In July, a 28-year-old engineer at Google broke the Internet—and lost his job—when he circulated an internal memo calling for a more open dialogue about gender parity at the company. In Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion, the author, James Damore, spoke out about Google’s unwillingness to allow a diversity of perspectives.
Some of the ensuing commentary claimed he misinterpreted the science he cited, but the majority insisted that, for the most part, though he may have overstated the relevance of some, his data were correct. Far more important than the memo’s contents, however, was the reaction to it, which revealed the limits of science to inspire reason and tolerance.
In the world of psychometrics, the Thematic Apperception Test is a projective measure that uncovers attitudes, thinking patterns and emotional responses by showing the subject a series of drawings and having them tell a story they imagine the drawing tells. The Google memo can be thought of as a similar test. After reading the memo, some described it as an effort to promote diversity and combat groupthink. Others described it as anti-diversity, and a “diatribe against women in tech.” How the reader reacted to the memo is a function of the reader’s story, not the content of the memo.
Welcome to the world of post-rational discourse.
To scientists, for whom data has no moral content, the firestorm that ensued appeared to be the result of not understanding the data. As a result, much has been written about the science Damore cited. To the authors of articles defending the science in the memo, the negative emotional reaction to Google’s gadfly was beyond preposterous, leading women in science to declare that “sexism isn’t the result of knowing facts” and “truth isn't oppressive.”
Today, however, for what seems to be an increasing proportion of the educated left, even the mere willingness to discuss certain kinds of facts is “harmful.” The data in the memo wasn’t necessarily misunderstood. It was beside the point. Or perhaps more accurately said, the fact that he was willing to cite it was the problem. As one person tweeted at me, “speaking in averages degrades people.” The online magazine, Quillette, even suffered a cyberattack as a result of posting four scientists’ mostly supportive replies to the memo.
As John McWhorter has rightly pointed out, “[c]ertain questions are not to be asked.” And when they are, they are received “with indignation that one would even ask them.” Even more pernicious, however, they inevitably lead to the implication that not only is asking these questions a symptom of the problem, but the presence of the asker is, too.
How does this happen? To those seeking truth through science, facts are amoral. When using this scientific thinking, things are either true or untrue, not morally right or wrong. As Sam Harris points out in The End of Faith, Moses either parted the Red Sea or he didn't. Jesus was either born of a virgin or he wasn't. Mohammed either flew to heaven on a winged horse or he didn't. That there is scientific evidence that none of these things are possible given what we know about physics and biology does not deter people from their faith. That's definitional for articles of faith. The problem arises, however, when members of a faith choose to silence or punish nonbelievers and those who have too little faith. For Harris, there is no moral issue with questioning the historicity of the religious claims mentioned above—because he is not a believer. To true believers, however, questioning claims of faith is heresy.
In faith, there is certainty. Whatever contravenes faith or allows for uncertainty is, by faith’s definition, wrong. Faith requires being “right.” Science, on the other hand, requires uncertainty and the freedom to be wrong. And therein lies a conflict. Among true believers, those who are “wrong” are heretics, blasphemers and demons. Among true scientists, those who are wrong are merely—well, wrong. Being wrong in the scientific search for truth is acceptable and expected. One must be willing to be wrong in order to search for truth. Being wrong regarding faith’s claim of truth, however, is unacceptable and may even be unforgivable—it is the work of a devil. “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God,” wrote philosopher Eric Hoffer. “But never without the belief in a devil.”
What happened at Google is part of an illiberal orthodoxy that is intensifying on college campuses across the country. Last school year alone, incidents ranged from the tame to the violent. At Wellesley College, feminist Laura Kipnis, who spoke out for “grown-up feminism,” was the subject of a letter written by members of the faculty who claimed she “imposed on the liberty” of students, and her presence caused them “injury” and “distress.” Students called her out as anti-feminist. At the Evergreen State College, vigilante students called out evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein for speaking out against celebrating a day without white people. They vandalized property, held administrators and others hostage, and intimidated the professor, his students, and even police until eventually the police could not keep the professor or his family safe on campus. At Reed College, students called out assistant professor Lucia Martinez Valdivia, who identifies as mixed-race and queer for being a “race traitor,” “anti-black,” and “ableist.” They accused her of “gaslighting” students because she spoke out about questioning feelings of oppression. “I am scared to teach courses on race, gender or sexuality or even texts that bring these issues up in any way,” she said. “I’m at a loss as to how to begin to address it, especially since many of these students don’t believe in historicity or objective facts (they denounce the latter as being a tool of the white cisheteropatriarchy).”
Perhaps what makes the Google scenario stand out from even the most astounding campus reactions is that Google is not a college campus, but a company. And not just any company, but one responsible for much of the scientific, historical and objective facts that many, if not most of us find online.
Although Google’s CEO admitted that “much of what was in that memo is fair to debate,” Damore’s views were not, in the end, debated, as he had hoped they would be. At least not at Google.
Google has joined the callout culture.
Who will be next?
Note: The author's views are her own and should not be considered the official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which the author is associated.