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Google's Problem is America's Problem

The flap about James Damore’s memo at Google, in which he makes assertions about male/female differences and criticizes the company’s “ideological echo-chamber” in its training programs and workplace policies, is symptomatic of a larger issue in American society. A significant portion of Americans, in academia, in the media, and in the larger society, appear to have reached a consensus that the way to confront ideas that are not shared by the majority (in that particular setting) is to ban or punish them, rather than discuss them. The line of reasoning usually goes that certain categories of ideas, such as those which are sexist, or racist, or anti-religion, for instance, are harmful if expressed, because they promote prejudice and they encourage hate. This is undoubtedly true. But then, the next step is to assign ideas to these categories.  This step is a subjective one. When James Damore asserted that there were temperamental differences between males and females that might impact self-selection of employment choices, he didn’t think he was being sexist. Many of his colleagues did, and Damore was fired for voicing his opinion. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher may criticize all religions for inciting people to hate and violence, but if they mention a specific religion in their criticism, they are considered prejudiced and “hate mongers,” and Dawkins is refused a venue to voice his views, while there are calls for Maher’s television show to be canceled. In each case, rather than discussing the ideas, we decide they are an instance of harmful prejudice and urge that they not be allowed to be expressed.

In our society today we have extreme groups who are prejudiced and hateful and are racist, sexist, hateful toward some religions and ethnicities, and often urge violence against those they hate. These are the alt-right and neo-Nazi groups that seemed to have gotten new life during this current presidency. The fear of many is that if small, microagressions against vulnerable individuals or groups are left unchallenged, then they threaten to grow into the extreme macroagressions of the militant far-right.

The alt-right and neo-Nazi rhetoric is a long distance away from the prejudices that plague the minds of ordinary people, but can the latter grow into the former? Agreed upon prejudices that are not revealed or discussed are fertile ground for the growth of increasingly extreme views, which each seem, at first, only a small distance from the traditionally accepted viewpoint, but their acceptance leads to expression and then acceptance of even more extreme views. This is a verified process of groupthink. But the answer to combating such growth of virulent opinions is to expose them and discuss them, not to prohibit them. The Nazi menace in Germany began its greatest growth in 1933 when public discussion became narrowed and limited by the Hitler regime. The Germans accepted it because they were told that the ideas of the most vocal opponents of the Nazis, the Communists, were too dangerous to be heard.

We make the mistake of identifying the ideas and opinions as what threaten us when it is the restriction of discussion that sows the seeds of groupthink and Orwellian Newspeak. The essence of democracy is critical discussion, not enforcement of certain viewpoints. Such enforcement results in an eventual curtailment of democracy.


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