On August 23, 2017

Good things for bad people

By Brett Yates

This month, following social media pressure upon their employers, two workers in the San Francisco Bay Area were fired for holding opinions widely deemed abhorrent. The first was a Google engineer who circulated a memo criticizing certain internal corporate policies: specifically, the diversity initiatives that Google had implemented in order to help redress the startling gender imbalance in the male-dominated tech world. The engineer, James Damore, asserted that the relative absence of women in Silicon Valley owed more to biology than to prejudicial hiring or the conditioning of a misogynistic society: according to the junk science propagated by Damore’s manifesto, it’s only natural that women should “prefer jobs in social or artistic areas,” given their “lower stress tolerance.”

Although Damore had his defenders—both fellow sexists and anti-PC activists standing against the internet’s “outrage culture”—most people on Facebook and Twitter were pretty angry with him, and understandably so. They were reacting not only to the noxiousness of Damore’s views but to his status in an industry that increasingly dominates the U.S. economy yet still has not been truly integrated: it’s hard not to see how, as we move into our digital future, one of the fundamental aspects of gender equality will have to be equal representation in tech. Damore was an engineer, not an executive (at least not yet); however, feminists, who understand that his oppressive ideology must be rooted out at all costs, didn’t want to take any chances. Google’s CEO may have disliked Damore’s memo as much as anyone else—and he may, moreover, understand that some of the women at his company likely feel that they have a right not to share office space with an openly sexist colleague—but it seems clear that the long arm of social media was what got Damore fired. Google had to protect its brand and give its most vocal customers what they wanted.

Shortly after this, a hot dog stand employee in Berkeley, Calif., was fired (or pressured to quit, depending on the source) for participating in the infamous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA. Unlike Damore, Cole White didn’t self-distribute his repulsive ideology among his coworkers. But journalists documented the event, and when someone recognized White in a photo and outed his identity, online progressives rallied to convince his employer to fire him. All normal people agree that the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville constitute the absolute bottom of the American barrel, and I wouldn’t want to eat a hot dog that one of them had touched even if he were wearing regulation food-safety gloves. Still, in the battle for equality, I question the efficacy of a strategy that spends progressive energy using social media to strip opponents of their employment.

When gloomy free-speech advocates wish for a country in which Americans would be able, on their own free time, to express whatever views they want, however disgusting they may be, without fear of termination in the workplace, liberals remind them that the First Amendment ensures only that the government can’t prosecute you for your opinions; in the private sector, employers can fire you for pretty much whatever they want.

The liberals are correct here, but they seem to have forgotten that this state of affairs represents a victory for conservatives, not progressives. On the contrary, progressives have traditionally valued workers’ rights and, in past decades, fought hard for the few protections they have in the United States: for instance, they can’t be fired on account of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, medical condition, disability, pregnancy, or age. They also can’t be fired for voicing a critique of corporate policy, which is why some lawyers think that James Damore—whose sexist manifesto was framed as such—has a good case if he decides to sue Google.

Even so, the firings of Damore and White now comprise that rare situation that both Democrats and Republicans can enjoy: on the one hand, it represents a broad social rejection of a backward and discriminatory ideology, and on the other, it exemplifies a world in which power belongs to corporations, not workers. Google employees have no union whose protections might exceed the meager scope of the law, and they didn’t elect to come together to demand the reinstatement of their comrade. Whether the workers’ disinclination to do so was an expression of liberalism or conservatism is irrelevant to the higher-ups; for them, labor disunity is great either way.

I don’t know much about the hot dog stand where Cole White worked, but it’s probably safe for us to assume that it was a minimum-wage gig with no benefits and little opportunity for advancement. Whatever social rung they occupy, white supremacists are a serious problem, but progressives’ decision to attack White’s surely already inadequate employment starkly embodies the Left’s shift of focus from labor issues to social issues: they are no longer intertwined struggles—we’ve not merely retreated from the former battleground but forgotten that it ever existed.

For most progressives today, society’s primary antagonist is not the greedy CEO but the everyday racist—whose racism seems to have emerged from a vacuum, as an inborn defect of character. I don’t wish to defend the hateful trolls in Charlottesville, but no one has yet explained to me how taking away their jobs will do anything but drive them deeper into their fringe subcultures and legitimize their false sense of victimization at the hands of progressives.

In recent years, corporatist Democrats have sought to portray working-class whites as contemptible racists, unworthy of concern, in order to allow for a party platform that does little to alleviate their problems.
In the case of Cole White, well, he is what they say he is. But how do we make him better? How do we change people’s hearts? For law-abiding deplorables, I don’t advocate punitive measures. Difficult as it may be, we have to start with empathy, an incapacity to write off anyone, and a willingness to give good things even to bad people—taking things away, after all, is the Republicans’ job.

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