A fresh smack in the face

Anna Wiener on James Damore as part of Silicon Valley culture.

As soon as news of the memo broke, tech workers took to the Internet. (Ours is a privileged moment: never before has it been so easy to gain access to the errant musings, rapid-fire opinions, and random proclivities of venture capitalists and others we enrich.) There were calls for Damore to be blacklisted from the industry; nuanced analyses of the memo’s underlying assumptions and ripple effects; facile analyses of the same; message-board debates about sexual harassment, affirmative action, evolutionary biology, eugenics, and “wrongthink”; and disagreements about the appropriateness of Google’s response. (“Firing people for their ideas should be opposed,” Jeet Heer, a self-described “Twitter Essayist” and an editor at The New Republic, tweeted.) George Orwell’s “1984” was trotted out, discursively, and quickly retired. More than a handful of people pointed out that the field of programming was created, and once dominated, by women. Eric Weinstein, the managing director of Thiel Capital, an investment firm helmed by Peter Thiel, tweeted disapprovingly at Google’s corporate account, “Stop teaching my girl that her path to financial freedom lies not in coding but in complaining to HR.”

Though Damore’s memo draws on familiar political rhetoric, its style and structure are unique products of Silicon Valley’s workplace culture. At software companies, in particular, people talk—and argue, and dogpile, and offer unsolicited opinions—all the time, all over the place, including in forums like the one where Damore posted “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” In my experience in the tech industry, such forums serve as repositories for all sorts of discussions—feature launches, bug fixes, birth announcements, introductions, farewells—and are meant, in part, to promote the open-source ethos that everyone can, and should, pitch in. But they also favor the kind of discourse that people outside the industry may recognize from online platforms such as Reddit and Hacker News; it is solution-oriented, purporting to value objectivity and rationalism above all, and tends to see the engineer’s dispassion as a tool for solving a whole range of technical and social problems. (“Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts,” Damore writes.) But the format is ill-suited to conversations about politics and social justice.

Aha. Doesn’t that sound familiar – the kind of discourse that people outside the industry may recognize from online platforms such as Reddit and Hacker News…purporting to value objectivity and rationalism above all. Yes, I recognize it all right. I don’t think I’d realized it could be seen as Engineer-think. The format is in fact horrendously ill-suited to conversations about politics and social justice.

Social justice can’t be engineered. Engineering can help reach the goals, but it has nothing to say about the goals. Thinking about the goals requires emotion as well as reason.

One of the documents that resurfaced in the online discussion of the Google memo was “What You Can’t Say,” by Paul Graham—the co-founder, along with his wife, Jessica Livingston, of the startup accelerator Y Combinator, which runs Hacker News. The five-thousand-word essay, which Graham published on his personal blog, in 2004, begins with the premise that there exist “moral fashions” that are both arbitrary and pernicious. “Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good,” he writes. The essay makes a case for contrarian thinking through a series of flattering analogies—Galileo was seen as a heretic in his time; John Milton was advised to keep quiet about the evils of the Roman Inquisition—and argues that opinions considered unfashionable in their time are often retroactively respected, if not taken as gospel. “The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed,” Graham writes. “I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.” At several points, he refers to “political correctness.”

“What You Can’t Say” is by no means a seminal text, but it is the sort of text that has, historically, spoken to a tech audience. “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” with its veneer of cool rationalism, echoes Graham’s essay in certain ways. But, where Graham’s argument is made thoughtfully and in good faith—he is a proponent of intellectual inquiry, even if the outcome is controversial—Damore’s is a sort of performance. His memo shows a deep misunderstanding of what constitutes power in Silicon Valley, and where that power lies.

Spoiler: the power still lies with white men.

By positioning diversity programs as discriminatory, Damore paints exactly the opposite picture. He frames employees like himself as a silenced minority, and his contrarian opinions as a kind of Galilean heresy.

It is conceivable, of course, that Damore distributed his memo to thousands of his colleagues because he genuinely thought that it was the best way to strike up a conversation. “Open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow,” he writes. Perhaps he expected that the ensuing dialogue would be akin to a debate over a chunk of code. But, given the memo’s various denigrating assertions about his co-workers, it is difficult to imagine that it was offered in good faith.

Well maybe it was Engineer-think good faith. People should just look at the facts, and not be upset by them. If the facts are that women are just too emo for tech…what’s the point in getting emo about it?

Minority groups in tech are no strangers to being second-guessed, condescended to, overlooked, underpaid, and uncredited. But seeing Damore’s arguments made public—and, in some cases, seeing them elicit support—was a fresh smack in the face. It was a reminder that plenty of tech workers and executives still consider hiring women and people of color “lowering the bar,” and that proving one’s place is a constant, Sisyphean task.

Just in case anyone needed reminding.

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