John Power: We are avoiding the messy business of debating contentious ideas

Google’s firing of an employee for expressing his views on women in technology does not help us find the truth

After almost two decades, perhaps Google’s famous motto, “Don’t be evil,” is due for an update.How about, “Don’t question anything”? Or perhaps, “Don’t think for yourself”?”

Either would be more accurate summations of Google’s philosophy following its sacking last week of an employee who internally raised concerns about the tech giant’s diversity policies and a climate of intellectual conformity.

In a lengthy memo titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," engineer James Damore questioned the assumption that the under-representation of women in the tech industry was solely the result of sexism, suggesting that biological differences between the sexes could be influencing career preferences. Damore went on to suggest that Google had "created a politically correct monoculture" that silenced dissenting opinions, resulting in the complete absence of "viewpoint diversity."

Contrary to media portrayals of the memo as a “screed,” Damore’s critique was calm, reasoned and respectful throughout. While taking issue with affirmative action, he stressed he was not opposed to diversity, offering suggestions for bringing more women into the company, such as by encouraging greater cooperation. Even as he listed statistical differences between men and women, he noted that the overlap between the sexes was too great to draw any conclusions about any particular person. Explicitly rejecting the idea that women should be restricted to certain roles, he argued for all employees to be treated as individuals, rather than “just another member of their group.”

Nevertheless, the memo was considered offensive enough for Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai to cut short a family holiday and quickly fire Damore, accusing him of "advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace."

It’s not clear which “stereotypes” exactly were deemed beyond the Pale, although Pichai did note references to assertiveness and stress tolerance. It’s worth stating, though, that innate behavioral differences between men and women are an entirely legitimate field of scientific research. The most recent issue of Stanford Medicine’s quarterly journal matter-of-factly reports that numerous “studies demonstrate real, not always earthshaking, brain differences, and that these differences may contribute to differences in behaviour and cognition.”

To a great extent, though, it’s immaterial what the science says. After some cursory words about the freedom of employees to express themselves, dispensed by Pichai with little irony, Google proved itself to be every bit as intolerant of divergent views as its employee had claimed. The message from Google seems to be that anyone not marching lockstep with the dominant ideology -- be they a classical liberal, conservative or simply an independent thinker -- need not apply.

Of course, many will point out, Google is a private company and entitled to fire who it wishes for more or less any reason. Legally, that’s probably the case.

But its very public decision to cast out the heretic within its ranks nonetheless aligns with a troubling broader trend within Western culture. Increasingly, we are checking out of the messy business of debating contentious ideas altogether, instead walling ourselves off in ever more confining ideological silos. The near-constant refrain today is that people with controversial opinions should be denied a “platform” to speak. Free speech is all very well, we are told, but all that really means is not having those we disagree with marched away in handcuffs. Polite society, from the media and industry to our universities, must punish people who cause offence with their ideas. We shouldn’t engage, even if it’s only to agree to disagree. Better to throw the wrong-thinkers out into the cold.

But this positions free speech as something merely legalistic, almost a burdensome technicality. It imagines the “right” to speech as barely more valuable than our freedom to smoke cigarettes or eat hamburgers seven days a week. Through this lens, we lose sight of speech being an actual good – the medium through which we share and advance ideas, and peacefully resolve our differences.

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill understood this more than 150 years ago. In his landmark work "On Liberty," Mill said those who tried to suppress ideas were guilty of "robbing the human race" of the chance to reach the truth.

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error,” Mill wrote.

This is no less true today. We must learn to talk to each other, even when we don’t like what we are hearing. That a behemoth like Google has joined the silencing chorus should worry us all.

John Power is an Irish journalist based in Melbourne

READ MORE