Tagfreespeech

the mystery of Google’s position

Google’s position could be:

  • All studies suggesting that men-taken-as-a-group and women-taken-as-a-group have measurably different interests or abilities are so evidently wrong that any attempt to invoke them can only be indicative of malice, bad faith, gross insensitivity, or other moral flaws so severe that the person invoking them must be fired.
  • At least some of those studies are sound, but the suggestion that such differences could even partly account for gender imbalance in tech companies like Google is so evidently wrong that any attempt to invoke them can only be etc. etc.
  • At least some of those studies are sound, and very well may help to account for gender imbalance in tech companies like Google, but saying so inflicts so much emotional harm on some employees, and creates so much internal dissension, that any attempt to invoke them can only be etc. etc.
  • We take no position on any of those studies, but fired James Damore because of other things he said.

I think those are the chief options. Sundar Pichai’s memo emphasizes emotional harm inflicted — “The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender” — without ever weighing in on the validity of any of the studies Damore’s memo cites. And Pichai says that “much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it” — but he doesn’t spell out what he thinks was fair and what unfair.

I think the third option above is the most likely, with the fourth the next-best candidate, but I seriously doubt that Google will get much more specific. Their goal will be to create a climate of maximal fear-of-offending, and that is best done by never allowing employees to know where the uncrossable lines are. That is, after all, corporate SOP.

It’s going to be really, really difficult to get reliable information about what happened here and why it happened, not just because Google will want to be evasive, and will be encouraged by its lawyers to be evasive, but also because, as Conor Friedersdorf pointed out, the misrepresentations of and straightforward lies about Damore’s memo are pervasive: “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.”

At one time, the University of Chicago might have been thought to be the one place above all others that was capable of preparing its students to acquit themselves well in difficult, valuable conversations about race, class, and violence. As my experience in seminars attests, though, Chicago is no longer fully committed to humanizing its students the old-fashioned way, through books and discussion. The left’s attacks on free speech may endanger the academic project, but the greater threat to the free exchange of ideas comes from academic corporatization. As long as that process continues unchecked, the university’s bold rhetorical defense of an art that it no longer teaches us how to practice will be nothing better than posturing.

— What U. of Chicago Activists Are Complaining About | The American Conservative. This, from a current U of C student, provides some extremely useful context for the university’s recent reaffirmation of its commitment to free speech on campus.

Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, said he aimed to “banalize” all areas of discourse that were too fraught to discuss. He maintained that generations of satire of Catholicism had made the lampooning of it — and thereby, the legitimate discussion of it — unobjectionable, and he felt that the same could be achieved with Islam and other topics.  

That the cartoons were not intentionally racist does not preclude their being experienced as racist. Cartoons can and do offend. Yet Christiane Taubira, the black French justice minister who was parodied as a monkey in a cringe-worthy cartoon, delivered a poignant elegy at the funeral of one of her supposed tormentors, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, saying that “Tignous and his companions were sentinels, lookouts, those who watched over democracy,” preventing it from being lulled into complacency.  

The leading French anti-racism organization, SOS Racisme, has called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.” Its current editor, Gérard Biard, says it deplores all forms of racism. According to Le Monde, of 523 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015, only seven singled out Islam for ridicule (ten were cited as mocking multiple religions); many more mocked Christianity and the racism of the French right.

It is exceedingly difficult these days to call attention to the dull-minded policing by academics and online activists without being ridiculed in return as a frightened, ignorant old man who bemoans “political correctness.” We do not wish to be assimilated to those old duffers who wear Hawaiian shirts and do not understand why we can no longer call a dame a dame, and so we avoid worrying in public about the phenomenon. We stop ourselves even when we find that our peers have begun half-rationalizing the assassination of cartoonists on the basis of a glancing judgment that their drawings were racist, a judgment that rests only on the overt content of the images, generally without any translation of the French captions, without any consideration of context or pragmatics, and without any concern for the relationship of any individual cartoon to its creator’s body of work. In this age of visual illiteracy, of perfect tone-deafness to satire, the murders get cast as a blow not against freedom of expression, against subtlety, nuance, and laughter, but against racism. So, the thinking goes, adieu.  

Already on the eve of January 7 my peers were transforming before my eyes into grotesque descendants of Jean-Paul Sartre, who maintained his support of Stalinism despite a knowledge of its worst atrocities, and of the craven Western Stalinists who defended the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Hungary, in 1956. How could they not see what was at stake? I became convinced that the root of the moral and political failure I was witnessing lay in the false presumption that humor is but one of the minor protectorates of freedom, when in fact humor is freedom itself, or at least freedom’s highest expression.

Justin Smith. A follow-up on Smith’s blog: “I am not a big fan of most laïcité rhetoric, and I am sensitive to how it is used for purposes of exclusion. (I am also not listening to what Salman Rushdie is saying on this topic.) This is why I’ve tried to be consistent about coupling my position on Charlie Hebdo with an equally insistent position on, e.g., the rights and dignity of regular and non-regular (‘illegal’) migrants to France. I see my position as the one that, more than that of those with whom I disagree, is most insistent that Islam must not be perceived as a monolith, that in fact there is no such thing as the Muslim community, but rather numerous disagreeing factions, by no means all of which agree with the attackers that there is something unacceptably offensive about the content of Charlie Hebdo.

Random thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

1) I don’t think the most important question about what happened is “Do we support Charlie Hebdo?” I think the most important question is, “Do we support, and are we willing to fight for, a society in which people who make things like Charlie Hebdo can work in peace and sleep in their beds each night without fear?”

2) Freddie deBoer wrote,

Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat and Jon Chait and hundreds more will take the time in the week to come to beat their chests and declare themselves firmly committed to brave ideas like “murder is bad” and “free speech is good.” None of them, if pressed, would pretend that we are at risk of abandoning our commitment against murder or in favor of free speech. None of them think that, in response to this attack, we or France or any other industrialized nation is going to pass a bill declaring criticism of Islam illegal.

That last sentence is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The measure of freedom of speech in a society is not simply a matter of what laws are or are not passed. We must also ask which existing laws are or are not enforced; and what self-censorship people perform out of fear that their societies will not or cannot protect them. Freddie writes as though freedom of speech can be adequately evaluated only by reference to the situation de jure; but there are de facto issues that must also be considered.

3) One of the more interesting comments on this whole affair is that of Giles Fraser:

In one sense an iconoclast is someone who refuses the established view of things, who kicks out against cherished beliefs and institutions. Which sounds pretty much like Charlie Hebdo. But the word iconoclast also describes those religious people who refuse and smash representational images, especially of the divine. The second of the Ten Commandments prohibits graven images – which is why there are no pictures of God in Judaism or Islam. And theologically speaking, the reason they are deeply suspicious of divine representation is because they fear that such representations of God might get confused for the real thing. The danger, they believe, is that we might end up overinvesting in a bad copy, something that looks a lot like what we might think of as god, but which, in reality, is just a human projection. So much better then to smash all representations of the divine.

And yet this, of course, is exactly what Charlie Hebdo was doing. In the bluntest, rudest, most scatological and offensive of terms, Charlie Hebdo has been insisting that the images people worship are just human creations – bad and dangerous human creations. And in taking the piss out of such images, they actually exist in a tradition of religious iconoclasts going back as far as Abraham taking a hammer to his father’s statues. Both are attacks on representations of the divine. Which is why the terrorists, as well as being murderers, are theologically mistaken in thinking Charlie Hebdo is the enemy. For if God is fundamentally unrepresentable, then any representation of God is necessarily less than God and thus deserves to be fully and fearlessly attacked. And what better way of doing this than through satire, like scribbling a little moustache on a grand statue of God.

I would love to agree with this, but can’t quite. All iconoclasm is not alike. Reading Fraser’s essay I found myself remembering Mikhail Bakhtin’s great essay “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” in which he compares ancient and medieval parody with its modern equivalent.

Ancient parody was free of any nihilistic denial. It was not, after all, the heroes who were parodied, nor the Trojan War and its participants; what was parodied was only its epic heroization; not Hercules and his exploits but their tragic heroization. The genre itself, the style, the language are all put in cheerfully irreverent quotation marks, and they are perceived against a backdrop of contradictory reality that cannot be confined within their narrow frames. The direct and serious word was revealed, in all its limitations and insufficiency, only after it had become the laughing image of that word — but it was by no means discredited in the process.

By contrast, “in modern times the functions of parody are narrow and unproductive. Parody has grown sickly, its place in modem literature is insignificant. We live, write and speak today in a world of free and democratized language: the complex and multi-leveled hierarchy of discourses, forms, images, styles that used to permeate the entire system of official language and linguistic consciousness was swept away by the linguistic revolution of the Renaissance.” Parody for us is too often merely iconoclastic, breaking images out of juvenile delight in breaking, not out of commitment to a reality too heteroglot (Bakhtin’s term) to fit within the confines of standardized religious practices. I think Charlie Hebdo is juvenile in this way.

But feel free agree with that judgment or not — it’s not germane. As I said, the truly vital question here is not whether the magazine’s satire is worthwhile. The truly vital question is how badly — if at all — we want to live in a society where people who make such magazines can live without fear of losing their lives.

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