Google’s intellectual bankruptcy

By firing James Damore, my past employer has broken a cardinal rule that our civilisation is based on. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

So far, I have not been affected by the madness of political correctness American college campuses have spawned. Living in London and working in tech, the crazy has not yet significantly intruded into my work and life.

This week, it changed.

The firing of James Damore from Google because of a document he wrote about gender disparity in tech and Google’s ideological obstinacy in this question has suddenly made the monster appear in my back yard.

I am a proud Xoogler. I loved my 3.5 years at Google, I learned a lot there, found wonderful friends and have always been holding up the company as a paragon of meritocracy and outstanding management. And even after my leaving in 2012, I’ve always had the impression that Google’s motto “Don’t be evil” was authentic and heartfelt.

So James’ (who I don’t know) firing this week has been like hearing that a childhood friend has become a petty criminal. I’m disappointed and dismayed. How could the company that prided itself on meritocracy and intellectual excellence commit this egregious error in judgment?

I am not arguing the merit of James’ argument here. First of all, you should read it. Many media accounts are distorting what he said. He is not saying that all women are biologically less suited for tech jobs, he doesn’t deny that sexism exists, and he is explicitly in favour of workplace diversity.

The only thing that matters here and the tragedy is that he was fired for voicing an opinion.

Now don’t get me wrong, not all opinions are worthy of consideration. If he had just shouted “women are stupid!” in the cafeteria, that would have also been an “opinion”. But without providing any evidence for this “opinion”, and for doing it in a way that isn’t conducive to rational debate and betrays lack of judgment and a breach of universally accepted (as opposed to just Silicon Valley / college campus bubble) human codes of decency, I would have understood a firing.

But James did something very different. His document is packed with links and charts that appear to support his thesis. It is not an outrageously absurd thing to claim that genders are different on a few levels. We know women and men are different physically, so to cite evidence that there could be an intellectual difference in the aggregate is not out of the realm of possibility.

You can cite counter-evidence, you can argue the validity of the evidence presented, that’s all fine. But it’s a point that is not, on its face, ridiculous. It has has to be possible to make such a point, especially when it is, as James’s thesis is, supported by scientific studies and cushioned in repeated statements that:

  • aggregate statistics do not permit to judge individuals;
  • diversity is good and should be supported.

On the back of the carefully presented evidence, James then suggests a change in Google’s hiring and management practices.

Again, you do NOT have to agree with what he says.

I had a whatsapp discussion with a friend who works at Google. And I was disappointed beyond measure to see that he has fully absorbed the koolaid: His argument was that JD deserved to be fired because he denies systematic oppression of women in the workplace, which is sexist.

Again, even if he did that (which he didn’t), you have to be able to have a discussion with someone you don’t agree with! This is what the whole idea of DEBATE is about. We disagree and we exchange arguments to change each other’s mind.

And we can’t just label something that goes against conventional wisdom as sexist or whatever-ist, and discussion is over. This is just far too similar to when the communists labeled something as anti-revolutionary and bourgeois and discussion was over (and you went to jail).

All this labelling has to stop. We have to grow up and engage with the merit of an argument.

Sure, I will probably not debate a nazi who denies the Holocaust. I will walk away. But the range of topics that really are out of bounds needs to be drawn very, very scrupulously and narrowly.

These days, it’s the other way round instead. Whenever you bring up ANYTHING in the area of gender, race, religion or politics, even if it is something relatively benign, people get this deeply uncomfortable look on their faces, let you make your statement and you can see how they are hoping to move on at the next best exit that presents itself.

You know who I debated with a while ago? A Russian man who told me that women don’t really want to work and that all women who have a career are deeply unhappy and all they want is a man and a family. He also said that homosexuality is a mental illness.

And you know what I did? I debated with him. I asked him for evidence about the woman thing. I asked him how he explains that the most progressive societies also have the highest level of happiness (e.g. Denmark). I asked him to define mental illness. I provided evidence of how gay people, if allowed to live openly, have at least as good a quality of life and relationships as do straight people. It got heated and he didn’t agree with me. There came a moment when we shouted at each other. But then we shook hands and that was it.

And you know what? We are still in conversation. And his stance has mellowed a bit. He lives in Europe now and has come around to the idea that gay people might not be the spawn of Satan.

This is what you do with people who hold an opinion you don’t share. You engage them on the merit of the argument. You force them to show what they’ve got. You don’t just end the conversation.

You can’t just fire people for opposing your viewpoint, if they offer this viewpoint in a calm, reasoned, civilised manner!

Remember that old quote of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? (misattributed to Voltaire, it was made by Evelyn Beatrice Hall). Whatever happened to that little nugget? Are we completely past this point of defending contrarian beliefs?

And yes, I am fully aware that freedom of speech only applies versus the state and its purpose is to protect you from imprisonment for something you say (unless it’s libelous or directly incites violence). Google as a private entity can fire people as they please. I’m not claiming anything illegal has gone down here.

I claim that Google has betrayed its roots of intellectual rigor and academic merit by firing someone who voices an uncomfortable, dissenting opinion. The whole idea of scientific and intellectual progress is based on the question “WHAT IF a conventional wisdom is NOT true?”. This applies to the first cave(wo)man who came up with a wheel, to Galileo, to Sergey Brin and Larry Page who thought that the then-dominant idea of just counting words on a webpage is a bad measure for relevance.

Google has joined the Zombie club of bullshit spewers about micro-aggressions, trigger warnings and all the other idiotic peraphernalia that a coddled group of leftist fanatics have unleashed on the world and on what used to be a fantastic workplace.

This is a seminal moment in Google’s history — will it collect its thoughts and after a few weeks of deliberation, admit they have made a mistake and publicly apologise to James Damore? Or will they follow the path of intellectual and moral decay into a world where people have to be scared to say what they think?

Personally, it hurts me on another level, as well: I have always described myself as a leftie! I have always been in favour of gay marriage (well before it was fashionable), I am a fan of Scandinavian social democracy, I am always sticking up for the underdog. But this level of crazy is making me, on several questions, side with conservative killjoys like Ben Shapiro because they are the only ones who speak sense in this context!

We have to stand up to this homogenisation of thought and resist the urge to place the feelings of individuals over the principle that the freedom of speech is and must be almost absolute, with the small exception of slander of specific people and for direct incitement for violence.

James Damore may be wrong. This doesn’t warrant his firing. Period.

Btw James, quit this business of wearing a “Goolag” t-shirt. Even if you are completely in the right in this case, comparing the best workplace in the world to a Stalinist concentration camp is just stupid, only radicalises both sides of the argument and is a real insult to Gulag victims.