Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident-turned-president, wrote a famous essay about the life of the mind under a system of totalitarian control. He invoked the example of a greengrocer who puts a sign in his window saying, “Workers of the world, unite!” – not believing in it and perhaps not even knowing what it meant, but ritually accepting it as the officially sanctioned worldview. He wrote of a brewery worker who was punished for dissenting without meaning to – by trying to make beer more efficiently, thereby calling into question whether the communist approach to production was anything but optimal.
Under such a system, many questions must never be asked, even by accident. The beauty of this arrangement is that the system never needs to show that the dissident's ideas are false. The mere act of posing the question is illegitimate. By extension, the answers would be neither true nor false: They too would be illegitimate.
Havel's piece came to mind last week as I followed the controversy over Google and James Damore, the engineer who was fired after circulating a note complaining about the company's policies on gender balance and diversity. Google's response seemed to set a new benchmark in the ongoing efforts of America's educated elite to deem opinions it disagrees with not just wrong but illegitimate. In this supposedly free country, the list of questions that cannot be asked seems to keep growing.
Damore's memo argued that Google's policies on gender balance failed to take account of biological differences between men and women that could lead women, on average, to be less interested in engineering than men. The argument could be wrong but it isn't crazy or intemperate. The memo wasn't an “anti-diversity screed,” as many outraged commentators judged it to be. Apparently, it's broadly correct on the science. That, perhaps, is what made it so offensive.
Given the furious response to the note as it went viral, Google's managers did need to respond. They could easily have said something like this: “The company takes note of Damore's memo. The research he refers to is interesting but in our view beside the point. Google understands that women continue to face barriers to making successful careers in engineering and the company is determined to do what it can to lower them. We will maintain and where possible increase our efforts to improve the gender balance of our staff and to increase diversity in other ways.”
That position, it seems to me, is not just commercially viable but also substantively correct. Damore's account of the science really is somewhat beside the point when it comes to judging Google's policies, because women do face discrimination of many kinds, especially in the software industry, and because the gender parity that Damore opposes as a target is so remote a prospect for Google that it's barely relevant to the current discussion.
Yet Google couldn't bring itself even to acknowledge the points Damore was making, much less to refute his argument. Danielle Brown, the Google vice president who initially responded, pointedly declined to provide a link to the note, denouncing it summarily for “incorrect assumptions” – a formula straight out of the Soviet thought-control handbook.
Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO, adopted the strategy of misrepresenting the note's content in order to disagree with it. That was something, I suppose, in that he at least pretended to recognise the obligation to engage with an argument you're opposing. The problem is, Pichai was so transparently attacking a note that Damore didn't actually write that his message, in effect, was this: “We all know that my representation of Damore's note is dishonest, but let's agree in any case that what he did was very, very wrong.” The willingness to go along with that kind of intellectual dereliction is the same as the willingness to put that sign in the window.
Fortunately we don't all work for Google yet. But it's pretty chilling, if you ask me, that a company so intimately acquainted with all our thoughts is willing to fire an employee for Incorrect Assumptions. Havel would savour the irony that Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder, helped set up the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. — Bloomberg