Friday, August 11, 2017

The Google memo, and associated issues of sexism and free speech

Let's take a break from the threat of nuclear war to address the issues of political theory associated with that Google memo on why there are so few women working in the tech industry, and the firing of the author.

There is some interesting history here.  You may know the name, Larry Summers.  He is a prominent economist who also used to be President of Harvard.  He was at a conference, musing on the topic of women in math and science, and he suggested that maybe the subjects are dominated by men because of biological differences.

The faculty of Harvard held a vote of no-confidence, and Larry was ousted.  There is, as I understand it, research on the topic.  This isn't at all my area, and I try not to make public comments on topics about which I am not familiar.  I read pretty broadly.  My degree is in political science, but my interests extend well beyond that, and if I have read the actual research on a topic, I have no compunctions about commenting.  If I haven't actually read real scholarship on a topic, I keep my fuckin' mouth shut, and my typin' fingers from tappin'.  That includes a lot of topics within political science too.  I don't know the research on biological differences and math aptitude, so all I'll say is that the scholars from whom I have heard and read called bullshit on Larry, who decided to open his arrogant fuckin' trap before doing any reading.  If you are going to say something that reeks of sexism before reading existing research, you deserve whatever's coming to you.  As I understand it, the existing research does not back up the notion of biological differences, although I can't speak to the research itself, not being familiar with the methodology.  If you want an explanation of the research on that, I'm not your guy.

But that's kind of my first point.  If I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about, I'm not actually talking, so there's no "I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about," because I don't want to be in that position.  I'd rather be the asshole know-it-all than the asshole know-nothing.  That works better if I read before talking.  Larry forgot to do that.

And so did that Google employee.

Statistically, white people have higher incomes and better social positions than minorities.  Statistically, men have higher incomes and better social positions than women.  If you are going to suggest that this kind of discrepancy has anything to do with biology, you better be prepared with some research before you open your fuckin' mouth or tap your fuckin' typing fingers if you expect not to get shut down hard, because it isn't just that you are going to get a hostile reaction for social reasons.  There's probably some existing research out there.  And it probably doesn't back you up.  So maybe read first.

That makes it hard to have a whole hell of a lot of sympathy for the Google employee who wrote the memo, thinking back to the Larry Summers incident.

But...

And you had to know that there's a but coming...

One of the more interesting aspects of the debate is the introduction of the "free speech" issue.  The left here keeps pointing out that Google is a private organization, and the First Amendment restricts the government's ability to limit speech.  True.  However, do you believe in the principle of free speech?  If so, then you should oppose private restrictions on speech too.

Government is an organization that imposes its will through the use of power, but it is not the only organization that does so.  Employers, for example, impose their will on employees through economic power.  Is it acceptable to limit someone's speech through the use of economic power?  In principle?  I'm not asking about whether or not the First Amendment permits it.  The First Amendment does.  I am asking about whether or not it is morally acceptable.  That isn't a question I normally ask.

So, let's turn to a source whom liberals generally like.  John Rawls and A Theory of Justice.  Central to Rawls's argument is the notion of the "veil of ignorance."  Pretend you don't know which side you are on, in a dispute.  Do you accept the rules, process, etc., as just?

So, let's put the shoe on the other foot.  Suppose a conservative employer fired an employee for an internal memo that made a claim speaking to the personal values of the left, with some, let's call them "factually-challenged" elements.  How would the left take that?  Would they take that as an act of persecuting the employee for a political belief?  Probably, and that's the Rawlsian problem with this situation.

Now, there is a Rawlsian answer, which is that it would depend on whether or not the alternative story is one in which the memo also could be construed to create a "hostile work environment."  The Google memo in question can be construed as misogynistic, so the continued presence of that employee at Google could be a problem for the work environment.  If the alternative memo were, for example, misandrist in an equivalent manner, the same standard could apply.  The veil of ignorance is a tricky concept to use because it depends on how we construct the alternative scenarios.

The basic Rawlsian problem, though, is that if we are to think of this as a question of whether or not employees are persecuted for expressing political beliefs in the workplace, the same standard must be applied to both liberal and conservative opinions, and the liberals who cheer the firing of the Google employee must ask themselves how they would respond to the firing of an employee who expressed a liberal belief, even a factually-challenged one.

As I said, though, there is more to this than free speech.  There is the hostile work environment aspect, and the fact that the idiot Google employee mouthed off without reading the research, just like Larry Summers.  However, when thinking about issues like free speech, it is always a good idea to go back to John Rawls, and remember that it was the ACLU that defended the neo-nazis' right to march in Skokie, Illinois.  And nobody has ever been more wrong about biology and the nature of humanity than the nazis.

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