Life

Puritanical political correctness is propelling populism

BY Iain Martin | iainmartin1   /  11 August 2017

This is the weekly newsletter from Iain Martin, editor of Reaction. Subscribe here.

The young man who wrote the now infamous diversity memo that got him fired by Google made one fatal mistake. The controversial memo was almost 3,500 words long. No memo about anything should ever be that long, but a tech person working in the age of social media should have known, surely, that making it excessively long would diminish the chances of anyone actually reading it before they dived in to demand he be fired.

And lo, partly because it is August, assorted twisted accounts of the memo did go viral online. Verily, the ridiculous chief executive of the ridiculous but too powerful Google did interrupt his vacation to “exit” the author of the memo and assure traumatised staff (“Googlers” – ugh) who had read it that Google is the most safest of safe spaces. And everyone, in the media and on Twitter at least, got very agitated indeed, with the crazed “alt-right” saying it proved that the world has gone too politically correct and the social justice warriors of the left saying that the world is not politically correct enough. Incidentally, political correctness is not a tabloid invention. It is an old Marxist concept that was reinvented in the 1960s to take over the institutions and was supercharged in the 1980s when the Left lost the economic arguments and diverted its attention to other areas.

What terrible crime had this young Google man, James Damore, committed to paper, or to screen?

If you are trying to get to sleep you can read the whole memo here. It is framed apologetically. He rightly celebrates equality of opportunity and is reasonable throughout. In essence, he raises concerns that Google – like much of big tech – is intolerant when it comes to views which do not fit with its politically correct corporate outlook. The fixation in the company’s HR department on diversity programmes, he said, meant that there was no room for an honest and open discussion about differences between the sexes.

This was translated as Damore advocating discrimination to ensure women are not allowed near a computer other than with a duster. An angry mob descended, channeling The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and shouting on Twitter and Facebook that Damore was a bigoted, sexist, Nazi piece of crap, and so on. Damore was out on his arse before you could say “hold on, if Google fires someone for saying that Google is intolerant of views beyond its worldview then doesn’t that prove the point the author of the memo was making?”. Indeed.

This approach, that is cult-like in its sinister demand for conformity, leads to a lot of silliness. A senior person from YouTube described being “in pain” when they read the Damore memo. No, in pain means being injured in a shelling in Syria, or being seriously ill. If you are “in pain” reading a memo you don’t get out enough. One man at Google said he was so traumatised by reading the Damore email that he had to go home. His boss should have told him to stay there.

The media firestorm had echoes of the recent case of Charlie Gard, where ignorant outrage ranked above reading the medical evidence and the carefully considered legal arguments made in a difficult situation.

Indeed, there is plenty of evidence, research and analysis that backs up the Damore view. In the aftermath of his sacking, scientists have been quietly posting baffled pieces citing studies that show that there are clearly observed differences between men and women. There are significant overlaps, but it seems women have a greater propensity to empathy and men are more likely to be “system” focussed (System Addicts, as 1980s band Five Star put it). This may be why men are far more likely to be autistic. Not all women are more empathetic and better balanced in their approach to life. Not all men are system obsessives. But there are observable differences. To the vast bulk of the population these observations will hardly be controversial.

To properly follow what has happened to our institutions – our universities, and flooding into corporate life and politics – you have to understand that this commonsense idea is bitterly contested. The battle has been raging for an age, between scientists on one hand and sociologists and gender theorists on the other. The latter group argue that there are no differences, other than a few biological differences (and even that contention is moot, some say). Any perceived differences are purely “cultural”. We are born blank slates onto which society projects assumptions and gender roles. Any differences are invented, by men for their own ends, or caused as a result of oppression. That means the only answer is to go beyond equal opportunity to equality of outcomes, dismissing any possibility of differences in behaviour, attitudes, genetic disposition. Anyone who suggests otherwise must be found, flogged and fired.

There is such an obvious simple flaw in this radical view.

If there are no differences – none at all – then it should be of zero consequence how many many men and women are deployed in particular jobs? They are precisely the same in every circumstance, always, so women’s status needs no acknowledgment and we are blind to it, right?

No. If the sensible contention is that some women bring something else into play, along with equal intelligence and technical ability, and that is perhaps greater empathy and, in my personal experience, a sense of realism, then there are differences worth acknowledging.

In that vein, the Washington Post this week highlighted research on elite maths. Gifted women were “less confident” at saying they were at an elite level in the subject even though their results indicated they are. Less confident, perhaps. It depends how you categorise it. Equally, it sounds like admirable modesty compared to masculine boastful nonsense. Any woman who has lived with a man at any point in the last four thousand years will be familiar with the need for wariness when the man says he has got something “covered” and he knows what he’s doing. Experience and evidence has taught women to err on the side of scepticism.

There are differences. It is not the end of the world.

Mercifully, sane people (employers and so on) remain – for now – pragmatic. Equality of opportunity under the law is a good thing. It is right in and of itself and it is good for business. But there are measurable differences, life is complicated, imperfectible and short, deal with it.

For how long will that view even be legal? Not long if the new Puritans keep pushing. Incidentally, I acknowledge that there is a generation divide here and a different approach now dominates a decade or so below me in my mid-40s.

This week I had, in a tiny way, a brush with the fashionable and puritanical new way of thinking that seems to be spreading through the media. I wrote a not very funny short for Reaction on, what seems to me, the overkill indulged in by the BBC marking the 50th anniversary of a great reform, the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Of course it is highly significant and should be marked, but it does seem to have been somewhat over-commissioned relative to other stuff. Here was a simple observation about media expressed in what was supposed to be a mildly satirical fashion. I might have chosen as a topic, instead, that the BBC goes over the top covering athletics, which it does.

The feedback was fascinating. It seems the right to not be offended, about anything, or even just provoked into unamusement, is a central assumption having been inculcated in schools and universities. If the upside is that the next generation seems to be a generally kinder bunch than my generation, the downside is a tendency to priggishness on hearing anything unfamiliar.

I thought when the feedback came in: we are in “person said a thing” territory, surely? Beyond something that is an incitement to harm or violence, we can generally ignore the expression of an unfunny opinion we don’t like? The rest is about manners. Or maybe not. Even though I don’t care for, to pick a random example, Jay Rayner’s reviews of restaurants, I do rather like his Radio 4 food show. In the end it’s just my view of a thing. Are we now down to policing television and radio reviews? It looks like it.

This is extremely dangerous territory for a free society, and it risks fueling yet more division. It has driven populism and aids Trump, and his sort, because they can say there is an arrogant elite that holds you in contempt and will not let you say what you think. There is. It fired James Damore.

In Britain, if you are really, genuinely shocked or put out by someone on a website criticising BBC schedules that you think comply with your approved worldview then no wonder you were taken aback when Britain voted for Brexit. And if the Google memo causes you pain try dropping in for a beer or a glass of wine in a proper pub in Glasgow, or Leeds, or a bar in a bit of America between Los Angeles and New York and listening to what the customers, the voters, think of the situation.

To these voters the radical pursuits of the last decade such as transgender rows about bathrooms, militant activism, hounding of those who object, and now the seeking of the abolition of any difference on sex, sound completely nuts and at odds with their experiences and economic needs.

Yet what is most curious is that neither Brexit, in part a rebellion against the politically correct elite orthodoxy, or the election of Trump (the latter a disaster in my view), has prompted a pause and a rethink. Instead, there is a doubling down on the puritanical cult of political correctness. It’s worse than we thought. It’s become a secular religion, and the West has got it bad.