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Why the Conservative Response to the Google Memo Is Hypocritical

It turns out the left and the right both want to protect workers—but only for entirely different reasons.

Illustration by the New Republic

When a story like the Google diversity debacle unfolds, it comes in waves. It is like being six years old in the ocean and never getting a chance to stand up fully before the next breaker knocks you over and blasts seawater up your nose. First came Google’s dismal internal diversity report, published June 29 alongside the announcement that the company had hired Danielle Brown as Vice President of Diversity. Then came the buzz about how dismal those stats really were: a 31 percent/69 percent gender split in favor of men, and a 56 percent white workforce. Then came employee James Damore’s internal memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” decrying the very principle of gender equality. Then the memo became public, and then its author was fired.

Everything about this rollercoaster has been predictable, because actions have consequences. And just as things that go up must come down, people on the right are mad that Damore has been given the boot. In a statement, Danielle Brown described Damore’s internal memo as “incorrect.” Rich Lowry at National Review responded that her argument “would have been much stronger if she had actually rebutted any of the author’s statements about sex differences—assuming that she could.” Damore is on his way to conservative martyrdom, another victim of the leftist-feminist dogma that squishes free speech under its women-loving heel.

But Brown doesn’t have to engage with Damore’s arguments. His memo contained a bunch of “red-pill” nonsense about biological differences between men and women. The gender gap, according to Damore, may not be all down to “implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases,” as Google’s leadership claimed in its diversity report. Instead, he wrote, “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways.” These biological differences—which are the product of evolutionary psychology, that most legitimate of all sciences—lead men to enjoy coding more than women.

Arguments that cite innate biological differences between the minds of men and women are incorrect, and they’re not an acceptable part of a public discourse about gender. Misogynists feed each other this stuff online because it makes them feel like righteous victims of feminism instead of privileged people who have to make concessions if we are to make progress towards equality. Taking Damore’s claims seriously would have done nothing more than make Brown look stupid. As Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s note to employees succinctly put it, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

Whether or not Damore’s views should have led to his firing is a different matter. He violated Google’s code of conduct pretty explicitly. But then again, people believe all kinds of poisonously crazy stuff, like vaccines causing autism, without being fired.

The conversation around Damore’s firing elegantly articulates a paradox around labor protections in America, and the way that our political conversation is not up to the task of addressing it. Conservatives who support Damore’s beliefs are outraged by his dismissal. However, the natural recourse for allegedly unfair dismissals would be to contact a union or draw upon another form of labor protection, and to insist that practices like at-will employment contracts, which allow employers to dismiss a worker for any reason, come to an end. It is very tempting for those of us on the left to say to Damore’s lamenting allies: Oh, now you want a union?

American conservatives have worked tirelessly to provide companies like Google with the freedom to do whatever they like to their workers. In 28 American states, a worker can be fired for being gay or transgender. The notion that management’s political whims can allow them to discriminate against workers freely is at the core of the contemporary American conservative ideology.

It’s not even clear that labor protections would have helped Damore keep his job. By circulating his views in a memo he committed a corporate act as an employee, giving Google just cause, rather than expressing a mere opinion in the office cafeteria. But this distinction is not for pundits to figure out. A company that extends fair rights to its workers and empowers them to exercise those rights should have a robust, transparent system in place for that. What’s more, a company with true commitment to diversity and gender equality in its workforce is much less likely to produce employees ridden by (biased) views like James Damore. Damore and his memo are products of a workplace ideology that doesn’t correct for prejudice.

And so this little knot of nonsense represents a perfect conceptual stalemate. The traditional left and right positions on hiring, paying, and firing your workers simply cannot gel into a conversation here. Both sides want workers to be protected, but only for entirely different reasons. America is a toddler trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, getting redder and redder in the face but, also, nowhere.

But when paradoxes are articulated in elegant ways, as in the case of James Damore and the mythical Female Brain Syndrome, opportunities arise. What if we used James Damore as a catalyst for conversations that cut through old oppositions? As mega-corporations like Google occupy an ever more intimate role in our lives, the space for individual freedom must be strengthened, whether it is through labor protections, the fostering of a more tolerant corporate culture, or some combination of the two. That should be an American agenda, not a leftist one.