Politics & Policy

Lena Dunham and Google Demonstrate Why Our Free Speech Culture Is Slipping Away

Lena Dunham at the TCA press tour in 2014. (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
Progressive corporations enforce an ideological monoculture. Dissent and get fired.

When I talk about free speech, I often ask the audience two questions. First, did you know that the Supreme Court has been steadily expanding free-speech rights? Second, do you feel freer to speak now than you did five years ago? The answers are always the same — some variation of “no” and “heck, no.”

The first assertion is undoubtedly true. Federal courts have consistently protected free speech from government interference and have been relentless in shutting down viewpoint discrimination. When government officials target speech because of a speaker’s views, they lose time and again.

At the same time, millions of Americans are extraordinarily reluctant to express even the most mainstream of (particularly) social conservative views. They’re convinced that if they do that, they’ll be publicly humiliated, investigated, and perhaps even lose their jobs. They’re convinced that outspoken liberals enjoy greater opportunity in key sectors of the economy, and if conservatives want to thrive, they best keep their opinions to themselves.

Two recent incidents highlight this concern. The first comes courtesy of actress Lena Dunham, the paradigm of the celebrity social-justice warrior. Early last Thursday morning, she tweeted at American Airlines that she’d heard two of its employees engaged in “transphobic” talk. Specifically, she said she heard two flight attendants talk about how they thought transgenderism was “gross,” and they’d “never accept a trans kid.” She did not see them harassing anyone. She was simply eavesdropping on a conversation.

How did American Airlines respond? By launching an investigation into the offending employees (they couldn’t substantiate Dunham’s claims). Is that now the standard? Will American Airlines investigate employees without any allegation that they’ve actually mistreated a single customer merely on the grounds that their employees’ private conversation offended a leftist?

The second incident comes courtesy of Google, one of the most powerful corporations on the planet. An anonymous employee penned a multi-page memo addressing why there are fewer women than men in key fields in the tech industry. In the memo, he noted that Google values gender and racial diversity but has created an “ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.” This means that Google responds to gender imbalances with “extreme and authoritarian” measures. At the extreme, it views all gender disparities as “due to oppression.” Its authoritarian response is to “discriminate to correct this oppression.”

The writer than explores at length cultural and biological differences between men and women and then proposes some measures to increase female representation in the field without resorting to discrimination.

And how did his colleagues respond? How did Google respond? Employees demanded that he be fired. Google then penned a response that contained this ominous paragraph:

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.

That was a thinly veiled warning. Speak your mind, but know that HR is looking over your shoulder. And late Monday, Google lowered the boom. It fired software engineer James Damore for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.” He wrote a memo describing how Google was intolerant of dissenting voices. Google proved his point.

It’s important to note that Google and American Airlines are both private corporations. They have enormous latitude to advance their own corporate viewpoints and to regulate the speech of their employees. There is no First Amendment violation here. There’s nothing illegal about fellow employees or corporate employers attempting to squelch the speech of employees who quite literally dissent from the company line.

Major corporations and virtually every university in the nation are now political entities just as much as they’re commercial entities, and they wear their progressivism on their sleeves.

But just because something is legal does not mean it’s right, and the result is a crisis in the culture of free speech in the United States. As the politicization of everything proceeds apace, the “company line” has increasingly moved well beyond promoting its own products to promoting a particular kind of politics. Major corporations and virtually every university in the nation are now political entities just as much as they’re commercial entities, and they wear their progressivism on their sleeves.

The primary victims of this new culture of groupthink are social conservatives and other dissenters from identity politics. In field after field and company after company, conservatives understand that the price of their employment is silence. Double standards abound, and companies intentionally try to keep work environments “safe” from disagreement. Radical sexual and racial politics are given free rein. Disagree — and lose your job.

It takes a person of rare constitution and moral courage to speak up. And that’s precisely how the far Left likes it. After all, what value is there in disagreement? They’ve figured out that elusive path to racial, gender, and sexual justice, and disagreement only distracts. It does worse than distract. It wounds.

But take heart, conservatives. It’s not all bleak. After all, the government is highly unlikely to persecute you for your speech. And if you want to succeed in cutting-edge businesses or enjoy equal opportunity in the academy, you do have one good option. You can shut your mouth.


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