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The ‘Google Anti-Diversity Screed’ Memo–or, more accurately, my comment on a Google VP’s position on it.

So I came across this gem today whilst crawling through Twitter.  I first found out about this story from a linked piece at the National Review, which had a pretty intriguing quote from Google’s “Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance,” excerpted near the bottom, which I’ll provide here:

 

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.

 

I’ve got no interest in delving into Google’s Code of Conduct or other policies on anti-discrimination, nor do I have a ton of interest in examining this specific situation at great length.  What was interesting to me was the use of the word ‘safe‘ to describe how people should feel while sharing their opinions.

 

Does a bikini model feel safe when stripping down to her two-piece and posing seductively for the cameras and crowds?  No, she feels vulnerable–and that’s how she should feel.  She feels vulnerable for a variety of reasons, most of them good but some of them not (and the latter oughtn’t be tolerated).  Some of the good reasons likely stem from her being hyper-critical of herself, which is really nothing but an expression of uncertainty: does her complexion match the outfit?  Is her skin looking smooth that day?  Does the swimwear complement her peculiar physical geometry?  Are there still dark semicircles under her eyes from that all-night party she just finished?  These are good reasons to feel vulnerable during a photo shoot because they will make her strive to improve as much as possible for this, or later shoots.  Bad reasons would be based around intimidation or fear: fear that, by doffing your duds and stripping down to glorified (and minimalist) undies, you’re going to subject yourself to some form of violence at a greater rate than would otherwise be the case.  So fear and intimidation are bad reasons to feel vulnerable, and should not be tolerated, but uncertainty is not just an acceptable reason to feel vulnerable–uncertainty is what drives us to refine everything possible about ourselves on an ongoing basis.

 

Does a writer feel safe when exposing his thoughts to the world in a new manuscript, or essay, or other record of the workings of his mind?  No, he does not–nor should he.  His thoughts, like the bikini model’s body images, are on full display for criticism, dissection, examination, and digestion by whoever interacts with the media outlet (book, magazine, blog, song, etc..) which presents those thoughts.  The writer must never feel safe to write, for if he does then he is writing about something that is likely irrelevant!

 

However, what both the bikini model and the writer must feel is FREE to demonstrate their particular products.  A model should feel free to package and present her body for the purpose of capturing timeless images, either for a personal or professional set of motivations.  The writer should likewise feel free to package and present his thoughts for the purpose of debate, or elucidation, or even just for good ol’ fashioned bloviation.  But should either be ensured to feel safe, in the sense that they can envision no meaningful negative response to the marketing of his or her expressive assets?  I argue that the answer is an emphatic ‘NO.’

 

No one can be forced to feel safe, no matter how supportive or condoning those around him or her might attempt to be.  So setting the bar at ‘safe’ is simply impractical and unattainable since someone, somewhere, will not feel safe no matter how hard we try to make everyone feel safe.  However, as a society we should completely oppose any attempts to intimidate others into complying with a standard of behavior, arbitrary or not.  So intimidation or threats against a bikini model or writer’s person on the basis of their artistic/expressive endeavors (or, really, for just about any other reason) should be completely unacceptable to us all.  The reason for this is fairly simple, but maybe not obvious.

 

If history has shown us anything about safety and freedom, it’s that safety and freedom generally have inverse relationships.  The more you have of one, the less you have of the other.  It’s the same with self-expression: the safer you feel to speak, the less free you actually are to do so since a sense of safety only comes when we are confident of no reprisals or opposition to our actions/words–basically, you feel safe because you’re certain everyone already agrees with you (or, more insidiously, because you’re certain they wouldn’t dare to do so for fear of reprisals/sanctions).  Inversely, the freer you feel to speak, the less safe you will likely feel to do so precisely because everyone around you will be free to speak against you if they dislike what you say!

 

So when a Google VP talks about wanting people to feel safe while discussing their opinions, I don’t hear a positive message that encourages diversity and open exchange of ideas.  I hear a message which clearly, and unequivocally, dictates that there will be boundaries (restrictions of freedom) when it comes to information exchange, and that deviations outside of those boundaries will not be tolerated on the grounds that they might cause others to feel unsafe.

 

What the VP could have said, but I believe never would say, is this:

 

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel free to share their opinions.

 

Full stop.  Nothing more was needed to convey a commitment to the open and free exchange and refinement of ideas, so anything more is necessarily contrary to that effort.  Go back and compare the two versions–in fact, I’ll bold the only differences between the two and put them right here for you to examine at your leisure.

 

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.

vs.

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel free to share their opinions.

 

It shouldn’t take too many re-reads to see the absolutely stark contrast between these two statements, but I’m guessing that on first glance most people don’t recognize the incredible difference between these remarkably similar-looking statements.  In the original statement, the VP is throwing in a caveat of unknown (and likely unknowable) proportions with the second sentence (a sentence that is completely absent from my revised version).  Such a caveat can only serve to describe the ways in which one’s freedoms or, possibly, safety could be curtailed in favor of bureaucratic compliance (with the Code of Conduct or other policies).

 

Now, to the operative point:

 

 

You may now return to your regularly-scheduled programming.

Published inauthoritarianismClassical LiberalismCultureFree SpeechFreedomInformationSafety

3 Comments

  1. A little harder to get through than some of your other intellectual posts. Maybe not punchy enough… I’m not sure. It could just be me. In part because I’d already heard about the subject and was all fired up maybe.

    • Thanks for the feedback. Would be interested to see your thoughts on subjects like these from time to time 🙂

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