Of Memos and Pitchforks

James Damore had to be fired. There was no way around it. He spoke out, eloquently, against orthodoxy and if history is any guide, he’ll be lucky to escape with merely a loss of employment. I’m less disconsolate about his ouster—as that was a foregone conclusion—as I am troubled by the cultural tempest surrounding it and what it portends for the future of substantive discussion of the important issues that affect all our lives.

From the moment the internal memo leaked it was obvious that the “anonymous Google employee” would be unmasked and fired. There was no way an internal Google memo could stay anonymous—we all knew that. The question became: for how long? Not quite two days later when Damore was fired with no possibility of appealing the decision, we got our answer. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai fired him by noting that what Damore did was “Not OK.” Maybe Pichai could have thrown in a “double plus ungood” for good measure.

As people began taking sides on the question—which is to say, immediately—we all knew and accepted that precious few would actually read his full thoughts before passing judgment on whether or not he deserves to share oxygen with the rest of us. Yet we argued as if we all knew what was in the memo. Facebook groups formed, petitions were signed, Twitter campaigns launched and barbs were traded by people, mostly ignorant of anything but a biased Cliff’s Notes version, provided by CNN, of the memo’s content.

News media, always eager for a narrative, was all too happy to paint Damore as a frothing red-piller. Social media denizens eagerly seeking to exorcise demons whose names all end in -ism pounced. Defense of Damore by all but the most brave was, and will be, tepid at best; Always with the qualification “While I don’t agree with what he said . . . ” All the while, attacks will be vicious and won’t subside until his livelihood, online life, and real life are effectively destroyed. His friends will be pressured to disavow him and even his family’s livelihood and lives will be threatened. Especially if he persists.

This is the world our culture has wrought. A world where expressing an opinion that is debate-worthy can threaten to ruin a person’s life.

Zealots Feel Their Oats
The ultimate victims in this world are expression, dialogue, and, ultimately, everyone’s freedom—as people become increasingly guarded about revealing their most cherished and personal beliefs in fear that mere deviation from the
papier-mâché socio-political orthodoxies of the day will cause tremendous disruptions to their lives.

An idea purge has, no doubt, commenced at Google. A company-wide struggle session addressing the issue had to be cancelled for fear of leaks and alleged harassment. And here I thought democracy dies in darkness. It goes without saying that few Googlers will dare agree publicly with the memo. But there will also be a more insidious cultural purge, the kind most often seen after most revolutions. The company and zealots within it will place social pressure on everyone to vocally disagree with the memo—the louder the better—and those who disagree too meekly will immediately become suspect. Not wanting to betray their true thoughts and lose their livelihoods, anyone who actually agrees with the memo as well anyone who might not think its so bad will need to denounce it more loudly—a virtue signalling vilification. The effect of this will be a corporate tutti crescendo in opposition to anything and anyone associated with the memo.

This will most likely spill over to other Silicon Valley companies where interviewers will have an intellectual litmus test and ideological touchstone to use in their hiring practices. Before too long, what we’ve seen on college campuses—where a shrill minority has wrested control of all speech; where students and professors alike are fearful of any expression, agreements and disagreements alike, that might run afoul of the increasingly difficult to appease pedantic restrictions of prevailing social justice orthodoxy—will become fully ensconced in the technology world, and, if we’re not careful, society at large.

This trend also stifles the possibility for substantive debate, as counterbalance and divergent ideas are painted not just as offensive and worthy of contempt but beneath dialogue—a very salient point which, of course, Damore made in his missive. Babies fly out the window with the bathwater. Ideas that would genuinely challenge  established biases and dogma are, themselves, viewed as dangerous fruit warranting expulsion. Get thee behind me Satan, indeed.

Banish the Urge to Banish
It’s an instinct is as old as mankind. In its most egregious forms this primitive impulse is responsible for purges, executions, expulsions, struggle sessions, political scares and witch hunts. Ironically, it is precisely this desire; to remove what is seen as a metaphysical and philosophical contagion that might turn otherwise good people into irrational beings incapable of thought and reason that has, itself, driven otherwise good people to do horrible, often unspeakable, things.

James Damore’s expulsion and the controversy surrounding his memo were just the tip of this iceberg as similar controversies exist in all walks of our lives. The memo’s content was worthy of debate and made in good faith by someone with no history, at least not as of this writing, of any demonic -isms. The fact that it engendered such controversy brings to light serious issues regarding our ability, as a culture, to tackle difficult intellectual, scientific, and social issues honestly without resorting to a villagers-with-pitchforks hermeneutic.

The uncomfortable truth regarding the current state of our conversations about difficult social issues is that we’re all too willing to deify or demonize good-faith positions; making any compromises impossible—as those would be tantamount to full capitulation to sin. Banishment has replaced debate as we eagerly paint good faith disagreement with the brush of evil and malice. Sure, there are evil people in the world, but chances are, your friends and co-workers, even those that disagree with you the most on fundamental but dicey issues, aren’t them.

If we continue to split ourselves into echo chambers that broach no dissent and divide the world into children of light combatting the forces of darkness, we shouldn’t be too surprised when we all wake up one day in a world none of us wanted, but were all too instrumental in bringing about.


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About Boris Zelkin

Russian-born Boris Zelkin is an Emmy Award-winning composer who has written the music to countless films, documentaries, television shows and major sporting events, including the Tucker Carlson show, Bill O'Reilly, "Gosnell," “FrackNation,” Citizen United’s “Rediscovering God in America II,” Roger Simon’s “Lies and Whispers,” the America's Cup, the Masters, the World Skating Championships, the U.S. Open, NASCAR, the Stanley Cup Championship, and the theme to ESPN’s NCAA championship coverage. Zelkin received his B.A. from Colgate University and earned his M.A. in religion from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He has written extensively on the culture for various online journals and was a major contributor to the recently released “Bond Forever,” a book about the James Bond franchise. He currently resides in Los Angeles but is always looking for a way out.