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Recent events at Google have sparked a PR nightmare for the corporation, and have once again brought the issue of free speech to the forefront of public consciousness. In the case of Google, the debate exceeds questions of legality and brings up the value of free expression as an economic tool.
The debate began after a Google employee, James Damore, circulated an internal memo about the cultural taboos that have emerged around social equality, and the ways in which gender diversity is pursued at Google. Damore suggested that some of the gender disparity in the tech industry is due to innate biological gender differences, and questioned the notion being pushed at Google that those disparities are entirely products of socially constructed, oppressive systems. To support his claims, Damore referenced some of the relevant psychological literature, specifically focusing on gender differences across the Big 5 Personality Traits. After the memo went viral, Damore was fired for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes.”
Beyond the diversity issue, this event presents an opportunity to have a dialogue about the economic value of free speech. Freedom of expression is much more than a right: it is the superordinate principle at the core of Western civilization. It is the tool that enables societies to grow and evolve, while also acting as their most powerful mechanism for guiding and counterbalancing change.
But to speak about freedom of expression purely in terms of the right to “Free Speech” is to entirely miss the point. Fundamentally, freedom of expression is the right that enables individuals to interact honestly with the world: it allows people to survey reality, evaluate it, and react to the best of their ability. This freedom is the primary tool available for social and political evolution, but it is also a critical mechanism for a free market economy’s growth, productivity, and long-term sustainability.
On an individual basis, freedom of expression is necessary for creating competent economic actors. For a capitalist system to function well, individuals must have the ability to weigh options, evaluate their relative costs and benefits, and then make educated decisions. By muzzling free speech, the ability of consumers to make those decisions is impaired. For example, just as an ill-informed voter is susceptible to electing a candidate that will work against his or her interests, an investor who has been denied access to the financial statements of a corporation will be prone to investing in a potentially unstable company.
Additionally, on a broader level, freedom of expression is essential to creating effective business structures and strategies. In order to engineer a product or system of real value, the relevant data must be taken into account. To make an accurate appraisal of a given market, one must have access to all of the information on the prevailing weaknesses and strengths of preexisting products, competitors, and the potential opportunities for innovation.
In order for the decision makers of a business to structure the company’s efforts effectively, they must be able and willing to interact with feedback, especially when it is negative. In this sense, economic freedom of expression is just as much about the ability to listen as it is about the right to speak.
Freedom of expression, as we know it, far exceeds the right to speak freely without fear of state intervention; it is about allowing individuals and organizations to interact openly with the world around them, unconstrained by a priori assumptions and censorship.
Questions about the legality of Google’s actions have been raised, but it is not a First Amendment issue. The state must operate on the principle of “viewpoint neutrality” regarding public discourse, meaning that it has no right to inhibit freedom of expression based on ideological content, offensiveness, or ostensible bigotry. While the state’s role – or lack thereof – is clear, however, private institutions operate under a completely different set of rules. So, when it comes to James Damore and Google, the issue is not primarily a legal one, but one about utility – whether or not it is in Google’s best interest to constrain the expression of its employees within ideological parameters.
Beginning from a position of good faith, the basic assumptions of both parties in this conflict appear correct. The claims made by Google’s executive are warranted: the tech industry has a woeful gender diversity problem, detrimental both to the tech industry and to current and prospective female employees. In addition, negative biases and gender stereotypes likely play a role in this disparity. Women have historically been deterred and barred from entering STEM fields, and reverberations from that reality are still felt in today’s labor market.
Yet, the scientific evidence presented by Damore is not mere “pop psychology,” and it should not be a surprise that there are innate biological differences between men and women. Generally speaking, these differences influence quantifiable personality traits, and play a role in the asymmetrical gender distribution present in certain vocations and industries, independent of cultural constructs and institutional biases.
Google’s treatment of Damore provides a clue as to why the corporation is still grappling with a gender diversity problem on such a large scale: they are unwilling to listen. Though Damore’s memo came in response to a request for employee feedback, Google’s reaction showed that the company was really only looking for an affirmation of their strengths, not constructive criticism. Despite having pumped millions of dollars into solving its diversity problem, Google has achieved only minimal results, giving credence to the idea that their refusal to engage in a dialogue is itself a barrier to progress. By doggedly sticking to their assumption that the gender diversity problem is entirely due to systemic oppression, stereotypes, and unconscious biases, Google is barring itself from making structural changes that would address the issue on a multidimensional level and, perhaps, bring about real progress.
That is not to say that Google’s Diversity, Integrity, and Governance department is totally without value, but rather that it is merely one gear in a machine that can only function properly when it engages openly and honestly with reality. Doing so requires the total dismissal of assumptions about the nature of problems and their perceived solutions.
The optimal way to maximize gender parity in the tech industry is with strategies that are based in science, not in defiance of it. Instead of Google’s model of a top-down approach, imposing gender quotas and mandating subconscious anti-bias training for employees, we should start at the bottom. Rather than imposing artificially constructed outcomes, a better approach would be to tackle the problem at the source. One potential solution, for instance, could be creating STEM education and training programs that are tailored to the general personality dispositions of young women, and which take advantage of, rather than ignore, natural proclivities towards certain topics and learning methods. This is not sexism or misogyny: it is an empowering strategy that proactively embraces the reality of our differences.
The Google-Damore conflict is a microcosm of the importance of free expression, not from a legal or political perspective, but from a utilitarian one. It is in the self-interest of businesses to foster an environment in which employees are free to appropriately express their doubts, offer criticism, and defy orthodoxies. To do so is to fuel progress, innovation, and long-term sustainability, and to deny this reality is to be suffocated by one’s own prejudices and assumptions.