Do we really need Free Speech?

James Damore was fired by Google for a memo he posted at work giving his views on why there are so few women at his workplace. Basically, he argued, fewer women are interested in math and science than men and thus Google’s hiring policies designed to attract and hire more women are misguided. In this note I make two points: First, we lose a great deal of first order importance if we counter erroneous or offensive speech by repressing it—FREE SPEECH is protected by the First Amendment for good reason. Second, it is more effective to counter false ideas with correct or better ideas than to repress them.

Damore went further than Larry Summers did twelve years ago. Summers, who was President of Harvard University at the time, noted the fact that there were so few women at Harvard in the hard sciences and asked why that might be so. He explored several possible explanations without endorsing any of them. He was, in fact, raising a serious question for serious discussion. Many of his colleagues found his question so offensive that he was forced to resign his Harvard presidency. This is what I wrote about it at the time: “Science-discrimination-and-Larry-Summers”

One of the possible factors in the underrepresentation of women in the sciences not raised by Summer is the fact that the approach to teaching math and science has been designed by man and best suits the ways men generally learn. Considerable research indicates that men and women tend to learn differently. A pedagogy best suited to men might discourage otherwise potentially interested women from perusing science.

Damore went further by concluding that Google’s hiring practices were discriminatory to men and thus illegal. In a Wall Street Journal oped Damore stated that:  “I committed heresy against the Google creed by stating that not all disparities between men and women that we see in the world are the result of discriminatory treatment…. I suggested that at least some of the male-female disparity in tech could be attributed to biological differences (and, yes, I said that bias against women was a factor too).” “Why-I-was-fired-by-Google” None of us needs to be convinced that there are biological differences between men and women (hopefully), so why not with regard to tastes in employment?

I have not read Damore’s ten page memo and don’t intend to take sides on the points he makes, over than to agree with his statement that Google will have a better Human Resources policy if it is based on fact rather than ideological presumptions of the facts. Open discussion of the issue—of Damore’s biological claims—is one of the best ways to sort out what is scientifically supportable from what is ideological fiction.

Opening public discourse to the views and comments of anyone wishing to say something, i.e., “free speech,” potentially exposes us to some pretty nasty stuff. There is a fundamental and critical difference between addressing rudeness—bad manners—via inculcating cultural values of mutual respect (good manners) and via government suppression. Today’s millennials seem to have been raised to expect protection from anything unpleasant (shame on you helicopter moms). Rather than take responsibility for their own good behavior and the encouragement of the same in others, they seek and demand protection imposed by the “authorities” with “safe zones” and the like. In my view this is on the “Road to Serfdom.” I have shared my views on the emergence of state imposed political correctness on several earlier occasions: “What-is-wrong-with-PC”

To my second point, suppression of speech is also an inefficient way of countering falsehoods or doubtful or “bad” principles. If such views cannot be aired openly and publically, they are very likely to live on and survive within social or ideological bubbles where they are not challenged. The Internet facilitates living within a bubble or reaching beyond it and we need to encourage everyone, and especially each new generation to reach beyond their echo chamber in order to confront their beliefs with other views.

In an interview with Bloomberg on August 10, Damore stated that: “There are simply fewer women that want to get into these fields,” he said. “If you’re a girl and you’re interested in technology, that’s great…. If anyone is interested in technology they should just pursue it,” he added. “It’s a great field.” “Fired-google-engineer-says-company-execs-shamed-and-smeared-him.” This doesn’t sound much like a bigot to me.