Last month I received an urgent email from a fellow putting together a panel for the South by Southwest conference, a massive gathering in Austin, TX, that combines media, music, technology, and intellectual fare into rousing discussions on the state of contemporary culture and subcultures. The panel he proposed needed a final member and time was short. He wanted a contrarian voice, it seemed, since my book The Dumbest Generation and many essays I’ve written such as “Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind” argued against the presence of screens in young people’s lives, and most attendees at SXSW are tech enthusiasts of one sort or another. His lengthy request showed he’d done a little profiling of me, and he made an earnest case for a “Yes.”
I checked my schedule and found no conflict. “Sure,” I wrote back to him a day or two later. Silence followed for another day or two until a note of an altogether different tenor arrived. I’d been disinvited. The note began,
I have been advised that we must focus more on a gender balance for the panel and that I should be adding another female speaker. So at this time I am sorry to say I have to withdrawal my invitation.
He added that he planned to cover some of the same ground in a meeting in Europe in 2018 and that I might be available, though he was probably just being nice and hoped to avoid bad feelings.
I answered with a short note:
Well, ——, if I were running a panel and issued an invitation that was accepted, but then was told that I must secure “Gender Balance,” I would say, “No–I care about quality of ideas, not political correctness,” and let the consequences follow. This stuff is exactly what helped elect Donald Trump.
I believe that. When professional mores give way to identity politics and put otherwise exacting, educated people into embarrassing situations, something fundamental has gone wrong with the world. It gives you an uneasy, icky feeling. When we hear talk about diversity, the focus falls on the rosy desires and outcomes of it, rarely on the unpleasant social atmosphere that diversity initiatives create. I don’t mean the procedures of reverse discrimination, just the bad feelings that come from those initiatives. Participants in them don’t feel good about them.
Diversity bean-counting puts people in the awkward position of, precisely, identifying themselves and then assigning their identity a plus or a minus. They can’t do anything about who they are; they just have to accept the status their identity gives them. Diversity organizers may wish to highlight the sanguine political meaning of it, but most individuals experience diversity programs and policies in just this personal way, as a narrow, bureaucratic impoverishment of who they are.
People don’t like it—including the people who profit by it. I say that because in every episode I’ve witnessed in which identity functions explicitly and dynamically, nobody is happy. The air in the room is heavy. Humor is forced and risky. Attendees closely monitor the sympathies in play. Most people hesitate to speak, and those who don’t hesitate do not appear pleased and confident. They are resentful and accusatory. Proponents aim to spin affirmative action as a joyous instrument of diversity, but the tensions haven’t gone away in spite of 50 years of advocacy. I don’t know of any black students at selective colleges who earned admission by special consideration declaring their gratitude to the institutions that favored them. They are, instead, out on the quad denouncing them. The college campus is one of the most liberal zones on earth, but the liberalism that prevails there seems only to have intensified people’s bitterness.
This is why we should not be surprised by the Google memo incident (or, previously, by the Paul Griffiths episode at Duke University School of Theology or the events at Evergreen State). A few outspoken souls are starting to rebel. They can’t stand the diversity program as it really operates (not in its ideal description), and they can’t choke down their criticism and go along any more with the training programs, hiring strategies, and oft-repeated pretenses. The propaganda of Duke University, Evergreen State, and Google they can’t stomach any more. How can Google be such a haven of progressive values, a big backer of the Democratic Party and votary of Barack Obama, an aggressive supporter of LGBT wishes, and still have a diversity problem? If it has too few women, blacks, and Hispanics, must we conclude that, for all its progressive talk, Google is a racist and sexist organization?
Some individuals are tired of the allegations. They’re sick of being scolded. They don’t believe in their own badness, and they don’t remember having victimized those of another race and sex. Every time they receive a summons to attend another diversity orientation, they think, “Well, I guess they believe that I just didn’t get the point last time and they have to work me over again.”
It’s humiliating, not least because they know that the diversity command—and the assumption of their lingering bigotry that lies within it—is a lie. It’s a lie surrounded by lies and amplified by lies.
I just read a story in the Wall Street Journal on the Google affair that takes a broader view of it than what the author said. It focuses on diversity efforts throughout Silicon Valley, particularly by Danielle Brown, Google’s head of diversity (and formerly at Intel). The angle of the story appears in the first paragraph: “Not all employees have bought into the diversity push.”
It proceeds to characterize James Damore’s now famous memo as a form of “opposition,” a statement that “decr[ied] Google’s diversity efforts.” When she was at Intel, Brown issued many “positive articles about Intel’s diversity programs,” but some “40 negative comments” appeared on the internal Intel web site. This is the sum of the evidence of resistance alleged by Brown and recounted by the Wall Street Journal reporters.
But here are examples of those comments:
Some of the comments questioned why Intel was devoting $300 million over a number of years to improve diversity, or suggested managers would be forced to hire unqualified workers to satisfy goals, according to the former employee. Other comments said the initiative was just for good public relations.
Yes, that’s the worst that this news story could come up with to demonstrate anti-diversity attitudes at Intel. What appears to ordinary people as sensible questions one would ask of any costly initiative is cast as animus and “opposition.”
The game has a simple rule: either you shut up and get on board or you earn the label opponent. Brown’s utter condescension toward her fellow employees comes across in a previous comment she made to the Journal in February: “This work is hard. Engineers . . . don’t believe we have a problem until we see the data behind it.” Yup, those engineers just aren’t any good with numbers.
It is this superiority that drives people to dissidence. Read those phony examples of resistance and you realize just how sensitive diversity proponents have become and how closely you have to watch your mouth. Even a mild query counts as obstruction. Doubtfulness equals disobedience.
Press coverage such as this, common as it is, only aggravates the frustration that led to the Google memo in the first place. The diversity program, whenever it is pressed, opts for the hammerhead answer: “What’s your problem?” And the media, even the conservative Wall Street Journal, plays along.
I don’t think that many Americans have become so timid and compromising that they will keep silent for very much longer. The election of Donald Trump shows the survival of “don’t tread on me” attitudes, not racism or sexism. The vast majority of Silicon Valley workers, academics, journalists, and corporate leaders submit and keep quiet, yes. Most of the pushback still comes from the low-educated voters Trump celebrated during the campaign. But even among the upper-income sheep, I believe, we shall find more refusals in the months to come, and I don’t believe it will take many of them to bring down the false benignity of the diversity agenda.