By far and away the strongest argument in favor of Google’s firing the employee who wrote the now infamous memo is a neutral one: That, irrespective of its contents, the memo itself was a suicide note. Those advancing this case are effectively taking no stance on the questions that have yielded all the outrage, preferring instead to forward the separate case that it is invariably unwise for any employee of any company to criticize his employer in public. “If you wrote this memo,” they ask the critics, “wouldn’t you expect to be fired?”
In the abstract, this is a convincing rhetorical question. In an at-will system such as the one that obtains in Silicon Valley, there is no good reason for a firm such as Google to hang on to troublemakers, and it is under no obligation to do so. Quite deliberately, the memo’s author took aim at his employer. Whether he did so with sufficient vitriol to warrant his dismissal is a matter of taste, but that decision is Google’s not mine. Surely, he knew what he was risking?
Perhaps he did. Nevertheless, the problem with this line is that we do not live in the abstract, and, in reality, these rules are not applied neutrally or universally. For the sake of argument, suppose that the original memo had hewed to the opposite line — that is, that the author had made the case he was criticizing. Suppose he had charged that minorities and women were under-represented at Google because Google is institutionally racist. Suppose he had proposed that men and women have identical traits and proclivities. Suppose that he had called not for calm, but for action, and that he had called out his bosses not for an excessive commitment to social justice, but for their inadequacy. What, one has to ask, do we think the response would be? Do we imagine that he’d have been fired for “criticizing his employer,” or for “making his colleagues uncomfortable”? Would we have seen a press release from Google’s CEO in which the memo was disavowed on the grounds that it undermine Google’s commitment to meritocracy? Are we to believe that such a firing would have been defended on the grounds that, by electing to cause a public fuss, the author had it coming? And would we have seen the usual round of self-contradictory platitudes — that the company was too tolerant to tolerate; too inclusive to include; too committed to free expression to permit open dissent?
I sincerely doubt it. On the contrary: I suspect there’d have been a summit. I suspect that we’d have seen a series of press releases from Google reaffirming a commitment to improvement. I suspect there’d have been a host of op-eds about “Google’s problem,” replete with sympathetic quotes from the press shop. I suspect, in other words, that we’d have seen much the same reaction from Google as we have seen from colleges when faced with grievance-laden manifesti: Swift and humble acquiescence.
Which is to say that, regardless of one’s view on the contents of the memo, the ostensibly “neutral” position is not likely to be a neutral position at all. Or, put another way: One can’t avoid delving into this in depth by contending bluntly that the details don’t matter, when, for better or worse, they absolutely do. As I wrote a couple of years ago, I am quite happy for private companies to respond to their customers and the culture in which they exist, and I do not wish to impose any laws that would prevent them from doing so. But to acknowledge that this is what they are doing is merely to move our point of inquiry from the companies themselves to the forces that inform their decisions. There is a severe imbalance in those forces, and one that’s worth remarking on. There’s no neutral position here, I’m afraid.