Dear White Guy With Dissenting Views About Racism and Sexism

Richard D. Bartlett
Aug 8, 2017 · 4 min read

A Google engineer recently wrote an internal memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”, criticising the company’s approach to diversity and inclusion. Gizmodo leaked the memo in full, calling it a 10-Page Anti-Diversity Screed. As you can imagine, this has triggered a lot of outrage on social media. Even if his argument was solid, which it’s not, it’s still pretty hard to listen to a White guy criticise efforts to combat racism and sexism.

The reactions I’ve seen to the story have fallen into two categories: A) “this guy is bad/stupid/needs to shut up” and B) “this guy has some fair points”. The folks in category B last a few minutes before someone from Team A turns up to shut them down.

The rebuttal I’ve seen get the most traffic is this piece by ex-Googler Yonatan Zunger. While there is a lot to agree with in that article, it doesn’t address the claim that Google’s ideological echo chamber silences dissent.

I’m a White guy, and I recently wrote an article criticising “ideological echo chambers” in activist spaces. The article has seen a fair amount of traffic, but it didn’t trigger public outrage. So today I’ve been thinking about constructive dissent. The result is this open letter to the unnamed author of the Google memo:

Dear White Guy With Dissenting Views About Racism and Sexism

Hey dude. I read your “ideological echo chamber” memo today. I get the impression that you had good intentions: you were trying to be a constructive voice of dissent. Judging from the reactions you’ve gotten though, I’d say you fucked it up.

I care a lot about dissent. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family, on a farm in small town White New Zealand. Almost everyone in my life had the same rigid set of beliefs. In my early 20s I dissent-ed my way out of there. So I know about ideological echo chambers.

Y’know the first thing that struck me about your memo? It sounds like you’re hurting. You talk about being shamed, silenced and misrepresented. I’ve been in that place before and I can tell you it feels absolutely rotten.

I imagine you’re not getting a lot of empathy. You can probably appreciate that most folks prefer to save their empathy for people on the receiving end of structural oppression, rather than for people who feel censored by affirmative action. It sucks that I had to hold my tongue during an activist meeting, but it sucks a lot more that my queer friend was attacked in the street before they could make it.

Like you, I’m concerned that progressive ideology can silence dissent, because I believe that well-intentioned censorship is being exploited by the far right. I’m sure there are antifeminists already in touch with you celebrating your ‘brave act of dissent’ and inviting you to their ‘men’s rights’ organisations.

I agree with your sense that ideological echo chambers can be toxic, so I think it is super important that we learn how to dissent constructively. Here are a few things that have helped me to express challenging ideas in a way that they can be heard:

  1. Examine myself. I’m a White man living in a patriarchal White-supremacist society. It’s profoundly uncomfortable to admit that my status was not just earned by my merits, but also stolen and inherited due to the luck of my birth. My self-defence mechanisms keep trying to draw my attention outwards to other people’s behaviour, so it takes a lot of effort to draw my attention back to my own complicity in those oppressive systems.
  2. Criticise from inside. I had to demonstrate a history of anti-oppressive work before people were willing to hear my ideas for how we can do it better.
  3. Own my subjectivity. Speak from my experience. When I’m discussing a conflict-ridden topic, it’s a lot safer to start my sentences with “I”.
  4. Ask questions. No one wants to argue with someone who thinks they have all the answers. For instance: if I think censorship is holding feminism back, I’ll ask feminists if they agree, and how I might help.
  5. Go public after going private. If I’m writing about gender, I’ll always ask for editorial oversight from a few people who are not men. They trust my good intentions, and can help me think of different ways to express myself in a way that is less likely to cause harm.

A lot of times I stop after Step 1.

As a recovering fundamentalist, I’m permanently fascinated by taboos. My way of understanding a group is to figure out what I can’t say here. When confronted with a challenging idea, often my first instinct is to dissent. Maybe you’re the same. I earnestly believe in dissent as a tool to sharpen our thinking.

But I gotta say dude, I think you’re doing it wrong.

Yours,
Another White Guy With Dissenting Views About Racism and Sexism.

p.s. This work is licensed in the public domain. If you want to reproduce it, let me know and I can give you different file formats (html, pdf, md, epub, docx).

p.p.s. If you want to encourage me to keep writing: please recommend this story, and if you’re able, throw some coins in my hat on Patreon.

 by the author.

Richard D. Bartlett

Written by

I write about working together (http://richdecibels.com). Loomio cofounder (http://loomio.org). Enspiral member (http://enspiral.com).

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