Freedom of Speech

While I was offline for most of the weekend, there was a bit of excitement generated by a 10-page, misogynist manifesto published internally by a male employee at a certain well-known tech company. The employee has since been fired.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read the entire controversial post. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I need to. I’ve heard it all before and I have better things to do with my time than read 10 pages of arguments for why I’m unfit to do the type of work that I do.

The short version of his argument is that women aren’t cut out for STEM fields, but the strategic message of his post is that we collectively shouldn’t silence “uncomfortable” arguments just because we happen to disagree with them. A virtuous society should welcome dissenting opinions whether they are distasteful or not.

I have no interest in engaging with the misogynist message of his post. I flatly reject his arguments, and others – such as in this post by Yonatan Zunger – have already done detailed refutations of his point.

But I study citizens and civil society; I am interested in the ways we work together or don’t work together to co-create the world around us. So I am much more interested in the broader questions: in a society (or company) with many different people with many different views, what is the role of dissent? To what extent must speech be safeguarded? What social or institutional responses are appropriate regulators of speech, if any?

These are all important questions with non-obvious answers. I certainly don’t have any simple answers today.

I am inclined to agree with J. L. Austin, though, that words can be actions. Performative speech acts or rhetic acts are not mere sounds or words without meaning: they have real impact. As Austin writes:

Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them…

Words have consequences, and thus we must take them seriously.

Words can do real harm.

So I think it’s unfair to say that anyone who feels harmed by another’s words should simply toughen up; they are not just words.

But the power of words to do harm also emphasizes why their freedom is so essential: words and ideas can be dangerous to corrupt, authoritarian regimes. Words have real power for harm and for good and their silencing should not be taken lightly.

But here’s the thing that’s struck me about this particularly case – the details of which are obscured and a bit fuzzy:

Was this employee a good worker and teammate who got a long just fine until one day he unleashed 10-pages of thought he knew his colleagues would hate?

That’s entirely possible, but I imagine a somewhat different scenario.

In his post, Zunger expresses pure distain at the views of the employee, writing “What I am is an engineer, and I was rather surprised that anyone has managed to make it this far without understanding some very basic points about what the job is.”

How did someone make it this far, indeed? I can’t help but wonder: was this really the first sign that the employee held so many of his colleagues in such low esteem? Was it the first indication that he had an entirely backwards view of what engineering really is?

I suspect not.

I have to admit I am disappointed, though not surprised, that he was so quickly fired. It just feels petty. It feels small.

It feels like the action to take to clean up a PR mess which comes at the same time your company is being investigated for systematically underpaying female employees.

And that’s the thing – words do matter. Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t wish the thoughts away. Sure, this one employee whose notable outburst went public can be swept under the rug and tidied up for a discerning public; but his words don’t go away. The culture that spawned those words, which allowed them to flourish, doesn’t change much as a result.

That’s not to say all vitriol should be labeled speech and allowed to run rampantly free; as noted, these words do harm and that harm should be taken seriously. But that’s why it’s important to have allies. Real allies, who will speak out when they hear something, who won’t laugh at bad jokes, who will pick up on the small things and provide constructive criticism.

We can’t pretend that a misogynist manifesto is the product of one guy at one company and we can’t pretend that his wrong and offensive views will just go away. The misogyny in tech is rampant, the misogyny in our culture unbearable. We should talk about these news scandals, sure, but the real work must be done at the ground level, every day. The real work begins long before it escalates to 10-page manifestos.

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