When Google fired James Damore, they were acting like that macho guy who thinks he has been insulted and chooses to pick a fight. (“What did you just say? Ideological echo chamber?”) They chose confrontation where none was required.
Instead of firing Damore, Google could have said something along the lines of “we are happy that Damore supports our goal of increased diversity, and we will consider his proposals”. Or, to be a litte less positive and avoid the risk of being identified with the memo as a whole, they could have prefaced that statement with “While we disagree with Damore’s analysis..” Instead they chose to fire him, claiming that he had advanced “harmful gender stereotypes”.
So Google could have chosen to defuse the conflict, but chose instead to escalate it. And that is my main point: We have choices about how to interpret other people’s communications and how to respond. We can choose to emphasize the parts of it that we disagree with or the ones we agree with. We can also choose to some extent what we read between the lines, since implicit messages are characteristically ambiguous. We can choose whether to consider the other person innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent.
In Damore’s case, it looks more guilty by definition. By contrast, the rational approach is to consider the consequences of the choices before acting. And in my opinion, it would have been wise of Google to choose a less confrontational approach.
Some claim that Google had to fire Damore, arguing that respectful disagreement is ok, but that this was not the case here: “The problem here was that this was disrespectful disagreement — and there’s really no respectful way to say, ‘I think you and people like you aren’t as qualified to do your job as people like me.”
But Damore never said that women were less qualified. It’s a straw man that has been repeatedly debunked. And yet the media have embraced it to the extent that one commentator, Conor Friedersdorf, said: “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.”
James Damore did not claim that women were less qualified for technical jobs. Nor was his memo “anti-diversity”. It was explicitly pro-diversity. So logically speaking, Damore’s more aggressive detractors don’t have a leg to stand on. Perhaps the clearest explanation of this is Patrick Lee Miller’s critique of an economist article pretending to know how Larry Page might have responded.
And yet, given what I mentioned earlier — the fact that we have choice about how to interpret messages, and how to respond — let us at least consider the possibility that the attacks on are Damore something else than stupidity or viciousness. Is there anything at all in the accusations of sexism?
Is Damore’s message ambiguous?
All of the specific differences between men and women that Damore discusses in the memo are about personality and preference. However, he does mention “ability” once, in a general sense:
I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.
As it stands, this sentence implies that both preferences and abilities may explain the difference in representation. The rest of the memo does not support that interpretation, though. Still, if you’re suspicious enough, you may want to believe that this betrays what he really means, and that he’s just hiding it in the rest of the memo.
I find that interpretation unreasonable, but for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that this really constitutes ambiguity and that we are justified in wondering what Damore really meant. Then there is simple way to resolve that ambiguity: Ask him what he really means. Google, of course, had ample opportunity to do so. Why didn’t they? Again, this is a choice.
Is simple, straightforward communication really that difficult? Perhaps, because of the forces at play.
Why does this happen?
Damore has said that both men and women inside Google have agreed with him.
CY: What would you say was the gender ratio of the people who read it and gave feedback? And were there any noticeable differences of opinion between the men and the women?
JD: I don’t know about the actual ratio, but there were positive and negative responses from both men and women. In my experience, it largely depended on how much the reader was in the “progressive echo chamber” that I described in the document.
CY: So, among the women who work at Google, there are many who don’t agree with the standard progressive view of women in tech—i.e. that all disparities are due to sexism?
JD: Correct, and many of them are tired of being made to feel like victims by that narrative.
So clearly, this is a matter of ideology, but which ideological attitudes specifically? There is of course a strong belief in the “blank slate”, the idea that there are no biological gender differences. And apparently a general mistrust in the motives of men in general, and men in tech in particular. But more fundamentally, it’s a general confrontational attitude toward social problems, with the most aggressive ideologues obsessed with ideas of oppression and victimhood.
In this ideological universe, any problem between people tends to be seen as a case of a person or group doing something to another person or group. It’s a one way street, and there is always someone who is guilty and another who is innocent. This means that the conventional idea of conflict, in which there are typically two or more parties both contributing to the problem, is foreign to the system of thought. And when the concept of conflict is not on the radar, conflict resolution as it’s usually understood is out of the question. The only remaining course of action is to fight. In practice, escalating the conflict becomes the only natural course of action; the option of defusing it never appears on the agenda.
I too happen to be a fan of diversity. My reasons for this are somewhat selfish. I find a social environment with people of different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations and ages much more enjoyable than an exclusively white male group of mostly similar individuals. From that standpoint, my main concern in this context is that the focus on how difficult it is to be a woman in tech will scare women away from technical educations and professions. The focus on discrimination runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy — at least unless there is a clear awareness of this pitfall. And Google risks being seen as an arena for gender war. That’s not likely to be helpful for recruiting more women.