For someone who claims to have been silenced, James Damore has started quite the conversation.
Last week, the software engineer posted his now-infamous memo “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” to one of the company’s internal message boards, from whence it quickly went viral. Unsurprisingly, the 10-page treatise on the “biological causes” of unequal gender representation and the “discriminatory” nature of diversity initiatives didn’t go over too well. To the delight of progressive advocates and the dismay of conservatives, Damore was fired.
Despite all the outrage they inspired, neither the man nor his memo is the most interesting part of this story. More important is how the uproar has deftly uncovered social anxieties that are gaining steam across the political spectrum, and coming to a head in Silicon Valley and beyond.
Voices from the left were loudest after the memo went viral. Gender equality and diversity movements have advanced, but their hold remains tenuous in powerful spaces such as Google. Will advocates be able to defend their hard-won successes against those, like the memo-writer, who think that enough has been achieved — or worse, that those goals weren’t useful at all?
Damore’s firing was likewise seen as validating the fears of the right. New ideologies around gender, diversity and other flash points seem ever more strictly enforced, and many who would dissent feel that it’s impossible to do so without repercussions. Do social conservatives still have a place in environments where norms are moving in the other direction?
This clash of values is important, but both the left and right should be cautious about making this particular situation a symbol of their cause.
For conservatives who think Google’s firing of the memo-writer confirms the death of ideological diversity in major institutions, it might be helpful to take a step back. Damore has a point about being silenced — he was fired after all — but remember he had the freedom to circulate a 10-page treatise outlining his controversial views on gender, diversity and the need for dissent to thousands of his co-workers at one of the most influential companies in the world. Major media outlets are clamoring to interview him, and he has received public and private support, including job offers at organizations where his views are more welcome. All is not lost.
And frankly, Google was well within its rights to fire him. The merits of his argument aside, Damore’s insulting rhetoric and disregard for institutional norms made him a business liability, plain and simple. “Women spend more money than men”? Really? Do you want to work with the man who sends out unsolicited musings about why his female co-workers may be ill-suited for their jobs, even if it’s in the name of “honest discussion”? There still exists a time and a place for good-faith debate, but Damore’s methods made him a hostile-workplace complaint waiting to happen. For a private company, that’s a fair reason to say goodbye.
But Damore’s dismissal isn’t a slam-dunk for progressives, either. If their goal is to make the ideals of gender equality and diversity more generally accepted, is strident offense-taking the best way to go about it? The memo’s conclusions might be frustrating or even abhorrent, but the reflexively furious response to them suggests that any disagreement, even politely held, is verboten. Such signaling is more likely to harden opinions than change minds, and makes it harder to have an open debate in the future. To avoid confirmation bias and be able to make a clear case for your values, you have to be willing to hear the other side.
In addition, piling onto one problematic software engineer as a stand-in for a whole system of oppression is a distraction from larger goals. Sure, forcing Google to fire him might provide a temporary high. But will it help to diversify Silicon Valley in the long run? The Google management team can now say it stood up for diversity even as men continue to fill 80 percent of engineering roles and women allegedly make tens of thousands of dollars less than their male colleagues. I’d like to read the memo on how getting rid of one graceless engineer will make a dent in that.