A Lack of Emotional Intelligence is Fueling Misogyny and Racism at Google — and Across Silicon Valley
James Damore is back in the news — here’s why it still matters
Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dismissed a complaint by James Damore, the former Google employee whose infamous 10-page manifesto espousing racist and misogynous views got him fired from the company. In case you’ve forgotten, Damore’s August 2017 manifesto suggested the lack of women in Silicon Valley tech firms was due in part to biological and evolutionary differences. The memo also claimed the company should “de-moralize diversity,” and that right-wing viewpoints were stifled by the company’s “authoritarian” culture. The memo’s promotion of scientifically debunked views around gender, race, and ability rightly outraged many commentators, myself included. The NLRB ruled that Damore’s firing was legal, but a close read of the memo and the public conversation since its release suggests the problem for Google, and for Silicon Valley, is broader than any one boorish engineer.
The Damore manifesto’s argument was a wholesale rejection of “emotional intelligence”: recognizing, reflecting on and understanding one’s own emotions and those of others, and incorporating those emotional insights into everyday life. Emotional intelligence can be learned and heightened, but Damore’s memo rejects it outright — and that’s a problem that‘s widespread in Silicon Valley today
I study emotions in the history of computing and today’s digital media. The Human emotions have always been destabilizing and challenging subjects of study and reflection for scientists and engineers, going all the way back to the nineteenth century, so the Damore memo’s attitude of alienation, fear, and distrust towards emotions and emotional intelligence isn’t surprising. Computer science has been no exception to this trend: MIT’s Rosalind Picard wrote in her 1997 book Affective Computing that “For most of my life my thinking [was]: ‘Emotions are fine for art, entertainment, and certain social interactions, but keep them out of science and computing.” As a common trope in engineering culture, these sentiments endure: Damore’s manifesto claims Google should “de-emphasize empathy” and that software engineers should try to be “emotionally unengaged.”
This lack of emotional intelligence from many in Silicon Valley is both self-defeating and profoundly toxic. While Google isn’t the only or worst offender, company cultures that fail to support and nurture emotional intelligence in their development communities are rife: just look at the misogyny at ridesharing company Uber. One of the manifesto’s most frustrating and confounding claims is that Google should “focus on psychological safety, not just race/gender diversity,” based on the shame Damore claimed he was made to feel for holding unpopular opinions. Yet shame is, of course, a powerful emotion, and Damore continues to seem oblivious to the degree his demand for psychological safety is driven by his own unexamined feelings.
Damore also let his own emotive reactions blind him to serious scholarship: there’s of course mountains of empirical research verifying wage disparities of as much as twenty-eight percent between men and women in the tech sector, alongside detailed histories of scientific racism and misogyny in computing (the ways that scientific data is misconstrued to support bigoted conclusions). That the psychological safety of women and minorities in Silicon Valley didn’t seem to register to the Damore — and still doesn’t for many others — is further evidence for the ongoing problems the memo dismissed.
The Damore manifesto’s argument was a wholesale rejection of “emotional intelligence”: recognizing, reflecting on and understanding one’s own emotions and those of others, and incorporating those emotional insights into everyday life.
Damore uses the language of behavioral science and evolutionary evolutionary psychology in his memo as cover for his emotive, evidence-free argument. The use of these scientific discourses for pseudo-scientific ends also isn’t surprising, or new. Computer science, especially in the way it understands human-computer interaction, is historically indebted to psychological traditions that understand human beings as little more than squishy machines. At the same time, Silicon Valley companies are amassing enormous amounts of data about our behavior, including our emotional states, that is being used to make judgments about everything from advertising to app design. With one billion active monthly users via Gmail alone, Google and other Silicon Valley companies have enormous power to shape and manipulate our lives. But the complexities of how psychological theories and techniques are applied in the context of social media make them opaque, messy, partial, unproven, fallible, and potentially destructive — as Russia’s ongoing social media disinformation campaigns make all too clear.
Damore’s denigration of emotional reflection as both unfit for computer science and as politically “left wing” further suggests a connection between his memo and President Trump’s bigoted, white nationalist agenda. It’s unsurprising that since his firing, Damore — like another newly prominent intellectual darling of the right wing, psychologist Jordan Peterson — has become a hero to white nationalists. The popularity of Damore and Peterson is fueled by what Emory University’s Carol Anderson terms “white rage,” a panicked backlash from sexism and racism’s structural beneficiaries. Both Damore and Peterson’s confidence in their bad science, and the assumed expertise afforded them as a white male experts, mean their alarming political statements end up masquerading as scientific fact to some — while real experts on racism and misogeny in Silicon Valley who are women and/or people of color are slighted and denigrated without merit.
The Google manifesto and the support it garnered within the company were deeply alarming, but not surprising in light of Silicon Valley’s broader toxic emotional culture. Turning a blind eye to misogyny and racism in the “scientific” guise of bad psychology will sink Silicon Valley even lower into the worst abuses of scientific racism and sexism. Yet as some Google engineers have pointed out, engineering is an inherently collaborative, social enterprise. Computer scientists and the institutions that train and hire them therefore need to take emotional intelligence seriously. How? By including ethics, humanities and social science courses as core components of STEM education, actively building cultures of emotional reflection, and — it should go without saying — having zero tolerance policies for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and all related forms of bigotry. These measures are both simple common sense, and long overdue: without greater emotional intelligence in the tech sector, we’re all put at risk by the intolerance at the heart of digital media.
Luke Stark is a researcher at Dartmouth College and Harvard University. He studies emotions, privacy, and ethics in digital media.