On managing outrage in Silicon Valley

I hate sexism; it can’t be eradicated fast enough. I’m frustrated that there’s still far too little diversity in Silicon Valley.

Yet a newer form of discrimination is starting to greatly alarm me, and that’s discrimination against anyone with a point of view that’s deemed offensive to the tech majority.

You know already what I’m talking about: people are angry about a Google engineer who wrote an overly long memo, arguing that the fact that there are fewer women engineers than men is a natural state.

I have no interest in trying to deconstruct what this person wrote.  I don’t think it made much sense, and what I did understand of it seemed very poorly argued. For what it’s worth, I’ll note that like the vast majority of people who have read this memo — and that’s now roughly one million people, including Google employees — I strongly disagree with this person’s views about gender and race.

But let’s stop for a minute and think about exactly what has happened here. The author is a mid-level engineer. He is one individual in a company that employs more than 72,000 people. Why has Silicon Valley spent the weekend talking about him, railing against him, bashing Google?

Quartz wrote a smart piece earlier, saying that the real problem with this person’s viral anti-diversity memo “is bigger than Silicon Valley,” and it tied this engineer’s leanings to Trumpism, which has emboldened a subset of Trump supporters to be more public about their repulsive views.

I understand the temptation to draw a line from one to the other, but I don’t think it’s right or fair. I will admit that the tech industry’s swift response to real scandals has led to outcomes that I secretly hoped to see. It also makes a certain kind of sense to feel anger toward Google given that it has been accused by the U.S. Department of Labor of “extreme” gender pay discrimination.

But this groupthink terrifies me when it’s used to bully people for exercising their right to free speech. How will we know what people are truly thinking if we rush to silence them?

Contrary to what some people have written, this engineer was not violating anti-discrimination laws by writing his memo. (If he were a manager and put this kind of thinking into practice, he would be, and I’d have my pitchfork out, too.)

This engineer is not the reason that Google is being investigated over pay inequality; you’d have to look to its executive offices for answers about that.

In the meantime, there have been numerous calls for this person to be fired, and Google is seemingly wrestling with what to do. Yesterday, Google’s new VP of Diversity, Integrity, and Goverance, Danielle Brown, responded to the engineer’s misguided memo by defending his right to speak out, writing: “Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.”

She also created an opening for this employee’s termination by stating that [employee] discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

This person’s memo was not hate speech. Accordingly, it would set a terrible precedent if Google signaled to employees that expressing one’s thinking –  even if it’s antiquated or idiosyncratic or offensive – is a fireable offense.

Even in these uncertain and often frustrating times, this is still a free country. We should cherish that and fight to keep it so. You and I might not like what this employee had to say, but he still had the right to say it.