Sorry, but your bad ideas don’t count as diversity

Tess Russell

Around this time last year, Facebook came under fire for refusing to cut ties with billionaire vampire and Trump surrogate Peter Thiel, an early investor in the company and current member of its board. On the heels of the now-infamous “grab them by the pussy” tape, Thiel had boosted the candidate’s campaign with a $1.25 million donation, and Mark Zuckerberg responded to concerned Facebook employees with an impassioned plea to respect “all kinds” of diversity:

“I personally believe that if you want to have a company that is committed to diversity, you need to be committed to all kinds of diversity, including ideological diversity,” he wrote in an internal memo. “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia, or accepting sexual assault.” (Zuckerberg is so committed to diversity that his company recently announced it had increased the share of black employees in its US workforce to a whopping 3 percent.)

Whether it’s rushing to defend one of its own or asserting that free speech includes a white supremacist’s right to circulate graphic Holocaust imagery — though, curiously, not the rights of black users to repost racist messages sent to them — the tech establishment has long relied on this notion of ideological diversity to give cover to pussy-grabbing misogynists, eugenics nostalgists, would-be fascists, and other hateful trolls.

“We’re the free speech wing of the free speech party,” Twitter executives proudly proclaimed in 2012, paving the way for eggs who interrupt your conversations with rants about the Deep State and a president who uses Twitter as a personal burn book. For his part, Thiel loves ideological diversity because it lets him cull the worst ideas from both authoritarianism and libertarianism, personally bankrolling attacks on the fourth estate while reveling in his own right to express such *diverse* opinions as “women’s suffrage killed democracy.”

Those who champion ideological diversity insist that every idea is virtuous in and of itself: there’s no requirement that one’s positions be valuable or even coherent, and no sign of the rigorous quantitative and qualitative standards that tech employees are held to in their day-to-day work. Everyone has an inviolable right to stir the pot, and the office is more like a symposium or a high-school debate tournament than a place where people might simply be trying to do their jobs without facing harassment or discrimination.

It was precisely in this tradition that ex-Googler James Damore penned his clumsy document and posted it on the company’s intranet last week, asserting — among milder but equally stupid claims about gender — that biological differences between men and women make his female coworkers less suited to their roles as engineers.

Echoing Zuck (and clearly more interested in concern trolling than addressing his chosen topic in a meaningful way), Damore suggested that not representation but “viewpoint diversity” is “arguably the most important type of diversity and political orientation is one of the most fundamental and significant ways in which people view things differently.” A deluge of inane takes followed, which warned that Google firing him would amount to a smoking gun, definitive proof of a bias; never mind that parting ways with an at-will employee who brings PR strife to your company isn’t a political stance at all but a standard measure of damage control.

Exhausted yet? I am, because like other women and underrepresented minorities in tech, I’ve heard this garbage a few times before. In fact, I’ve been forced to entertain offensive, intellectually moribund opinions under the guise of viewpoint diversity since my first internship in this industry more than a decade ago, wasting hours of my time engaging with men whose grasp of economics is so elementary that they think an employment market could only be rational — men who warn that merely striving to hire more women will lower The Bar, a sacred and (you guessed it) entirely mythical paragon of excellence.

Despite their constant calls for “reason” and “logic,” these are highly unscrupulous people, and it’s easy to point out the inconsistencies in their arguments, to fact-check their bogus statistics, to school them on culture and history and sociology. Still, they spin, move the goalposts, set up straw men about free speech, and eventually retreat back into their bad-idea bunkers with the other mouth breathers, whining loudly about being silenced without even the slightest hint of irony.

If your response to someone so unworthy of attention is that we should “counter his bad ideas with better ideas,” congratulations: you’ve correctly intuited that there are better ideas out there. Please go find and read about them on your own time. Diversity and inclusion isn’t some vague, uncharted territory, but a robust field of research. Lots of smart people make real contributions to it, and unlike Damore, they didn’t lie about receiving their Phds. Women and people of color are also a useful resource to consult, as being informed about these areas is a survival tactic and not a hobby for us.

But back to that lowered bar, let’s talk about Damore for a minute. We have receipts on him, and they paint a picture of an insecure, socially isolated man that is depressingly typical of dissenters on these issues. After being ostracized from Harvard for putting on a sexist skit, he packed up his victim complex and headed to the one place where trolls like him are always welcomed with open arms: Silicon Valley.

Uninitiated in the most basic standards of workplace decorum — the minimums of judgment that allow plenty of other mediocre men to fail upward at Google — he spun his screed of fictions and hackneyed stereotypes, presumably plucked from flagged Wikipedia articles (but who would know, since there’s not a single citation in ten pages). Far from a brilliant jerk, he’s a rube who never got the memo that it is social graces, not restrictions on speech, that stop most people from broadcasting their ignorance.

These guys want to have their Soylent cake and eat it too. They believe they’re a persecuted minority, yet can’t help calling attention to what they claim are vocal communities of supporters. They insist on the right to spread misinformation but think it’s unfair when we want to tie their drivel to their names. They patronizingly suggest women are better with people and then openly disparage the feminine-coded trait of empathy in the same breath, diagnosing tech’s real problem as too much “moralizing.”

To accuse Google, the greatest ode to free-market capitalism in this millennium, of being overly moral is pretty rich, and proves once and for all who exactly is guilty of groupthink in these culture wars. Physically, Google sits on a three-million-square-foot property with seven yoga studios on site, but metaphorically, it rests on a gold mountain, thanks to its early colonization of your browser’s search bar. Its dubious standards of employee conduct are right there in the semantic cuteness of its corporate motto, “Don’t be evil” (imagine how many evil people are in your midst if you think this needs to be stated explicitly) as well as in the company’s history of sending abusers off to other tech companies with well wishes.

Perhaps Damore is referring to Google’s blandly pluralistic branding, to the diverse personalities profiled in the website’s daily doodles and the rainbow logos slapped up during Pride Week. These efforts are, of course, both superficial and standard in an era when same-sex marriage has broad support among Americans of all faiths and persuasions. The equation of this baseline level of tolerance with a left political stance should be offensive to many people who define themselves as conservatives.

Still, it’s not a mystery where Damore gets his belief that bigotry is work-appropriate. The tech industry’s reliance on venture capital is its original sin: even our best work is due to the patronage of some pretty depraved guys, whom we collectively praise for having enough money to say “fuck you” whenever they want. That companies will part ways with top executives and benefactors only at the exact moment when their behavior results in a net financial or reputational loss — check out the extensiveness of Thiel’s portfolio if you’re wondering why he’s so bulletproof — further underscores the fact that Damore was fired not because he crossed some moral line in the sand (would that such a line existed!) but because he’s a single engineering “resource” who outlived his usefulness.

If I sound cynical, it’s because I’ve seen firsthand how this system rewards cutting corners, especially ethical ones, to “get to the future faster” without any regard for whether decent people will actually want to live in that future. Our world is increasingly divided, and while tech may not have created these gaps, we intentionally widen them to fill our own coffers. When I think of my own part in building tools that roll back decades of progress in labor policy, and allow human beings to scream at each other anonymously without any accountability or any burden of facts, I am ashamed.

And yet, perhaps against my better judgment, I haven’t fully given up on tech. Among the rank-and-file employees at many of these companies are a lot of talented and compassionate people struggling to maintain a sense of themselves amid attacks on their very right to be there; I’m inspired by their strength and grace every day. Fueled by the ingenuity of good, creative techies, it might still be possible to turn things around, but only if we stop fixating on long-refuted arguments and start focusing on the real problems ahead of us, problems that are existential to both our industry and our world.

Just because someone has a right to say something hurtful, doesn’t mean they should, or that we have an obligation to make it easy for them. Insisting that I or anyone else debate whether women are equal — post Gamergate, post Trump, post Uber’s instructive example of what happens when you extrapolate the “two sides to every story” logic to its most extreme extension and illegally obtain the medical report of a rape victim — is how we let the most toxic people in our ranks corrode our culture and conversation, how we end up ceding our countries and our companies to leaders who are most closely aligned with the guy at the front of the train in Snowpiercer.

It’s perfectly okay to say that some beliefs are shameful and wrong, and should not be tolerated. Anyone who would insist that such judgments be backed up by logic is, obviously, just terrified that reframing these discussions on moral grounds will reveal how morally bankrupt they really are. Please join me in exposing them, because we need to find a better hill to die on than defending this bad apple and his rotten ideas.

Otherwise, you may find yourself standing with a bunch of people whose only common principles are a shared ignorance of science, history, and culture; an unwillingness to learn and listen; and a seemingly endless supply of faulty analogies and 4chan memes.

Tess Russell

Written by

writer, dog mom, tech person previously @vine @jukely @uber

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