I really should know better than to 386 myself, but this
manifesto from a (former) Googler has me furious.
Oh, first of all, let me just get past any inevitable whinging that I’m not bothering to refute the bullshit contained therein. In the spirit of Brandolini’s law, here are some thorough debunkings:
- Faruk has written an excellent well-reasoned riposte that also includes a valuable history lesson.
- A former Googler wrote a three point rebuttal:
- Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.
- Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.
- And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.
- Angela Saini—author of Inferior—wrote in The Guardian about the decidedly unscientific cherry-picking of data within a memo that claims to be all about the science.
- Ethar Alali published a three-part dissection of the
Okay, with that out of the way, let me get to what really grinds my gears about this.
First off, there’s the contents of the document itself. It is reprehensible. It sets out to prove a biological link between a person’s gender and their ability to work at Google. It fails miserably, as shown in the links above, but it is cleverly presented as though it were an impartial scientific evaluation (I’m sure it’s complete coincidence that the author just happens to be a man). It begins by categorically stating that the author is all for diversity. This turns out to be as accurate as when someone starts a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but…”
The whole thing is couched in scientism that gives it a veneer of respectability. That leads me to the second thing I’m upset about, and that’s the reaction to the document.
Y’know, it’s one thing when someone’s clearly a troll. It’s easy—and sensible—to dismiss their utterances and move on. But when you see seemingly-smart people linking to the manifestbro and saying “he kind of has a point”, it’s way more infuriating. If you are one of those people (and when I say people, I mean men), you should know that you have been played.
The memo is clearly not a screed. It is calm, clear, polite, and appears perfectly reasonable. “Look,” it says, “I’m just interested in the objective facts here. I’m being reasonable, and if you’re a reasonable person, then you will give this a fair hearing.”
That’s a very appealing position. What reasonable person would reject it? And so, plenty of men who consider themselves to be reasonable and objective are linking to the document and saying it deserves consideration. Strangely, those same men aren’t considering the equally reasonable rebuttals (linked to above). That’s confirmation bias.
See? I can use terms like that to try to make myself sound smart too. Mind you, confirmation bias is not the worst logical fallacy in the memo. That would the Texas sharpshooter fallacy (which, admittedly, is somewhat related to confirmation bias). And, yes, I know that by even pointing out the logical fallacies, I run the risk of committing the fallacy fallacy. The memo is reprehensible not for the fallacies it contains, but for the viewpoint it sets out to legitimise.
The author cleverly wraps a disgusting viewpoint in layers of reasonable-sounding arguments. “Can’t we have a reasonable discussion about this? Like reasonable people? Shouldn’t we tolerate other points of view?” Those are perfectly sensible questions to ask if the discussion is about tabs vs. spaces or Star Wars vs. Star Trek. But those questions cease to be neutral if the topic under discussion is whether some human beings are genetically unsuited to coding.
This is how we get to a situation where men who don’t consider themselves to be sexist in any way—who consider themselves to be good people—end up posting about the Google memo in their workplace Slack channels as though it were a topic worthy of debate. It. Is. Not.
“A-ha!” cry the oh-so-logical and thoroughly impartial men, “If a topic cannot even be debated, you must be threatened by the truth!”
That is one possible conclusion, yes. Or—and this is what Occam’s razor would suggest—it might just be that I’m fucking sick of this. Sick to my stomach. I am done. I am done with even trying to reason with people who think that they’re the victimised guardians of truth and reason when they’re actually just threatened by the thought of a world that doesn’t give them special treatment.
I refuse to debate this. Does that make me inflexible? Yep, sure does. But, y’know, not everything is worthy of debate. When the very premise of the discussion is harmful, all appeals to impartiality ring hollow.
If you read the ex-Googler’s memo and thought “seems reasonable to me”, I hope you can see how you have been played like a violin. Your most virtuous traits—being even-handed and open-minded—have been used against you. I hope that you will try to use those same traits to readdress what has been done. If you read through the rebuttals linked to above and still think that the original memo was reasonable, I fear the damage is quite deep.
It may seem odd that a document that appears to be so reasonable is proving to be so very divisive. But it’s that very appearance of impartiality that gives it its power. It is like an optical illusion for the mind. Some people—like me—read it and think, “this is clearly wrong and harmful.” Other people—who would never self-identify as sexist in any way—read it and think, “seems legit.”
I’m almost—almost—glad that it was written. It’s bringing a lot of buried biases into the light.
By the way, if you are one of those people who still thinks that the memo was “perfectly reasonable” or “made some good points”, and we know each other, please get in touch so that I can re-evaluate our relationship.
The saddest part about all of this is that there are men being incredibly hurtful and cruel to the women they work with, without even realising what they’re doing. They may even think think they are actively doing good.
Take this tweet to Jen which was no doubt intended as a confidence boost:
I disagree with you about the memo, but I always have and continue to admire your work and your giant contributions to CSS. Thank you! ♥️— Brandon Flynn (@btflynn) August 8, 2017
See how it is glibly passed off as though it were some slight disagreement, like which flavour of ice cream is best? “Well, we’ll agree to disagree about half the population being biologically unsuitable for this kind of work.” And then that’s followed by what is genuinely—in good faith—intended as a compliment. But the juxtaposition of the two results in the message “Hey, you’re really good …for a woman.”
That’s what I find so teeth-grindingly frustrating about all this. I don’t think that guy is a troll. If he were, I could just block and move on. He genuinely thinks he’s a good person who cares about objective truth. He has been played.
A nasty comment from a troll is bad. It’s hurtful in a blunt, shocking way. But there’s a different kind of hurt that comes from a casual, offhand, even well-meaning comment that’s cruel in a more deep-rooted way.
This casual cruelty. This insidious, creeping, never-ending miasma of sexism. It is well and truly intolerable.
This is not up for debate.