Mr Damore, welcome to the Prophet Club

In the Bible, being a prophet was not a sought-after job. Prophets were chosen by God to deliver messages that more often than not turned out to be unwelcome. And sooner or later, the same lack of welcome greeted the prophet himself as he stood in the city gate telling the people things they didn't want to hear. Bad things tended to happen to prophets when they got on the wrong side of the establishment.

The prophet Jeremiah, after telling King Zedekiah to surrender to the attacking Babylonians, was accused of treachery and thrown into a muddy well, where he was left to die. Only the intervention of a friendly official rescued him from a miserable death.

I don't think former Google engineer James Damore has any special line to the Almighty, but by now he has experienced the same thing that the Biblical prophets discovered: say things that the leadership doesn't want to hear, and sooner or later you're going to pay for it. In response to a ten-page memo he posted entitled "Google's ideological echo chamber" in which he criticized the atmosphere created by gender-diversity programs at his company, the internet lit up with a storm of attacks on him, and Google ended up firing him.

But exactly what did he say?

First, some background.

Like many companies these days, Google has initiatives and programs in diversity, including ones that attempt to change the fact that the percentage of women in computing is about 24 percent, according to an organization called Girls Who Code. The desired change, naturally, is an increase to something closer to the representation of women in the overall US population, which is 50.8 percent.

I say "naturally" because there is a widely held assumption that when the percentage of women in a desirable field of endeavour—CEO suites, being rich, holding political office, or working at any job that the culture perceives to be desirable—falls below 50.8 percent, this proves that there is injustice somewhere that needs to be rooted out so that the percentage will more closely approach the magic 50.8 percent.

If you look at this assumption on its own in the cold light of logic, you can start to see some holes in it. Some of the highest-paying jobs in the country are in professional sports. Where are the protests that there aren't any women playing for the Green Bay Packers? I don't want to start a trend, you understand. And professional football itself is losing popularity in view of the revelations of long-term brain damage it can cause.

But the point is that many of the assumptions and assertions surrounding issues of gender diversity are based on something besides mathematically exact logic. And that's a good thing, because logic and undisputed facts can take you only so far. Something else is needed in order to discuss these matters intelligently: an ability to articulate the foundations of one's moral judgments. But these days, that ability is much rarer than the ability to code.

I have read Mr Damore's memo, and at one point he refers to "moral biases." Judging from his words, he is neither a political scientist nor a philosopher, but he recognizes that more than logic is required to deal with human-relations issues such as diversity and gender roles.

In his memo, he wrote some things that are undoubtedly unpopular in the Silicon Valley setting of Mountain View: "On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways." He cites personality differences that women show compared to men, many of which are positive: agreeableness, ability to work in teams, and so on. And he admits that males tend to rank higher on aggressiveness and the willingness to put in long unpleasant hours to get ahead in an organization. He winds up his memo with a recommendation to "[h]ave an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of our diversity programs."

It is a matter of public record that Mr Damore was let go by Google shortly before August 7. Legally speaking, Google is probably not breaking any law to fire him, as California has what is called "employment at will," which means an employer can fire you at any time for any reason, or no reason at all. Nevertheless, firing him doesn't contribute to an atmosphere at the company that would encourage an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of diversity programs.

Along with Mr Damore's memo, the website Gizmodo posted a statement from Google's diversity officer, in which she said of the memo, "I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender." But she didn't say what those incorrect assumptions were.

Engineers are trained to be logical, using known facts about the world to create useful products. But human life is about more than logic and reasoning. What Mr Damore calls "moral biases" are really each person's conclusions, drawn from his or her world view, about what constitutes right and wrong. And while "Googlers" (as they call themselves) may be mental giants when it comes to logic, programming, and the skilful exploitation of the Internet to generate revenue, neither Mr Damore nor his opponents in the company are able to articulate the bases of their moral principles any better than they could when they were in high school, or perhaps earlier.

Instead of a reasoned debate based upon clearly expressed moral principles, what happened when Mr Damore posted his memo was the Internet equivalent of a riot, at which point Google called in their human-resources cops to quell the riot by arresting (firing) the riot's instigator—the cyberspace equivalent of dumping Mr Damore down a muddy well.

He won't die from it, but he's certainly been soiled in the sight of many. And it's far from clear that the conservative media outlets which have started to lionize Mr Damore as a martyr to their causes will encourage meaningful debates about gender diversity either. Mr Damore may have left one echo chamber only to walk into another one of a more conservative bent.

It's possible to have a reasonable, logical debate about gender diversity, but only if everyone can lay their moral cards on the table first. And these days, we lack the vocabulary and often the courage to do so.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.