The diversity memo written by a now-fired Google engineer instigated days of debate this week, sparking a vibrant conversation about sex and censorship. But the memo, and Google's reaction to it, also provided an opening for a discussion too seldom had even by the staunchest advocates of free expression.
The culture of political correctness doesn't only censor people's beliefs, it attacks the very process by which we arrive at them.
Nick Gillespie explored how the controversy surrounding the Google memo illustrates this in Reason. "Political correctness has in many ways stymied any sort of good-faith conversation about issues touching on race, class, gender, and other highly charged topics," he observed.
Gillespie, writing from the libertarian perspective, contrasted the arrogance of the philosophy behind political correctness with the "epistemological humility" of libertarianism. "Libertarianism is ultimately grounded not in anything like knowable, objective, scientific truths, but in epistemological humility built on (per Hayek and other unacknowledged postmodernists) a recognition of the limits of human understanding and that centralization of power leads to bad results."
"That is, because we don't know objective truths," Gillespie continued, "we need to have an open exchange of ideas and innovation that allows us to gain more knowledge and understanding even if we never quite get to truth with a capital T."
Even those who believe their world views are grounded in objective truths should be sympathetic to that argument, recognizing the process by which we develop certainty in our beliefs involves the exchange of differing ideas we must compare to draw conclusions.
Not only do the proponents of political correctness censor those who express what people like me might label objective truths— for instance, biological sex differences— they also seek to censor anybody who expresses anything that subverts progressive orthodoxy. The result, ironically, is a shutdown of the very process by which many of them probably arrived at their own beliefs in the first place.
"We need to allow as many 'experiments in living' (to use John Stuart Mill's phrase) as possible both out of respect for others' right to choose the life they want and to gain more knowledge of what works and what doesn't," Gillespie wrote, concluding, "Political correctness is not simply an attack a given set of current beliefs, it is an attack on the process by which we become smarter and more humane. That's exactly why it's so pernicious and destructive."
There's an ascendant reflex to shout down ideas simply on the basis of their perceived wrongness. Inaccuracy, objective or subjective, is tolerated less and less in the public square.
With the obvious exception of journalists reporting on the news, it's okay for people to express ideas that are wrong, objectively or otherwise. I suspect some of this attitude stems from outrage culture on social media, where people on every point of the ideological spectrum race to belittle other worldviews. To the contrary, we need to respect the value of listening to falsehoods and bad ideas. You can't actually debunk them without knowing they exist in the first place.
Google employees should recognize that it's okay to work with a person you believe is wrong. The memo in question was explicitly respectful and appreciative of diversity. Rather than advocating for the firing of its author, why not take a deep breath, recognize the good intentions, look past your reflexive disagreement, and accept it as an opportunity to prove the correctness of your own views?
After all, one day you might just get something wrong too.
Emily Jashinsky is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.