You may have heard that a Google software engineer anonymously circulated a memo about “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” The tech blog Motherboard reports that the memo went viral within the company. In it, the engineer argues that Google has created a “politically correct monoculture” in which honest discussion of its hiring practices is impossible.
The author avows several times that seeking to foster diversity is rational for Google, because everyone comes to work with unconscious bias, owing to each person’s background. But this engineer also asserts that Google has accepted the story that its inability to hire more women and minorities is rooted in a nasty form of discrimination. But there are good reasons, the author says, to think that the problem is rooted in what he calls “population level differences in distributions.” In other words, he says that while sexism exists in tech, it may be the case that fewer women than men desire to be software engineers. He says that despite its proposed commitments, Google does not discuss its own lack of political diversity, the kind that would produce moral disagreement and discussion. Despite the repeated avowals — “I value diversity and inclusion” are the first five words of the essay — most media outlets refers to it as the “anti-diversity memo.” Or screed. Or rant.
You could argue with this memo. It crystallizes several lines of thinking that have appeared in the last decade. It includes a bit of Jonathan Haidt’s work on how political worldviews spring out of deep moral intuitions. It references research showing that in richer and freer societies, sex differences in choice of employment are more exaggerated than in places that are poorer and less free.
One could describe the tone of this memo as “cooperative.” The author doesn’t make any claims that he is victimized. He doesn’t accuse anyone in particular of being unqualified. But the response it received wasn’t argument, it was anathematization.
Danielle Brown, Google’s new “Vice President of Diversity, Integrity, and Governance,” stepped on and issued her own response to the debate. Her company-wide e-mail, reproduced in the media, was the first time that most Google engineers had even heard of this supposedly viral memo, which first appeared on an internal listserv for atheists. After some throat-clearing, Brown said:
Many of you have read an internal document shared by someone in our engineering organization, expressing views on the natural abilities and characteristics of different genders, as well as whether one can speak freely of these things at Google. And like many of you, I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender. I’m not going to link to it here as it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes, or encourages.
Brown describes the document as offering views on gender, and an accusation on a stifling climate of opinion in Google. She says that it is wrong on gender, and then she conspicuously confirms the engineer’s latter charge, by leaving it unrebutted while deeming it unrepeatable. The engineer was so wrong, in fact, that Google decided late Monday to fire him.
The truth is that the mainstream media outlets may be right that it is an “anti-diversity screed,” in the sense that it offers arguments and evidence where none are typically permitted. In this telling, diversity is more of a faith commitment. Brown continued her statement:
Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture we continue to cultivate. We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul. As Ari Balogh said in his internal G+ post, “Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do. ’Nuff said.”
The striking thing about this is that it is not even an argument. It is at best a reassurance. The statements in it are all creedal. The same belief is expressed, in barely varying language, in three successive sentences. It is less a paragraph containing thought than a kind of mantra or spell.
The reaction on the outside of Google — even from those who support the memo as if it were Luther’s 95 theses — confirms that religious values are at play. I do not think that Nassim Taleb, the statistician and author, would object to being called an iconoclast. Taleb gave a vandal’s exultation to the publication of the engineer’s memo. The false gods are being torn down from the high places, and lighting does not strike us dead!
Zunger states that at higher levels, software engineering requires empathy, and empathy is about having roughly the same political and social worldview as his.
An ex-Googler, Yonatan Zunger, offered another reaction, condemning the memo. Zunger accuses the engineer author of the memo of not understanding engineering. He states that at higher levels, software engineering requires empathy, and empathy is about having roughly the same political and social worldview as Yonatan Zunger’s.
Zunger’s reaction reminds one that religious disagreements often turn on which authorities we accept. Zunger asserts that “nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect.” He then proceeds to relieve himself of the duty of challenging them: “I am neither a biologist, a psychologist, nor a sociologist, so I’ll leave that to someone else.” This is a profession of faith.
Consider how similar this avowal is to those of other religious believers. Matthew Lambert, an Irish Catholic baker, was accused of helping James Eustace escape English Protestant authorities during a 16th-century rebellion. During the inquisition before his death, he announced:
I am not a learned man. I am unable to debate with you, but I can tell you this, I am a Catholic and I believe whatever our Holy Mother the Catholic Church believes.
Zunger refused to debate the memo author or Jonathan Haidt, but he professes and believes with a sincere heart. This is his witness.
Like many religious idols, the new gods are available for the crassest kind of religious manipulation. Adherents say that these values are not only good but also that they bring grace and success to all endeavors. They can be shoehorned into a kind of prosperity Gospel. You shouldn’t just pursue them because they are good, but because they will do good for you.
Jeremy Cliffe, a reporter for the Economist, tweeted about another of this week’s controversies involving diversity (this one also involving Nassim Taleb and historian Mary Beard on whether Roman imperial administrators in Briton were likely to be African). Cliffe stated, “Every hegemony in history — Rome, Tang, Mongol, Dutch, British, American — thrived by being more tolerant of diversity than its rivals.” He added, “And every one failed when it stopped embracing that diversity.”
Funny, I thought it was military prowess that led to imperial greatness, and bankruptcy of the treasury (usually due to war) that led to the breakup of empires. But it is interesting to think that Ghengis Khan was setting down a template for the toleration of diversity. “The greatest enjoyment of a man is to overcome his enemies, drive them before him, snatch what they have, to see the people to whom they are dear with their faces bathed in tears, to ride their horses, to squeeze in his arms their daughters and women,” Khan is reputed to have said. I suppose taking women as the spoils of war shows a kind of tolerance of diversity.
Funny. These disputes only ever happen at high-prestige jobs for the clerical class of our society: politicians, journalists, academics, software coders. That is why, once again, the debate about it almost perfectly matches every debate in the culture war, putting the same ideas and same coalitions into the same old fight.
I did short stints of work sealing driveway pavement and making industrial quantities of ammonium formate on the floor of a chemical plant. They were all-male environments. No one worries that women are being held back from these jobs.
But for what’s it’s worth, I’m not sure that even apologists for Diversity with a capital D really believe that all disparities are the result of oppression. Before I joined the class of people who type into a screen for a living, I did short stints of decently-compensated work sealing driveway pavement and making industrial quantities of ammonium formate on the floor of a chemical plant. They were all-male environments. No one worries that women are being held back from these jobs. Diversity is surely important. Diversity is good. Diversity is the best. But for now it is a fight among priests. Only God can judge it.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.