Say something controversial, and everything in your past is fair game

Graphic: Gizmodo

James Damore, the guy Google just fired for his generalizations about gender, apparently said and did some sexist things in college. It disturbs me how everything in people’s pasts is now part of how we critique their current actions. And there’s a lesson in that for all of us.

According to Gizmodo, Damore participated in a satirical skit at Harvard that some audience members found sexist. Here’s how they put it:

A source who spoke under the condition of anonymity because they did not want their name associated with the current controversy surrounding Damore said that Damore participated in the writing, arranging, casting, and performing of the skit, which they described as “sexist” in nature. According to the source, a short humorous skit is typically performed by students during the annual retreat, and while they described the skits as typically a “roast,” they emphasized that “the goal is not to offend.” Damore participated in the writing of the skit, along with other program students, but according to two sources, Damore was the primary performer during the skit when it was performed. The source noted that in the “particular year in which James played a role organizing, [the skit] was particularly offensive to women.”

Wired dug up a little more on the skit:

“The delivery was just awful,” the student tells WIRED. “It’s a room full of scientists so there’s a lot of awkwardness, but this was especially awkward. Maybe told in a different way it would have been received as a joke.” A second person . . .  recalls that Damore’s performance “crossed the line. It seemed inappropriate and I remembered a portion of the community asking him to apologize.” The third classmate, a female, tells WIRED that jokes in the skits usually roast colleagues, but typically the focus is on professors, not students. “He was a kind person whose misguided attempt to be funny failed,” she says. “I think that he wanted the skit to be a chance for him to be funny and cool, but overdid it.”

Let’s be clear: this is innuendo from anonymous sources about something that a guy who posted a questionable document on Google’s internal network did when he was in college.

Damore’s document is fair game.

If he mistreated women or others at Google, that’s relevant.

A skit he did in college is just piling on with an ad hominem attack, especially when the people who sort-of recall it won’t go on the record.

Frankly, this scares the crap out of me

I was born in 1958 and I am 58 years old. I have a past.

As an analyst, I made many wrong predictions. In my work career, I have done sexist things and suffered from sexist assumptions — and I am grateful for the women who pointed out what I was doing wrong. In 35 years of work and 6 years of college I have gone on many tirades and I’m sure there are people who hate me.

I have an ex-wife. I haven’t heard from her in decades, but I’m sure if someone wanted to denigrate me they could find her and get her to say something negative.

I’ve been on social media since 2006. You can find some of what I wrote, some of which is undoubtedly wrong. I’ve made lots of jokes. Some of them were in bad taste. Somewhere there is a tape of my standup comedy performance from 1989, which I’m sure is full of questionable stuff.

And I’ve made and published thousands of typos, even though I am supposed to be a writing expert.

If I say something you don’t like, is this stuff all fair game? Is is appropriate to characterize me based on something I said or wrote in college or 25 years ago or when nobody was sure what the future of HDTV was?

If someone dug up your past, what would they find? How would that look when taken out of context?

I like people who (respectfully) express controversial points of view. I argue based on what they are doing or saying now, what they did or said decades ago.

Don’t turn tools against people that you wouldn’t like turned against you.

I think this is the fair way to argue. What do you think?

9 responses to “Say something controversial, and everything in your past is fair game

  1. It isn’t relevant – I think most people get that and don’t pay it much attention. (In fact, if you hadn’t written about it, it would have stayed in my brain for about 2.3 seconds).

    Mostly because, yep, he’s got some pretty ridiculous ideas about women and what they’re capable of and yep it makes sense he didn’t just develop these biases in the last 3 years.

    I guess the difference is, you’re willing to stop and examine your beliefs and be willing to admit they may be wrong. He isn’t. That’s what matters most.

  2. For an illuminating example of two social scientists respectfully discussing (and disagreeing) about Mr. Damore’s thesis and the reasons for gender disparity in engineering, check out http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/08/07/contra-grant-on-exaggerated-differences/ and the followup comments.

    I too am very concerned about the overreaction to the original thesis. A rule of thumb for honest criticism is (a) apply the principle of charity and construe everything in your opponent’s argument in the best possible light and (b) assume that they are arguing sincerely in good faith. Alas, we see such principles applied less and less as time goes on.

  3. It’s things like the “retrospective” slamming of people by using out of date info about who they are that have made people disgusted with the media. That, in turn, has given rise to the ability of people to claim “fake news,” in my humble opinion. Of course, people don’t discern, at least not overtly, a difference between different categories of media.

  4. Josh,
    If I rote a blog about writing, I woud certainly make sure there was no misspelled words or grammatical errors before publishing it. I am a copy editor and offer my services for free. I guarentee a 99% clean copy.

    1. “If I WROTE a blog about writing, I woud certainly make sure there WERE no misspelled words or grammatical errors before publishing it. I am a copy editor and offer my services for free. I GUARANTEE a 99% clean copy.”

      3 errors in 40 words. 92.5% clean copy.

  5. This is “oppo research” applied not just to politicians but to anybody you want to oppose. Sadly, I think this is an inevitable part of our future, a direct consequence of how easy it has become to gather information. Technology has consequences.

    I predict that soon there will be a service that you can hire to privately do oppo research on yourself, to see just what would turn up if someone decided to try this tactic on you. They would undoubtedly uncover your questionable standup routine.

    The only robust defense is a social consensus that oppo research against civilians is not acceptable. Since Trump’s election, do you really believe that such a consensus is possible?

    1. Sadly, I hardly believe any consensus is possible any longer — certainly not on this topic. Prurient interest drives it. You can’t look away. Such shit spreads virally.

  6. Robert,
    I was being ironic, but I appreciate your response. WOULD makes it 4 with only a 90% clean copy. On a 500 word document, even a 1% error rate means 5 mistakes. Most careful writers can write a couple of error-free pages unless they’re in a hurry and don’t understand that some readers prefer not to be put off or slowed down with misspellings, grammatical errors, and punctuation blunders. After all, my time is worth more than the writer’s time (friendly sarcasm). Also, thank you for your other informative comments.

    1. Hi Stan, very good, I fell for it. Nice one.

      I completely missed the WOULD misspelling. Proofing isn’t easy.

      My name is Richard, not Robert.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *