Much has been written about the event at Portland State University set up by the Freethinkers of PSU, titled “We Need to Talk about Diversity.” James Damore, the former Google employee fired for writing a memo which cited much evidence that men and women have different interests on average as a possible explanation for the four-to-one gender gap in tech, was joined by the PSU philosophy professor Peter Boghossian, evolutionary biologist Heather Heying, and me, a cultural commentator on postmodern epistemology, critical theory, and social justice movements. These written accounts have mostly focused on its significance to the culture wars and the characters of the attendees.
The four of us had been invited to discuss the concept of “diversity,” how it was to be understood in our current climate, and whether its current application is reasonable, evidenced, ethical, and productive, but originally, the conversation had been designed to be much different. At first it was to be a frank discussion between Damore and Boghossian but the immediate criticism — mostly from students and on social media — was that diversity could not be discussed by two white men. It mattered not at all that one was the author of the memo at the center of the debate and the other a Socratic philosopher who focuses on epistemology and liberal ethics and is therefore well-qualified to probe both motivation and empirical justification. The problem was that both of the people had penises, those penises were white and, as far as anyone knows, responsive to those of the opposite gender. They were hegemonic penises and this was problematic.
Resolution of the hegemonic penis “problem” was first attempted via the invitation of not one but, ultimately, all five members of the tenured and tenure-track Women’s Studies faculty at PSU. They were believed to have different views to the biological argument put forth by James Damore and, importantly, they had vaginas. (At this point mathematician, author, and cultural commentator James Lindsay was also invited to participate in the event that the Women’s Studies faculty did decide to send three representatives.) They all declined to attend, one insisting it was inconceivable that the discussion could be had in good faith given the participation of Damore and Boghossian. Next, it was decided to ask other women with relevant knowledge to attend. These included Professor Heather Heying, whose area of expertise in evolutionary biology related directly to the biological claims within the memo, and me, a political writer and commentator who addresses the intersectional ideology making the biology of gender difference so taboo at present. (Lindsay was removed from the panel in the week leading up to the event for being a third white male.)
I was delighted to be offered this opportunity, even if I couldn’t fully overlook that my inclusion was at least in part a demeaning and tokenistic “diversity” demand by the university. In addition to having the chance to discuss issues of most central importance to my work with people from such diverse disciplines, I had also been particularly interested in the memo and spent much time talking to its detractors, few of whom seemed to have read it. The typical pattern of our conversations had been that I would ask them why they objected to it so strongly and be told that it claimed that women were less intelligent, less capable of doing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), less capable of generating ideas, generally biologically unsuited to working in tech, or that it perpetuated the idea that men and women are two distinct groups with different strengths and roles in life. When I asked them to show me where it said any of these things or showed them where it said quite the opposite, where it stressed that the sexes were strongly overlapping populations with different distributions of traits (including a clear illustration of this) and where it emphasized the importance of treating people as individuals rather than as members of their group, they commonly fell back on some variation of, “Damore’s motivations were clearly sexist because otherwise he wouldn’t have written about this.”
This isn’t just impossible to counter; it’s properly unfalsifiable. I knew that accusations that the memo was sexist could not stand up to honest scrutiny because I had read it, but I could not know whether James Damore himself was sexist. It is perfectly true that people have a variety of reasons for bringing up psychological, cognitive, and behavioral gender differences. These can be political whether socially conservative — women are better suited to childrearing and should stay in the home — or feminist — men commit more violence and should receive anti-toxic-masculinity training. It could also be that they’re simply stating facts about the universe, which happens to contain men and women as somewhat different members within a sexually dimorphic species (NB: that humans are sexually dimorphic allows for the possibility of intersex, and this is a well-understood variation that sometimes occurs).
Damore gave a perfectly reasonable explanation for raising the issue of gender difference in his memo. It was a response to a request for feedback following a meeting about diversity and the underrepresentation of women in tech, Nevertheless, it was possible that he was also sexist and undervalued women or disliked working with them. The words “misogynist” and “tech-bro” are, in fact, applied to him frequently by his louder critics. I felt that, as someone who has spoken to so many people about their beliefs on gender equality and unrooted their biases, I might be able to discern sexist attitudes in Damore if I talked with him in person.
Of course, if Damore were a misogynist, this wouldn’t change my views on the truth of the memo, which has been supported by several individual scientists in the field and metastudies looking specifically at its claims. Nevertheless, it would certainly tell me whether Damore himself was worth supporting. In talking with him before, during, and after the event, I found James Damore to be a kind, gentle person who addressed the issues in a cautious and nuanced way with every indication of sincerity and good intention. Never have I met anyone who less suited the title “misogynistic tech bro.”
Therefore, absolutely none of the overreaction to Damore presented by students, the community, and the university itself seemed warranted, yet it remains an inescapable conclusion that it is central to why I had been invited to participate in this panel in the first place. Despite being very excited to have this opportunity and having a great deal to say on the subject, I remain concerned about the extent to which I had been invited because I am a woman. In fact, I sent this in response to the invitation:
“I have written about diversity. I have written about liberalism and diversity of ideas and about intersectionality and diversity of identity. I have shown how the shift from the former to the latter happened on the academic left and argued passionately about why it is a problem. I have drawn on some the greatest thinkers from Wollstonecraft to Mill to Rauch to Haidt, and I have invoked the very essence of liberalism to argue this. My writings on this have been read by hundreds of thousands of people. They’ve been translated into many languages. They’ve been cited frequently. Is that why I’m invited, or is it because I have a vagina?
I want to be involved in this, but it would be rather demeaning to be invited because I have a vagina and the university and the protesters said we can’t talk about diversity unless some of the panel has them. We all know my vagina still won’t be good enough. I have another orifice which is much more problematic. That is my mouth and it won’t say what a woman’s mouth should according to the intersectional ideology of diversity. My mouth, which is operated by my brain which has absorbed a fair amount of behavioral science, will say that James Damore’s memo was largely accurate and ethical and in no way, discriminated against women. My mouth will not be forgiven for not complying with what people with a vagina should say.”
This is the essence of the problem with diversity that I wanted to get at on that panel, and which the ultimate construction of the panel proved is necessary to discuss: cultural constructivism and ideological conformity. Cultural constructivism is also known as “blank-slatism” and is the belief that people’s psychological, cognitive, and behavioral traits are all learned from society. None can be innate or inherited, and certainly demographics cannot be allowed to innately differ from each other, even on average. Cultural constructivism underlies the belief that any imbalances in any area of society can only be caused by cultural conditioning or outright discrimination.
Further, within intersectionality, the idea that diversity of identity is of paramount importance is closely linked to the idea, rooted in postmodernism, that knowledge is culturally constructed and dependent on an individual’s position in society and that this is predicated on their identity. While it is true that differing background perspectives may bring different information to the table, what remains unclear, even dubious, is the corollary idea that diverse background perspectives can bring different relevant information to bear on any given subject. Specialist skills, like coding, have to be learned from the ground up by everyone who engages with them, and it remains completely unclear how diversity of lived experience can impact these skills.
One of the greatest assumptions of universal liberalism is that the acquisition of such specialist skills is ultimately up to the individual and accessible to anyone who wishes to learn them. Under intersectionality, however, people of a certain race, gender, or sexuality are assumed to think in largely the same way. Women will have certain perspectives, as will people of color and LGBT and disabled people. This assumption underlies the beliefs intersectional thought puts into practice: that to have a full range of perspectives we need an equal number of people from all demographics, and for all of their views to be respected on the grounds of identity. This is why believers will tell us we need to “stay in your lane” and that it is morally unjustifiable to talk about people from different groups — and why they will insist that two (or three!) white men cannot possibly have anything meaningful to contribute to a panel about diversity. The rage at James Damore talking about women’s average interests and how they differ from men’s average interests is rooted in this belief, as was the outrage that he’d be invited to talk to a white male philosophy professor or participate in an “insufficiently diverse” panel on the topic of diversity.
It should be clear that placing women on the panel specifically to satisfy the bad assumption that they will reject the abundant evidence that biological gender differences exist is extremely demeaning to women and unlikely to decrease any remaining prejudiced assumption that we are not suited to science. The only biologist on the panel was, in fact, a woman, and she declined to comply with this view. It was (probably coincidentally — they seem to have staged the walkout for 6:30 pm) during Heying’s explanation of biological gender differences that the protesters walked out and one of them caused hundreds of dollars’ worth of damage to the sound equipment. My prediction that our ownership of vaginas would not excuse the dissenting behavior of our brains and mouths was confirmed when the protester yelled “The women in there have been brainwashed” (which is also unfalsifiable) as the police attempted to take her details.
At a following related talk about intersectionality which I gave a few days later, a trans woman approached me to talk about the additional problems she experienced when trying to advocate for freedom of speech and classical liberalism and an Indian cognitive scientist addressed the whole panel about his confusing and upsetting experience of being accused of racism and sexism for advocating science and reason in his classes. The orientalism implicit in the assumption that science and reason were not for him is breathtaking. The pressure on women and ethnic and sexual minorities to adhere to views deemed suitable for their identity is more suited to a feudal or caste system than to a liberal democracy.
This rejection of individuality and personal agency is anti-liberal. The diversity of identity that is prioritized by intersectional thought disbars any possibility of diversity of ideas about diversity — all ideas must conform to intersectional assumptions. This runs entirely contrary to the liberal tradition of a “marketplace of ideas,” in which all ideas can be evaluated by anyone with the aim that the best will survive and benefit humanity. It runs contrary to traditionally liberal ideas of inclusion when inclusion no longer means that everyone must have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities but begins to indicate a belief that people can be excluded, marginalized, rendered unsafe, and even harmed by ideas which do not comport with intersectional ideology. This belief was amply demonstrated when one of the protesters who walked out opined passionately that we, for simply arguing that gender differences exist, were fascists and Nazis who were not welcome in a civil society.
I raised these ideological issues underlying currently dominant understandings of diversity, meaning the intersectional ones, in the conversation in support of what Damore argued to be an “ideological echo-chamber” at Google. Heying addressed the scientific claims he had made to support his argument that there was something Google was missing in its attempts to address diversity issues. Boghossian guided this conversation and paid particular attention to the shifting of meaning in otherwise positive terminology and presented a rousing impromptu speech at the moment of disruption and destruction about the need to be able to have conversations without “being held hostage to” obstruction, intimidation, and threats. Following our discussion, he invited those of the audience who disagreed to present their counterarguments and questions first and patiently explained why “Fuck you,” which one such audience member plainly mouthed at him, was not a particularly helpful response to being asked to clarify ones meaning.
Nevertheless, some disagreement was reasonable and amicable, and we were able to address a sincere question about the danger of mistaking genuine discrimination for biological differences. This is, of course, a legitimate concern. Both biological differences and cultural expectations and prejudices exist. Assuming just one of biology or culture to be the sole cause of an underrepresentation of women in tech would be equally unhelpful. Some blend of biology and culture undoubtedly lead to the circumstances we experience, and this is not controversial except under intersectional thought or other extremes of identity politics. To discover what that balance is, we need to be able to investigate the question unrestricted from all angles, have conversations, make arguments, and present evidence. Silencing those who look at culture or those who look at biology will only make it very difficult to find explanations and, if necessary, solutions. But this, of course, was James Damore’s point all along.
Because of the present dominance of “blank-slate” intersectional thought over the topic of diversity, however, it is not the inclusion of cultural influences on different choices which is taboo right now. It is attempting to bring science into the conversation as James Damore attempted to do. He presented not a counterview, but additional information, and argued that it could explain part of the imbalance, thus potentially opening doors to workable solutions for people, like himself, who wish to find more diversity in tech workplaces. For that, he was fired. For attempting to discuss the matter further with him in a public venue, we were warned of threats ranging from intentional disruptions to grenades to bricks to feces-filled diapers, and we were forced to manufacture and curate a more “diverse” panel — not to bring in additional expertise, which we did, but to superficially create the image of diversity. This, incidentally, was still not good enough, as Heying and I were immediately billed as women “known for our right-wing views” by the Willamette Week. As a result, we needed to engage private security, arrive early and wait (literally hidden) in a private room with them before the event, and then wait for the police to escort us safely off the campus after the event. A plan to book all the tickets and not attend was made as was one to buy them and walk out after half an hour. The sound system was damaged in an attempt to prevent people from hearing us. We were not particularly intimidated by any of this but the will to silence, disrupt, and punish countervailing views to the dominant intersectional line is extremely troubling. We simply cannot address any issues productively if we cannot talk about them. We need to be able to talk about them — honestly.
As it happens, the event had precisely the right title. We need to talk about diversity.
You are a very unclear, verbose writer. Your point is oft disguised among so much non-critical information. I am neither saying you are wrong, nor that you are right. Merely that your ability as a writer is below average.
[…] the event with Damore that the collective mentions above, protests included significant damage to sound equipment and threats being made against the participants to […]
[…] the event with Damore that the collective mentions above, protests included significant damage to sound equipment and threats being made against the participants to […]
For a more evidence-based criticism of James’s memo, I recommend that written by Megan Molteni and Adam Rogers and published in Wired on 15th August, 2017: “The problem is, the science in Damore’s memo is still very much in play, and his analysis of its implications is at best politically naive and at worst dangerous. The memo is a species of discourse peculiar to politically polarized times: cherry-picking scientific evidence to support a preexisting point of view. It’s an exercise not in rational argument but in rhetorical point scoring. And a careful walk through the science proves it… …Damore argues that greater extraversion and agreeableness, on the whole, would make it harder for women to negotiate and stake out leadership positions in an organization, and that higher neuroticism would naturally lead to fewer women in high-stress jobs. The first-order criticism here is easy: Damore oversells the difference cited in the… Read more »
Interesting article that says a lot of things that need to be said but I do find the following formulation unfortunate:
It should be clear that placing women on the panel specifically to satisfy the bad assumption that they will reject the abundant evidence that biological gender differences exist is extremely demeaning to women…
It is sex differences which are biological. Gender differences, by definition, are not biological.
Intersectionality does not require a rejection of biological influence. It actually is more consistent with the “balanced” approach advocated by the author.
Intersectionality recognizes that one’s identity is not ONE category, but instead the confluence of several (age, gender, national origin, race, physical ability, etc.). People of different combinations are much more likely to have different lived experiences. Acknowledging this in no way requires a rejection of biological influence. Of course therr are exceptions to any generalized conclusion. Based on the logic outlined in the article, it would ne those who deny Intersectionality who are extremist in their denial of empirical evidence.
Terrific! Thank you.
Helen – very good article. What if anything should be done about the university courses which teach this cultural constructivist theory as if it were true? The cognitive sciences, biology, evolutionary and behavioural sciences have well and truly falsified this blank slate hypothesis. At this point it has the same standing as a course on astrology or creationism. Should these courses have their funding removed? A university should certainly be a place with a diversity of views but should it be teaching (as fact) things which have been proven to be wrong? Perhaps at the very least they should be subject to peer review outside of their own echo-chamber disciplines and journals.
The demands of professional life can be very difficult to balance with having a family. Someone needs to get pregnant and nurse and raise small children (oh I know, having kids is patriarchal). Doing this may mean that the woman is not as interested in long work hours, obsessive working environments (like coding–I code some in my job), or lots of travel. This is a choice. 20 year old college students may not understand such choices, but they are real. The fact of these choices means that many men know that they may have to be the sole breadwinner for the family for many years–this sharpens the mind and raises the stakes. For many women, being the sole breadwinner is what happens if they screw up or fate deals them a bad hand (husband dies), not what the expected order of things is. These create different realities for men and… Read more »
Decades ago my week-long introduction to corporate diversity opened with a black motivational speaker trading on his brother’s fame. “Look,” He says, “we all know the facts of career life. Getting ahead is all about who you are and who you know. Related to someone? Play golf with the right crowd? Attended the same college? church? country club? Well, diversity just added a third card to that hand – what you are. It’s a golden ticket if you are willing to play it.” Don’t like the interview? Throw down the card, whine to HR, threaten a law suit, easy to find a shyster willing to help. Got hired? Come in late, leave early, personal phone calls and long lunches – no problem. No supervisor or manager in his right mind is going to wreck his career challenging your behavior especially if you flaunt that diversity golden ticket. They’ll play the… Read more »
If one accepts the truth of reincarnation, that we live many lives, some in a female form and others in a male body, then it can possibly change the discussion. Some men have nurturing characteristics that we often identify as “female” whereas some women have masculine ones, due to having been in male bodies in a more recent incarnation. When a soul reaches higher states of consciousness the masculine and feminine become balanced. So the color of the skin and the gender is not the only relevant factor in one’s ability to contribute a unique point of view to the discussion. Ian Stevenson recounted a case of a Burmese woman who had been a Japanese soldier in Burma during WW 2. He was killed in his early 20’s. He reincarnated as a Burmese girl, but loved guns & men’s military clothes even as a girl. She even got kicked out… Read more »