/ Politics

Deconstructing and Analyzing James Damore's "Echo Chamber Manifesto"

This piece was originally written for a short-lived project of mine called Gray Injustice. After the original site went down, I decided to upload previous articles to my own personal website.

Normally, I don’t like to get into internal troubles with corporations. Work culture should be dealt with by the company itself. But when it’s being reported and updated on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, it’s hard not to chime in. As a highly polarizing topic of discussion, I wanted to make sure I was not influenced by any opinions of journalists or commentators, so I downloaded the original PDF and commentated it — all ten pages — which I will now summarize.

When journalistic outlets covered this, they emphasized that he states that there are biological differences between men and women that make women either less suited or less drawn to the topic of engineering. And they’re technically correct about that; one of his key arguments is that there are biological differences between men and women that give each sex different strengths, weaknesses, and overall traits. But this isn’t the whole story! It’s important to stress that the research he cites stresses different strengths than what is emphasized in engineering. For example, he claims that women have a stronger interest in people, less emphasis on assertiveness (and competitiveness), less tolerance for anxiety, and a stronger desire for home-work balance rather than work status. In general, this is the case when it comes to averages. However, the source of this is where the dispute comes, and where disagreements begin. Mr. Damore believes that this comes from an inherent difference between the sexes, while openly disputing social constructionists. The truth is, we don’t have a solid answer for this. All we have is assumptions to work with. But because this fundamental disagreement is so polarizing, it fires up our emotions. It’s the argument between tabula rasa + nurture and our sex’s nature, and the truth is we can’t answer it. As of yet, there is no universal truth. This is why his writing, while truly well-thought out, well-cited (to a degree) and articulate, is getting such a strong reaction.

By all means, there are many things I agree with, and really his entire memo is agreeable. In his section “Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap,” I don’t believe there is anything to disagree with here. He believes that the best way to fight the gender gap in engineering is to fundamentally shift the way we approach it. For example, he cites the feminine interest in people as a good reason to increase collaboration and people-oriented programming. Meanwhile, he submits to the fact that there are limits in how far they can go with his suggestions. He also suggests promoting cooperation and reducing stress in different ways. Finally, he suggests encouraging and endorsing a part-time work schedule to work with the desire to balance work and home life. All of these are desirable, and frankly I don’t see much to disagree with in his first half of writing.

But I quickly started to change my tune as he moves on to addressing what he calls Google’s biases. I can tell his writing starts to grow a little more personal as he begins to get more inflammatory. He begins to use straw man arguments when addressing men being labeled whiners and misogynists, something that, honestly, could have been avoided using a properly cited example (he cited a webpage merely stating what he was claiming). He clamors against scrutinizing groups of people for diversity. He cites a vague argument for having a biological difference when it comes to people with different IQs, which I still can’t really make sense of. He wraps all of this up to make a few suggestions, some of which I will address here:

  • De-moralize diversity.

Using this point, he says that when we make a point a moral issue, costs and benefits go out the window and only emotional judgment is used. While I agree with the effect of moralization, I can’t agree with his overall point at all. The reason we can’t do that is because diversity is rooted in a moral issue itself: segregation and discrimination. We think of it as a moral issue because equal rights for all is a moral issue. It is rooted back to when non-white humans and women in general were classified as objects to be owned by men in colonialist society. There were benefits to that idea as well, but from a moral standpoint, those benefits don’t matter.

We, as a society, may be overreaching for diversity at the moment, but you can’t solve it by forgoing morality in diversity. Which brings up a point that he considers one of Google’s biases: the company will reconsider groups if it’s not diverse enough, but it will not do the same if it could be considered too diverse (that is, over-representing one race or gender in a certain field). To a certain point, I agree with him here. But you can only limit it to a certain point. A sufficiently diverse group should represent its field on equal terms. For example, in Iran, a majority of scientists and researchers are women. In their case, a sufficiently diverse group would have a majority of women, but a proportional majority. That proportion is important.

  • De-emphasize empathy.

With this point, he calls for Google to act more like a company and less like a social organization. While I can’t say he’s wrong — it’s a matter of opinion — I don’t think he’s right. A good company should make its employees feel welcome, and an empathetic work environment is key to feeling welcome. If you remove this, the company becomes a machine, one that is so criticized these days.

  • Prioritize intention.

Here, he rejects the idea that it only matters what was interpreted when it comes to offense and aggression. While I disagree with this idea, I think this can be translated into prioritizing open discussion and making sure our opinions are heard. We should make sure people know when someone is hurt, and ensure that people explain what they mean when they accidentally hurt someone with a microaggression.

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Overall, I only slightly agree with his idea. I do believe that there is a culture of shutting people out if they don’t fully subscribe to the groupthink. I believe that open discussion can help here. James’s explanation of company culture is also well written, factual, and generally it can’t be disagreed with. But in the end, I think his emotions got the best of him, and begins to reject others’ emotions as factors when it comes to the company culture. I think this was his fatal flaw, and why he is getting so much hate. Unfortunately, there are some topics you can’t de-politicize, and diversity is one of them. I think that if he focused on encouraging open discussion like he did originally, he could have improved his company culture for the better.

James Damore was eventually fired for this, with a violation of their code of conduct being cited. I can’t say that I disagree with his firing, just or unjust. If the culture was like what he claims it was, people certainly wouldn’t be happy working with him again, and if nothing was changed afterwards, he wouldn’t be happy either. I think another job would be best for him. However, I do think he has the right to sue, as he claims he is looking into. It’s a very tough situation, and in the end I don’t think there are any winners. I think the main takeaway here is that no one can escape the polarization of society today. Only time will tell if we can de-escalate.