Professionalism/The Firing of James Damore
In August 2017, Google fired James Damore, a software engineer, for circulating a memo critical of Google’s diversity policies. This firing resulted in an internet firestorm of controversy, with many arguing that the firing was necessary to preserve the peace in Google’s work environment, while others claimed that it was symptomatic of the slow decay of free speech.
According to his Linkedin, Mr. Damore received his education at the University of Illinois and at Harvard, graduating with a Bachelors of Science in Molecular Biology, Physics, and Chemistry from the first, and with a Masters of Science in Systems Biology from the second.
In July 2017, James Damore initiated circulation of his memo internally at Google.
All was quiet on the outside until a version of the memo without its graphs or sources was made public on August 5, 2017 on website Gizmodo. This caused an uproar among the public and among google employees.
Examples of this fury is evidenced in the hit pieces written about Mr. Damore. In an article originally titled "A Google engineer said women may be genetically unsuited for tech jobs," Washington Post contributor Cleve Wootson claimed that Damore and any of those within Google from whom Damore received support are symptomatic of "what women and minorities inside Google are afraid of: that attitudes that view inclusion with derision are more prevalent than thought."
Similar headlines and similar positions dominated early coverage of the memo. From Josh Siegel of the Washington Examiner saying that Mr. Damore "asserted women not biologically suited for leadership roles" to Owen Jones of the Guardian calling the memo a "diatribe against women in tech," What these articles have in common is a central theme: James Damore is a sexist member of the alt-right, and his memo is a sexist, racist, anti diversity screed designed to denigrate and belittle women and minorities.
Not all coverage was negative, however. For example, writer Connor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic wrote an article that sought to challenge the predominant narrative, writing that "the many characterizations of the memo as “anti-diversity” are inaccurate."
Damore summarized his argument in a segment of the memo titled “TL;DR:”
• Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety. • This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed. • 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.
Essentially, what Mr. Damore is arguing is that diversifying efforts are misguided because differences in trait distribution may in part be responsible for gender disparities in tech. Take note: he is especially careful to mention that generalities regarding populations say nothing about individual merits.
He goes on to critique the overall climate at Google, claiming that Google's culture and policies are informed by erroneous ideas that are considered to be, morally, above criticism. He points out that "nearly every difference between men and women is interpreted as a form of women’s oppression," that "political correctness... constrains discourse and is complacent to the extremely sensitive PC-authoritarians that use violence and shaming to advance their cause," and that this is endemic to Google's culture in the form of "frequent shaming," creating a "silent, psychologically unsafe environment."
Expert takes vary greatly on the memo, with some saying that Mr. Damore got the science right to others claiming that he got it dead wrong.
In response to the memo, Dr. Suzanne Sadedin wrote an extensive rebuttal on a Quora post, analyzing the memo line for line. She starts by acknowledging that sex differences being purely socially constructed is implausible, but then characterizes the rest of Damore's argument as "despicable trash," saying that "the article perniciously misrepresents the nature and significance of known sex differences to advance what appears to be a covert alt-right agenda."
Dr. Rosalind C. Barnett stated in an article posted to recode that "we can say flatly that there is no evidence that women’s biology makes them incapable of performing at the highest levels in any STEM fields," pointing out that "several major books have debunked the idea of important brain differences between the sexes. Lise Eliot, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, did an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from birth to adolescence. She concluded, in her book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” that there is “surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.""
Dr. Gina Rippon, chair of cognitive brain imaging at Aston University, had this to say to BBC reporters: "The key thing for me is that he's got quite a lot of the science wrong."
In the aftermath of Mr. Damore's firing, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, hosted an interview of Mr. Damore on his youtube channel. Towards the end of this interview, he complemented Mr. Damore, saying that:
“It’s a pretty straight forward document as far as I am concerned and I have gone through it with a fairly fine toothed comb... I would like to state that for the record, that I believe that what you said in there, if not accurate, was at least representative of the current state of art among well trained psychometrically informed psychologists who are experts in the field of individual difference.”
In an article posted on Quillette.com, four psychologists expressed their views on the memo. Dr. Lee Jussim opens the article by stating that Damore "gets nearly all of the science and its implications exactly right." He dedicates the rest of his space to critiquing Gizmodo's portrayal of the memo through its targeted language in it's headline, as well as criticizing those who reacted to the media depiction of the memo, closing with the recomendation that Google executives read John Stuart Mill's On Liberty as well as Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind.
Dr. Geoffrey Miller wrote that Mr. Damore's critics were acting out of ignorance, characterizing them as having no understanding in "sexual selection theory, animal behavior, and sex difference research." He goes on to express his belief that "almost all of the Google memo’s empirical claims are scientifically accurate. Moreover, they are stated quite carefully and dispassionately. Its key claims about sex differences are especially well-supported by large volumes of research across species, cultures, and history."
In the same article, Dr. Debra W. Soh writes that she "found it to be a well thought out document, asking for greater tolerance for differences in opinion, and treating people as individuals instead of based on group membership," going on to state that "sex differences between women and men—when it comes to brain structure and function and associated differences in personality and occupational preferences—are understood to be true, because the evidence for them (thousands of studies) is strong."
There was another contributor to the aforementioned Quillette article whose perspective on the memo can neither be characterized as supportive nor negative. Dr. David P Schmitt, one of the scientists cited by Damore's memo, stated that while "evidence that men and women may have different average levels of certain traits is rather strong," he was doubtful of the prospect that "such sex differences are relevant to the Google workplace." In essence, while he considers Damore's analysis of the scientific literature to be sound, he simultaneously concludes that Damore drew unsupported and erroneous conclusions from it.
Implications in Professional EthicsEdit
This is a contentious topic, one that has resulted in the expression of numerous perspectives. Ultimately, with regards to a controversy such as this, someone's perspective will be determined by the means in which people interpret the decisions and actions of the actors involved. Such interpretation is informed by one's values. As such, in order to obtain a decent understanding of what these events can tell us regarding professional ethics, we must first undergo an analysis of differing sets of values. As many values are in fact derivative of greater values, it is proper that for the sake of this discussion, differing sets will be identified by their master value from whence the others derive.
For the maximization of Social CooperationEdit
If you care about those around you, whether this society is a nation, a commune, or a company, then you must work to create structures that encourage behaviors that are beneficial to the achievement of Social Justice, whilst simultaneously discouraging behaviors that are detrimental to the achievement of such ends. Since behaviors are the product of values, we must promote values that lead to our desired behaviors.
A value that relates to social cooperation is tolerance. For the purpose of maximizing social cooperation and unity, a society must tolerate the differences between people and people groups. However, tolerance itself is not enough, a toleration of our differences is not sufficient for a harmonious community, we must celebrate our differences, which is the creation of inclusivity. This is because people are less able to contribute to society if they feel as if they are unwelcome. Inclusion is, in essence, the freedom from the feeling of exclusion. Creating inclusive spaces is a necessary prerequisite for diversity, which is beneficial to our ends because it not only enables us to have access to a wider range of perspectives (rather than just the perspectives of one particular race or gender), it also allows us to correct for historical wrongs, allowing us to create a more fair and equal society.
For a society to have social harmony and cooperativeness, it must be united in values and purpose. While a toleration of a diverse array of viewpoints is necessary for the functioning of a society, there are certain viewpoints that when worded into speech, disrupt and disintegrate the social fabric, making it impossible for people to achieve the public good. This is due to the fact that hateful views, when aired, create a hostile environment for those against whom the hate is directed, ultimately preventing them from fully participating in society. As such, in order for us to create a tolerant, inclusive, and diverse society, we must not tolerate intolerant and uninclusive ideas as well as those that are opposed to diversity.
"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them." -Karl Popper
"Hate speech undermines [the] public good, or it makes the task of sustaining it much more difficult than it would otherwise be. It does this not only by intimating discrimination and violence, but by reawakening living nightmares of what this society was like-or what other societies have been like-in the past. In doing so, it creates something like an environmental threat to social peace, a sort of slow-acting poison, accumulating here and there, word by word, so that eventually it becomes harder and less natural for even the good-hearted members of the society to play their part in maintaining [the] public good." -Jeremy Waldron
As such, the firing of James Damore was fully justified. Damore behaved in an inflexible, inconsiderate manner towards the feelings of his coworkers. If his ideas are to be allowed to proliferate, they will create environments in which women and minorities feel unwelcome, preventing them from fully participating in our community to their fullest extent. It is the professional responsibility of authority figures in any social setting, whether in a work environment or elsewhere, to promote inclusivity. As such, those who threaten it must be ousted for the public good.
"We strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace... To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” -Sundar Pichai, Google CEO
For the maximization of Individual AutonomyEdit
We exist as thinking, conscious beings. That is to say, we do not merely possess minds, rather, we are minds. If you were to lop off a man's arms and legs, but preserve his brain intact, you still have the man. It is not until you destroy the man's mind that you have destroyed the man. As such, to use the possessive form to refer to your mind (or your life, for that matter), is erroneous. You are a mind, you are a life. As such, an infringement upon your autonomy, is quite directly, an infringement upon you. And the most fundamental of infringements, is the attempt to determine, for others, the acceptability of certain thoughts over others.
If it is the birthright of a mind to think, so too is it the birthright of a mind to express thought without fear of force. An attempt to restrict the free expression of thoughts is an attempt to subvert reason as the means by which ideas are to be contended with, and to substitute it with force. If we take the self ownership of individual human beings to be a fundamental truth, then we must conclude that it is an individual's foundational right to determine for themselves by what standards they shall live, and for what ends. In order for an individual to be capable of living in such a manner, they must be free from impositions and coercions forced upon them by others, especially if such are imposed for the sake of "public good," "public interest," the "common good," or whatever other word they come up with to describe the meaningless concept alluded to by all of those phrases.
As such, if it is our goal is to live freely upon this earth, then we if we are to live among others, we should build our societies in such a manner so as to enshrine a fundamental value of the right of an individual to express ideas without fear of retaliation. To fail to do so, or to do the opposite, is to attempt to create a society that actively seeks to cloud or contract the minds of its members, imposing boundaries of thought.
This is not only anathema to the maximization of individual autonomy, as this also negatively impacts the whole of the society in which such boundaries are imposed, as the deliberate limiting of thought is a deliberate limitation on social progress, as all human progress is the product of human thoughts. If the best, most true ideas are to be discovered, then all ideas must be permitted to compete in the marketplace of ideas. When the sunlight of reason is shone upon all of the ideas expressed, it will kill the rotten, mouldy ideas that don't stand up to scrutiny. You cannot destroy ideas through threats and retaliation, as that only makes martyrs and drives those who hold to bad ideas into the dark, allowing their rot to fester and grow.
"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." -Evelyn Beatrice Hall
As such, if it is our intent for us to preserve our own liberties, then we must preserve the liberty of others, even those whose ideas we may find reprehensible. This is the essence of tolerance, and it is this, that enables us to uphold a third value necessary for the creation of a free society, one that can be called fairness, justice, or meritocracy. Fairness, in the context of the maximization of individual autonomy, consists of judging and rewarding individuals for their individual merits, rather than arbitrarily privileging certain individuals over others based upon meaningless and insignificant characteristics such as race, gender, and ethnicity.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." -Martin Luther King Jr.
Of course, embracing these values requires a rather significant amount of courage and fortitude, and the willingness to wade into uncomfortable territory. It requires a recognition of the fact that you, and you alone, are responsible for your emotional state, it isn't the responsibility of everyone else to make you happy. It requires a recognition of the fact that you are not entitled to the governance of the speech of others, regardless of how offended and upset their ideas may make you. Rather, you must toughen up and simply deal with the fact that there are others who disagree with you. You must be willing to argue for your ideas, you must be willing to try and convince others, through reason, why you are right, rather than simply using institutional power to compel them into submission.
"For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." -Thomas Jefferson
James Damore is an example of a man who, when faced with a predominant narrative that pervaded the institution in which he worked, chose to openly and publicly criticize it, pointing out potential errors. In doing so, he demonstrated enormous courage, showing an unwillingness to allow the judgment of crowds to stand in as a substitute for one's own judgment. Regardless as to whether or not Damore was right, the fact remains that if the CEO of Google truly values the freedom of Googlers to express themselves, then he would not have imposed retribution upon Mr. Damore for doing just that. By doing so, he created a work environment in which dissent from the approved narrative is clearly not tolerated, a decision that, at least in part, proved Damore's point.
"Political correctness... constrains discourse and is complacent to the extremely sensitive PC-authoritarians that use violence and shaming to advance their cause. While Google hasn’t harbored the violent leftist protests that we’re seeing at universities, the frequent shaming in TGIF and in our culture has created the same silent, psychologically unsafe environment." -James Damore
- Popper, K. R., Gombrich, E. H., & Ryan, A. (2013). The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
- Waldron, J. (2014). The Harm in Hate Speech. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Hall, E. B. (1972). The Life of Voltaire. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press.