James Damore’s firing has blossomed into an H.R. nightmare that’s pitting employees against each other.
The controversy surrounding Google engineer James Damore, who became a cult hero on the right after he published a 10-page manifesto questioning the value of diversity in the workplace, does not appear to have ended with his firing. In the intervening months, it has leaked into Google’s own headquarters, reportedly turning the company’s office space into ground zero for the culture wars.
Google employees who see themselves as advocates for diversity tell Wired that a small group of their co-workers is leading a targeted harassment campaign against them. Their tactics allegedly include “weaponiz[ing] human resources” by goading diverse members of Google’s team into making inflammatory statements, and reporting those statements as violations of the company’s rules around civility. The result, they say, is that internal discussions around diversity and inclusion are stifled, with proponents afraid to speak up.
Pro-diversity employees say that their messages on internal Google forums have also been photographed and shared outside the company, leading to their publication on far-right platforms like Vox Popoli and Breitbart. (Some screenshots were also included in the lawsuit Damore filed this month, which alleges that Google discriminates against conservatives, white people, and men.) Each time their comments are posted, Google employees said, they experience a “wave of harassment” on forums like 4chan and Kiwi Farms, a community that reportedly specializes in targeting those they deem “ill or sexually deviant.” At least three Googlers have reportedly had their personal information posted to such sites, whose users regularly employ violent threats.
It’s somewhat ironic that a major tech company tasked with monitoring threats and hate speech online seems unable to regulate its own workplace. Google says it has met with every employee who expressed concern, and staffers say the company has been vigilant about addressing direct threats. But Yonatan Zunger, a high-ranking engineer who recently left the company, told Wired that managers often respond to conflict by telling everyone to “knock it off”—an attempt at neutrality that mirrors Google’s approach to regulating online content, and that only exacerbates the problem. Zunger said Google has fostered a “paradox of tolerance”—its unlimited tolerance, in other words, has lead to its destruction by the intolerant.
The debate may have remained low stakes, if not for the nature of the Internet itself. Years ago, Damore sympathizers’ only recourse may have been water-cooler gossip, or passive-aggressive Post-it notes. But now, anti-diversity employees talk behind their co-workers’ backs to a potential audience of billions, playing into attitudes that thrive online. As Russia’s polarizing online campaign to elect Donald Trumpdemonstrates, the Internet is primed to amplify hate.
Once the birthplace of the fight against workplace sexual harassment, Silicon Valley has become fertile ground for the inevitable backlash led by far-right agitators. Along with Damore’s suit, alt-right troll Chuck Johnson recently made a feeble attempt to sue Twitter (Johnson was kicked off the platform in 2015 after he tweeted that he wanted to “take out” civil-rights activist DeRay McKesson), and earlier this month James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas published a controversial video of Twitter employees discussing the company’s moderation policies, which O’Keefe implied are designed to quash conservatives.
Though their attacks have so far yielded few results, they’re symptomatic of America’s increasing polarization, for which there is no easy solution. The only way to tamp down on hate is to teach empathy—there’s no totalitarian method to screen intent or to censor speech that doesn’t infringe on other civil rights. It’s a dilemma that’s baked into our constitution and our nation’s fiber, and one that’s only solvable through engagement. “A lot of this is about stoking complex thought,” Aneeta Rattan, an expert on organizational behavior, told Wired of the turmoil at Google. “That is not something all organizations want to foster.”