Politics, Science / Tech, Tech

Lawsuit Exposes Internet Giant’s Internal Culture of Intolerance

James Damore, the former Google engineer who was fired last summer after authoring a document questioning the company’s diversity policies, has filed a lawsuit against the company. In a 161-page complaint, he does far more than challenge his firing and accuses Google of systemic discrimination against and harassment of white and male employees, as well as of violating a California state law that prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of an employee’s political persuasion. He has joined together with another engineer by the name of David Gudeman who was also fired after he expressed politically incorrect views. Together, the two of them are requesting that their case be treated as a class action on behalf of all employees who have faced similar treatment at the hands of the Internet giant. The charges that they make are broad and far-reaching, but they are not asking that their claims be taken on faith alone. More than half of the complaint is taken up by an 87-page-long exhibit consisting of screenshots from internal systems used by Google employees to communicate. These screenshots present a stunning display of unprofessional behavior not just by rank-and-file employees but managers and even a senior vice president, including overt discrimination, prejudice on the basis of race and gender, conflation of dissenting political views with racism and sexism, punishment of those who asked questions about what behavior was permitted, endorsement of politically motivated violence, and even an attack on the very notion of truth itself.

The complaint alleges that Google’s affirmative action programs went beyond merely setting targets and conducting outreach events restricted to certain demographics. At a “Diversity Team Kickoff” event, a director announced plans “to freeze headcount so that teams could find diversity candidates to help fill the empty roles,” with “diversity candidates” being defined to mean “women and non-Caucasian individuals” (Complaint 46). In other words, Google saw fit to stop hiring white men at all for certain teams until the desired numbers of favored groups were met. Not only did Google practice this discrimination itself, but it also attempted to use its power in the industry to coerce other companies into doing the same, with one manager instructing his employees as follows:

Next time you get invited to speak at a conference, especially if you’re a white male – ask the organizer to confirm you’re the only white male on the panel / in the speaker lineup. If not, say you are honored, but must decline, and give the reason. And because you are at Google, guess what – they’re going to change the panel for you. You’ll feel bad about inconveniencing them. But not that bad. When the cheesy white male executive is in the “green room” and glaring at you because he was bounced for the panel in favor of a woman on his team, you’ll feel pretty damn smug. Or you won’t: you’ll feel bad that you might have put her in a tough spot, and you’ll go above and beyond to make good with the schmucky senior dude (Complaint 42).

Smug indeed. The willingness to displace all of the other people on a panel, people who presumably worked hard to earn those speaking opportunities, displays a level of ego that is striking.

Despite these glaring acts of discrimination, the social justice activists within the company are still not satisfied and are pushing for ever-more-extreme forms of affirmative action. Proposals have included adding points to the interview scores of favored candidates (Exhibit 25), penalizing senior vice presidents whose teams didn’t hire the desired demographics by taking away half of their equity compensation (Exhibit 25), and even an outright “moratorium on hiring white cis heterosexual abled men who aren’t abuse survivors” (Exhibit 83). One manager proposed an experiment in discrimination:

I think only women and [people of color] should be allowed to make hiring decisions at google [sic] for a year. And/or randomly assign a third of each position type to only be hired by women, [people of color], or unselected type. Look at the resulting data. Google likes experiments? Do an experiment (Exhibit 25).

Apparently, it never occurred to her that her proposal is a flagrant violation of federal civil rights laws. Another manager saw fit to take matters into his own hands, declaring that he would begin each interview with “a discussion of experience with diversity” and only proceed to the technical questions that assess a candidate’s qualifications for the job once he was satisfied that the candidate had met his ideological litmus test (Exhibit 25).

This tendency toward discrimination was accompanied by numerous instances of prejudice directed at white men. The complaint alleges that “the presence of Caucasians and males was mocked with ‘boos’ during company-wide weekly meetings” by individuals who included “high-level managers…who were responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, or hiring and firing decisions” (Complaint 3). One employee posted to a forum, “If you put a group of 40-something white men in a room together and tell them to come up with something creative or innovative, they’ll come back and tell you how enjoyable the process was, and how they want to do it again, but they come up with fuck-all as a result!” (Complaint 43) This claim is, of course, demonstrably false as evidenced by the many inventions and discoveries contributed to humanity by white men in their forties. When another employee complained to human resources that the post constituted harassment on the grounds of race, gender, and age, all of which are protected classes under federal law, Google responded that the post was acceptable because its purpose was “to highlight that it is helpful to have diverse perspective” (Complaint 43). It seems that Google’s definition of diversity does not require respecting the basic human dignity of all people.

These are far from the only instances of prejudice documented in the complaint. Employees mocked those who expressed concerns about unfairness to those passed over by affirmative action, declaring that they “already have all the advantages in the world” (Complaint 40) and that “it’s not sexism / racism if it’s against males / whites” (Exhibit 76). Such concerns were dismissed as “devil’s-advocate troll-bullshit” (Complaint 41). One employee declared all white men to be part of the problem: “By being a white male, you are in a privileged class that is actively harmful to others, whether you like it or not. So, no, you really actually don’t get to complain about your right to an opinion” (Exhibit 53). Another pontificated, “The only way we ‘move past color’ in America is for white people to shut up and listen” (Exhibit 47). Slurs casually flung around included “whitesplaining” (Exhibit 58), “white fragility” (Exhibit 59), “white tears” (Exhibit 85), “toxic whiteness” (Exhibit 61), and of course “mansplaining” (Exhibit 74). In some cases, the slurs were sexually explicit, with one employee declaring that “being a computer programmer is even sweeter if you have a dick” (Exhibit 84) and another congratulating anyone who disagreed with him on his “white penis” (Exhibit 55). One employee compared the reaction of “straight white men” to her use of the word “privilege” to “vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon” (Exhibit 52). A manager advised his subordinates, “It’s good to be periodically reminded, given how popular Dilbert is amongst us geek-folk, that the creator of Dilbert is…a paranoid sexist dickbag” (Exhibit 50). Another manager challenged others to “Stop Reading White Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year” (Exhibit 51).

The intolerance on display was not just racial and sexual but also political. One employee openly declared, “I personally believe that a majority of self-identified ‘Republicans’ can be placed in the bucket category of idiots (or uneducated)” (Exhibit 3). Another proclaimed his hostility, “If you’re concerned about discussing conservative values at work, maybe you should be. Maybe that’s a feature, and not a bug” (Exhibit 2). An employee who sympathized with his heterodox colleagues recounted, “I have lost count of the times at Google…people tell me privately that they cannot admit their voting choice if they are Republican because they fear how other Googlers will react” (Exhibit 11).

Conservative ideology was treated by many as being the equivalent of racism and sexism: “The choice to be a Republican is the choice to align yourself with a white supremacist, xenophobic regime” (Exhibit 1). Another employee declared that “one of two major American political party [sic] has adopted white supremacy as a political platform” (Exhibit 1). When one employee discussed “Conservative Christianity” as being among “legitimate world views,” another responded, “I admire your tolerance, but pairing those two phrases still sounds like an oxymoron to me” (Exhibit 1).

The vilest treatment, however, was reserved for those who supported the candidacy of Donald Trump. One Trump voter at the company recounted his experience following the election:

As a Republican at Google and a person who voted for Trump, I already knew I was in the minority. What I didn’t foresee is the fact that I would have to come into work yesterday and hear my cube mates ridicule and mock people like myself that voted for Trump, and then have that behavior reinforced by senior leaders who sent emails condoning the beratement of Republicans (Exhibit 14).

When one employee urged others to show respect and try to understand one another even if they chose different candidates, another replied:

I mean no disrespect, but statements like this come off rather condescending IMO when the rule of law has been killing blackfolks for generations and is now well documented, and part of the platform of the man who was elected was that law would be harder on blackfolk. This sort of statement smells strongly of privilege that many people in the US do not have (Exhibit 15).

The notion that it would make a difference if someone voted for Trump for reasons other than his incendiary rhetoric was explicitly repudiated:

Unfortunately, when you vote for or nominate a candidate, you vote for the entire package. You can’t support Donald Trump without also supporting his racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. Or even worse, if you vote for Donald Trump because of his economic policy or because you feel the other party is corrupt, then what you’re saying is that economics is more important than the safety of your peers (Exhibit 31).

In this climate of little tolerance for dissent, it is understandable that employees whose views differed from the prevailing opinions might wish to ascertain exactly what the boundaries were. However, the complaint alleges that employees were punished for merely asking such questions. Two such questions leading to punishment were as follows:

Are you insinuating that it is a “jerk move” to share your opinion about a political blog post if 98% of Googlers disagree with you, but it’s OK to share your opinion about a political blog post if 98% of Googlers agree with you? If so, how do you reconcile this view with [Senior Vice President Urs Hölzle’s] request to help make Google a supportive place for minorities of any kind? (Complaint 24)

Many Googlers have claimed that it is “harassment” or some other rule violation to critique articles that push the Social Justice agenda. A few Googlers have openly called for others to be fired over it. Do you support this viewpoint, and if so, can we add a clear statement of banned opinions to the employee handbook so that everybody knows what the ground rules are? (Complaint 24)

One employee responded to the latter question, saying, “yes, the posting of this kind of ‘critique’ – and in fact, the posing of this very question itself – directly contributes to the creation of a hostile work environment for women at this company” (Exhibit 21). In doing so, he seems to be engaging in what the equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers has termed “fainting couch feminism,” treating women as too fragile to be exposed to an opinion with which they might disagree and thereby reinforcing many of the stereotypes that earlier generations of feminists fought so hard to erase.1

Some of the behavior on display at Google went beyond hate speech into the realm of outright endorsements of politically motivated violence. One employee proclaimed:

This is why I refuse to condemn rioters or punching Nazis. This is targeted, political, defensive violence. It’s what happens when you leave otherwise nonviolent people with no other choice, and it’s what happens when a movement ignores everything else: facts, morality, empathy, justice, fairness, whatever…

So, let some black bloc guy punch a Nazi, and let the world point and laugh. Let it be symbolic and let all the Nazis fear. And then repeat after me: this is not normal. This is not normal (Exhibit 39).

Others join in the calls for violence: “If you subscribe to an ideology that, as a matter of fact, wants to kill people because they are different – and has, by the millions – then you deserve being punched in the face. Repeatedly” (Exhibit 40). One employee declared that “we are at a point where the dialogue we need to be having with these people is ‘if you keep talking about this shit, I [sic] will hurt you’” and that “the only way to change people’s minds is to make being a fucking nazi [sic] have consequences” (Exhibit 40). Another casually announced, “Also in the mood to punch Nazis, but none within punching distance” (Exhibit 41). For one employee, simply being a male engineer was enough to justify the desire for violence: “Every time I’m reminded of the travails of Kathy Sierra it makes me want to pound a brogrammer in the face” (Exhibit 48). Another employee announced his participation in #TheIdesofTrump, a movement to protest Trump on the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar (Exhibit 81).

Yet perhaps the most shocking revelation in the complaint was the declaration by Senior Vice President Urs Hölzle that the scientific method should not be applied to questions pertaining to diversity:

As engineers, we’re trained to pay attention to the details, think logically, challenge assumptions that may be incorrect (or just fuzzy), and so on. These are all excellent tools for technical discussions. But they can be terrible tools for discussion around race, discrimination, justice, and so on, because these discussions touch topics with a high cultural and emotional content. That’s because questioning the exact details can easily be perceived as questioning the overall validity of the effort, or the veracity of the historical context.

Behind Hölzle’s statement is the assumption that it is wrong to question the validity of a diversity effort that treats people differently due to innate characteristics beyond their control or the truth of the narrative used to justify it. Instead, these claims must be taken on faith. The emotions of those who would benefit are so inviolable as to warrant suppressing inquiry into the facts, yet no regard is given for the emotions of those who are suffering from this discrimination. Those who believe this should be ashamed to call themselves supporters of either science or justice.

Hölzle goes on to compare questioning the narratives behind diversity programs with going to a funeral and criticizing the deceased. It would be the wrong time to do so out of respect for the mourners, even if the deceased was a person who deserved criticism. This is undoubtedly true, but it also a deeply flawed analogy. A funeral lasts for a short period of time. The fact that someone has died does not grant that person the right to be perpetually treated as infallible. If now is not the right time to question these policies, then when is? No answer is provided to this question.

For a better example of how to address these issues, we might do well to look to Alan Dershowitz, a Jewish law professor at Harvard, who was once confronted with an anti-Semite who denied the historical accuracy of the Holocaust. Rather than seeking to censor the anti-Semite, Dershowitz instead proposed a debate between the two of them that would take place at Auschwitz, where the evidence for the Holocaust is located.2 As Justice Louis Brandeis said when defending the importance of transparency and free speech, “Sunlight is said to be one of the best disinfectants.” If one is confident in the strength of the evidence to support one’s claims, then there is no good reason to fear scrutiny.

Based on the information revealed in Damore’s complaint, we would do well to recognize that Google has through its actions forfeited a great deal of its credibility. It cannot claim to be a neutral arbiter of information when it denies a hearing to any ideas that do not conform to its politically correct dogma. It cannot claim to be a leading proponent of science when it prioritizes emotions over truth. It cannot claim not to be evil when it censors and discriminates. The case is still in its earliest stages, and there is no doubt that even more of Google’s ugly internal culture will be revealed when witnesses begin to be interrogated. It seems likely that Damore’s charges will resonate with a jury that, unlike Google, will contain Americans from across the political spectrum. Yet whatever the outcome of the case is in a court of law, what has been revealed ought to affect the degree of trust that the public extends to Google.

 

The author is a software engineer. Gideon Scopes is a pseudonym. Given the current climate surrounding political expression in the technology industry, his real name has been withheld.

 

References

1 Sommers, Christina Hoff. How fainting couch feminism threatens freedom [Internet]. Washington (DC): American Enterprise Institute; 2015 Jun 22 [cited 2018 Jan 28]. Available from: http://www.aei.org/multimedia/how-fainting-couch-feminism-threatens-freedom/

2 Dershowitz, Alan. The Case for Israel. Hoboken (NJ): John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2003. 265 p.

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The author is a software engineer. Gideon Scopes is a pseudonym. Given the current climate surrounding political expression in the technology industry, his real name has been withheld.