Weak In the Knees

Recent events have me conducting an informal exercise. I want to compare the protest of NFL players during the national anthem with Google’s firing of its employee over his manifesto regarding men and women in the tech field.

Prior to jumping in to the thorniness of this issue, I will go on the record stating:

1. I agree with those trying to bring attention to the rampant injustice towards minorities in the criminal justice system. Further, kneeling during the national anthem has absolutely nothing to do with America or her military.

2. I personally would not choose the national anthem as the moment to make that protest, but I believe the Constitution – the very document our military swears to defend – gives protesters the right to choose that very moment for their expression.

3. I whole-heartedly disagree with the James Damore’s manifesto. My personal experience in tech-heavy industries (to include I.T.) is strewn with examples refuting everything he wrote.

4. I agree Google and the NFL, as private companies, have the right to discipline employees how they see fit. However, I believe both missed an opportunity to deal with their situations in a way that could have had a more lasting and positive impact.

The more I follow these two incidents, the more I see America’s current bi-polar moment obscuring critical thought. Those incensed by kneeling during the national anthem are equally outraged that Google silenced one of its employees who was mere expressing his right to free speech. We’ll crudely call this the “right wing.” The “left wing” applauds Google’s attempt to squash anachronistic and stereotypical conceptions about the tech world, and is alarmed that the NFL would squash the free speech and peaceful protest of its players shedding light on one of America’s grossest injustices.

Both sides miss their intellectual dishonesty while never missing an opportunity to try and filter the conversation through their respective lenses.

To be clear, I do not believe highlighting the need for criminal justice reform and supporting a sexist tech bro agenda are equal. The former is noble. The latter is not. However, both the football players and Damore were expressing something they believe deeply. If you feel one is right in its expression, you have to believe the other is too. Conversely, both the NFL and Google are private entities for whom these free speech warriors work. If Google is allowed to discipline Damore, the NFL should be allowed to discipline its players as it sees fit.

If you believe the football players and Damore should be allowed to express themselves regardless of the degree to which you agree or disagree with them, congratulations. You are thinking more clearly than most on these issues. The same goes for those who believe the NFL and Google were correct to remind their employees of what will, or will not, be tolerated. That does not mean you agree or disagree with either stance, only that you are able to dispassionately recognize that which is consistent and that which is not.

That said, I believe both the NFL and Google missed opportunities. In the case of the former, I believe the NFL should have stood up for what the protesters were highlighting to begin with: police brutality and disproportionality regarding minorities in the criminal justice system. This is a very real problem in America and drawing attention to it was clouded largely by those for whom the topic is uncomfortable and difficult; people who might be forced to examine the circumstances of their existence in this country and realize the degree to which they can comfortably ignore this injustice. These people are easily susceptible to, and largely prefer, binary narratives: right or wrong, good or bad, in or out. This is straight out of our current president’s playbook and he has run through center with it with much effect.

For the record, I don’t believe the NFL saw kneeling as a sign of disrespect. I believe the NFL, while holding its line on protest during the national anthem, could have begun expending its vast social capital through community partnerships and local activism. Further, the NFL could leverage resources in those cases where a protesting football player is already heavily invested in a local community suffering the effects of an unjust system. This is obviously a precarious line to walk, but at least the attempt would be leagues better than sitting idly by while political hacks hijack the discussion to further a dubious agenda.

As for Google, I think firing Damore was a cowardly way out. I agree his views have no place in a modern workforce. He is wrong at every turn. That kind of thinking is as old as the dial-up modem and just as slow. However, knowing the toxic bro environment infecting the tech world, I think Google had a real chance to make an example of Mr. Damore by putting him through training and education proving the very real truth that women are a great asset to the tech world, and that they can keep up with the best of male programmers and hardware warriors. In fact, some very real experiential training might force Mr. Damore and others to learn that what they see as “less than” has been key to America’s dominance on the global tech landscape.

Unfortunately, Google took a quick off-ramp and fired Damore, giving him a perch from which to spin an easy, binary narrative similar to the football protest situation: I was punished for exercising my free speech because they know I’m right and they can’t sustain a valid argument against me. Google made him a martyr and rallying symbol for those who want to go back to the good ‘ol days.

Right now, it seems, we cannot have these more elaborate and intricate conversations. Ideologues have hijacked the debate, retreated to their respective corners, reduced things to sound bites and tweets. The truth in these situations is more complicated, which is exactly what scares them. Fully unpacking, analyzing, and listening to the various sides in this debate means being open to being wrong. Ideologues are hardly ever willing to cede anything, because if one piece of the argument around which they have pitched such a vehement flag is wrong, how else might the earth shift under their feet? It’s easier to believe the edifice is in tact rather than admit to flaws in reasoning. A fake perfect is the enemy of a flawed good and an antidote to lacking the tools to navigate a complex reality that carries real questions, truths, and consequences that binary thinking is supposed to keep at bay.

In those moments, we need to take a collective knee. Not in protest. Not yielding principle. But rather out of reverence for complex issues; out of respect for the other’s viewpoint; and in the hope that a new perspective helps move us down the field toward the goal of being the better society we always say we want to be.



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© 2020 by Mark Konold