In Defense of Broader Free Speech Norms

By now, you’ve probably heard or read about the young Google engineer who wrote a memo critiquing the company’s diversity programs, and then got fired for it. Initially, the story broke on Gizmodo (a publication I despise–and thus no link), which labeled the memo an “anti-diversity screed.” This headline set the tone for the subsequent reaction, which went viral (something Gizmodo specializes in doing–human consequences be damned) and then things got very ugly very quickly.

If you have not actually read the memo, my suggestion would be to take a deep breath before expressing an opinion about it. And then go read it.

Most of the debate I have read in the aftermath seems to focus on the topic of the memorandum itself: namely, were his critiques of the company’s policies correct? But since he was a mid-level engineer and not a professor of gender studies or a Ph.D. with an emphasis in psychometrics, it’s only natural that his critiques were the highly flawed writings of imperfect amateur.[1]

If you want to read some smart commentary on the memo for and against, here are a few pieces written by smart people.

But to me the much bigger issue is: was the public reaction to this memo and the company’s handling of it justified? And I think the answer is an emphatic no.

Whatever you might think about the substance of the memo, I believe the following statements about it are almost certainly true:

  • It was a sincere attempt by the author to provoke thought and encourage discourse
  • It was reasonably thoughtful and intelligent
  • The author seemed to care about the company and its culture
  • The author did not personally attack anyone
  • The author did not resort to vulgarity or epithets
  • The author conceded many points about the need for diversity
  • The author was not suggesting that the company needed to completely dismantle all diversity programs, but suggested that the current approach could be improved
  • The author did not intentionally attempt to offend anyone
  • The author knew full well that he was writing something sensitive, but he wrote it anyway

Let’s assume that every single statement in the memo is inaccurate, stupid, and inadvertently offensive (based on the internet reaction, that does appear to be the case for some). I still think this type of discourse is something we want to encourage.

Do we really want to discourage people from expressing sincere, thoughtful, non-vulgar criticisms on sensitive topics? To the extent that a thoughtful attempt to express a dissenting opinion should be treated as a fireable offense?

I just don’t think that makes us a more open and tolerant society. I side with Julia Galef in thinking that the best response to the memorandum is to openly and honestly discuss its flaws.

There are some truly vile, racist, misogynistic, and violent people in the world.[2] From what little I have read, the author of the memo does not appear to be one of them. If we do not allow thoughtful and well-intentioned people to express dissenting opinions without fear of mob justice and professional reprisal, the end result for our society will not be greater justice and social equality.[3] The end result will be a war of competing forms of intolerance. Strict free speech norms are powerful tools in the hands of authority. And if we get this riled up over this type of writing, it sets a dangerous precedent that will lead to less communication among those with differing opinions.

And I do not see how that’s a good thing.

[1] I am not an expert in either field, and so I will refrain from offering an opinion myself, other than to say that I didn’t think the memo was particularly insightful.

[2] Compare the contents of this memo with the language employed by our current president, for Chrissakes.

[3] I am well aware that free speech norms are very different from free speech laws. Please note that this post is only about the former, not the latter.

[Disclosure: I am currently a shareholder of Alphabet Inc.]