Everyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows that James Damore was fired from his job as at Google because of a critical memo he wrote and circulated internally, and that white nationalist neo-Nazis held a rally in Charlottesville, VA that turned violent and deadly.
The offices of Google and a white nationalist rally don’t seem to have much in common; they appear to be the precise inverse of one another. We have the highly educated, left-leaning technocrats of the Bay Area and the largely rural, working-class members of the “alt-right.” But last week’s events in both Mountain View and Charlottesville are the posterity of the same ideological culture.
For the last century, Americans have relegated morality to the personal, private domain where individuals are free to choose their values and speak their truth. (Cue the rise of identity politics.) Value judgments are no more than private opinion. Dismissing morality to the private domain is not value neutral. The decision to eliminate debate around moral values from the public square is a value judgment. It is the dogma of anti-dogmatism, and dissenting heretics are cast out into the darkness for their offenses.
Google fired James Damore from his job as a software engineer after he dared claim, in an internal memo, that gender differences are somewhat deeper than minor variations in plumbing, and that these biological differences may play a role the professional lives of men and women. As such, said Damore, many of Google’s initiatives such as coaching in salary negotiation, which are currently open only to women, ought to be open to all employees who want to benefit from them.
Whether one agrees with Damore is not the point. In fact, the people who most strongly believe he is wrong ought to be the first to engage him in meaningful debate and dialogue. But debate and dissent are simply unacceptable in Google’s “ideological echo chamber,” where employees are required to assent to what Damore calls, “the diversity creed—that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment,” or face public scourging and expulsion.
What lessons do those who don’t conform learn from someone like Damore? To be (publicly and temporarily) silent. To hide. To retreat to the hidden, dark corners where they may lick their wounds with others like themselves. The outsiders, the dissenters, the skeptics—they commiserate and find fellowship together outside the walls of postmodern orthodoxy.
But often, that isn’t the end of the story. Relativism is not the great protector of tolerance and mutual respect. Rather, it is a tool of totalitarianism which hallows as law the biases and preferences of socially acceptable groupthink. It’s the darkness in which evil takes root and grows. And evil is never content to remain outside the walls, merely “tolerated” as it lurks. It wants to infiltrate, to be recognized, and enshrined.
As we shove morality further from the public sphere and into the outer darkness, young Muslims become radicalized terrorists in far-flung corners of the Internet. The disenfranchised in small, economically depressed towns seize on the scapegoating rhetoric of white supremacists and vow to “take back” a nation that never actually existed. The use of violence to exterminate people is not a personal value. It is not someone’s truth. It is evil, and it is pushing down the walls, demanding not just to be let in, but to rule with an iron fist.
Perhaps, had we not cast out the undesirables in the first place, evil would not find so large and enthusiastic an army to serve it. History teaches lessons about what happens when we confine people to ghettos—ideological or physical—and those lessons don’t inspire hope.
Contemporary moral debates are endless and circular. They are also unsolvable. Why? There is no shared language by which to discuss moral issues and no shared first principles by which to come to moral agreement. We are finding that this is not freedom, but rather slavery to ever changing and shifting popular opinion. One minute, we’re hoping and changing; the next we’re making America great again.
In his masterwork, After Virtue, philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre presents an imaginary world in which the natural sciences have suffered massive catastrophe. Scientists are blamed for natural disasters and their labs, records, and tools are destroyed. Science may no longer be taught in schools. Many years later, prudent members of this society revive the natural sciences, but they themselves know little and have limited access to the scientific knowledge of previous eras, most of it having been destroyed. They argue about this and that theory, but lack an understanding of what such theories really mean. Their children are taught to memorize unrelated factoids and scraps of information, but there is no context for any of it. It is not, in any meaningful sense, science.
According to MacIntyre, this is precisely the situation in which we find ourselves with respect to morality. Though “the language and the appearances of morality persist…the integral substance of morality has…been…destroyed,” he says. Thus, a tech company can laud the virtues of diversity while excommunicating dissenters. Thus, neo-Nazis can speak of restoration while advocating for the extermination of whole peoples.
The question for Americans is not if the relocation of morality from the public to the private sphere has been a boon for freedom and pluralism. It has most assuredly not. The question is how we begin to recover a corporate understanding of morality, a collective moral language, and shared first principles.