On the Google Fiasco

August 16, 2017

Last week, Google fired an engineer, James Damore, who had written an internal memo, pointing out that Google's ideological echo chamber prevented it from effectively tackling its problem with gender diversity.

For those of us who have been alarmed that free expression is constantly losing ground in its birthplace, this is one of the most disappointing setbacks, and also the most compelling evidence that fighting for free speech and open discourse is the moral duty of our lifetimes. A software engineer was fired for uttering basic scientific truth, who had a master's degree in biology, working at a leading tech company at the forefront of transforming society.

Ironically, the response to the memo almost made it look like its detractors mistook it for a screenplay in which they were the actors. If their goal was to prove Damore right, they could not have done a better job.

The arguments I've seen in support of Damore's firing are all the usual suspects: he was a sexist bigot, he thought his female colleagues were genetically inferior, he made others feel unsafe, he created a hostile work environment, etc. These arguments are based on either: a) a mischaracterization of what Damore said, or b) an ideological framework that cannot allow discussions that run counter to its dogma.

The mischaracterizations are abundantly clear to anyone who compares media coverage of the affair with the original document. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic:

I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.

But let's set the mischaracterizations aside. I'm much more interested in studying the forces that have landed us where we are today: in a state of perpetual moral panic.

For several years, there has been a growing system of morality on the left in which "virtue" is equated with ever-increasing empathy for ever-more-minutely-marginalized identity groups. This positive feedback loop is something I call the "inflation of communal values" (to be the topic of a future post) – where members of a group must constantly make ever-more-powerful proclamations in support of that which the group finds valuable. In other words, a dollar of, say, racial sensitivity today doesn't go as far to make you morally respectable tomorrow. The absurd conclusions that this line of reasoning leads to would be hilariously comical if they were not so serious. Examples of these absurdities include:

  • Calling Newton's Principia Methematica a rape manual,
  • Indoctrinating four and five year olds in scientifically dubious gender theory,
  • Claiming that evidence-based science is exclusionary and an example of "microfascism".

People often don't take me seriously when I say the radical left is rotting western civilization from the inside. I can't blame them. Nobody in their right mind could conjure ideas such as these, and yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I could provide examples like these til the cows come home, and some people do.

Side note: These kinds of views and identity politics are almost universally informed by a school of philosophy called "Postmodernism". The influence of postmodernism on the humanities seems to have grown over the 20th centure, which has led to an increasing number of college graduates subscribing to some version of it. My understanding of this is still too incomplete (I don't even think postmodernists know what postmodernism means), so I'm avoiding commenting on it in this post.

To give credit where it's due, it is a testament to the marketing prowess of these so-called "social justice" activists that their ideology has become as widespread as it has. Who would want to counter a group of people who have assigned to themselves the label of "social justice"? The very act paints dissenters as proponents of injustice! Moreover, their ideology has an easy way into the mindspace of otherwise sane and liberal-minded individuals using a technique called "commitment & consistency" in the bible of psychological influence. In short, if you ask people for a large commitment, they will often refuse. But if you ask them for a minimal commitment, they will accept. If you then follow up with the same large ask, they are much more likely to accept because humans have a tendency to want to be consistent. This has been used to great effect during elections (as chronicled in the book). I suspect it's also at play among those who are concerned for issues of social justice. Most people, for example, support equal rights for all races. That is their commitment. It's not an outrageous one. But now, under the guise of racial sensitivity, you might be asked to police yourself and others for increasingly minute "microaggressions" that racial minorities "suffer". Most sensible people, in response to this, will either become uncomfortable and quiet, or they will become willing participants who will demonstrate sensitivity even beyond what's required of them (this phenomenon is called moral grandstanding). This in turn shifts the baseline for racial sensitivity further. This positive feedback loop is the inflation of the communcal value of "racial sensitivity". For the most part, the only ones willing to stand up and say "no" to this regression to infantilism would be the ones who did not support racial equality in the first place. As the degree of expected sensitivity goes to infinity, we can expect the quiet and uncomfortable crowd (the silent majority) to increasingly find the no-racial-equality crowd more preferrable than the group they were initially a part of.

To the people who subscribe to this system of morality, however, there has always been one glaring problem: they can't win on the power of arguments, so it doesn't take too many critics to scare them, and they have never been able to sufficiently silence their critics. Free speech has been a thorn in their side for a long time. So they have resorted to some impressive mental gymnastics to categorize increasingly imperceptible offences as forms of violence. As the Google fiasco has demonstrated amply well, there is no negotiation with this radical leftist ideology. No counterpoint, no matter how judiciously made, can be tolerated by them. One interesting point briefly made by Damore in his interview with Jordan Peterson was that when he first wrote his memo, he submitted it to a skeptics group within Google and asked for feedback. In other words, he presented his case and asked how he could be wrong, not asserted that it was true (even though it was).

This is the point we have come to, ladies and gentlement. Merely questioning of radical leftist dogma can have massive repercussions.

But this is nothing new. Isolated incidents like this have been happening for a long time. For a historical perspective on this, I recommend Alice Dreger's excellent book, Galileo's Middle Finger. Dreger was (is) as staunch a social justice activist as any, but the book chronicles her career as she decides to stick to scientific truth over dogma and thus diverges from her activist colleagues. My favourite story is that of her encounter with a researcher named J. Michael Bailey, who had been subject of similar witch hunts to Damore twice in his career: once in the early 2000s for his categorization of types of transsexualism, and once in the early 1990s for this:

I looked up Bailey's work and saw that most of it consisted of serious peer-reviewed scientific articles, quite different from his chatty and footnote-free book. I came across his old twin studies – controversial work that had showed that identical twins are more likely to have the same sexual orientation than are siblings who are not genetically identical, strongly suggesting that sexual orientation may sometimes be inborn. Suddenly I placed his name: I had actually taught my undergraduates criticisms of Bailey's work on twins many years before. Back in those days, saying gay people might have been born that way, as Bailey was doing, was politically unpopular among many gay-rights activists and among humanists in the academy, who were fighting any claims of unalterable or predestined "human nature."

I love this story because it so clearly illustrates how wrongheaded (while possibly well-intentioned) the social justice ideology of yesteryear was. Michael Bailey was attacked and demonized for publishing scientific findings that were not only true but that have since provided a rock solid grounds upon which to build widespread support for gay rights.

This story also illustrates a second point: it's not even true that this ideology is trading a little bit of freedom of speech of a handful of bigots for a better outcome for particular minority groups. In their fact-blind quest to dub themselves "protectors" of these groups, these "social justice" fanatics end up taking on positions that often hurt or denigrate the very people they purport to protect. My favourite example was the opposition on one college campus to a minute of silence to commemorate 9/11. The rationale for this opposition? That Muslim students might feel offended. To take this position you have to assume that either: a) Muslims (in general) were to blame for 9/11, or b) most Muslims sympathize with terrorists and would be uncomfortable with a single minute of silence once per year.

A few years ago, those of us who found this concerning could be dismissed as hysterics who are making too much noise about obscure academics. As poor a treatment as Michael Bailey received, his detractors were mostly confined to academia. The Google fiasco demonstrates that this toxic ideology has bled out of the humanities and into mainstream culture. It spreads by masquerading as compassion and parasitizing the minds of those who are simply trying to be good to their fellow citizens. I submit that you can't have a moral ideology that demands a suspension of one's rational faculties or that places empathy and compassion above truth or principles. Dreger spent her career investigating cases where scholars had discoveries that ran counter to social justice activists' narratives. These are her closing words:

I know that a lot of people who met me along the way in this work thought I'd end up on one side of the war between activists and scholars. The deeper I went, however, the more obvious it became that the best activists and the best scholars actually long for the same kind of world – a free one. Here's the one thing I now know for sure after this very long trip: Evidence is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth. And if you want to work for truth, you must do a little more than wish for justice.