The Google Glitch: Free Speech, Stereotypes, and Sacred Myths

Imagine for a moment that you are the boss of Google. You’re on vacation when you get a call that the place is going up in flames over an internal memo that one of your white, male engineers has written condemning the company’s approach to diversity. Some women are threatening to quit unless the memo’s author is fired. What would you do?

If you find that question easy to answer, I humbly suggest you haven’t thought hard enough. It’s understandable that many Americans leap to one position or another. We live in a moment when tweets pass for discourse, and “breaking news” continually short-circuits deep thought. But the firing of software engineer James Damore for writing, among other things, “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. …” deserves more than reflexive outrage. After all, we’re talking about the clash of two pillars of our society -- free speech and the presumptive equality of all persons. When pillars clash, we should all worry about the roof caving in.

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, fired Damore for his memo’s “harmful gender stereotypes.” I’ll share my views on this below, but first, put on your miner’s helmet. We need to delve beneath the surface of these social fault lines to better understand the subterranean geography of our society.

The First Amendment establishes our free speech rights. Damore claims he was wrongly fired because he had a right to bring up working conditions with his colleagues. Courts may decide the merits of that claim, but for now it’s important to recognize that free speech rights have never been absolute. You cannot hide behind the First Amendment to harass someone, to disrupt religious services, or to incite a lynching. The government may be constrained from censoring our speech, but employers can impose all kinds of limitations and penalties, especially within the workplace.

That’s the easy part. The fault line runs under a fogbound trench called “hate speech.” There’s no doubting that hate speech exists, but like art it’s hard to define. Is “God hates fags,” hate speech or a theological position? To me, it’s clearly both, but that does nothing to resolve the dilemma over how society should respond. Courts have largely relied on time, place, and manner restrictions to define the limits of free speech, but on the campuses of universities and now of tech companies, the controversy burns out of control.

The Westboro Baptists’ crude sloganeering is loathsome yet rightfully protected within time, place, and manner bounds. At a certain distance, they can picket a funeral, disgusting as that practice may be, provided they do not disrupt it. But if that is indeed protected speech, why should James Damore lose his job? After all, he expressed no hatred in his memo. On the contrary, he explicitly states, “I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more.”

The answer, I think, lies in time, place and manner. This is a time when tech giants are under fire for perceived gender and racial bias. Damore chose to express his views within his company, which means that Google had every right to weigh the consequences of his speech, hateful or not, against the value of his continued employment. Finally and most crucially, the manner of Damore’s expression was clearly provocative. His patchy empiricism and disclaimers notwithstanding, from the title down the essay is no invitation to dialogue; it is a poke in the eye. Oh, did I mention? It’s called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”

But there’s more. In citing stereotypes, CEO Pichai said, “Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states.”

That’s admirable. Unfortunately, it embodies a categorical error about stereotypes. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, many (though certainly not all) stereotypes center on some true generalities. It is a true generality, for example, that men are taller than women. This has no bearing on whether any particular man is taller or shorter than any particular woman.

Whether we voice them or not, we all generate stereotypes. This is no surprise, since stereotyping about people grows out of the key human instincts for categorizing and abstracting. That’s not an excuse for prejudice. It’s what you do with your stereotypes that counts.

We all carry around a stereotype about what constitutes a chair, for example. It’s useful in preventing us from sitting on a spike rather than a cushion. Most of us would say a chair has four legs, a seat, and a back. Within that stereotype we can easily fit a wooden chair and a lazy boy recliner. But if confronted with a rubber ball as chair, we may have to recontour the stereotype.

So too with people. The categorical error is to claim that stereotyping itself is a harm. It’s not. Rather, the harm lies in filling a stereotype with false, demeaning, and/or spiteful content and then applying the model presumptively and indiscriminately to all instances in that category. With people, the sin is not stereotyping itself, but failing to consciously push back against our presumptions to take each person on their own terms.

Let me turn this on myself. Roughly speaking, I’m an Arab-American. Doubtless, this floods your mind with notions about me. Burnoose, anyone? When I went off to college, many years ago, I learned that my roommate would be David Rosenbaum. People who knew him told me, “He’s like Mr. Young Zionist! You guys are going to kill each other!” The same people told Dave that he was being roomed with a terrorist. When we met, I seem to recall, both our knees were knocking. But we soon became really good friends, as did our families, and the friendship has lasted a lifetime.

The point is not just that we were both exceptions to whatever stereotypes people had of us; it’s that people are vastly more complex than any stereotype of any of them. We are not chairs. Yet it’s worth remembering that even a chair may become a flotation device or firewood.

Still we’re not done. Throughout history, societies have organized around sacred myths. These clearly had some utility in the past, but they easily turn toxic in advanced mass societies. For one thing, a liberal democracy cannot function if its citizens prefer truthiness over truth.

Among the points Damore tried to make, in his self-sabotaging way, was this: “we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology.” That is certainly true of the nation, of New England Patriots fans and foes, and likely of Google as well. Social cohesion tugs us in that direction. But if we truly aspire to be a more just society, we have to tear down at least some of our sacred myths.

None is holier than the myth of equality. Clearly, legal equality is a social good to be cherished. Just as clearly, we are not individually equal in traits, skills, or character. I am not as good at physics as Lisa Randall, at investing as Warren Buffett, or at singing as Bobby McFerrin. I am better at ethics than Donald Trump. But what of groups? Are all groups equal? In what sense? And if so, should we expect, in a just society, to see an equal distribution of people from those groups in all occupations?

Those are worthy questions. They should not be taboo because of our sacred myth. The underlying fear seems to be that asking such questions will validate noxious claims such as “women are not ambitious” or “women are more neurotic than men.” Those are horrible, hurtful claims, but more important they can never be validated at the level that counts: a person.

Even an essay as long as this doesn’t give room to fully explore this fraught subject. To be clear, though, I’m not attempting to smuggle in a white, male supremacist ideology. My life is a testament against that. I am stating, unequivocally, that it is wrong to put the scientific investigation of human nature, including average male-female differences, out of bounds, and it may be wrong to expect that a just society would result in an even distribution of men and women in all occupations.

There’s no cause for alarm in this. At the moment, it appears that even in a flawed society women may make up a majority of lawyers. Since men still have a higher admission rate to law school, this is evidently not the result of social policy or legal tactics, but of female choice and ability.

So, would I conclude that Pichai was wrong to fire Damore? No. In his place, I might have suspended Damore and worked with him and others to create a plan for his rehabilitation, but hey, that’s why I run a small nonprofit, not a tech giant.

Damore took an aggressive, condescending approach in his memo, one that he should have known would ignite angry rebukes rather than thoughtful dialogue. Worse, in my view, he mixed sprinklings of science with unfounded and hurtful generalities. Do women exhibit more neuroticism, as Damore states? His anchor for that claim is a link to a Wikipedia article on the general topic of neurosis.

It’s a shame, in every sense. It sets back the hope of reconciling differing views on the common ground of science, of harmonizing principles in the optimum of justice, and of healing grievances through mutual respect and authentic conversation.

Yet, pursue that hope we must. We cannot be innocent of history. We cannot ignore present-day bias. Above all we cannot hide from the truth. The most important truth in this painful situation may be this: Everyone deserves to be fairly considered on their own merits.

Any views expressed in the essay above are those of the author alone.

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