The Looking Glass

Are you a party loyalist, willing to forgive what you see as a few character flaws in our president in order to get things done; in order to win? Are you the neighbors who pointed soldiers in the direction of an outhouse and sentenced my relatives to death? Are you the person down the street who chose to abandon a friend because she was Jewish? Or are you just a person who feels the broken glass grind between your boots and the sidewalk while thinking none of this has anything to do with you?

Dave Pell, “The Looking Glass”

Cotton, hay, and rags: giving bias the veneer of rationality

As you’ve surely heard by now, a mid-level engineer at Google—he’s anonymous, so I’ll call him Mr. Rationalface—wrote a memo called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” in which he argued that “differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.” (His words, not mine.) In response, recently former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger wrote the simply-titled “About this Googler’s manifesto,” in which he argues it’s manifest bullshit. (My words, not Zunger’s).

Between the time I started writing this and now, news has come out that Mr. Rationalface has been fired. I’ll come back to that.

I’ve been thinking about responses I saw on Hacker News to Zunger’s piece. The most common defense of Mr. Rationalface’s thesis was to restate its core premise: This whole drive for diversity rests on the premise that there’s no difference between men and women, but the falsehood of that is apparent to even the most casual of observers.

This is a common rhetorical trick I see in this particular corner of the internet (i.e., rationalists who want to rationally prove that PC SJW WTFery is irrational): restate the opposing premise incorrectly, then commence a full frontal assault on the restatement. Of course there are biological differences between men and women; who claimed otherwise? Mr. Rationalface proceeds from here to assert the following totally objective, non-sexist truths:

  • Women are more open toward feelings and aesthetics, while men are more open to ideas.
  • Women have more empathy than men, while men have more interest in systematizing.
  • Women are gregarious and agreeable; men are assertive!
  • Women are more neurotic, with higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance.
  • Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that! Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!

Whoops! While the first four are from Mr. Rationalface, that last bullet point was from noted academic rationalist Henry Higgins.

A fairer way to state the “pro-diversity” case is more like, some perceived differences between men and women used to justify associating higher-paying professions with men are rooted in dubious stereotypes. And we can test whether there’s prima facie evidence for that by looking at the actual history of software engineering. In the early days, it was women’s work: it was seen as more like filing and typing than math and logic—the hard stuff was the hardware. But by the mid-1970s, it was men’s work. But the work hadn’t changed. What changed was the perception of the work: society started to consider it high-status white collar work rather than low.

I know that—irony of ironies—I’m trying to rationally analyze an argument that is, at its heart, not about rationality at all. It’s about reclaiming ground in the Great Culture War. If the gender disparity in the engineering workforce at Google reflects something broken in their culture, it demands a solution that involves taking action one might call “affirmative.” PC! SJW! Cthluhu fhtagn! So don’t even allow the possibility that the problem is in the culture. If the problem isn’t in the culture, it must be in women. The solutions offered must involve working with and around Essential Feminine Nature.

But it’s the argument style that leaves me fascinated, the same style employed by many of his defenders, and a style that echoes through GamerGate, the Sad Puppies and other geeky outposts in the Great Culture War. If I may engage in some stereotyping myself, it’s an argument style beloved of folks who are mostly white, mostly male, mostly under 30, and mostly a little too sure of their razor-sharp logic. I don’t think this kind of guy gets redpilled because of deep-rooted anxiety over losing white male privilege—I think they get redpilled because it’s just effin’ cool to be told you’re one of the few people smart enough to see reality as it is, rather than buying into the conventional wisdom that traps all the other sheeple. This is why so many fringers, from anti-vaxxers to white supremacists, construct elaborate, nearly-logical theories built on a stack of unexamined premises. This is obvious to the most casual of observers, so let’s move on, they say, while the rest of us sheeple are making the time-out signal and saying wait, what?

Isn’t it obvious when premises are false? Isn’t this willful—and malicious—ignorance? Sometimes. If we’re honest with ourselves, more often than not. But the more boxes you tick on the cis-het-white-male line, the more advantages you get for no actual work on your part. You have, if I might be so bold, a rational self-interest in supporting arguments that those advantages are immutable nature, and attacking arguments that they’re uncomfortably squishy social constructs. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his social status depends on his not understanding it.”

So about Mr. Rationalface’s firing. If I were his manager, would I have canned him? I admit I’m not comfortable with hey, it’ll only chill the speech we don’t want; you can’t know that only the “right” group of people will take away exactly the message you intend to send. (Exhibit A: Hacker News.) But as Yonatan Zunger noted, a substantial number of Mr. R’s (former) coworkers were likely furious; he might as well have scrawled Does Not Work Well With Others, Especially Wimmen across his face with a Sharpie. From a—dare I say it—coldly rational standpoint, Google HR gets a firestorm no matter what, but keeping him risks a second, bigger firestorm when he shoots his mouth (or text editor) off to a coworker again.

I looked back at Hacker News briefly on the day of his firing and saw, well, what I expected. This is an outrage! This proves all the author’s points! This was not the anti-diversity manifesto the SJWs are claiming it is, it’s a well-written, polite, logical argument! It definitely had the appearance of logic, and it was debatably civil. But from its mischaracterization of the “pro-diversity” arguments through its “you’d agree with me if bias wasn’t blinding you to my truth” conclusion, it was precisely what its critics claimed it was. It’s easy to say Mr. Rationalface lost his job for not kowtowing to liberal groupthink, but sometimes a burning bridge is just a burning bridge.

also on

Bubbles, baseball and Mr. Marsh

On deep stories and ugly truths in American politics

When I went to high school in Florida, I was in one of the last years that had to take a class called “Americanism vs. Communism.”

I had the dumb luck to get a teacher named Bob Marsh, an iconoclastic sixty-something motorcyclist and science fiction fan who told the students like me who were also sf fans about his friend Joe Haldeman. While there’s a common joke I hear even from today’s high school students about American history classes ending at World War II, we learned about the Cold War, about Korea, about Vietnam. We learned about Castro and Kruschev and Mao, but also about Watergate and COINTELPRO and HUAC. It was, improbably, a pretty good class.

Despite the name, the class’s story wasn’t about how Americanism, whatever that was, opposed communism. It was about how liberal democracy opposed authoritarianism.

That sense of “liberal” has gotten conceptually muddled over the years, particularly in post-war America. (Call it “classical liberalism” if you must, although that phrase is even more easily coopted.) This is the point: Bernie Sanders and Paul Ryan might not agree on much, but Ryan has never, to the best of my knowledge, advocated for a return to monarchy; Sanders has never once suggested outlawing private industry. They would both agree that the individual liberty and representative democracy thing is, on the whole, a pretty good idea. They are both pretty firmly standing for liberal democracy and against authoritarianism. That’s a foundational ideal of America. We’ve failed to hit it a lot through our history, but we’ve done better than a lot—a lot—of other countries.

The name “Americanism vs. Communism,” though, tells us another story, a story that’s been pervasive in America in the post-World War II era. This story tells us that if we want to oppose authoritarianism, we need only worry about “the left.” It doesn’t tell us that “the right” has its own kinds of authoritarians. To some people, it even implies that Nazis were socialists (it’s right in the name), and that fascists were liberals.

The name “Americanism vs. Communism” tells us, maybe, to let down our guard.

On John Gruber’s podcast “The Talk Show,” guest Merlin Mann said of the 2016 presidential election: “It’s not that my team didn’t win. It’s that maybe I just don’t understand baseball anymore.”

Merlin and I went to the same small Florida college at more or less the same time. (We all totally knew he was going to be a professional podcaster.) I’m pretty sure he also took an AvC class. We probably share a roughly similar, and from appearances similarly inadequate, understanding of baseball.

Before the election we were inundated with think pieces about how “the left” was wildly misinterpreting the appeal of nationalist populism. No no no, we were told, it’s not racism and misogyny and homophobia. It’s the rage, the deep story, the message to people who felt they were being not merely left behind but that “the elites” were letting other people “cut in line” ahead of them on the way to the American Dream. We’re still constantly hammered with the idea that if you’re in a city you’re in a bubble, if you’re liberal you’re in a bubble, that we just need to get out of that bubble and listen to real, non-bubble America.

The deep story may be about all that. But it’s also about how gay marriage devalues “real” marriage. How letting transgender folk use public bathrooms puts “real” men and women in danger. How we should watch, register and deport immigrants and build a wall around our borders. The racism and misogyny and homophobia isn’t incidental. It’s not a byproduct. The deep story is about tribalism.

Here’s an ugly truth: some of the country doesn’t believe that America belongs to people who aren’t in their tribe. That tribe is white, straight (at least openly), and Christian. It’s gotten bigger over the years—it didn’t used to include the Irish, or Italians, or Catholics, or women—but every inch of expansion has been fought, bitterly and grudgingly. Other tribes can live in America, maybe, but theirs comes first, and everyone else is here at their forbearance.

Another ugly truth is this: some of the country considers not just welfare, not just social programs, but basic justice and legal protection to be a zero-sum game. Her marriage means less if you can get married. The sign on the restroom door means less if you can go through it. The police are here to protect me from you. And God knows I don’t want my tax dollars to go to the likes of you.

The third ugly truth is this: those people are in power now.

Despite my sarcastic streak, I’m a natural optimist. I’m not going to claim there’s much of a silver lining here, though. I believe that the oft-maligned millennials—and even us Generation Xers—will pull us back on track. I don’t think this is the end of the great American experiment, that representative democracy is at its end, that America is doomed to become a mashup of The Handmaid’s Tale and Idiocracy.

But I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And I don’t know how much worse.

I wonder what Mr. Marsh would have said about all this, back in that Americanism vs. Communism class. I think he might say the problem isn’t bubbles. It’s not who’s listening to who in the present. It’s who’s listening to the past. America has always been at its worst when we’re encouraged to turn against one another, and at its best when we move toward ensuring that liberty and justice truly is for all.

I think he might also say this. Liberal democracies can vote themselves into authoritarianism. Voting themselves back out is much harder.