The New McCarthyism

To most people, the name Joe McCarthy is synonymous with paranoia and witch-hunts. “McCarthyism” itself has become a term to describe an organizational state in which innocent people are subjected to accusations and have their careers and lives ruined by those with a mob mentality.

Of course, there really were communists in positions of influence in McCarthy’s time, and McCarthy exposed many of them. McCarthy is so reviled today not because we are now communists (although the term “communism” has lost a bit of its sting to many people) but because his methods seem to us so out of proportion to the threat he was trying to counter. Thanks to McCarthy, someone who merely expressed reasoned and even limited criticisms of capitalism, or who merely associated with critics of capitalism, risked being brought before a tribunal and blacklisted for life as a traitor.

A succinct way to summarize a typical modern commentary on McCarthyism would be that it was the conflation of “wrong” with “evil.” It is somewhat ironic, then, that McCarthyism is perfectly encapsulated in recent events at Google, the “Don’t be evil” company.

Last week a Google employee wrote a long, polite-yet-firm criticism of diversity hiring practices and the assumptions behind them. He made it explicit that he was not opposed to the goals of those practices, and offered suggestions for other ways to accomplish them. This piece of writing was quickly labeled a “screed” and a “fulmination” by journalists, and held up (mostly by people who never read it) as evidence of the very oppression the employee claimed was fallaciously assumed. Here, the people seethed, was a living specimen of evil!

After several days of fuming editorials and much public outcry for the employee’s head on a stake, Google fired him. The mob cheered for a moment and then began chanting its familiar mantra: “Not enough!”

One of the secondary points that had been made by the ousted employee was that Google claimed to support a culture of openness in which weighing evidence was valued over succumbing to bias, but that he knew the “women and minorities in tech” issue was such a sacred cow no dispassionate conversation about it would be permitted. This was his explanation for writing anonymously, and Google proved it to have been a valid one.

Cultures need immune systems. As a society that values inclusion and equal opportunity, we benefit from having a mechanism to identify and disenfranchise malicious racists, misogynists, and would-be traitors.

But this mechanism needs to remain finely calibrated to be useful, otherwise it causes a turbulent backlash. The end result of ordeals like this one at Google is not that women and minorities are put on their way to better representation in tech, but that all the people quietly keeping their heads down grow more resentful and less receptive to change. It’s a massive own-goal from a Progressive standpoint, but they might not realize it until decades later when people are calling them the new McCarthyists.

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