FIGHTING WORDS

The real problem with that Google employee’s viral anti-diversity memo is bigger than Silicon Valley

A Google employee created an uproar this weekend when his manifesto about criticizing the company’s diversity initiatives went viral among employees. The senior software engineer claimed the diversity programs discriminated against employees like himself by creating an “ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be discussed honestly.”

Google staff—and lots of other people—are peeved, and it’s not hard to see why. The author of the document (a full version of which was posted by Gizmodo) argued that the gender gap in software engineering in part boiled down to biological differences between men and women. The ideas aren’t particularly well-reasoned. For instance, he wrote, “Discriminating just to increase the representation of women in tech is as misguided and biased as mandating increases for women’s representation in the homeless, work-related and violent deaths, prisons, and school dropouts.” Ultimately, he contends that efforts to boost racial and gender diversity were “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

While his comments were apparently roundly rejected by most employees and Google’s own diversity officer, some employees reportedly came to his defense. Vice’s Motherboard reported that other Google employees anonymously praised the employee’s views on an app called Blind, where tech employees can discuss workplace problems. “This is actually terrifying: if someone is not ideologically aligned with the majority then he’s labeled as a ‘poor cultural fit’ and would not be hired/promoted,” wrote one commenter. Another said: “The fella who posted that is extremely brave. We need more people standing up against the insanity. Otherwise ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ which is essentially a pipeline from Women’s and African Studies into Google, will ruin the company.”

The internal culture clash is troubling for a company that is under investigation by the US government for underpaying women employees, and for Silicon Valley’s reputation in the wake of its sexual harassment troubles.

But it also reflects a disquieting trend across the country: Discussion about diversity and free speech is increasingly defined by people on the ideological extremes. On one side, we have the militantly politically correct left—for instance, the students who shut down Charles Murray’s speech at Middlebury College.

“The liberal ideal sees free speech as a positive-sum good, enabling an open marketplace of ideas where, in the long run, reason can prevail,” as Jonathan Chait recently put it, but “left-wing critics of liberalism instead see the free-speech rights of the oppressed and the oppressors set in zero-sum conflict, so that the expansion of one inevitably comes at the cost of the other.”

And on the other is the anti-PC backlash liberals have provoked, of which the rambling, confused tirade of the Google employee is the latest example. And he’s not alone. As the election of Donald Trump has made clear, many Americans feel enslaved by political correctness. The extreme left has claimed a moral monopoly and attempted to shame dissenting views out of existence.

That approach makes dissenters unlikely to consider the value of diversity and opportunity if they don’t feel “psychologically safe,” as the Google author says repeatedly, in mainstream conversations. Shaming forces these perspectives onto sub-channels of the Blind app and websites like Breitbart, where these ideas tend to go unchallenged.

Neutralizing this dangerous ideological split is all the more urgent given the fact that Trump seems as enthusiastic about capitalizing on “identity politics” as the extreme-left zealots he rails against.

The president’s populism—which during the campaign seemed centered on economic injustice—is proving to be more about fomenting cultural clashes. Recent developments bear this out: his “assimilation”-driven immigration initiatives, the bizarre trans military ban, and talk of a government investigation into Harvard University’s discrimination against Asian-American applicants.

Silicon Valley won’t solve its diversity problems until it both acknowledges its failures and engages in a broader dialogue about why those failures matter. Similarly, the US will only create opportunity in the face of difference when its public stops letting ideologues on both sides dominate the conversation.

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