Friday, January 23, 2015

Ageism in Silicon Valley:Can't We All Get Along?

This is an attempt to write about a recent incident that involved ageism, or an attitude towards ageism, that I find reprehensible. The first post on this topic was deleted because it was filled with the genuine and honest rage I felt about the situation. Hopefully this second post can narrate the incident and some thoughts i have about ageism, sexism, racism and so forth in our less-than-perfect society without expressing this anger.

But the content of this post is almost banal.  The big idea is that people disagree about issues such as what to do about ageism because they do not realize that they do not share assumptions, and given a lack of shared position on big issues, the little issues "declaring ageism bad" is not so simple.  So I am going to go over the obvious three assumptions that lie at the heart of this debate and observe that indeed not everyone agrees with them.  

The first assumption is that discrimination on the basis of some characteristic such as sex, color of skin, age, and so forth, is a bad thing. When someone is denied a job, or a membership in a society that has an important role in the community, or acceptance to a university because of age, sex, race, religion and so forth, and not on who they are as a person, then an injustice has been done. But there are many people in America who do not agree with me and think that discrimination on some of these criteria, a priori, and without consideration of the individual applicant is perfectly legitimate. There are many people believe it is right to deny someone a job because the applicant is a woman, as she might get pregnant and leave. She might, but she might not. Why not talk to her about it?

This is the central meaning of what discrimination (1) has come to mean: to choose between candidates based on a stereotype or classification that is independent of their worth as a person, or a candidate, or a potential student. Oh, he has funny hair, I dont think we should hire him. We really are uncomfortable with a Jew as member, do we really want to see him in the locker room or at our annual dinners? No we do not. Get that fucking jew out of here.

But I think, and I am sure most of my readers believe, that discrimination on the basis of sex, age, race, religion, etc is wrong. People should be judged on their individual merits and lack thereof. This is the first assumption.

The second assumption is that discrimination of this type exists in our society in important ways. If you do not believe that there is unfair discrimination then obviously you would not be predisposed to do anything to stop it. Many people I know do not believe that there is, for example, discrimination against black men by some of the “local” police forces in America. But I have lived near Los Angeles for most of my life, unfortunately, and every black person I know, mostly men, has a story to tell. They can't all be wrong. I have witnessed and heard about discrimination against women based entirely on their gender. When I hear about such discrimination, I always take it with a grain of salt until I know more, but I have no doubt that it exists and affects the lives of many people. I have no doubt it has affected my life.

Thus the second assumption is that discrimination exists in our society in important ways. In other words, this is not a theoretical concern, but a problem that exists among us right now.

The third assumption is that we, as individuals, as local governments and as the federal government, have a duty to work to end this discrimination in order to create a more fair and just society. This assumption is hotly debated among segments of our polity for many reasons. Among those reasons are those who do not hold the two assumptions above, as well as those who benefit from these discriminations in a direct and tangible way and wish to keep them. Other people who disagree do so because they have a vision of what government means and do not want government involved in this area of life and business. Still others disagree because they do not see that they as individuals have a duty to stand up to this injustice, that it is someone else's problem. And others disagree with this because they are afraid that they might be discriminated against if someone complains about it.

In summary, the assumptions are that discrimination is bad, that it exists in our society, and that we all have a duty to do something about it, both as individuals and as government.

Now we get to the specific incident. A friend of mine, who is a right-wing republican through and through, has lived off his stock-options for a decade and finds that having spent all his money he needs to get a job. He has no doubt that he will immediately get a job, at whatever company he wants, at his perceived level of worth, in spite of being out of the job market for so long. Whenever he does not get a job or might not get a job, it is someone else's fault, which it very well may be. One place he is applying is Google, which he considers an easy place for him to get a senior job, but he has one concern, and that is ageism at Google.

Well, he is right to be concerned. Famously, throughout the world, Google has earned a reputation for ageist hiring practices and career development. In an industry, technology, which already has a strong age bias, Google stands out for being explicitly and radically age biased. Or so, I read, and so I have heard. Is this a fair accusation, I have no way of knowing. In general, however, when you hear things like this as strongly as I hear them about Google, then in fact there is something to it. My guess is that the ageism exists among the lower levels mostly, in other words, when you have a senior person pitching for you, then you are ok at any age. But when you are left to the tender mercies of middle management, then indeed they are explicitly ageist. That is my guess.

Whatever is true here, whether truly there is fire to all that smoke, one dismissed person in marketing took Google to court about it. And win or lose, that is where my friend looking for a job comes in.

His model of the world is that because someone dared to oppose Google on the basis of age after being dismissed, that he, my friend, would have trouble being hired, because Google would be concerned about hiring someone over 50 in case they got sued.

Thus the cause of this ageism is not Google's egregious and world-famous policy of discrimination, but because a victim of it protested his fate.

If only the victims of the unjust world would accept being fucked, my friend is saying, it would be better for me, because then they would hire me. But if they do not hire me, it is not my fault, it is because of that asshole who got fired who sued.

My friend has no concern about the justness of this discrimination, does not even really believe it exists, and could not care less about it except as it affects him. And it only exists in his mind because someone used this anti-discrimination law and used it to unfairly sue Google.

I find this attitude appalling but there are two good things to say about.  First, it is consistent with his other beliefs.  I like consistency in matters of principle.  The second good thing is that everyone has a right to their opinion even if they disagree with me and thus are obviously wrong.

But given this diversity of opinion about something I would think would just be obvious, we, the forces of good, must work extra hard to.end discrimination in our society.  It won't happen, apparently, unless there is a mass movement to change things.



1. Discrimination used to be a word that simply meant to choose based on some criteria. It was not a bad thing, it was a neutral thing. One might discriminate between two marbles because one was a cat eye and one was not, it did indicate preference but not unfair preference.

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