Third Rail: An issue so controversial that it is untouchable, such that anyone who attempts to broach the subject will be politically or socially ostracized.
A term typically applied to politics, but equally applicable to social issues in a society so politicized that society and politics is no longer meaningfully different. I'm talking, in this case, about gender.
But this is a tech site!
I wouldn't touch the Third Rail myself were it not for all the hooplah surrounding a Google software engineer’s 10-page "screed" against the company's diversity initiatives, which has been published in full by Gizmodo. The memo, titled "Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber", asserts that these diversity initiatives are misguided because they assume that more women don't pursue jobs in the technology sector because of gender discrimination and oppression, when in reality software engineering gigs simply don't appeal to most women. In his words:
I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.
Read those words carefully. Now read former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger's interpretation:
“I think one-third of my colleagues are either biologically unsuited to do their jobs, or if not are exceptions and should be suspected of such until they can prove otherwise to each and every person’s satisfaction.”
Then these tweets from outraged readers:
@rakyll: Write a doc about how inferior women are, then try to be a hero by offering help to save the vulnerable Still shaking in anger.
@aimeeble: Today's rage-read (at work): doc essentially saying that women are unsuited for tech because they like people, whilst men like things.
A sure sign of having touched the Third Rail: your opponents immediately strawman your argument into the most extreme position. What was originally "More men than women might be software engineers because software engineering appeals to more men than women," has suddenly turned into "Women are inferior and shouldn't be in tech."
Let's be clear about this. Nowhere does the memo writer prescribe that women not be software engineers. He only offers a descriptive reason for why more women aren't. He says himself (in the above quote) that there is "significant overlap" in the preferences and abilities of men and women, and that you can't prejudge an individual based on general group characteristics. Elsewhere he writes:
I’m also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).
Let's recontextualize the argument for a moment to see if it holds merit. Most highly introverted men have no desire to be sales reps. It's also true that because they're highly introverted, they would make poor sales reps. Of course, it's possible that a highly introverted man might for some reason really want to be a sales rep, and if the desire is strong enough, he could find a way to circumvent his natural introversion and become a great sales rep. But if a company's sales department started an initiative to recruit and train highly introverted people to fill their vacant sales rep positions, wouldn't it be reasonable to argue that such an initiative might be a waste of company resources?
Such is the memo writer's argument. But no matter how reasonable it may be, it must be denounced. Because it has to do with gender equality. And gender equality is part of that untouchable Third Rail. All along he's careful to qualify his statements, avoid absolute language, or make prescriptive statements about women's roles in society or business. But again, to hell with all that; he's touched the Third Rail!
The backlash to his memo only proves his larger point:
My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology.
Case in point, Zunger again, dismissing the memo in one broad sweep:
Not all ideas are the same, and not all conversations about ideas even have basic legitimacy.
Or as Google's Vice President of Diversity, Danielle Brown, stated in response to the memo:
I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.
Because, as Zunger and Brown would have us believe, the science is "settled." Gender is a social construct. There is no "male" or "female" brain. Zunger writes:
if anyone wishes to provide details as to how nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect, and flies directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades, they should go for it. But I am neither a biologist, a psychologist, nor a sociologist, so I’ll leave that to someone else.
Leave it to who, though? Only the scientists that fit your ideology about gender constructs? I could cite study upon study supporting the theory that gender is binary, all from respected, fully credentialed scientists. Whether you or I personally agree with this or that research is beside the point. The point is that dialogue should never be considered illegitimate, because science is never settled - especially when it comes to social science, the realm to which modern gender studies belong. Social issues - such as gender roles and identities - are treated today with the same methods as the physical sciences, a practice known as scientism. Austin Hughes, in his essay "The Folly of Scientism", writes that the fundamental error of scientism is that
…it assumes the practitioners of science to be inherently exempt, at least in the long term, from the corrupting influences that affect all other human practices and institutions. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett explicitly state that most human institutions, including “governments, political parties, churches, firms, NGOs, ethnic associations, families … are hardly epistemically reliable at all.” However, “our grounding assumption is that the specific institutional processes of science have inductively established peculiar epistemic reliability.” This assumption is at best naïve and at worst dangerous. If any human institution is held to be exempt from the petty, self-serving, and corrupting motivations that plague us all, the result will almost inevitably be the creation of a priestly caste demanding adulation and required to answer to no one but itself.
This "priestly caste" of modern social scientists - practitioners of scientism, that is - is undoubtedly who Zunger is deferring to on matters of gender "science," assuming that any expert in the field of gender studies will be less biased than those approaching the topic from a philosophical, ethical, cultural, or economic point of view.
But again, what science does or doesn't suggest about the differences between men and women is a secondary matter. The real issue is how Google as a company responds to dissenting opinions. Back to Google's Diversity VP:
Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.
Which is as much as to say, alternative views are acceptable unless they aren't.
But hey, Google is a private company; they can make whatever policies they want. Right? Theoretically, yes. But what if their inter-company policies bled into their external business practices - into their products? And what if their products represented the means by which the majority of humans access information? As it turns out, this is already happening. To that end, I love what Shane Greenup at Medium writes about Google's new algorithms excluding sites like Natural News, InfoWars, and even the World Socialist Web Site:
So when you gloat over the fact that “those conspiracy idiots” are being pushed out of Google and Facebook, just remember that 42% of the US population believes God created humans in their current form. 63% of the population think genetically modified foods are not generally safe to eat, despite overwhelming consensus among scientists. 50% don’t believe climate change is due to human activity. Infowars.com has between 2 and 4 million visitors every month.
In other words: these ‘idiots’ that we are so eager to see ostracised by Google and Facebook are the people we work with. They are our families. Our acquaintances. Our neighbours. They are the average person.
Get out of your highly educated intellectual bubble for just a few minutes and realise that you are talking about 90+% of the population when you gleefully rejoice in ostracising people who believe things which are demonstrably not true.
And I would add… according to you.