Alphabet, the parent company of Google, probably broke state and federal laws in its firing of engineer James Damore, who questioned the value and efficacy of the company’s diversity programs in an in-house forum intended for such discussion. California law forbids employers to discriminate against employees for their political views, and both state and federal laws protect the right of employees to discuss labor conditions — and that, rather than “diversity” as such, was the actual subject of Damore’s now-infamous memo.
The lawyers can sort that out — and Google has other discrimination claims on its plate, too, which is probably not irrelevant to this matter. Google may or may not have joined the ranks of petty law-breakers. It certainly has joined the ranks of petty commissars and little suppressors.
The campaign to lie about what Damore wrote, and to smear him as a bigot or a crank, already is well under way. His memo, which was labeled an “anti-diversity manifesto” in the press, is in fact something of the opposite: Throughout the document, Damore not only praises diversity in the abstract but also notes approvingly the ways in which Google tries to foster that diversity. “I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes,” he wrote in response to the initial criticism. Not good enough for Google: He was fired for using stereotypes and for failing to value diversity.
Damore’s argument is a familiar one: There are differences between men and women that are longstanding, general, and broad. Given that they are as near to universal as any aspect of human social life, it is unlikely that they are mere cultural expressions, “social constructs” in the modish language of the moment. While they are of practically no use in understanding any individual, they have some potential explanatory power when we consider such questions as why it is that women on average work fewer hours than men in similar occupations, or why women often choose lower-paying career paths (such as moving from sales into human resources) when they begin to have children. These differences very likely have biological origins. It is easy to make too much of such insights, and very easy to make too little of them, especially if one is in thrall to the feminist-multiculturalist fantasy of an infinitely plastic humanity.
In the case of a company such as Google — which selects its key employees from a very narrow slice of high-achieving people with math, science, and engineering backgrounds — this question is not merely theoretical. Google maintains aggressive diversity programs and spends generously on them, but its work force remains stubbornly disproportionately male and Asian or white. The times being what they are, Google is being sued by the federal government for “extreme” discrimination against women — a fact that almost certainly informed its decision to fire Damore.
Perhaps they should have listened to him instead.
Damore had some suggestions, and a great deal of praise for the company. If it is the case that women are on average more prone to suffer from anxiety, he argued, then Google should work to make leadership roles in the company less stressful — which, as he acknowledged, it already does. He suggested that the company embrace part-time work not only as a matter of policy but also as a matter of culture. He suggested that hiring practices that privilege “diversity” candidates and mentorship and development programs that exclude employees because of their race and/or sex not only are unfair but also fail to serve Google’s interests. Diversity, he wrote, is one Google asset among many, and one whose management should be optimized to meet the needs of the firm.
He also argued — and Google quickly confirmed — that nonconforming political and social ideas are ruthlessly suppressed and punished within the firm, that those holding conservative (or simply non-left) views are subjected to a hostile work environment, and that the predominance of conforming views creates a problem of confirmation bias.
Google has been challenged on its political biases before, and its executives’ responses have been illustrative. “The company was founded under the principles of freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness, and science-based thinking,” chairman Eric Schmidt said. “You’ll find that all of the other companies in our industry agree with us.” Schmidt is a very intelligent man, but perhaps not quite cultivated enough to sense why this uniformity of opinion might be evidence for Damore’s indictment of Google rather than evidence for his own defense of it.
Companies are free to forgo providing forums for the discussion of politics, policy, and issues relevant to their operations. They are even free to prohibit political discussion per se during work hours. But that is not what Google is up to here. Google is attempting, in its Orwellian way, to redefine “diversity” as “homogeneity,” to redefine the respect for genuine human differences as the demand for absolute conformity, to redefine openness as closure and tolerance as prohibition. Its bias problems are not limited to its personnel practices: Conservative outlets and publications are routinely excluded or marginalized by services such as YouTube and Google News, just as conservative voices frequently are silenced on Twitter and Facebook. We are reminded of our colleague Jay Nordlinger’s tales of bookstore clerks refusing to put conservative magazines on the shelves and vandalizing shipments of conservative books. Like Google, a bookstore is legally free to follow whatever inventory policies it likes, but when it targets unpopular political views, it becomes in spirit something like the opposite of a bookstore.
The founder of the House of Elsevier, forerunner to the publishing giant of that name, made his bones smuggling Galileo’s manuscripts out of Inquisition Italy into the Netherlands, where they could be printed. Our modern tech giants could — and sometimes do — perform a similar role, though sometimes, like Apple, they knuckle under to the censors. But Google here is guilty of more than cowardly accommodation: It has become the inquisitor, the persecutor, the enforcer of dogma, the suppressor. Irrespective of any decision about whether Google has behaved legally, it has behaved shamefully.