See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

A Quick Note on that Ex-Googler Memo Thing

In a desperate bid to make my parents love me, published an essay of mine on James Damore’s famous, if incoherent, memo. My essay was focused on proper argumentation, how Damore’s memo lacked it, and how we all need to focus on the fights that actually matter (like how you define fairness) instead of arguing about unprovable facts that don’t (like exactly how much of gender discrimination is due to biological factors). Please go ahead and read it so my mother will finally put something I made on her fridge.

I want to take a moment to say: yes, he should have been fired. No, I haven’t changed my position that generally speaking you shouldn’t fire people for unpopular ideas. As I wrote when Brendan Eich was pressured to resign:

Brendan Eich may well have some sins to answer for, and for some of those perhaps he should pay his price publicly. It is quite another thing to say that the price for those sins is his job, and that Mozilla is responsible for making him pay it.

So what’s the difference, other than Eich was a C-Suite employee and high profile and Damore is not? Well, Damore’s sins weren’t just abstract politics or ideology. He insulted the women he was working with, not because he said they were inferior to he because of their gender, but because he wrote so sloppily that such an interpretation was reasonable under the circumstances. And more importantly, he did it as part of his company role, publishing his memo onto Google’s internal social network, for the explicit purpose of influencing Google culture and policy. And it was a profoundly lazy attempt at that, which damaged relationships between Damore and his coworkers and Google employees generally for no appreciable or foreseeable gain. It was, plainly speaking, useless and dumb. Damore’s primary contribution to our public dialogue was a useless freak out where conservatives pretended only the good parts of the memo were there and progressives pretended that the memo was coherently evil when it was just incoherently bad. Damore served his view point very poorly and lowered the level of debate. That isn’t a good reason to fire him either, I suppose, but the way he harmed his fellow employees trust certainly is.

So, next time you want to put together a long controversial memo? Do it better. And maybe post it anonymously on Reddit instead of to your company’s social network.


8 responses to “A Quick Note on that Ex-Googler Memo Thing

  1. Andrew Stevens 08/12/2017 at 22:37

    I agree. We don’t think disparity due to biological differences is fair. That’s why we strap weights onto Usain Bolt’s legs to reduce his biological advantage. Oh, wait, we don’t actually do that. Yet. We’ll have to wait until Mr. Chen brings his blindingly brilliant insights to the Olympics.


    • K. Chen 08/12/2017 at 23:33

      Actually, “we” do punish women who have an abnormal amount of androgyns at the Olympics to reduce advantage, although I am opposed to that. And as you may have deciphered, fairness is contextual. Some biological advantage is considered “fair” in the Olympics, and some is not. If the more biologically attractive athlete won at, say, fencing, because of biased judging we would generally consider that unfair. That an advantage or disadvantage is biological tells us nothing.


      • Andrew Stevens 08/15/2017 at 15:50

        Biased judging or stealing cookies has absolutely nothing to do with biology. And, indeed, if a woman with an abnormal amount of androgens who came by that advantage naturally (i.e. not through taking drugs or by having been born male) were banned from the Olympics, virtually everybody would consider that unfair. Similarly, small people have an advantage at fencing, tall people have an advantage at basketball. Nobody considers these advantages unfair.

        My point is that the reason why we argue about your implicit Premise 2 is because you are virtually the only person who disagrees with implicit Premise 3. And you continually bring in non-biological examples, but frame them as if they were biological, to support your point.


        • K. Chen 08/16/2017 at 11:31

          Several women have in fact been facing that issue. There are verification tests.

          Biased judging has a lot to do with biology, as I explained. How we frame questions as biological or not is just a way of having the fairness fight while pretending we are not. Some kinds of biological advantage are fair to you. Some are not (attractiveness), so you class them as nonbiological factors.


  2. Bob Kanyok 08/11/2017 at 18:18

    You may be the only person to ever argue that Harrison Bergeron deserved his fate.


    • K. Chen 08/11/2017 at 18:23

      I’ve not read the story in question but analogizing actual people to fictional characters usually works worse than you think.


      • Bob Kanyok 08/11/2017 at 19:52

        Perhaps you should read the story first and think of your sympathy for the Handicapper General – imposing equality throughout the land. Equality, what could be bad about that? Able deserved his fate, Harrison deserved his, right? I certainly hope not.

        The vast majority of people don’t want equality, despite attempts to impose it, they want fairness, which is essentially what Damore was asking for. As the article below notes, though they are often used interchangably, fairness and equality are not the same thing. As long as everyone gets a fair shot, we really don’t/shouldn’t care that the results are unequal. I can accept the fact that I was never going to play in the NBA/NFL/MLB even if I practiced eight hours a day because I have no athletic ability except perhaps at ping pong. I’m okay with those with greater hand eye coordination and quicker reflexes going on to make millions doing that. I have the ability to do other things that they can’t and don’t demand to be “equal” to them, no matter how much I may have wished to be at the age of seven.

        Imposing “equality”, basically equal outcome, only results in tyranny. If we assigned women to be programmers against their will, not just at Google, but everywhere, we might get an equal outcome at the expense of some pretty unhappy women, but at least we’d be “equal”.

        Better a fair but unequal society rather than an equal but unfair one.


        • K. Chen 08/12/2017 at 23:29

          I’ve gone over this a couple times, and I don’t think you’re actually presenting an argument as to what fairness is as to what it isn’t. So what is fairness, particularly in the employment context?


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