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Google’s Silent Majority

Did the tech giant just fire one of its most moderate employees?

By

James Freeman

The initial media characterization of fired Google employee James Damore’s now-famous memo as a mere anti-diversity screed has not aged well. On Monday this column noted the condemnations of Mr. Damore online, but it’s becoming clear that a lot of Mr. Damore’s former colleagues were sorry to see him go. Perhaps they understand that he was not saying that women can’t do software programming, but rather describing reasons why, on average, women might have less interest in such work than men. Some academic researchers have since affirmed some of his empirical claims. And it turns out that Silicon Valley opposition to the firing of the software engineer extends beyond Google. Business Insider describes a poll conducted this week:

Employees across Silicon Valley are deeply divided about Google’s move, according to a survey conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday by Blind, an anonymous corporate chat app. When Blind asked its users if they thought Google should have fired Damore, over 4,000 from different companies weighed in. Perhaps most pertinently, 441 Google employees responded. Of them, more than half – 56% to be precise– said they didn’t think it was right for the company to fire Damore. The former engineer actually had significant support among all the corporations represented in the survey.

This is just one survey, but reporting by the Journal also suggests that while those who mischaracterize Mr. Damore’s views as an attack on women may be loud, they probably don’t represent most of his former co-workers:

There are “definite mixed feelings” inside the company, one employee said. “There are people of all political stripes, and there’s outrage at the extreme of both ends of the spectrum and more sanity in the middle.” Moderate liberals at the company don’t believe the memo threatens the rights of women at the company, while moderate conservatives don’t think Mr. Damore’s firing means they can’t express themselves, this employee said. “But ultimately the loudest voices on the fringes drive the perception and reaction.”

For some reason, after his firing Mr. Damore chose to express himself this week in an interview with Internet controversialist Stefan Molyneux. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Molyneux, Mr. Damore’s comments may be shocking to those who have spent days consuming media coverage of the infamous memo author.

Viewers may be surprised to learn that Mr. Damore is not a conservative, but a non-partisan critic of both the right and the left. He believes both sides of the ideological divide have valuable insights to offer. He doesn’t want to be a CEO because he desires more work-life balance. He makes suggestions on how to change Google’s work process and hiring to make the company more appealing and accessible to women—and also more effective. If you didn’t know any better you might think from this interview that he was among the most moderate, sensible people at Google—or any other workplace.

And perhaps he is. As he did in his memo, Mr. Damore on video urges people to consider evidence from all sides of a political argument and to empathize with those who hold opposing views. He recommends seeing people as individuals, not as members of some larger group.

It seems that the moderate, reasonable person who appears in this interview is also the person many of his colleagues saw before the recent media firestorm—but after reading his memo. Mr. Damore reports that he shared drafts of the memo about a month ago with various colleagues. “Many people looked at it but no one ever had this explosive reaction. All of the responses were just rational discussion,” he says.

You might naturally expect Mr. Damore to be bitter, but he says, “I love Google” and speaks fondly of the “dream job” he secured by making it to the semifinals of a Google coding contest. He even sympathizes with the idea that for legal reasons, the company might have felt compelled to eject a critic of the company’s approach to increasing diversity. “For sure Google is under a ton of pressure on multiple fronts and throughout the globe,” says Mr. Damore.

And internally, he describes intense pressure on non-leftists to keep their beliefs to themselves—no matter their standing at the firm. Mr. Damore suspects that Google parent Alphabet’s co-founder, director and President Sergey Brin “may identify as libertarian but does not want to say it.”

In a lighter moment, Mr. Damore says that one of the reasons he wrote the memo was that for business reasons he had to travel to China and “I had a 12-hour flight to fill my time with.”

Speaking of China, it is just one of many places around the world that threatens the technological leadership of Silicon Valley. Mr. Damore’s experience raises a question of how high a price companies like Google should pay in pursuit of a particular vision of social justice. The fired software engineer describes former colleagues who said they were thinking of quitting because they weren’t part of the political “groupthink” and felt “totally isolated and alienated.”

There is no guarantee that the finalists and semifinalists of coding competitions will always want to work at Google. Perhaps the company should be focused on attracting and developing all kinds of employees, including non-leftists.

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(Carol Muller and Sophie Mann help compile Best of the Web.)

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