In this piece I’m staking out an ambitious challenge in trying to unprovactively examine a topic that has thus far always proven provacative. I know in even broaching the subject, which for many is a sore topic, maybe one that they don’t believe can be resolved through sincerity anymore, I am pitting myself against both the misunderstanding and the entrenched cynicism of all past failures. Nonetheless, I have a point worth making.
Do you really want to read this?
Before we begin, a thought: I’ll be taking a controversial issue, one you likely have strong opinions on, and illustrating its depth. You should ask yourself if you really want to read this, considering what you’ll be losing. By accepting the nuance and grey in an issue you forfeit up the simple joy of conviction, of being the Good Side crusading against the Bad Side. If you’re investment in that joy is something you depend on, this piece will simply be an irritating conflict to you.
What I ask of you:
If you think you do, then prove it to myself and yourself — I ask you to say this outloud, right now, “I want to understand this issue and I’m open to considering the possibility that the people I disagree with are both intelligent and trying to make the world better.” If you cannot even say that to yourself now, yes outloud, then do not bother reading on.
Now that that’s taken care of I should finally tell you the most controversial topic of news.ycombinator. And that topic has three faces: gender, political-correctness, and truth. It encompasses Damore, but in many ways has roots that spread much further.
I’ve interviewed two of my most respected friends — friends who are both intelligent, rational, well-intentioned, and have come to opposite sides of this issue. I expect that they can’t convince you, after all they conflict each other, but my hope is that you, as I, will find an intellectual and moral respect for them as people and finally understand how a clear-thinking person could come to such opposite conclusions.
Bill, who describes himself as “pro-Damore,” has an interesting perspective. In college he volunteered with autistic kids, and spent the better part of a semester trying to teach one young boy to say “ah,” among other developmental steps. “I only got him to do it once the whole time. It was pretty crushing. It was very clear to me that sometimes the progress is so slow it can feel pretty helpless. I have a lot of respect for the women who volunteered there [he was the only male volunteer].”
I bring this up not because it makes him look like a stereotypical “goodguy,” but because I think it informs his larger worldview. When I ask him what his outlook is on autism he says, “Well it’s unclear. Personally, I suspect it’s increasing, even though the data is ambiguous. One in 68 having autism sounds high to me. Were 1 in 68 children autistic in the Roman days? But ultimately I think it’ll get cured, along with most conditions, through science. Probably not just in my lifetime”
My theory is that to Bill, the problems of this world, or at least one problem, is a biological fact that can be solved only through science. When I ask him why he described himself is roughly pro-Damore he said ultimately for him he feels antagonistic to the attitudes of political correctness.
“I get that political correctness means well. But there has to be a line. Take something super controversial for example, like race and IQ. If you’re too PC to ever even do research, you’re actually going to fail at helping the world. For example, lead poisoning is known to decrease IQ and has been suspected to relate to violent crime. There are still tons of homes that have lead pipes! Even Flint, they never even got rid of the fucking lead pipes there! Because it’s allegedly too expensive. So my point with all of this is that, there may very well be certain patterns in IQ or violence in poor demographic areas, and quite possibly due to something like lead, and this poor area may also predominantly be a minority. But if we immediately assume that every time the words race and IQ come up in the same sentence that somebody’s intent is to argue racial superiority then we’ll never actually fix the biological problem– we’ll HURT the world by try to prove how sophisticated we are.”
I’m not exactly clear how this ties back to Damore, maybe it doesn’t. I ask him about it. “Well look, people said he was sexist for saying the average neuroticism across the group of women is higher than in men. I think the only important question is is it true. If you refuse to believe something that’s true because you wish it weren’t, you’re gonna hurt the world. Problems get fixed with science, and science requires honesty.”
When I ask him why he’s so sure about the neuroticism thing he says he read it on wikipedia. I don’t know how I feel about that, but one thing I will say for sure is that I know Bill, his opinions are coming from a place of trying to help the world.
I have a lot of respect for Sam, I’ve always found him to be well spoken. His clarity-of-thought counts for so much actually getting people to understand his perspective. I respect that because it’s easy to get emotional, easy to be passionate, but not so easy to run all the angles and do the due diligence on having a logically consistent perspective.
“No, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Damore supporter, but I also think that there aren’t just two sides to this issue.”
I want to pose Bill’s perspective to Sam, but it’s hard because I’m not exactly clear on Bill’s perspective. I instead ask “Why do you think think Damore was such a contentious topic?”
“Well I think there’s a fundamental disagreement on the power of words. From a legal perspective we’re all entitled to our opinions, but from a social perspective we have pretty strong norms about what can be said. And this is good, because words are actually really powerful.” I ask for clarification. “For an extreme case, what do you think would harm somebody more. Having 20 people tell the person that they are unlikable, or tripping and falling on their face?”
I see Sam has a point, but not really how it relates. I ask what the connection is. “I read Damore’s entire manifesto and he doesn’t say anything sexist. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t violate norms. Ultimately he made a lot of people uncomfortable.”
I challenge this — “Sure, but sometimes the truth is uncomfortable, surely saying things that make people uncomfortable isn’t reason in-and-of-itself for punishment. Particularly if those things are true.”
He smiles at this. “Well, yes and no. It’s true sometimes an uncomfortable truth must be said. But those who think nothing true can be offensive are kidding themselves. What if a girl at google wrote a piece suggesting male engineers are more likely to be on the autism spectrum (allegedly in support of some HR point)? It may be true, but deliberately rocking the boat like that does have real emotional effects on people and just may get punished.”
I change gears and ask him about whether political correctness can go too far, and mask issues that need correction as Bill feared. He answers, “I suppose that could happen. But I guess I personally don’t see that as a very realistic concern. At least from a broader historical perspective about historical attitudes toward Native Americans and blacks the facts actually didn’t matter that much. At the end of the day the slave owners didn’t care if their slaves were their intellectual equals, it was the social reality they subscribed to let them do what they did. It was the culture and the words. Even if the average intellect of a slave was higher than a slave owner I don’t think that would have prevented the injustices of racism.”
I ask him if he understands how somebody could see it another way, and worry that biological things like lead poisoning could be a larger problem than social things. He says, “Yes.”
Just for get a better picture, I ask him what he thinks of men’s right movements. “I think they really get the short end of the stick. I think that will change though. It’s just easy to associate a group with its most belligerent or intense members and that can put a negative face on a group– it happened with feminists in the 90’s and atheists too.”
Some topics become more clear as you understand them, some topics get less clear as you understand them. I think this is the latter. I cannot say how to compare the ills of social problems against scientific problems, I can’t say whether they are at odds at all.
What I can say, though, is that both Bill and Sam are good people, and I like them both.