If you want to debate the Googler’s Manifesto and you’re also a good person

[this is written for people who are dismayed that Google fired the author of the recent diversity manifesto]

I get it. When I read the following words it felt like I was reading someone who sees things like I do:

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. […] If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.

This sounds sincere and, what’s more, it reminds me of what other guys have told me for years: That they have a slightly different perspective on a current political trend but are afraid that if they attempt to share it they’ll be shamed back into silence and possibly fired.

The fear is real. Shame, condescension, and mocking are your inheritance when you show up unpopularly in issues of social justice. So instead of talking to the people at work whose hearts are in the right place but don’t know about, say, Berkson’s Paradox (a statistical explanation for why minorities may not appear to be the highest performers at work) you just keep your head down. And then somebody writes a piece like the one linked above and it’s like you can breathe again. We’re finally talking about it!

Thoughtcrime versus scaring people at work

Here’s the problem: If you have a controversial opinion and you express it alone in your home or to trusted friends that’s obviously fine. If you express it in public but in a way where it causes no harm that is fine. But if you have a controversial opinion that, by its very nature, sparks a conversation that causes people harm, then it causes harm to express it.

That last sentence is a deliberate tautology. It’s up to our communities to decide what to do about the damage, but some discussions are harmful, and those who push for them bear responsibility (regardless of if the majority opinion where it’s taking place supports or opposes the main points).

“That’s absurd,” you say. “How can a rational discussion cause harm?” Again, I get it. That does sound absurd on its face. And it is absurd as long as you’re seeing it from the position of someone with power. If you lack power, then it becomes clear how mere conversations cause harm.

Imagine your name is Mike. You’re nine. Two bullies several years older have you on your belly in an alley and one holds a knife. They begin to calmly, rationally have a discussion about whether people named ‘Mike’ are too populous and whether the world even needs you. They, precociously, pull out bar charts of name distributions over time to show that your name is well outside the standard deviation of use. They discuss the Hebrew and Aramaic origins of your name and wonder if you, a WASP kid, really even came by it honestly. The knife twirls.

Maybe these two bullies have a low heart rate and low levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). They are relaxed. It’s a totally rational discussion! We’re just talking about facts! Why are you panicking, Mike?!

That’s effectively what we’re doing when we debate, say, whether women are less inclined to computer engineering. There are two separate things happening.

The man at Google was fired not because of the discussion but because of the knife-twirling. Twirling that he wasn’t even aware he was doing. I sympathize with those who are baffled and hurt by the firing — I really do. Because not being able to discuss what we think and why we think it is a giant problem. We absolutely need to have good science on what’s really at work here. But carefully. And not at all like this.

How is a discussion hurtful?

Just right out of the gate stereotype threat means having the discussion in public is going to make it harder for any minorities mentioned to summon the energy to do their job. Would you fire somebody if they went from desk to desk distracting hundreds of employees for personal reasons?

Then the document conjoins discussion of race, gender, political leaning, service oriented architecture, the role of data in decisions, and epistemological closure. All of that should be discussed but each discussion is very different and must be handled separately. To mix them is as if the writer had said “Black people might not like to code because of genetics and lunch should be moved back one hour” and now it’s impossible to discuss appropriate meal scheduling. Because even the fact that we’re accepting the invitation to discussion sends a signal to all readers that we might take the rest of the claims seriously.

So, no, we can’t talk about the document at all as it’s written. Furthermore, we can’t have men talk publicly about their opinions on gender like this. Is that super frustrating? Yes. But it’s because women face a very real presence of physical violence when they are visible in digital communities. We men face shame and firing if we say the wrong thing. Women face the same plus rape threats, death threats, and all kinds of sustained harassment. So women can’t speak up safely and therefore they would have to watch their male colleagues discuss how a woman’s brain determines her interests. How impossibly maddening that would be.

Also racism. Yes, racism. Really. Yes, that racism.

And I didn’t realize that the Googler’s manifesto had racial implications until it was pointed out to me. Give me a second to convince you because I think you’ll see what I see. Here’s the argument laid out at the beginning:

* The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology.
* Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression
* Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression
* Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

[emphases mine]

Do you see what happened? This person started to talk about diversity initiatives and how maybe not all disparities in representation are due to oppression. And then focused on gender. But a huge amount of diversity works to bring people who’re members of other minorities into tech.

I’m going to give the author the benefit of the doubt and say that questioning the need for diversity because of gender essentialism and thereby implying there may also be racial essentialism was inartful, not ill-intended. It was still, however, harmful. It was, unknowingly, knife-twirling. The author doesn’t have to think about how careless words might cause harm because nobody holds a knife over him (well, maybe now he thinks about it). But to publicly ask whether the reason that Latinxs and African Americans are underrepresented is due to innate bias — and state that we majority-ethnic-group men would like to publicly discuss our opinions on the data — is a discussion that causes needless harm.

This carelessness makes it impossible to talk frankly about issues of race and gender because folks who feel safe at work don’t realize that what’s an interesting intellectual issue for them is sometimes quite literally life and death for women, people of color and other minorities.

(While we’re at it, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about the Google hiring bar: Google doesn’t discriminate when making job offers. They discriminate in getting traditionally-underrepresented people to apply and into the start of the hiring funnel. It’s a way to fix systemic biases in who normally would consider applying to Google. This is an important distinction.)

But what if I really want to talk about it?

How we discuss this is important and can’t be decided unilaterally by a person who doesn’t understand the stakes. Broaching the topics of essential racial and gender preferences is going to cause a bunch of people to be so on their guard that they cannot do their jobs.

If I’m a cisgender straight white male who works at Google doing software engineering, the discussion I want to have is not possible as I imagine it. What I think is an abstract, rational discussion is so incredibly emotionally charged for others. When people seem to overreact I’ll say “They’re not thinking clearly”. I’ll link to a study showing that men’s brains are larger than women’s. The knife twirls.

How we can have this conversation

You have insight into how we should be doing diversity. Your unique background gives you that. Everybody has something to contribute. If we want to share our opinions we must first understand that we’re a person standing on a shore attempting to converse with someone drowning. The fact that women and people of color in tech have held down their jobs and educated us about diversity and endured social biases against them all at the same time is amazing. When we initiate discussions on diversity it’s like we’re trying to convince the drowning person that it’s best to wait for the low tide and they’re there, gulping water, carefully rebutting our proposal, hoping for a rope. It’s nothing less than supernatural what some of our bravest and most vulnerable colleagues have endured.

So can we talk about this stuff? Yes. But we have to talk to the people who’re involved, not just talk about them. The conversation has to start in person and only with people who already know they can trust you. Any of us who want to discuss the capabilities or preferences of minorities must first see the biases at work in our industry and then show that we see what people put up with. That’ll build trust. Then we’ll have a real discussion. It’ll be so good.

How we can never have this conversation

Publicly, with only majority-culture men participating. We’ll learn nothing and we’ll cause so much damage that we’ll never hear about because people won’t trust us enough to speak up about their pain. They’ll just leave.

Which is precisely why we have trouble retaining women and other minorities in this field. Not because they can’t do the work, they just don’t want to do it while putting up with the environment we’ve created.