J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Changing Social Norms Don’t Present an Existential Threat

I read recently fired ex-Google employee James Damore’s “left bias” manifesto with much interest. I think a lot of people (especially younger white males) feel the same way he does.

Damore’s memo starts off with some reasonable assertions that there are statistical psychological differences, on average, between men and women. No problem there, even though some of the broader generalizations struck me as outlandish, and weren’t backed by evidence. Damore goes on to assert that Google has a politically and culturally left bias, which makes me wonder what he was thinking when he signed up to work at a Silicon Valley tech company. Finally, Damore makes the leap that because the gender and ethnicity gaps in tech are not solely due to bias (but also because of innate biological differences), that Google’s diversity programs are discriminatory, and therefore they should be eliminated or opened to white males.

Damore is young, idealistic, and naive, and probably didn’t understand why writing and circulating this memo would be harmful to himself, his co-workers, and his company. This response from Google alumni Yonatan Zunger breaks it down.

Damore’s manifesto refers many times to the term psychological safety (in reference to how as a conservative, he wasn’t feeling it at Google; he didn’t feel as if he could openly express his political views without being criticized). But apparently he felt safe enough, as a white male, to widely circulate a document that criticized his own company’s diversity programs and suggested that his female co-workers might not be biologically suited to work as engineers.

Change Can Be Hard

Social norms are changing quickly, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. For example, “white as default” is no longer acceptable in many mainstream environments, and to have your ethnicity be noticed as opposed to normal can be uncomfortable at first. The same applies to gender, sexual orientation, being able-bodied, and so on.

It can also be uncomfortable and difficult to change the way you speak, which political correctness demands. Words and phrases that were once acceptable are no longer acceptable. And confusingly, what is acceptable sometimes appears to be a moving target. If you make a mistake, you run the risk of getting corrected (which sensitive types interpret as being shamed).

People deal with this stress and extra work in one of two ways:

  1. They put in the effort to psychologically adjust to changing social norms.
  2. They resist change, and makes arguments that they shouldn’t have to adjust, because of free speech.

But free speech, in the United States, doesn’t protect you from getting fired from a private sector company if you say harmful things along the lines of women in general aren’t suited for tech work. As a father whose daughter is interested in programming, statements like that piss me off. I’m glad Damore got fired.

But it’s not, nor should it be, illegal to speak your mind, to say or not say whatever you want (with very few exceptions, like calling “Fire!” in a movie theatre). Jordan Peterson (a Youtube-famous Canadian psychologist who rails against political correctness and what he calls the “postmodern agenda”) made a big stink by refusing to use the preferred pronouns of some of the students at his university. He argued, quite persuasively, that speech should not be compelled by law. And he’s right, too; compelled speech is a terrible idea.

We should adjust to changing cultural norms because it’s the decent thing to do, not because it’s the law. Even though it requires effort.

Reverse Discrimination

It’s a good idea to take a look around the room before you call reverse discrimination. When I first started submitting my science fiction stories for publication, I was a little nonplussed by how many publications were explicitly encouraging submissions from women and people of color. Did this mean, as a white male author, that I wasn’t welcome? I was certainly getting a lot of rejection slips.

But then I looked around the room. Looking at bylines and looking up authors, I quickly realized there was no shortage of white men getting published. Everyone was getting rejection slips, because publishing is highly competitive. Editors were simply doing what they could to encourage submissions from underrepresented groups. Black women science fiction writers, when looking around the room, might easily get the idea that they weren’t welcome. So editors were doing what they could to offset that perception. Ditto for Google’s diversity programs.

If Damore had looked around the room, he might have noticed there was no shortage of white male engineers at Google.

Don’t call reverse discrimination when your group is still eating the vast majority of the pie.

But Many Conservatives Don’t See It That Way

Jordan Petersen and other conservatives have a different take on changing social norms. To them, non-standard gender pronouns, terms like “white privilege,” and affirmative action programs are the tip of a philosophical iceberg that is collectivism (and/or postmodernism, and/or progressive liberalism). They see these trends and insidious and evil, the first steps leading down a slippery slope toward the worst crimes of Stalin and Mao. An epidemic of “victimhood” that will lead us all to ruin.

Sure, social justice warriors (as the Alt-Right has labeled them) sometimes take political correctness too far, like students at Reed College accusing Boy’s Don’t Cry filmmaker Kimberly Peirce of transphobia.

But most of the “postmodern agenda” that has gone mainstream (at least in some parts of the country) shouldn’t be that hard to digest. Women in tech jobs shouldn’t be controversial. Affirmative action programs to encourage employment and participation by sorely underrepresented groups shouldn’t be controversial. Expression of non-binary gender identity shouldn’t be controversial.

That these things are controversial strikes me as misplaced fear. There are plenty of real threats to track and mitigate, on both a personal and global level.

I get it–changing social norms can make a person feel a little awkward and uncomfortable.

But just because you feel a little uncomfortable doesn’t mean civilization is collapsing. Not every perceived threat is a real threat.

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9 Comments

  1. Franco

    “But free speech, in the United States, doesn’t protect you from getting fired from a private sector company if you say harmful things along the lines of women in general aren’t suited for tech work.”

    As much as they (unfortunately) get conflated, free-speech-vs-the-state and free-speech-what-js-mill-had-in-mind are different things.

    One protects citizens of the Big US of A, the latter is a philosophical stance where ideas should be as far as possible debated with counterarguments instead of shut down, this process deemed suitable to discover and make truth evident.

    Of course “as far as possible” is quite flexible in its definition: we won’t expect academic journals to invite football players to share their ideas about physics, etc. and even Speaker’s Corner has its rule.

    But the general idea is “leave as much as possible ideas in the Arena and see what happens”.

    • Fair point. And free speech of the John Stuart Mill liberalism variety is alive and well in the U.S., as it should be, especially on the internet, in podcasts, etc.

      Speech is generally more constrained in public corporations, which are hierarchical, beholden to shareholders, and socially formal (even if the employees wear jeans). Damore crossed so many lines that it’s not surprising he was shown the door. Some will interpret this as having a “chilling” effect on the free expression of ideas at Google, and it may. On the other hand Google is insisting that employees treat each other with a modicum of respect, which is reasonable.

      What if a black female Google employee had broadly circulated a memo suggesting white male engineers, on average, were responsible for the online fake news epidemic? True or not, it wouldn’t be a good career move, and nobody would be surprised if she got fired.

      As a white man I’m used to being protected and held to looser standards (online, in the courts, at work). It may be unnerving to some white men when someone (Google in this case) sets an actual limit. I do think free speech (as a philosophy) is important–but so is a basic respect of one’s co-workers.

  2. Ed

    You mentioned “But it’s not, nor should it be, illegal to speak your mind, to say or not say whatever you want”.

    Are you suggesting that one should be allowed to use racist language without the fear of being arrested? I’m playing devil’s advocate. It’s wrong but should it be against the law as well?

    As a white male, if someone calls me a “honky” or “white trash”, would I be offended (minimally, most likely)? If a while person calls a black person “n***er” that’s against the law (here in the UK, at least). What is the difference? The difference is that one group is seen as oppressed but either we have total freedom of speech or both sides abide by the same law with the same risk.

  3. Great post. Love your rare appearances. I teach epigenetic co-creative methods for well-being in all areas of life. All scientifically validated yet human based. Amazing evidence surfacing re rapid DNA changes via mind body “interventions.” Together we heal and together we learn.

  4. Paul

    I wholeheartedly agree with the majority of your post, JD. But I think the left (which includes myself) needs to better address fair concerns of Jordan Peterson and his ilk that we on the left do increasingly compel speech we like, or obstruct speech we don’t. One need look no further than our local public university in Berkeley for an example. (There are many, but I’ve chosen the obvious). I can’t stand Ann Coulter. I despise everything she stands for and everything I’ve ever heard her say. But the movement to block her from speaking at the university was shameful. One should fight speech with (better) speech. And guess what? That means having to listen to (or at least allow others to express) points of view that we find personally offensive. If this dialog can’t even occur at a public university, then what hope have we for having meaningful dialog at all? Living in a diverse society, where people are free to express a diversity of opinions is often tremendously uncomfortable. It’s not only the right that needs to accept this discomfort.

    • I agree to some extent. We (liberals) should hear out conservative intellectuals and engage with them. Charles Murray, for example. Maybe even Peter Thiel. But Coulter is a bottom-feeder and a hatemonger. I don’t see why there’s any moral imperative to give her a platform.

      But yes, Peterson is right to take a stand against compelled speech, and there is too much “shouting down” of conservative speakers, especially at universities.

      And absolutely–the left needs to engage vigorously with ideas we find uncomfortable.

  5. Elle

    Really, really well-said, in my opinion.

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