources as the White House (the president recently railed against free speech, urging the owners of football teams to fire players who protest during the national anthem, calling the protesters “sons of bitches.”) serious people must defend unpopular speech, whatever its ideological origins.
Google failed to do that, as did the president. Damore’s great service to us all is to remind us not to fear and punish ideas with which we disagree. As for my eventual dislike of presidents, some chief executives take less time to exhaust my patience than others.