Whatever Happened to James Damore? Some Thoughts on Free Speech

Yesterday I followed a new writer on Twitter. In visiting her page I noticed she had responded to some tweets by James Damore, he of the infamous Google memo. Curiosity being one of my prime motivators, I just had to check him out, if only to see how his notoriety had affected him.

For the record, when I looked, he had 89,578 followers, and followed a mere 28 people. He is now an influencer.

His profile reads: “Nerd centrist interested in open discussions and improving the world by fixing perverse incentive structures. Author of the pro-diversity #GoogleMemo.”

Pro-diversity? Come on, man.

He had just posted a series of tweets about “remain(ing) receptive of differing views.” He also said, “I value free speech and look forward to a day when the open exchange of different ideas is a commonplace and uncontroversial event.”

Here is a guy struggling with his infamy. Struggling also with his conscience. Here is a guy who seems to be in over his head. Here is a guy who I’ll bet is working on a book about all this.

Let’s assume his Twitter persona is sincere, and that he really believes what he tweets. How then, could he have written that memo?

The memo is ten pages long, and filled with citations and references. There’s a lot of science in it, yet it is not scientific. The impression it gives is of an author who has decided beforehand what he will prove, rather than one who makes a supposition and is open to using scientific method to adjust or even change that view.

While the memo qualifies as free speech, it is not responsible speech, since it ignores the “differing views” that he claims to be receptive of.

But if Damore’s Twitter contrition is honest, then I say let’s give him a break. He is 28, and 28-year-olds say a lot of stupid things. Apparently he is still saying such things, even when he is trying to be clever: here’s the latest. When I was that age I said some stupid things (perhaps I still do), and people have often cut me slack. So let him talk and tweet—after today, though, I won’t be listening.

The bigger issue is with Google, which is only interested in its image, rather than any substantial dialogue. Google caved into pressure to shut Damore up, and fired him on a pretense (their code of conduct), rather than refuting him. As Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune said, “Firing Damore makes a martyr of him.” Google then tried to hog the spotlight by announcing a summit on the Damore issue, and then cancelled it out of fear of reprisals. Better to stay in the shadows, I guess. In another story, Washington Post columnist Sara Wachter-Boettcher wrote that Google’s sexism is indeed there—it’s encoded into their products by techies with baseline prejudices against women and people of color. If what she says is true, then Google then should fire itself for the same violation as Damore.

Too many people equate the concept of free speech with what they want to believe, regardless of the evidence. Perhaps just as many believe that one’s preferred brand of free speech should be able to preclude someone else’s. Call it stupid free speech. We can’t, as a nation, legislate against that, but we can, as individuals, learn to simultaneously endure and repudiate that kind of stupid speech.

When Damore grows up, perhaps then I will listen. Same goes for Google.

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