Business  •  August 13, 2017

The Chilling Effects of Google/Damore Controversy

I wasn’t going to say anything about this controversy. If you disagree with Google’s response and if you are “smart,” you should indeed keep your mouth shut because you have absolutely nothing to gain by saying anything about it publicly, but you have much to lose. It’s not only Google who will never hire you. Many other large corporations would avoid you like a plague, if they see that you could possibly write the same type of internal memo and cause a public uproar. It’s too risky.

If James Damore did not work for an influential and prestigious organization like Google, that is, if he was just some guy on the Internet, nobody would have paid attention to what he said. It’s only because of his affiliation with Google that his memo went viral. This means that anyone working at any prestigious organization can quite easily trigger the same type of public outrage by addressing this controversial issue. Large corporations will surely avoid anyone in support of Damore’s view. If you are concerned about success and well-being in the corporate world, it would be a career suicide to state your opinion publicly.

I too have nothing to gain, and much to lose by stating my opinions here, but something inside me is compelling me to, not only privately, but publicly. Public versus private is a meaningful difference. During the Nazi rule, I’m sure many Germans privately disagreed with their policies on Jews. If they had all publicly expressed their dissent, perhaps the course of history might have been different. Each person’s opinion can only do so much but when done collectively, it can have a significant impact.

Let me be clear up front that I neither agree nor disagree with Damore. I think diversity is a highly complex issue. I’ve written an essay on the issue of diversity at public schools in New York City where I explained the complexity of the problem without a definite policy suggestion. My concern, what is compelling me to write this, is irrespective of the position on this issue. What is frightening is the assault on reason, the only tool we have to ensure justice and fairness for all.

Whether you agree or not, James Damore used reason to argue his points. When someone is trying to reason, we need to respond with reason, not with punishment. If you do not want to engage in a debate with him, that is fine too. Nobody should force you to debate, but if so, you should hold your judgment. You should not call him “sexist” or “racist” until you have sufficiently understood his argument and provided your own reasons for why he deserves that label.

Ultimately, reason is the only tool we humans have for protecting our rights and ensuring fairness. We have continually made progress in terms of justice and fairness, because we have learned to reason.

Not that long ago, most people felt that enslaving Black people was acceptable. Fairness was irrelevant; all that mattered was that slavery felt acceptable then. Anyone who could reason knew slavery was unfair and unjust. The problem was that reason didn’t rank so high in their priorities.

If we don’t protect reason as a tool for justice and fairness, we’ll go back to those days where the society was ruled simply by how we felt, by the public sentiment. When someone is trying to reason, we shouldn’t respond with anger. It’s barbaric and uncivilized. Ultimately it will end up hurting us all. Today, the public sentiment might be in your favor, but tomorrow, it might go against you. The only thing that protects you when that happens is reason.

The crux of the misunderstanding between Damore’s view and the public sentiment is that the latter does not understand how to properly interpret statistical data. This comes up over and over in the public discourse about race and gender. There is nothing inherently wrong with generalization. In fact, our language cannot function without generalizing. When you call an object a “chair,” you are generalizing. There is no clear line where a chair becomes a stool or couch. It’s a spectrum of objects we generalize. The same is true for gender and race.

Women on average are physically weaker than men. This statistical data by itself is harmless; many problems arise in our interpretation and use of it. For instance, just because this is true, it does not mean that a specific woman standing in front of you is weaker than you. Ironically, people whose worldview is more logical and scientific, like Damore, are less likely to make this type of error. They are able to differentiate statistical data from individual samples. For instance, if they are hiring a firefighter, they would be more likely to evaluate each candidate purely on his or her own merits regardless of what the average is. They would know that women being physically weaker on average is irrelevant in evaluating this particular candidate.

On the other hand, when we make policy decisions regarding statistical goals, it is appropriate to take into consideration what the average is. Should a construction company target 50% of their construction workers to be women? Should day care workers be 50% men? Well, it’s perfectly reasonable to consider various options. Why assume that 50% is the right answer? Why do we need to punish anyone who suggests that it doesn’t need to be 50%? Let’s just talk about it.

In the New York Times article about this controversy, an ex-employee of Google was quoted as saying: “The problem here was that this was disrespectful disagreement — and there’s really no respectful way to say, ‘I think you and people like you aren’t as qualified to do your job as people like me.”

But Damore never said women, or any group of people, are unqualified for any jobs. This is a good example of the abuse or misunderstanding of statistical data. When people who cannot reason well come across what they deem as an undesirable statistical data, they draw conclusions that the data does not actually imply or suggest.

Are all the data Damore presented accurate or correct? Very likely not, or at least they are not conclusive, but that is irrelevant. If his data are incorrect, then you should correct them. That is what I mean by responding with reason. There is no need to be angry or fire him for presenting the wrong data. He studied at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT; I’m sure he has enough intellectual integrity to appreciate you providing more accurate or relevant data.

Some people will inevitably argue that we cannot expect the public to make correct use of statistical data, and therefore that politically undesirable data should simply be suppressed. For instance, they might argue that women being physically weaker on average should never be stated, because an average person will inevitably make the mistake of assuming that the specific woman he is interviewing is too weak for the job. In other words, they are saying, instead of educating people on how to properly use statistical data, let’s assume that the majority of people are too stupid to ever understand it, so let’s just come up with a quick workaround. The problem with this approach is that stupidity cannot completely be plugged with a hack solution. They leak like pasta colander. If we want to make progress as a society, we cannot simply give up on people in this way. We have to believe that people can learn and change, and through history, we have proven that we can.

Do our policies always have to reflect the statistical facts? No. We could, for instance, fight racism with reverse racism, like affirmative action. That is, we counter a bias with a reverse bias until we reach a desired goal. This approach may work to speed up the process of eliminating bias. I’m not for or against these policies. My point here is simply that we should openly discuss and debate these issues, not rush to conclusion and call someone “racist”, “bigot”, or fire him.

If someone is just hurling insults, there is no reason for us to engage. We could even insult him back, and it would be fair enough. Insults cannot be addressed with reason. Most members of KKK, for instance, are not reasoning. They have an irrational hatred of non-whites. It would be a waste of time to engage them with reason. However offensive Damore’s opinions might feel to you, he is not hurling insults. He has reasons for his opinions. If you respond to him with insults or punishment, you are lowering yourself to the intellectual standard of KKK.

If Damore was a tenured professor at a university, he would have been protected because the academia has more intellectual integrity than corporations. They value and protect intellectual freedom as long as the opinions expressed are founded on reason.

Now, this does not mean that every opinion expressed with reason is correct. Many are wrong. But the point of debating is to arrive at that conclusion. Nobody should be punished for what turned out to be a wrong opinion.

Google was cornered into choosing between engaging him in a reasonable debate and firing him to appease the angry public. They chose the latter. Why? If they felt that they could rebut and disprove his arguments, I think they would have done so. It would have been the best solution. By firing him, they silently admitted that they can’t prove him wrong. We should note that, in the long run, this harms the very cause they purport to support (gender and racial equality). They are implicitly admitting that reason is on Damore’s side, so instead of taking up the battle they cannot win, they decided to use brute force. This is not only a loss for reason but also for equality and justice.

When push comes to shove, most people still yield to emotions instead of reason. For Google, it was more important to calm the general public by firing Damore than to protect reason as an institution of fairness. The public wanted blood, and Google gave it to them. For those of you who got what you wanted, just remember: When irrational injustice knocks on your door, don’t expect reason to come help you.