Saturday 21 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'The bright shiny facade of liberalism can hide a multitude of old-style sins'

Last week's walkout by staff drew long overdue attention to how Google handles sexual harassment allegations, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Staff at the Google offices in Dublin following their walkout protest. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Staff at the Google offices in Dublin following their walkout protest. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Eilis O'Hanlon

If there's one thing that connects many recent controversies around male sexual misbehaviour, it's that they've been fuelled, in good ways and bad, by the internet; so it's probably karma that Google should, itself, have become the focus of the latest wave of discontent, as hundreds of the company's employees walked out worldwide, including in Dublin, in protest, among other things, at the handling of sexual harassment.

It follows the departure from Google of Andy Rubin, the so-called "father of Android", the operating system used by billions of smartphones and tablets. He left the company in 2014 following reports that he'd had an "inappropriate relationship" with a woman working under him. Despite this, he was given a $90m pay off.

Last Thursday's "Google Walkout For Real Change" was not just about women. Among the demands issued by the organisers are ones relating to "discrimination and systemic racism". It was the sexual harassment aspect which garnered most attention, however. Many women who work for Google have spoken anonymously about a corporate culture which failed to protect them from predatory men and from bullying after they dared to complain. Often they, rather than their harassers, would be moved to different departments inside Google, further damaging their career progress. All of this is manifestly unfair. As such, organisers were explicit about the parallels with the #MeToo movement.

Google insists the culture to which protesters object is an historic issue and that the company has learned from past mistakes. It published details of the number of men fired in the last two years for inappropriate behaviour, a quarter in senior management or above, none of whom received pay offs. As for Andy Rubin, he would have been entitled to substantial remuneration, whatever the circumstances of his departure; he did invent Android, after all.

Some of the complaints made by employees also seem a little odd. One female twentysomething software engineer told reporters: "People will doubt my work a lot more than they will doubt my male colleagues. You will get talked down more in meetings." This is undoubtedly a real thing, but hard to quantify. It's also worth asking why employees didn't make a stand in solidarity with the young man who was fired last year for writing a memo which suggested men were better than women at technology.

Is freedom of thought and expression not worth defending too?

That aside, it's important to raise awareness about the manifold ways in which women in work can be mistreated by some men, and the failure of many companies to deal satisfactorily with the problem. The Google walkout was a positive step, and the company needs to change radically in response.

More important than the mechanics of how sexual harassment allegations are dealt with at a particular company, though, the most beneficial outcome from last week's walkout may be the growing awareness that the shiny new tech and social media giants are no more our friends than the grasping, uncaring industrialists of old. They're just better at presenting a progressive face to the world, spouting slogans about rights and social justice, and leaping on to every passing liberal bandwagon.

There's a feeling now that if you say you're for fairness and equality and other equally nice things, then your actions needn't be subjected to the same scrutiny as the supposed enemies of progress. This is how many spectacularly awful men have thrived in an environment where feminism and other forms of left-wing activism are embedded into the DNA of the peer group.

Think of all those painfully right-on fellows with their hipster beards, going on marches to repeal the Eighth Amendment. These "woke bros", as they're known in reference to the state of being awoken to social injustice, are rarely as enlightened as they pretend, but they get away with behaviour which would ruin more conservative men, simply because they're adept at using a certain language. Technology and media companies are awash with such chaps. They've got the patter down to a fine art, but the shiny facade of liberalism hides a multitude of sins. It can only be a good thing if their hypocrisy is now being exposed. It represents a loss of innocence to young people who are still inclined to think that, just because someone says they're for the right causes, they must be one of the good guys; but it's a necessary disappointment. Letting go of illusions is always liberating.

Whether it will open their eyes is another matter. The veil may have fallen from Google over sexual harassment, and from Facebook over its industrial harvesting of personal data, but it's surprising how ignorant many people still are about the way that these companies shape and distort debate, and that's because they largely share the same outlook. There's an astonishing table from the US showing levels of political support among employees of the best-known digital and media companies. Tracking donations to political candidates in next week's mid-term congressional and Senate elections, it found that no less than 98.7pc of such donations by Twitter employees went to Democratic rather than Republican candidates; the equivalent figure was 97.5pc for Apple, and 96pc for Google; and so on. So much for diversity.

These figures explain a lot about the ongoing censorship of conservative opinion on the internet, and in the media in general, and it would be interesting to see a similar breakdown of political support among Irish employees of tech and social media giants. The tools of free speech are basically in the hands of people who are way to the left of mainstream opinion. It's a huge problem, but, because they're surrounded by others who see the world exactly as they do, these gate keepers of what can and cannot be said simply never see what they're doing as problematic.

Sometimes it's only when particular decisions directly impact on individuals' lives that they recognise the problem. There was some criticism by workers in Google when the company was alleged to be secretly facilitating internet censorship in China, but everyone stayed resolutely at their desks, because ultimately it didn't make a difference to their lives either way.

Sexual harassment is different. That's something they do have to deal with. Perhaps seeing how their own lives have been affected by those they thought were on their side, and ostensibly shared their values, will make them more sceptical of ostentatious gestures.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of being disproportionately offended by some words is being overly impressed by different words.

Last week, Ben & Jerry's launched a new ice cream flavour called "Pecan Resist" to show their support for the fightback against Donald Trump. "We couldn't be silent any longer," a spokesman said. Rather than laughing at this blatant attempt to court populist acclaim by a brand that's now a subsidiary of Unilever, a multi-billion dollar capitalist enterprise, Ben & Jerry's was given a free pass by those who claim to hate big business. This is how easily the "woke" generation can be bought.

Though aren't we all complicit? In order to research what was going on at Google, I used... Google. As casino bosses figured out long ago, the house always wins.

Sunday Independent

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