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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cordelia Fine on the James Damore case

I'm bookmarking this long article about James Damore in The Guardian from back in November 2017, because I want to return to it. When I initially read the article, I was especially struck by the remarks attributed to Cordelia Fine, who has, for some years, been a patient and unrelenting critic of much sex-difference research. She sees this research as scientifically dubious and socially dangerous insofar as it undermines feminist efforts to advocate for gender equality.

While Professor Fine could be expected to criticise Damore's views on sex differences in interests and personality traits - and indeed, she does so - it's notable that she adds that his summary of sex-difference research in his now famous memo was "more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature" and that some of his ideas were quite familiar to her and not even especially controversial. As quoted, she goes on to say, "So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him."

Here, Fine is showing a level of common decency and reasonableness - and is expressing a degree of compassion for an intellectual opponent - that is all too often missing from public debate about controversial issues. Too often, the response is not only to distrust any message that contradicts our prior beliefs and commitments, but to go even further. The response, that is, is often to reject, demonise, and attempt to harm the messenger. Cordelia Fine deserves praise for taking a different approach to a message that clearly goes against some of her core attitudes and beliefs.

My purpose here is to praise Fine's approach (at least on this occasion) to public controversy, not to defend the substance of Damore's memo. You can go here for one even-handed attempt (by Jonathan Haidt) to assess its merits or otherwise. My larger concern is not with the science of sex differences but with the widespread tendency to shame opponents in public, and to call for them to be fired (as Damore was fired from his job at Google in August 2017). This is, of course, something that I've been objecting to for a long time now.

Edit, 17 February 2017: The National Labor Relations Board has since publicly released a memorandum of advice from its legal counsel on James Damore's application to the NLRB to consider his case. The advice memorandum itself strikes me as extraordinary, claiming that Damore's dispassionate and reasoned discussion of the science of sex-related psychological differences was comparable to such blatant stereotyping and hostility in the workplace as referring to "jealous ass ghetto people"; the memorandum even claims that parts of Damore's memo amounted to sexual harassment, notwithstanding that the content was entirely clinical and analytical rather than in any way sexualised. That said, any employer enjoys a very broad discretion under American law to dismiss employees for conduct that could potentially cause workplace disharmony. It was always doubtful, therefore, that Damore could have won this case or even that the NLRB genuinely had jurisdiction to deal with it. I also have doubts as to whether other legal action commenced by Damore since his dismissal from employment can succeed.

For all that, the reasoning in the NLRB advice memorandum is troubling, and it appears to me to be wrong in fact and law, even if the legality of Google's action in firing Damore could have been upheld, all things considered, on the basis of less controversial reasoning.

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