Google Needs a New CEO

by Andrew Stuttaford

If nothing else, the fiasco at Google is yet another reminder that the current onslaught on free speech is not going to be confined to the academy. Students graduate and when they join the workplace they will bring with them the attitudes that they learnt on campus. In many HR departments they will find people just as willing as their counterparts in university administrations to act as ideological enforcers. 

Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks takes (I think) a fairly dispassionate view of the controversy at Google.

After analyzing the arguments involved, Brooks writes:

What we have is a legitimate tension. Damore is describing a truth on one level; his sensible critics are describing a different truth, one that exists on another level. He is championing scientific research; they are championing gender equality. It takes a little subtlety to harmonize these strands, but it’s doable.

Of course subtlety is in hibernation in modern America. The third player in the drama is Google’s diversity officer, Danielle Brown. She didn’t wrestle with any of the evidence behind Damore’s memo. She just wrote his views “advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.” This is ideology obliterating reason.

Indeed it is. In just that one word, ‘incorrect’, there are unmistakable echoes of the inquisitor, the commissar, the censor.

Yes, it is true that (more general legal protections aside, something that may well become an issue in this case) Google is  well within its  rights to fire an ‘at will’ employee, but we should remember that a company (and its employees) are obliged to act in the best interests of the company’s shareholders and, by best interests, that means one thing and one thing only—economic return.

As Milton Friedman famously wrote:

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

It’s easy enough to make the case that boosting workplace diversity can boost a company’s bottom line, but how that diversity is managed matters – a commonsense approach is one thing, rigid enforcement of an ideology quite another.

Back to Brooks:

The fourth actor is the media. The coverage of the memo has been atrocious.

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.” Various reporters and critics apparently decided that Damore opposes all things Enlightened People believe and therefore they don’t have to afford him the basic standards of intellectual fairness.

The mob that hounded Damore was like the mobs we’ve seen on a lot of college campuses. We all have our theories about why these moral crazes are suddenly so common. I’d say that radical uncertainty about morality, meaning and life in general is producing intense anxiety. Some people embrace moral absolutism in a desperate effort to find solid ground. They feel a rare and comforting sense of moral certainty when they are purging an evil person who has violated one of their sacred taboos.

Brooks is undoubtedly right about the quasi-religious aspect of all this, the embrace of moral absolutism. A cheery appreciation of the meaningless of existence has, sadly, always been a minority viewpoint. Orthodoxy is an easier sell.

That said, it’s difficult to discern where the ‘moral craze’ ends and the power play begins. Battles such as these are as much about power as anything else.

Back to Brooks:

Which brings us to [Google CEO] Pichai, the supposed grown-up in the room. He could have wrestled with the tension between population-level research and individual experience. He could have stood up for the free flow of information. Instead he joined the mob. He fired Damore and wrote, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not O.K.”

That is a blatantly dishonest characterization of the memo. Damore wrote nothing like that about his Google colleagues. Either Pichai is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob.

Regardless which weakness applies, this episode suggests he should seek a non-leadership position…

Indeed it does. And if he won’t go voluntarily, Google’s board, acting in the interests of the company’s shareholders, should show him the door.

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