As a former google employee I was deeply saddened, but unsurprised, to learn that Google had released new rules discouraging political debates within the company. I always felt this was one of the things which made the company great and helped make the world better. This action represents a key step undermining an important that helped keep the company from being evil. However, the blame doesn’t lie with executives or most google employees but with the broader political climate and a small number of extremists.
The fundamental problem Google faced (as our country does) is that productive dialog of this kind requires a willingness to accept opposing viewpoints as valid and for belief in the system to persist even when you lose. Despite some idiotic news coverage this isn’t a victory of corporate greed over the policy of not being evil but reflects the inherent difficulty of figuring out what is evil. While some people might think that working with the government to develop some military application is evil others could quite reasonably believe that refusing to work with the military only costs more lives. As long as people understand there really are (in this case) good people on both sides and don’t see a loss as a fundamental failure of the system this kind of internal discussion is productive. Unfortunately, however, in recent years there has been an increasing willingness of some employees to appeal their losses to the media imposing huge PR risks (and probably making the discussions less open/frank). Ultimately, the net result isn’t that the people who want google to eschew military applications or work in China get their way but that now they don’t even get (as much of a) change to make their case and change minds.
To see why it’s essentially impossible for Google to encourage such frank discussion in the current political environment just consider the Damore affair. Damore didn’t get the science exactly right and offered speculations that fell short of full academic rigor but Google can’t possibly enforce a neutral rule that people who make claims about STEM gender differences without a fully footnoted bibliography get fired. They’d need to also fire every person who says that the paucity of female programmers reflects discrimination (or implies it by demands to rectify the situation). While I favor calling out both Damore and everyone who assumes, without strong evidentiary support, that the gender gap must be primarily caused by discrimination (without substantial evidence) that would draw even more fire. I don’t cheer Damore on but I also don’t see any way to formulate a neutral rule that merely specified a standard of evidence on the subject without disastrous consequences.
While I think one can say a lot in favor of discouraging any discussion on issues of race, gender etc.. at the office I’d note that this is incompatible with the oft-pushed idea that we should be having a conversation about these ideas and suggests that Google was misguided to encourage employees to discuss corporate policy regarding gender balance in the first place.