Thursday, October 10, 2013

Stop Shooting The Messenger, Silicon Valley

On Sunday, I weighed in on the Twitter board controversy:
http://bit.ly/1adJT3P

My argument then was that there is a dangerous tendency on the part of Silicon Valley's power players to think that those who have achieved less than they (read: everyone) don't have the right to criticize them.

Then I read an editorial by Pando Daily CEO Sarah Lacy, which reminded me that there is an even more dangerous tendency:
http://bit.ly/GOgmGM

Here in Silicon Valley, despite all our claims of enlightened debate and open-mindedness, we have a strong tendency to shoot the messenger.  Far too often, we try to refute potentially valid criticism by attacking the character and credibility of the critic, rather than his or her ideas.

Take Lacy's editorial.  I'll go point by point:

1. "Twitter’s female “problem” — This is why mobs don’t appoint public company boards"

I get that Lacy feels that the criticism of Twitter is unjustified (and as I pointed out in my post, Wadhwa's language was clearly inflammatory).  But using the word "mobs" is also inflammatory.

2. "It’s not a surprise that many of the people complaining are the people who literally wake up everyday looking for a women’s issue to be outraged about. Don’t take it from me. When they invariably slam this piece, go look at their Twitter feeds."

The argument at work here is that we shouldn't listen to complainers who repeatedly raise the same issue.  It strikes me that this is a dangerous argument, considering it has also been used to support opposition to gay marriage, civil rights, and numerous other worthy issues.

3. "Vivek Wadhwa has been banging this drum for a while, delighted that it gets so much attention."

This argument may very well be true, but I don't see how his motivation is relevant to the validity or lack thereof of his criticisms.

4. "I finally had to block him on social media, because I found his continual comments about gender so offensive. Particularly one Twitter screed that said I only successfully raised venture capital for Pando because of how I look and who I know."

I haven't followed the controversy, but if Wadhwa did this, his actions were reprehensible.  And yet it has no relevance to the validity of his criticism.

5. "See, people whose media attention or careers live or die by banging the SEXISM! drum don’t know what to do when they encounter examples of women who have raised funding and started companies and seem to be doing okay as women in the Valley."

Another attack based on motivations which both denigrates the critics and has no relevance to the validity of that criticism.

6. "These people can’t be happy that there are many signs things are starting to change in the startup world. And as a woman in this industry, I’m sickened by the leagues of people twisting facts and jumping on convenient bandwagons to further their own careers and stay relevant, while doing nothing themselves to create jobs and opportunities for women. That isn’t the progress for women that we need."

I'm very sympathetic to this argument, because it truly is hypocritical to profit from one's criticism without actually helping the cause you're espousing.  But I'm still waiting to hear how the facts were twisted in the case of Twitter.

7. "There is still progress to be made, but quotas and witch hunts don’t solve the problem. And, frankly, I feel like having to work hard to prove myself made me more resilient and more successful. I do my best work when everyone expects me to fail. I’ve been doing it my whole career."

This is a particularly interesting argument.  First, Lacy acknowledges the presence of sexism. Then, she argues that quotas and witch hunts don't solve the problem.  This is a classic use of a straw man, and includes a presumption that the criticism is a "witch hunt" (i.e. invalid and irrational).  Then she notes that struggling against sexism helped her to do better work.  That's a double reversal/inconsistency in a single paragraph.

8. "Male, female, immigrant, or minority: Building a company is brutal. White men fail all the time if they have a bad idea or execution."

Very true.  But saying that white men can fail is not the same thing as saying that there is a level playing field.

9. "Sure there are people in Silicon Valley (and everywhere) who get jobs or funded or board seats because they are connected, shared a dormroom with someone, or have some cozy personal advantage. But ultimately, it’s a put-up-or-shut-up world here. The ones who make it long term are the ones who earn a seat at the table. Not the ones who get a seat handily doled out to them for an arbitrary reason."

This is a great example of Silicon Valley's self-perception as the ultimate meritocracy.  But once again, it is a straw man argument.  The implication is that appointing a woman to the Twitter board because of her gender is arbitrary (rather than, say, providing an important perspective for a service whose most active users are female, or as a reflection of a particular woman's successful work history and unique experiences).

The broader subject of affirmative action is a touchy one in general.  I have felt its sting myself--few people bother to discriminate in favor of Asian Americans, who have to clear far higher bars for college admission than whites or other minorities.

Yet attacking gender bias via policy (including quotas) works.  Countries like Norway, Spain, and France have already instituted quotas for female board members, without appreciable negative effects.  In Sweden, 36% of CEOs and 45% of parliament members are women.  This reflects concerted policy efforts, not some unique quality limited to Swedish women:
http://bit.ly/16AkBPZ

10. "Note, these women aren’t the ones waking up everyday and trying to manufacture some new feminist outrage. They are simply working hard to lead by example and “change the ratio” by actually building companies and hire diverse and qualified senior teams in their image.  That’s how we make progress as women, or any minority. By actually making it, not just whining about why others don’t do it for us."

Lacy's argument is that the best way to make change is to avoid talking about it, and simply do it.  I'm sympathetic to calls for action, rather than simply talking about it, but I still find this paragraph problematic.  Using the phrase "manufacture some new feminist outrage" strikes me as assuming that a) feminist is some kind of insult, and b) feminist criticisms are "manufactured."  Further, by arguing that protest is "whining about why others don't do it for us," Lacy characterizes public criticism as childish and impotent.

I always like to reframe statements, so let's pretend that this paragraph was written 50 years ago:

"Note, these women Negroes aren’t the ones waking up everyday and trying to manufacture some new feminist Civil Rights outrage. They are simply working hard to lead by example and “change the ratio” by actually building companies and hire diverse and qualified senior teams in their image.  That’s how we make progress as women Negroes, or any minority. By actually making it, not just whining about why others don’t do it for us."

This is an extreme technique.  I'm definitely not trying to portray Lacy as a segregationist apologist.  In the realm of the long (and still ongoing) struggle for African American equality, there were many leaders who took many different approaches.  Booker T. Washington, for example, publicly advised against challenging segregation (though he secretly supported court challenges to it):
http://bit.ly/1cBxk8L

But the fact is, Lacy's recommended approach isn't the only way.  And when the establishment controls the levers of power (be it the law or venture capital dollars), minorities often succeed in making change by protesting and changing the minds of the majority, as in women's suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, and many other issues throughout the history of this country.

The bottom line is that in attacking Vivek Wadhwa for twisting facts and ginning up controversy, Sarah Lacy herself fails to attack substance of his criticism, and uses emotional arguments rather than the reason she says she prefers.

I can understand her feelings, especially if Wadhwa's past writings about her were as unfair and insulting as they sound from her description.  But in the battle of ideas, the right and fair way to participate is to focus on the evidence for and against those ideas, rather than attacking the participants' motivations and character.

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