Aug 9, 2017 - Technology

Tech's tolerance problem

Sam Jayne / Axios

The "think different" tech crowd is developing a habit of blowing up people who actually do think differently.

  • The latest example is the internal memo from (now former) Google engineer, James Damore, questioning the company's diversity efforts and women's affinity for engineering. Damore's memo — and Google's decision to fire him — triggered outrage.
  • Those offended by the memo branded it as sexist, misogynistic, and counter to the equality goals that tech companies like Google strive for. Those who supported his views, or at least his ability to express them, called his firing a form of censorship and harshly criticized Google's ouster of someone who strayed from the corporate correctness.
  • Why it matters: Tech's well-documented diversity problems appear to have revealed a deeper cultural crisis. Companies have worked hard — and spent hundreds of millions of dollars — to project an aura of diversity and inclusion, but those efforts have sparked a backlash.

The memo: To be clear, people on all sides of the political spectrum found the memo offensive and belittling to women. It described women as being prone to "neuroticism" and "anxiety," and suggested they are less willing to work long hours or accept stressful assignments. He called some of Google's practices "discriminatory," such as providing extra mentoring for people of a certain race or gender.

Damore indicated it was Google's left bias that he was trying to challenge: "I hope it's clear that I'm not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair, that we shouldn't try to correct for existing biases, or that minorities have the same experience of those in the majority. My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don't fit a certain ideology." Google's diversity programs, he added, "are highly politicized which further alienates non-progressives."

He's not the first to face the uncomfortable consequences of diverging from tech's progressive values.

  • Peter Thiel was told by fellow Facebook board member and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings that he'd get a negative evaluation of his board performance due to his support for then-candidate Donald Trump, the New York Times reported.
  • Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR now owned by Facebook, was pressured to leave the company after it was reported that he'd donated to an organization supporting Trump.
  • Former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was pushed out of the job over outrage when he gave money to a campaign to make same-sex marriage illegal in California.

Reaction from the left: To many who support Google's decision to dump Damore, the memo's message isn't seen as a standard political argument (i.e. immigration or tax reform), but rather as an expression of workplace hostility.

  • Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Google's YouTube, writes that the "language of discrimination" can take many forms. "What if the memo said that biological differences amongst Black, Hispanic, or LGBTQ employees explained their underrepresentation in tech and leadership roles? Would some people still be discussing the merit of the memo's arguments or would there be a universal call for swift action against its author?"
  • Jeff Jarvis, a tech and media industry watcher and author of the book "What Would Google Do?" tweeted, "'Let's have a discussion' is not an excuse for misogyny, racism, climate-change denial & denial of facts."
  • The Guardian's Owen Jones writes that Damore is now a martyr of the alt-right and that the memo "offers an insight into the male backlash that was one contributory factor – among many – to the rise of Donald Trump."
  • To that point, Damore has embraced the right-wing media since the firing, doing an interview with Stefan Molnyeux, the host of an alt-right YouTube show, for example.

Reaction from the right: Many conservatives view Google's firing of Damore as further evidence that they are not welcome in Silicon Valley, home to the companies driving a significant portion of the country's economic growth.

  • Conservative writer Erick Erickson argued some of his statements were "mischaracterized or characterized in the worst possible light to dismiss him and his ideas."
  • "It's a sad fact that your economic opportunities depend not just on your skills, talents, and the way you treat employees or customers but also on your political opinions," wrote National Review's David French.
  • The story even extended to Capitol Hill, with Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn tweeting out the National Review's story.
  • As the NYT reported, far-right activists claim many Silicon Valley companies, also including Airbnb and PayPal, of censoring right-wing views on their platforms. And some users on Twitter and 4chan, a pro-Trump message board, organized a boycott of Google's services, per Gizmodo.
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