Discourse, Dissent, and The Boundaries of Free Speech

What we can learn from Damore v. Google

Recent events have brought long-simmering cultural irresolution about the role of women in our society to a fever pitch, and into the public square of opinion. But the core issues — and the divisions implicit in the controversies swirling around — have not led to a kumbaya moment: on the contrary.

I will only add a few questions to the discussion, since any useful resolution will require time and more thinking than what one person can do.

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American culture is on the whole deeply conservative, but we also have a counter history of progressivism. We live in a polarized country where a large minority, on one side, continue to hold opinions that would have seemed mainstream in 1910, like the secondary role of women in a male-centric society, the inferiority of Blacks and other ‘races’ relative to those with Northern European ancestry, and the distrust or illegitimization of those who advocate for any changes in these and other cultural keystones. On the other side, we have a metropolitan progressive minority who believe that this formerly mainstream zeitgeist is obsolete and immoral, and therefore doubly illegitimate. And we have a third minority, swinging back and forth from progressive movements (Kennedy, Obama) to conservatism (Reagan, Trump).

But even the most progressive — except the infinitesimal few far-left anarchists — believe in the right of businesses to police discourse in the workforce, and to censor those who advocate political, cultural, or religious principles deemed illegitimate, dangerous, or taboo. For example, no one advocating cannibalism, incest, or human sacrifice as a sacrament would get very much support if their employer decided to fire them.

But after that hard line, everything turns gray.

The controversy surrounding James Damore’s ‘manifesto’ brings this boiling cauldron of cultural conflict out into the open. And of course, all this is taking place in the context of an ongoing parade of sexual harassment cases in Silicon Valley’s VC ranks, the mess at Uber, the cascade of similar stories at Fox News and other media companies, and in the shadow of Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 elections to ‘Grab’em-by-the-Pussy’ Trump.

If it ever was going to be possible to observe what is going on with the Apollonian reserve of an anthropologist from Tau Ceti, this ain’t that time. Instead, this has to be more up close and in-the-moment, and so these questions will be uncomfortable:

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The 1st Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition, and in particular, it prohibits Congress from passing laws that would restrict the press or individuals to speak freely. This does not extend to other organizations, such as businesses, media, or religious groups, who are — at least to the extent they break no other laws — are free to censor and expel employees or organization members whose speech is unacceptable to the organization or business. So, a Catholic charity can fire employees for supporting abortion rights. However, we seem to cross a line if a company decides to fire an employee for volunteering for a political candidate his employer opposes (and in some states this is illegal). Where is the line when we cross from what may seem to be ‘reasonable’ enforcement of organizational policies and political orientation, to suppression of dissent that seems capricious, arbitrary, or anti-democratic?

More specifically, the current judicial interpretation of the US Constitution hews pretty close to some principles regarding civil rights, namely, all people must be treated equally under the law. Note that Google, where Damore was employed, is under review by the US government for pay disparity of women employed there. Leaving aside the legal entanglement between Google and the US, how much latitude can employees of Google — or other corporations — expect in dissenting with company policies regarding cultural ‘hot spots’ like sexual and racial equality? Is it legitimate for an employer to state that — outside sanctioned meetings for the purpose of exploring and clarifying company HR policies regarding discourse — certain viewpoints about company policies are illegitimate, and expressing them will lead to censure, and perhaps termination?1. This is clearly the stance that Google has adopted in the Damore matter, that he is advocating harmful gender stereotypes regarding supposed biological differences between men and women that will lead to a toxic workplace if left unchecked, since they seem to support institutionalized unequal treatment.

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One of the generally understood outcomes of any attempts by organizations to police speech through censure and termination is that this has a ‘chilling’ effect on speech. Employees who are unsure of what can be said without blowback are then left is a situation where they opt to not speak about other related issues, either, and as a result their ability to freely associate with other workers to discuss working conditions and workplace safety or other issues will be diminished, since they are afraid of being terminated or censured. There is then a clear obligation for employers to spell out clearly and unequivocally its policies, and procedures through which employees can discuss these policies — and potentially argue against them — in a safe context, even if advocating positions counter to these policies in other contexts is not permitted. Is it legitimate then to terminate an employee for expressing ideas counter to company policy, if in fact the policies have not been concretely stated, and the opportunity for safe discourse has not been instituted?

In the case at Google I can only surmise. However, Damore’s manifesto is incendiary in part because it is clearly intended to as a challenge to policy conducted way outside of any notion of a ‘safe context for dissent’, like a company-managed workshop on equality, gender issues, workplace culture, or the like. The gender stereotypes argument is the payload of his manifesto, but it was the distribution outside of sanctioned context that led to his dismissal.

In the end, Damore v. Google may be just another footnote in the long story of discrimination in tech. But who is discriminating against who depends on where you stand: are you on the progressive side, viewing Damore v Google as a step toward ending discrimination against women in the workforce, or do you see this as yet another intrusion of progressive ideology attempting to redefine cultural norms and upending the status quo? And the answer is yes, to both questions, which proves once again that we live in a time of dilemmas, not answers, where we have to find a balance between irreconcilable differences, and give up on absolutes.

Originally published at stoweboyd.com.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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