Month: August 2017

Tina Fey’s “Sheet Caking” Bit, and Why Discourse is Breaking

The debate surrounding Tina Fey’s “sheet caking” comedy bit demonstrates some problematic  directions that discourse may be trending.

The discussions we are having as we grapple with the proper response to increasingly visible white supremacy, which many believe is condoned by the President, are critically important.  As someone who writes and teaches First Amendment and free speech culture, I think our discourse on these topics is breaking down.  I am glad that cities and universities are removing statutes honoring Confederate soldiers.  Every one of those relics, which are rightly perceived by many as honoring slavery, should come down (although not by vandalism, but by local, democratic decision-making).  I am also glad to see citizens contending with our racist history and how that history has affected our current cultural, political, and socioeconomic climate.  However, the reaction to Tina Fey’s bit evinces the tactics of perverting our First Amendment paradigm and negating someone’s views based on her identity.  Both methods are bad for discourse.

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Free Speech After Charlottesville

The deadly events in Charlottesville, where a white supremacist killed Heather Heyer and injured several others after a Unite the Right rally, have created a free speech reckoning for many, myself included.  After much thought, I have landed on the following ideas as ways forward.

Let’s not abandon viewpoint neutrality.  In an age where our President seeks to uncover the identifies of those who visit a website that coordinates protests against him, our First Amendment protections are more important than ever.  Indeed, in these dark times, our uniquely robust free speech protections are one of the few things that make me proud to be an American.

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How Google (and Academia) Should Reconcile Inclusion Efforts with Viewpoint Diversity

A Google employee was fired on Monday for internally circulating a memo about how differences between men and women contribute to gender disparities at the tech company.  The ten-page memo contained fairly insulting gender stereotypes, such as women are less adept at handling stress, and men are more willing to dedicate long hours to their work in order to achieve higher status.  However, the memo was more measured than I expected from the reporting and outcry. Its author, James Damore, acknowledged the effects of sexism and the need for workplace diversity, but spoke out against the extent and unfairness of Google’s inclusion efforts and subconscious bias training.  He condemned “using stereotypes” (perhaps in individual application), but examined average traits distributed in the population.  The memo, although not convincing or well-executed, was, at the very least, correct about one thing:  A culture of shaming certain views, even moderate views, does exist in many important institutions.  Google’s dramatic step of firing Damore went beyond that shaming.

Google’s heavy-handed punishment, in the name of inclusion, actually undermines a critical purpose of gender and racial inclusion efforts.  One of the benefits of diversity — a benefit I have seen first-hand in the classroom — is that diversity exposes others to different viewpoints, backgrounds, and perspectives.  Google has instead impressed upon its employees that everyone must have, or must appear to have, hegemonic views about nature versus nurture in the gender debate and must advance the same explanation for gender imbalances in a tech company.  There are better ways to reconcile inclusion efforts with true viewpoint diversity; the two concepts needn’t be at odds.  Below, I will detail some possible approaches.

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