Google, affirmative action, and society

By | August 13, 2017

No one can have missed the current flap about Google’s hiring practices, surfaced by James Damone in his recent memo that went viral, leading to his firing and a modest media firestorm cultivated by forces on both sides of the current culture wars. The original ostensible issue – affirmative action – has been pretty much eclipsed by all the subsequent rounds of charges and counter-charges. But I think it’s worth dissecting the issues involved to some degree at least.

The original question was whether affirmative action programs dilute the technical qualifications required for certain positions. This issue has been discussed both legally and empirically in literally hundreds of places over the years, but remains unresolved. Recently, however, it’s been swept up in the broader set of social and cultural debates about race, gender, and other personal attributes and how society ought to deal with them. This has not contributed much to any systematic evaluation of the issues.

There’s no question that affirmative action programs have on occasion managed to hire substantial numbers of unqualified people. On two occasions I myself have worked for abominably unqualified minorities. In both cases, they were selected for jobs not just for their minority status but for their lack of abilities; they were supposed to ruin their agencies (that’s another story). But I’ve also worked for and with numerous minorities who came to the attention of their firms through affirmative-action mechanisms were extremely able.

The basic idea of affirmative-action is simply to identify potential job candidates who might not otherwise make it through the official screening process. I agree that this has been on numerous occasions perverted into a form of quota hiring. On two other occasions I have been passed over for a job in favor of women; neither was precisely unqualified, but both turned out to be failures in the job. That was a failure of the hiring process, not an indictment of affirmative-action per se.

Google’s affirmative-action program is perfectly legal. Private companies are free to use any form of hiring process they choose, as long as the process does not discriminate against members of certain “protected classes”. The argument that middle-class white men ought to be some kind of protected class is absolutely ludicrous. They constitute the vast majority of middle and upper management everywhere, as well as the vast majority of politicians and all professions. All that has happened is that in some places the automatic presumption of superiority accorded to a middle-class white male has been questioned. There is nothing the slightest bit illegal about this in a private company; hiring policies are set by the board and upper management, who are in turn accountable to the stockholders for results.

Categorizing hiring policies intended to broaden the pool of applicants under consideration for technical jobs as some kind of “ideology” also makes little sense. All companies have mission statements and vision statements intended to describe their view of themselves, but supporting your company’s mission is hardly subscription to an ideology in any meaningful sense of that term. All organizations develop a culture of one form or another. Members generally subscribe to or at least conform to that culture; if they don’t feel comfortable with it, they either leave or are induced to leave. Active opposition to the company’s culture is uncomfortable. I’ve often found myself in opposition to certain parts of the culture of the organizations I worked in. Sometimes I succeeded in changing the culture in useful ways; sometimes I either left or was fired. In no case was this unfair; it may have been unwise either on my part or that of the company, but that’s a different matter.

The difference between an ideology and a corporate culture is that ideology requires that you believe in it; all corporate culture requires is that you behave in ways reasonably consistent with it. Conformity of behavior does not require conformity of thought. Admittedly, it may be difficult to behave in corporately appropriate ways if you find their requirements inconsistent with your own fundamental beliefs; in that case, parting ways with the company is a good idea for both of you. But as long as you can be a good corporate citizen, you are free to believe in any ideology you choose. And you are free to express your opinions, as long as they don’t compromise your ability to be a good corporate citizen.

There’s no question that Damore’s memo placed himself squarely in opposition to an important part of Google’s current corporate culture. To deliberately and visibly put yourself in this position is to require the company to take some action. He had to know that this would result in his leaving the company one way or another; he basically made himself unemployable within the company by such a public challenge to its culture. In fact, it now appears that he had anticipated being fired and made a whole set of arrangements to capitalize on his notoriety to advance his career, taking advantage of the “culture war” meme to make him seem like a victim among some of his co-ideologues who believe in the natural privilege that ought to be accorded to people who look just like him. The only thing that he is a “victim” of here is his own ideology. That ideology has been pervasive throughout the technology community for a long time, and its effects have been corrosive (e.g. Gamergate, Uber.) Google as a corporation has every right to challenge that ideology, as long as the stockholders agree.

Predictably, this whole sorry episode has been co-opted into the current political climate of hatred and adamant opposition. Everyone seems to find something within the situation that can be used as a rubber chicken with which to beat other people over the head. None of this beating is likely to change anyone’s mind. It’s mostly public theater manipulating political symbols in the kind of wearying performance art that now characterizes American politics in general. In this climate, the chances for formulating effective public policies are minimal. All this guarantees is that the policies that are formulated will serve the privately mobilized special interests rather than those of the public at large. The currently corrosive political climate is not accidental. It’s been deliberately cultivated by those interests toward this end. Until we recognize and repudiate those who cultivate corrosive politics, we are doomed to more of the same and eventual civic collapse.

More on this to come.