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:
- They put in the effort to psychologically adjust to changing social norms.
- 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.
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.