Google engineer's memo: Are you furious, or are you curious?

Google CEO condemns anti-diversity memo
Google CEO condemns anti-diversity memo

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Story highlights

  • Elizabeth Weingarten: Others have debunked the abysmal conclusions made by the author of the Google manifesto
  • But, sometimes, following mental shortcuts can prompt us to dismiss something before we can fully engage, she writes

Elizabeth Weingarten is the director of the Global Gender Parity Initiative and a senior fellow in the Better Life Lab at New America. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)At a recent dinner party of mostly liberal, upper-middle class white people in San Francisco, one man made a comment he thought would be innocuous: Since women carry children and evolved a unique neural chemistry and hormonal attachment system to care for said children, he thought it might also be harder for them than men to leave those children to go back to work.

Elizabeth Weingarten
Now, it's worth stepping back and surveying your immediate response to that statement -- leaving the facts that make some of it true, and some of it less true, aside. Are you furious or are you curious?
The reaction at the party was mostly furious, even after he explained that he wasn't saying that these particular biological differences should be used as an argument to keep women tethered to domestic responsibilities or in certain "nurturing" jobs.
    But what he didn't account for is that we humans are excellent at pattern recognition. And we women have heard echoes of those statements before --almost always used to justify something much more sexist and discriminatory. Women have babies, they're innately wired for caregiving, and therefore...they should just do that and leave the other work to men.
    His statement left everyone involved upset: The women who instantly labeled him a misogynist mansplainer, and the man who thought the women weren't actually hearing or talking to him, but instead hearing what they've heard in the past and putting him in a soundproof box.
    Our ability to recognize patterns can often be a good thing. It can save our lives, stop us from dating someone shady or prevent us from eating something that will ultimately make us puke all night. But, sometimes, recognizing patterns -- and following mental shortcuts -- can blind us, and prompt us to dismiss something before we can fully see or understand its nuances.
    It's easy to see this process playing out in response to "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," a manifesto a male Google engineer (who is now out of his job) wrote and published internally -- which was made public by Motherboard and published in full by Gizmodo and Recode.
    The author of the manifesto has some very bad conclusions, which are in turn activating the pattern-recognizing responses of most people on the left. And the pattern that they think they are recognizing is, "This guy is a sexist, racist, entitled, privileged jerk." Which is generating the understandable response of -- let's burn this guy at the proverbial stake! Which in 2017 means: let's eviscerate his intellectual bona fides through blogs and think pieces.
    I don't work at Google, so I don't know what the environment is really like there. And I'm not going to spend my time picking apart the truly abysmal conclusions and arguments the author is making, because plenty of other writers have done that already.
    But as someone who works and lives in San Francisco, I've seen firsthand the kind of oppressive, politically correct environment he talks about. It is one in which people who are well-intentioned can be shamed into silence. It is one in which people who think differently -- which often means people who lean conservatively -- tend to be ostracized and vilified.
    The question is: Can we engage with some of this author's points and not others? Part of the response to the author seems to emanate from some irrational logic: Partial acceptance amounts to full acceptance of the manifesto. But why does that have to be the case? Why can't we operate in a gray, uncertain area -- where maybe part of what he says is awful and part of it is worth listening to?
    It could very well be true that the author of the manifesto is a racist and sexist, even if he doesn't know it or understand what those terms mean (though he does seem to be hyper aware of unconscious bias). But I'd caution against saying that everything he wrote deserves to be thrown out and branding him a bigot.
    Part of the reason this manifesto is so shocking and abhorrent to many people on the left is that many of us rarely (if ever) engage with people who don't hew to the progressive script. We end up pretending that those people who question the traditionally liberal agenda only exist in the parts of this country that voted for President Trump -- i.e. far from the coastal elite tech crowd. But the reality is that this guy makes a couple of key points that all liberals need to hear and consider -- rather than simply dismiss as garbage.
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    For instance, the author is right that moral biases are worth discussing, especially in this political climate, and at a time when many liberals still can't believe that President Trump got elected. In his book "The Righteous Mind," psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains how conservatives and liberals have different and occasionally overlapping moral foundations, but our mutual inability to see and understand the other side's distinctive morality (and our tendency to dismiss it) leads to some of the biggest and most tenacious divides in politics.
    The author of the manifesto lays out some of the moral foundations and biases of the right and left -- and echoes Haidt and many others when he says that neither side is 100% correct, and we need to engage both conservatives and liberals for countries and institutions to function. He stresses that "I hope it's clear that I'm not saying that diversity is bad..." and that "my larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don't fit a certain ideology."
    It's this larger point that's worth mulling. Because even as a liberal woman working on diversity and inclusion issues, I've found myself in circles where I'm afraid to ask questions or to challenge existing lines of thinking -- afraid that if I say something that's unintentionally offensive I'll be skewered and silenced.
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    What we ought to be striving for -- perhaps first at the level of individual conversations, and then at the level of corporate environments -- is to create a space where people can feel safe asking questions and floating ideologically diverse ideas. The tough part is in balancing this with environments where prejudice and discrimination can and do thrive.
    This is hugely challenging, and I'm certainly not advocating for giving a platform to extremists. But in order to break down structures of racism and sexism in our workplaces and in public life, we have to talk to people who exist in them -- even those with whom we disagree.
    We won't achieve the liberal ideal of societal tolerance until we acknowledge that in crucifying this author, we're in some ways engaging in the kind of narrow-minded, reactionary behavior that we so desperately want to eliminate on the other side.