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Bad Opinions Need To Be Heard To Be Challenged

18/08/2017 11:51 BST | Updated 18/08/2017 11:51 BST
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Google gives access to information, but the dismissal of one of its own engineers for promoting peculiar views about female technical skills raises questions about where the lines should be drawn regarding opinions.

As a woman with technical skills, I profoundly disagree with James Damore, who was dismissed for claiming that biological distinctions make men more suited to engineering and leadership in the technology sector than women.

But is someone to be denied their livelihood for forcing everyone to address (and then hopefully dismiss) a polarising view? Aside from issues of free speech, there is a fundamental importance to allowing awkward opinions: Wrongheadedness needs to be aired for us all to see and challenge what is lurking.

That way we all know what we're dealing with. Hiding views behind some sort of cultural paywall keeps controversial opinions alive, skulking and invisibly developing in the shadows of society.

Science is all about endlessly testing a hypothesis, not giving it some sort of permanent privilege. Social positions need the same rigor, otherwise there would be no change. After all, once there were probably earnest papers explaining why women were too, well, female to be given a vote.

It does settled positions good to be aggravated occasionally. And it does every idea a service to have it tested. In taking immediate offence and issuing sanctions we risk the holders of bad opinions simply going underground. We also discourage open debate and the sharing of views with all the improvements that follow.

In business terms, stifling debate also raises the question of how we will address, for example, unconscious bias in decision making without acknowledging that some people have entrenched views, perhaps resulting from their own experience. This applies particularly to the vexed question of diversity at the top of companies. No corporation is mad enough to say they are holding women back from executive directorships, but the slow, slow march to any kind of gender parity in the boardroom rather suggests that many do.

As does my own experience. I am regularly approached by headhunting firms to test my interest in taking on a non-executive roles, and it is made clear they want to find women for the particular job. However, I get fewer headhunters expressly wanting women for the decision making executive positions.

Unless we acknowledge unconscious bias in the boardroom we cannot address it. One way to acknowledge it is to be stimulated into action by provocative arguments, which it must also be recognised, can take some courage to advance, however aggravating to many. Apart from anything, its forces an issue up the decision making agenda: Shock therapy, if you like.

So, rather than fire people for expressing views, provided that they don't offend public decency or revolt in obvious ways, we should take up arms and challenge them back with reason and argument. Societies advance by encouraging debate, not smothering it. If it was the other way around, the Soviet Bloc would still exist.

We must not allow a culture of 'wrongthink' to determine how the technological revolution matures as it gradually disrupts, takes over and profoundly alters the human experience. There will be enough challenges ahead as we learn to adjust our lives as it is, these should not include disallowing everyone to debate, dismiss or otherwise deal with awkward opinions. If we sack people for daring to articulate what they believe, how will we ever know what poisons are swirling? Light is, after all, the best disinfectant.