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Why Identity Liberals Can’t Fish

Mark Lilla on the problems with identity liberalism
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From Mark Lilla’s forthcoming (August 15) book The Once And Future Liberal:

Electoral politics is a little like fishing. When you fish you get up early in the morning and go to where the fish are — not to where you might wish them to be. You then drop bait into the water (bait being defined as something they want to eat, not as “healthy choices”). Once the fish realize they are hooked they may resist. Let them; loosen your line. Eventually they will calm down and you can slowly reel them in, careful not to provoke them unnecessarily. The identity liberals’ approach to fishing is to remain on shore, yelling at the fish about the historical wrongs visited on them by the sea, and the need for aquatic life to renounce its privilege. All in the hope that the fish will collectively confess their sins and swim to shore to be netted. If that is your approach to fishing, you had better become a vegan.

Boy, is this ever true — and note well that Lilla is a liberal who is trying to wean his own side off of the self-sabotaging politics of identity.

The Damore-Google debacle is such a perfect example of why so many people fear and loathe the Left in power. I am a father of two boys and one girl. I want them all to succeed in whatever their callings might be. I don’t want them given special privileges, nor do I want them to suffer special prejudices, even though I know that both will be present in the real world.

If my daughter was good at software development and wanted to work at Google, I would want her to have a fair shot at a job there. And if she were hired, I would expect that the company would do everything it reasonably could to make sure its employees treated each other fairly and courteously. And I would want the same thing for my sons — at Google, or wherever they work.

Most people want that for their kids, I think. Few people — even among us conservatives — want a world in which their daughters are unjustly passed over for jobs, or subject to workplace harassment. Nor do we want a world in which our sons are treated that way.

But here’s the deal: what we’re seeing happen at Google, to James Damore, is insane. What his memo reveals about the corporate culture of “diversity” and “microaggression training” is frightening and bizarre. Identity liberals forget that women have sons and husbands too, and worry that their male loved ones will be stigmatized and punished unfairly in the workplace, just as they worry about their female loved ones. What identity liberalism within corporations has done is embed in the structure of corporate culture a set of prejudices and values that are no more just than the ones they replaced.

I would not want my children working for Google. I would not want my sons to be subject to that kind of ritual defamation and professional ruin for expressing the “wrong” opinions. And I would not want my daughter to have the kind of power over her coworkers that women do in the identity-liberal culture of Google. I want all my kids to work for employers that care about justice in the workplace, but do so within a context that — as James Damore suggested in his memo — treats employees as individuals.

I do not believe I am the only one who observes this Google mess from outside and sees the company and its ideological mob of backers behaving like the kind of lunatics Mark Lilla calls out in his anecdote. These people would be toxic to work with. On Quillette, four scientists respond to the controversy. Here’s an excerpt of what Rutgers psychologist Lee Jussim has to say about the Damore memo, and the commentary about it on the Gizmodo site:

This essay may not get everything 100% right, but it is certainly not a rant. And it stands in sharp contrast to most of the comments, which are little more than snarky modern slurs. The arrogance of most of the comments reflects exactly the type of smug self-appointed superiority that has led to widespread resentment of the left among reasonable people. To the extent that such views correspond to those at Google, they vindicate the essayist’s claims about the authoritarian and repressive atmosphere there. Even the response by Google’s new VP in charge of diversity simply ignores all of the author’s arguments, and vacuously affirms Google’s commitment to diversity. The essay is vastly more thoughtful, linked to the science, and well-reasoned than nearly all of the comments. If I had one recommendation, it would be this: That, before commenting on these issues, Google executives read two books: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.

Mill: “…unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them.”

Haidt: “If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.”

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller says that Damore got the science almost entirely correct, and exposed a contradiction in the diversocrats’ thinking. In this excerpt, he highlights the two dogmatic principles behind diversity ideology:

  • The human sexes and races have exactly the same minds, with precisely identical distributions of traits, aptitudes, interests, and motivations; therefore, any inequalities of outcome in hiring and promotion must be due to systemic sexism and racism;

  • The human sexes and races have such radically different minds, backgrounds, perspectives, and insights, that companies must increase their demographic diversity in order to be competitive; any lack of demographic diversity must be due to short-sighted management that favors groupthink.

The obvious problem is that these two core assumptions are diametrically opposed.

Let me explain. If different groups have minds that are precisely equivalent in every respect, then those minds are functionally interchangeable, and diversity would be irrelevant to corporate competitiveness. For example, take sex differences. The usual rationale for gender diversity in corporate teams is that a balanced, 50/50 sex ratio will keep a team from being dominated by either masculine or feminine styles of thinking, feeling, and communicating. Each sex will counter-balance the other’s quirks. (That makes sense to me, by the way, and is one reason why evolutionary psychologists often value gender diversity in research teams.) But if there are no sex differences in these psychological quirks, counter-balancing would be irrelevant. A 100% female team would function exactly the same as a 50/50 team, which would function the same as a 100% male team. If men are no different from women, then the sex ratio in a team doesn’t matter at any rational business level, and there is no reason to promote gender diversity as a competitive advantage.

Likewise, if the races are no different from each other, then the racial mix of a company can’t rationally matter to the company’s bottom line. The only reasons to value diversity would be at the levels of legal compliance with government regulations, public relations virtue-signalling, and deontological morality – not practical effectiveness. Legal, PR, and moral reasons can be good reasons for companies to do things. But corporate diversity was never justified to shareholders as a way to avoid lawsuits, PR blowback, or moral shame; it was justified as a competitive business necessity.

So, if the sexes and races don’t differ at all, and if psychological interchangeability is true, then there’s no practical business case for diversity.

On the other hand, if demographic diversity gives a company any competitive advantages, it must be because there are important sex differences and race differences in how human minds work and interact. For example, psychological variety must promote better decision-making within teams, projects, and divisions. Yet if minds differ across sexes and races enough to justify diversity as an instrumental business goal, then they must differ enough in some specific skills, interests, and motivations that hiring and promotion will sometimes produce unequal outcomes in some company roles. In other words, if demographic diversity yields any competitive advantages due to psychological differences between groups, then demographic equality of outcome cannot be achieved in all jobs and all levels within a company. At least, not without discriminatory practices such as affirmative action or demographic quotas.

So, psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.

Weirdly, the same people who advocate for equality of outcome in every aspect of corporate life, also tend to advocate for diversity in every aspect of corporate life. They don’t even see the fundamentally irreconcilable assumptions behind this ‘equality and diversity’ dogma.

Why didn’t the thousands of people working to promote equality and diversity in corporate America acknowledge this paradox? Why did it take a male software engineer at Google who’s read a bunch of evolutionary psychology? I suspect that it’s a problem of that old tradeoff between empathizing and systematizing that I wrote about in this Quillette article on neurodiversity and free speech. The high empathizers in HR and the diversity industry prioritize caring for women and minorities over developing internally coherent, evidence-based models of human nature and society. High systematizers, such as this memo’s author, prioritize the opposite. Indeed, he explicitly calls for ‘de-emphasizing empathy’ and ‘de-moralizing diversity’, arguing that ‘being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts’. He is right.

Debra Soh, whose PhD is in the neuroscience of sexuality, says, in the same article:

Sex researchers recognize that these differences are not inherently supportive of sexism or stratifying opportunities based on sex. It is only because a group of individuals have chosen to interpret them that way, and to subsequently deny the science around them, that we have to have this conversation at a public level. Some of these ideas have been published in neuroscientific journals—despite having faulty study methodology—because they’ve been deemed socially pleasing and “progressive.” As a result, there’s so much misinformation out there now that people genuinely don’t know what to believe.

No matter how controversial it is or how great the pushback, I believe it’s important to speak out, because if we can’t discuss scientific truths, where does that leave us?

Read the whole thing.

It doesn’t take a right-wing ideologue to understand that what Soh and the other scientists I’ve quoted here are saying is common sense. Nor does it take a right-wing ideologue to be chilled to the bone by the ferocity of the anti-Damore mob. I have personally been in a situation in the workplace in which a perfectly ordinary thing I said that was directly related to my work almost turned into a Human Resources situation that could have cost me my job and my career, had I not decided that this was not a hill I was prepared to die on. My accuser had a laughable case — seriously, if I told you the details, most of you liberal readers would agree with me, I’m sure — but the accuser also had power within the culture of that particular workplace, because of the accuser’s identity as a member of a favored class. I judged that I was unlikely to win any showdown. After that, though, fear of false accusation seriously affected my work. I avoided that co-worker, and when I could not, was careful not to say anything that this person could construe as hostile — even though it meant I was not able to do my job as well as I had before.

The psychological pressure being in that kind of work situation puts on you takes a toll. You realize that you have to work in a social context in which reason does not fully apply, and in which you can be accused at any moment of ideological deviation, on the most spurious grounds. And you understand — you had better understand it, because your job depends on it — that if you are put on trial in the court of the Human Resources Department, you will not be treated as an individual, but as a member of an oppressor group. The people passing judgment on you will consider themselves virtuous to find you guilty of heresy.

Damore’s mistake was in assuming that Google actually wanted to know how to run its business more efficiently, and wanted a more fair workplace. Damore’s mistake was to believe Alphabet (Google’s parent company) CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent claim that Google runs itself according to “science-based thinking”.

No, it doesn’t. It runs itself according to the religion of Identity Liberalism. There is no “right” and “wrong” there; there is only “good” and “evil”.

The problem with Identity Liberalism is not that it seeks to create workplaces that are fair to men and women both, and to people of all races, and so forth. We all want that, or ought to. The problem is only partly that it’s criteria for judging the fairness of a workplace are contradictory and unfair, as Dr. Miller points out above. The core of the problem is that identity liberalism construes disagreement as heresy, and viciously punishes heretics.

And it is therefore impossible for identity liberalism, and the institutions that embrace it, to self-correct, because all criticism is treated as evil. The critic finds himself, like Damore, defending not his thesis (which may or may not be wrong), but his moral worth.

If you want that kind of society, vote Democratic. If you want a society that turns into a war of all against all, based on race, sex, and whatnot, vote Democratic. That’s what it seems like to a lot of us. We are not about to swim to shore and volunteer to be netted, because we hate ourselves and our sons and daughters so much that we believe we deserve to have our careers sacrificed for the sake of creating Utopia.

Mark Lilla writes that identity liberalism works against ordinary democracy. He says:

The more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate. Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X… This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter. (One never says, Speaking as a gay Asian, I feel incompetent to judge this matter.) It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come fro a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.


What replaces argument, then, is taboo. At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups — today the transgendered — are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats — today conservative political speakers — are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false. And not only propositions but simple words. Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up Protestant schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.

What happened to James Damore at Google is that he was made a scapegoat for violating a taboo. This is the kind of society that liberal identitarians want America to become. People who stand to be the scapegoated in such an unjust dispensation are naturally not going to vote for candidates of the party that welcomes this kind of thing, and calls it justice.



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