first person

What I Got Wrong About Misogyny

Photo: Fairfax Media/Getty Images

If the anti-diversity Google memo had dropped five years ago, when I first worked at the Cut, here’s how I would have covered it:

A male Google engineer internally published a ten-page, Reddit-sourced screed about how biological gender differences means he shouldn’t have to work near so many women. Or something? It’s all very alt-right-goes-to-Harvard. That said, the author (recently outed as James Damore) has convinced me that at least one gender difference is definitely rooted in biology. Only a dude could have thrown an internet tantrum so pedantic. Boring people into submission must be a Y-chromosome thing.

Bratty, yes, but this would have been 2012. Misandry was the coin of the feminist-internet realm and, to me, eye-rolling felt more persuasive than shrill political correctness. The term SJW — for social-justice warrior — was just starting to gain traction, describing young feminists who used Twitter and Tumblr to call out sexism and male privilege.

The SJW tone often made me cringe, but we shared the goal of gender equality. I wanted to make their arguments legible to people who were put off by their vibe. So rather than joining them in calling aggrieved white guys like Damore misogynists and demanding that they be fired, I thought feminists’ best bet was to coolly rib them, showing how NBD our demands really were. After all, the Google mentorship programs Damore is so worked up about materially cost him nothing. What’s your damage, Damore?

Truth be told, whether you were an eye-rolling misandrist or a member of an SJW mob, doing internet feminism often required sidestepping the actual issues at hand. It’s not that I couldn’t explain why studies observing differences between the sexes shouldn’t impact Google’s diversity policies.* It’s complicated, though. It would make for bad copy. Right-wingers would willfully misrepresent my argument. (“Feminist ADMITS gender is biological … so WHY are our tax dollars building her gender neutral bathrooms??”) Cis white women would say my analysis erased trans women of color. No level of nuance would spare me days of unpleasant Twitter mentions.

So whether we were talking about workplace sexism, campus sexual assault, abortion rights, or trigger warnings, I took a detached stance toward white-male opposition. I was writing for other educated, feminist-leaning city dwellers, of course. But in the event an anti-PC dude clicked over from another part of the site, I wanted him to see that gender equality was a cool and low-cost project. Yes, we disagree about X issue. But X is abstract for you, and it’s concrete for women. So why not just trust us on Y policy/solution? Especially since Y is no skin off your nose.

Spoiler: People never came around on SJWs. Around the time I stopped writing about feminism, at the end of 2014, a truly inconsequential debate about politically correct SJWs suppressing dissent in indie video-game reviews — Gamergate — had devolved into a full-blown internet culture war. It felt like a small group of sexist trolls was holding all of online discourse hostage, and it made doing internet feminism really, really unpleasant, if not dangerous.

A year later, that small group of anti-PC sexists turned out to be an electoral majority. We elected a walking trigger warning as president — not in spite of his offensive views but because of them. I’d bent over backward to break down prejudice and insensitivity in terms that wouldn’t make men feel defensive, but prejudice and insensitivity were exactly what Trump’s supporters liked about him.

When Trump says something un-PC — no matter how incoherent or factually inaccurate — people feel like he is speaking eternal truths, ones that liberals like me had suppressed. Charlottesville showed that a terrifying number of these people are unsophisticated bigots — people who want to have their ugliest biases confirmed. I imagine others are interested in paranoia or provocation, drawn to the rhetorical power of the un-PC, not necessarily its content. (I even kind of get it; I have problematic faves like Chelsea Handler and Christopher Hitchens.)

But to my eye, Damore’s strain of anti-PC represents something different. I don’t think he’s a bigot, at least not consciously. He seemed to sincerely (wrongly) believe his ideas would improve Google’s output. At the same time though, Damore’s style was too affectless to suggest a provocateur or conspiracy theorist. The memo’s earnest, boring thoroughness — and the truth-to-power media tour he’s launched since getting fired — suggests the anti-feminist backlash has a much larger cultural foothold than I’d wanted to believe.

There are sophisticated, socially and economically empowered people (Californians, no less) who truly believe that Google is demanding workplace diversity because liberals have made it taboo to talk about difference. Damore just cannot wrap his head around the fact that there are women who are smarter than he is, that these women still need extra structural support just to get to where he is, and that their presence at Google will improve Google.

I’m not saying Damore identifies with the so-called alt-right. But his memo captures the same reactionary sentiment — a belief that when feminists reject certain ideas they are, in fact, suppressing them — wrapped up in a more palatable package. In any case, his rhetoric has led to a distinctly alt-right false equivalence. In a Libertarian subreddit I masochistically read, Damore’s memo was held up as proof that liberals have been denying science about gender — that we are as anti-science as climate-change deniers.

There is a difference between psychology and climate science, just like there’s a difference between Antifas throwing punches and armed neo-Nazis with weapons caches around the city. But who would read an 800-word explainer on the distribution of personality traits between the sexes when a respectable young man is giving you permission to ignore annoying internet feminists forever? Did we feminists set ourselves up for this false equivalence, by talking among ourselves about who should sit down and the taste of male tears, at the expense of addressing the substance of anti-feminist arguments? Because, now, it feels too late to have the substantive conversation. The right has effectively weaponized their supposed victimization at the hands of feminists, to the point that it feels like we’re dealing with a different set of facts.

The closest I’ve come to understanding how we got to this up-is-down political discourse is reading Conflict Is Not Abuse, by activist and historian Sarah Schulman. The book’s thesis is that overstating harm leads to more harm. It’s an idea rooted in the observations of a domestic-abuse counselor, who saw people confusing normal relationship conflicts — even those that escalated to violence — with abuse, where “abuse” is defined as one person holding power over another. Sometimes people claimed abuse because they saw no other way to resolve their conflicts — and, to be sure, it is hard to get people to care about your problems if they fall short of criminal victimization. Other times, people claimed abuse in order to enact abuse of their own: to get restraining orders against equally responsible parties, or have them thrown in jail. In either case, they abdicated the role of mediating interpersonal relationships to the police, who aren’t known for their peaceful, therapeutic interventions.

Most interesting, when it comes to the Google memo, is Schulman’s observation that escalating conflict has a rallying effect on other people. Calling someone else’s ex abusive — or calling dissent censorship — doesn’t resolve the conflict, but it does elevate you morally. It makes you the heroic friend, or it gets retweets from people who agree with you politically and can’t be bothered to learn about the particulars.

To be clear, I think feminists might have a tendency to overstate harm because it’s an effective way to draw attention to legitimate sexist conflict — perhaps the only way. I think anti-feminists overstate harm in return either to enact abuse, or simply because it works. Both benefited from the role of the internet in escalating conflict. I don’t think Schulman would approve of me using her analysis to talk about the state of internet feminism. But I almost can’t help it. Conflict Is Not Abuse gives you this coolheaded way of addressing issues that feel intensely personal, which is helpful when it feels like everyone is demanding empathy and nobody is giving it.

The rub is that Schulman doesn’t have any impersonal solutions. Actually, her advice isn’t far off from that of a Democrat with his eye on 2020, explaining how to heal the party: less internet confrontation, more IRL conversations. This all feels true, but it also feels slow. Interpersonal conflict resolution doesn’t transmit as quickly or as amusingly as internet activism. After years of making jokes for other feminists, I’m rusty as hell at sparring with my Libertarian uncle. But the stakes are clearer than they were during the Obama administration. Charlottesville made it plain: This isn’t a game. In the absence of other options, I, for one, am here for it. I’m off Twitter. I’m ready to talk.

* Even if we take Damore’s claim that “on average, men and women biologically differ in many ways,” at face value, Google does not hire average women. The more-exceptional-on-average women at Google probably deserve more mentoring resources than the more-average-on-average men.

But the more interesting thing about scientifically observed sex differences in psychology is how quickly they change. A generation ago, “studies showed” girls were worse at math. Now, girls are encouraged to take math classes and the differences have evaporated. The presence of women at Google, and their ability to thrive there, can actually change women’s career preferences.

Why would Google want to change women’s career paths to get them in the door? When your company hopes to reach literally everyone on the planet, you need a workforce that matches.

But then, Google might simply want to be on the right side of history. Using science to explain the differences between groups of people is a look that has never aged well.

What I Got Wrong About Misogyny