On Tuesday, Wired published an article (which also appears in the February edition of the magazine) recounting the stories of six individuals who were asked to freely discuss their experiences with “censorship.” Among the six chosen individuals is James Damore, the former Google engineer known for the lengthy anti-diversity memo he circulated within the company arguing that men and women are inherently biologically different, and thus suited to different lines of work. (Spoiler: The man thinks women are inferior to men as engineers.) The memo leaked, there was a public outcry, and Damore was ultimately fired. In the context of the article, we’re meant to understand that his case is some new kind censorship that’s arisen in our connected world. In this vision, the memo goes viral, and Google buckles to massive public pressure and fires a man for his unpopular ideas.
Wired’s February cover package attempts to explore the messy dimensions of speech in world where monolithic platforms like Facebook and Google dominate. White supremecist on Twitter, Russian election meddling on Facebook, and the proliferation of fake news are amongst the many issues the magazine tries to cover. But despite the breadth, Damore’s inclusion feels more like a provocation than a serious attempt at conversation about censorship and free speech. This is especially evident in the press outreach around the article that landed in my editor’s email account at 8:40 AM, which spotlights Damore and relegates the rest of the individuals profiled to bullet points. The email even highlights and emphasises a simply unbelievably stupid quote from Damore on his experiences after publishing the memo: “I was objectified as all the racism and sexism in the world.” Poor thing!
To be totally clear, Damore is not a victim of censorship. He did some stupid shit and got fired (more on that later). Here’s what Damore really is: a splashy get, who Wired gave free reign to espouse his nonsense within the context of a fluffy magazine package. It’s hard not to walk away from the thing feeling like Damore is some kind of hero—a champion for freedom of expression.
To understand why Damore’s insertion into the narrative of censorship is disconcerting, it’s important to look at how his notoriety unfolded. Most people first learned of Damore after his 10-page document railing against Google’s diversity efforts was published by Gizmodo. It argued that gender gaps in the technology workforce shouldn’t just be attributed to sexism, but also to the “fact” that women are less equipped to handle the industry than men. The memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” wasn’t just discriminatory—it was rooted in scientific inaccuracies. In fact, Wired itself detailed a number of them.
Following his ouster from the company and the outcry surrounding his memo, Damore doubled down on his beliefs, becoming a hero for the alt-right. He accepted interviews with Milo Yiannopoulos and men’s rights activist Stefan Molyneux and set up a fundraiser on WeSearchr, a crowdfunding site created by far-right troll Chuck Johnson. And then, this month, Damore filed a class action lawsuit against Google along with another former employee, claiming that Google discriminated against them because they were white male conservatives.
“Google employees who expressed views deviating from the majority view at Google on political subjects raised in the workplace and relevant to Google’s employment policies and its business, such as ‘diversity’ hiring policies, ‘bias sensitivity,’ or ‘social justice,’ were/are singled out, mistreated, and systematically punished and terminated from Google, in violation of their legal rights,” the lawsuit alleges. “Damore, Gudeman, and other class members were ostracized, belittled, and punished for their heterodox political views, and for the added sin of their birth circumstances of being Caucasians and/or males.”
But despite the legal gymnastics of Damore’s attorneys, getting fired for his memo wasn’t discrimination, and it certainly wasn’t censorship. As Google CEO Sundar Pichai said at the time of the memo’s circulation, it violated the company’s policies, perpetuating sexist ideologies. Damore disclosed to his non-male colleagues that he believes that they are predisposed to being worse at their jobs than males. Former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger sums it up nicely in this line from his blog post responding to Damore’s memo: “You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.” In a workplace, you can’t say whatever you’d like without consequences—violating a company’s code of conduct is grounds for firing.
Meanwhile, Wired’s characterisation ultimately paints Damore as a hero slain by the cruel hand of censorship. And because the work is presented in an “as told to” format, there’s no room for the publication’s reporters to push back or question Damore’s viewpoints, or to acknowledge that the consequences to his actions were legitimately justified. This is likely just what Damore wants—a major platform to uncritically spout off his side of the story. And in the context of victims of censorship, a luxury he’s undeserving of.