Comment There are a lot of theories about why human beings can, on occasion, be terrible assholes. Social psychologists have been working on the issue for a while and even have a number of useful terms.
"Behavioral contagion" for example describes a strange human trait where people copy the behavior of someone they are in close proximity to – or, increasingly, in the internet age, whom they hear about or "follow" after that person gains some kind of notoriety.
"Deindividuation" is another key idea that seeks to explain why people stop applying social norms in a group, described largely as a loss of self-awareness. Most of us experience it when people are incredibly unpleasant in online forums.
But this article isn't about that. Because this author is not a social psychologist. Moreover, yours truly only learned about those two terms earlier today while trying to understand why people say dreadful, ignorant, hurtful things in response to a debate about dreadful, ignorant, hurtful things.
It takes about eight years to become a social psychologist. It took less than 15 minutes to read all about the life's work of many of them and then figure out how to boil it down to make it useful for the purposes of this article.
And yet, here I am, confidently relaying my very-short-term knowledge, strangely confident that despite having not read the work of Ladd Wheeler or Philip Zimbardo, and without having spoken to Joanna Birsky or EJ Lee, I am now somewhat informed about what makes people behave like assholes online.
The key lesson here is an old adage: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And the internet makes acquiring that little knowledge incredibly easy.
The sexist Jerry Maguire
And so it was with James Damore who, it is fair to say, did not expect to be fired, condemned by his own CEO, held up as a martyr by right-wing ideologues, and lambasted as the very worst sort of privileged white boy within days of posting a 10-page document on an internal noticeboard.
Damore has now filed a formal complaint against Google to the US National Labor Relations Board, we note.
The ex-Googler did a very stupid thing. He decided to let his intellect drive his internal biases and ended up producing a document that he no doubt felt at the time was a powerful corrective argument to what he sees as a misplaced assertion within Google that the company needs to hire more women and more people from different races and backgrounds to balance its dominant white, male Caucasian culture.
The document is an embarrassment. It views everything and everyone in black-and-white terms: you are a man or a woman; you are white, or you are not; you are right-wing or you are left-wing.
It pushes a narrative. It uses highly subjective language to push demeaning or mocking arguments. It provides "evidence" as an afterthought or not at all. Overall, it is insulting to pretty much anyone who isn't James Damore.
But then again, he is also a software engineer who is not even 30 years old. Damore's CV reveals an extremely privileged existence: a chess champion with a degree from the University of Illinois, a master’s in systems biology from Harvard, an intern at Princeton, a researcher at MIT and then a software engineer at Google. It is a veritable list of elite US establishments.
That life, that existence, has never had to deal first-hand with the inequities that exist for the vast majority of people. He has never had to build an objective, evidence-based argument for something other than programming a logic machine. His understanding of computer code is greater than the vast majority of people on the planet but it has come at a price: a staggering level of ignorance about who those other people walking around him really are.
Unfortunately, being young and having lived a sheltered life, James Damore has not had an opportunity to learn the depth of his ignorance. It seems the beginnings of that awareness started with Google's diversity efforts.