Monday, 6 August 2018

Laurie Penny is wrong. James Damore’s memo doesn’t say what she thinks it does.

I.

Not all opinions are created equal, but some people seem to wish they were.  Author and journalist Laurie Penny has written a scathing opinion piece for The Guardian where she attempts a character assassination of James Damore, then goes on to argue that it’s “all right [sic] to discriminate against conservatives” and happily admits doing so herself.

Damore, you may remember as the former Google engineer who, last summer, was fired for writing and circulating a company-wide memo denouncing what he describes as “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” and the “discriminatory practices” that Google employs in its pursuit of the goal of “50% representation of women in tech and leadership”.

Penny’s article was written in the context of Damore suing his former employer in a class action lawsuit for “discrimination against conservatives”.  In it, Penny describes Damore’s memo as “eye-poppingly sexist” and characterises Damore himself as a “bad actor” and a “sexist arsehole” and implies that he holds “certain ‘unorthodox’ ideas about social Darwinism”.

All of these things may be true, or they may not be.  They are not mutually exclusive.  It is possible for one to be a “sexist arsehole” and also to work for a company with an “Ideological Echo Chamber” that discriminates against conservatives.

I’m not here to defend James Damore’s character – I don’t know the guy; I don’t know if he’s a sexist arsehole or a social Darwinist or not.  All I know is I would not be comfortable making the assertions Penny is making about Damore on the basis of his Google memo alone.

II.

Penny doesn’t point to anything specific in Damore’s memo that she characterises as sexist.  She misrepresents his memo as being “about why men are naturally better at computers than women” and claiming “that it was wrong for Google… to be pursuing diversity.”.  However, both of these assertions are false.

Nowhere in his memo does Damore claim that men are naturally better at computers than women.  The closest to this claim that one can find in his memo is when he discusses “possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech”.  Here, Damore claims that “on average, men and women biologically differ in many ways”.

When making this point, Damore goes out of his way to make the following disclaimer:

“Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these differences are ‘just.’  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.  Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.”

Damore claims that, on average, women have more “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas”, “a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men”, more “Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness.  Also higher agreeableness”, and more “Neuroticism”.  He also notes that men typically exhibit a “higher drive for status” than women.

Nowhere in his memo does Damore claim that any of this would justify any sort of unfair or discriminatory treatment of women with regard to hiring, promotions, advancement, etc.

Similarly, in his memo, Damore never claims that Google is wrong to pursue diversity.  Rather, he claims that they are going about it in the wrong way.  His issue is with Google’s methods rather than their goals or intentions.

One of the longest sections of his memo is devoted to exploring “Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap”.  Damore suggests, among other things, that Google could do more to “make software engineering more people-oriented”, to “allow those exhibiting cooperative behaviour to thrive”, “make tech and leadership less stressful”, and allow and endorse more part time work.

What Damore takes issue with are some of the approaches Google currently uses, such as “restricting programs and classes to certain genders or races”.  Damore is quite correct when he characterises such practices as “discriminatory”.

The trouble is that, as most children learn, two wrongs don’t make a right.  Discriminating against white men now doesn’t do anything to undo the mass discrimination and persecution of millions of women (not to mention the countless list of atrocities committed against various minorities) for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Note that I am in no way implying that the situation of a white man working at Google in the early 21st century who is denied access to a class because he is neither a woman nor a minority is the same as that of a woman who is denied the vote, or is unable to own property, or get an education, or have a career, just because she was unlucky enough to have been born female in the wrong place or time.  Still, two wrongs don’t make a right.  Even if one of the wrongs is far less severe than the other.

Among Damore’s suggestions for “Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap”, he advocates that we “treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).”

Do these sound like things a “sexist arsehole” would bother to go out of his way to talk about?

III.

The charitable interpretation of Penny is that she’s privy to more information about Damore than he expresses in his memo or that she discusses in her article – perhaps she knows him personally, or has had some sort of correspondence with him in which he revealed himself to be a sexist.  Such things are possible, but if this were the case, why didn’t Penny cite any other evidence to back up her assertions?

Normally I would say that the uncharitable interpretation is that Penny is out to shame / lower the status of Damore purely because he defended conservatives and conservative viewpoints in his memo and because she seems to identify as a “progressive” that makes conservatives and everything the stand for her sworn mortal enemies for all eternity and they must be criticised for everything they say and do because they are stupid, evil people.  But Penny has all but come right out and said as much herself – she writes it’s “all right [sic] to discriminate against conservatives” and happily admits doing so.

She goes on to strawman conservatives as believing that “not being allowed to scream and pull your pants down in public” is somehow equivalent to “centuries of violence and injustice” and “that people who die young of preventable diseases because they are unable to afford private healthcare have only themselves to blame for not working harder”.

Penny equates people who are “rightwing and conservative” with “bigots and bullies”, which seems to explain why she’s so happy to openly discriminate against them.

It seems that Penny hasn’t taken the time to properly understand conservative viewpoints.  I would bet that she would fail an ideological Turing test.  In this regard, Penny is part of the “ideological echo chamber” decried by Damore.  Rather than revealing Damore to be a sexist, she merely reveals herself to be a closed-minded ideologue, unwilling to engage with ideas that she disagrees with, preferring to attack the character of those who espouse them, rather than engage with the substance of their beliefs and arguments.

Damore doesn’t even self-identify as a conservative.  In a footnote to his memo he states that he considers himself a classical liberal.  I suspect that, when it comes to social policy, Penny shares more views in common with Damore than she realises.

The story of the boy who cried wolf comes to mind.  If you call everyone who disagrees with your methods a misogynist, a sexist, a racist, or a bigot, these words will lose their meaning and people will eventually stop taking your claims seriously.  Then what do you do when a real sexist – someone who actually wants to oppress women – or a real racist or bigot comes along?  When you’ve alienated many of your potential allies by outing them as “sexists” and desensitised many others to the terms through years of misuse?

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