The culture wars that have consumed politics in the United States have now landed on Silicon Valley’s doorstep.
That became clear this week after Google on Monday fired a software engineer, James Damore, who had written an internal memo challenging the company’s diversity efforts. The firing set off a furious debate over Google’s handling of the situation, with some accusing the company of silencing the engineer for speaking his mind. Supporters of women in tech praised Google. But for the right, it became a potent symbol of the tech industry’s intolerance of ideological diversity.
Silicon Valley’s politics have long skewed left, with a free-markets philosophy and a dash of libertarianism. But that goes only so far, with recent episodes putting the tech industry under the microscope for how it penalizes people for expressing dissenting opinions. Mr. Damore’s firing has now plunged the nation’s technology capital into some of the same debates that have engulfed the rest of the country.
Such fractures have been building in Silicon Valley for some time, reaching even into its highest echelons. The tensions became evident last year with the rise of Donald J. Trump, when a handful of people from the industry who publicly supported the then-presidential candidate faced blowback for their political decisions.
At Facebook, Peter Thiel, an investor and member of the social network’s board of directors, was told he would receive a negative evaluation of his board performance for supporting Mr. Trump by a peer, Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix. And Palmer Luckey, a founder of Oculus VR, a virtual reality start-up owned by Facebook, was pressured to leave the company after it was revealed that he had secretly funded a pro-Trump organization.
Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said Mr. Damore’s comments carried additional weight to people on either side of the political spectrum because he was an engineer at Google, one of the world’s biggest technology companies.
Alongside other giants such as Facebook, Amazon and Apple, these companies “are seen as pillars of our society,” Mr. Galloway said. “Controversy and statements that emanate from these employees take on a different heft.”
The technology industry has long marched in lock step on issues such as supporting immigration and diversity, even though their companies remained largely male, white and Asian. But last year’s election of Mr. Trump — with his broadsides against political correctness, his coarse language toward women and his actions to restrict immigration and deny climate change — seemed to threaten many of those ideals.
At the same time, Mr. Trump’s words may have made dissenters in the tech industry more comfortable about speaking out.
“Trump, in a sense, licensed people to express what some people would call politically incorrect thoughts,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia University’s Business School. “Then there’s the other force that a lot of Trump’s policies go against the inclusive ideals these companies espouse.”
At Google, Sundar Pichai, the chief executive, said in an email on Monday that Mr. Damore was fired for violations of the company’s code of conduct, specifically his perpetuation of “harmful gender stereotypes” in the workplace. Mr. Damore had argued that biological reasons might explain the underrepresentation of women in the tech industry, causing widespread outrage inside and outside Google. In his defense, Mr. Damore said he had a right to express himself and said he was considering legal action against Google for firing him.
Amy Siskind, president of the New Agenda, a women’s advocacy group, tweeted that Mr. Damore is “every white male Trump voter feeling threatened” that women and people of color, “if given an equal chance, will reveal his mediocrity.”
Mr. Damore’s memo and dismissal transformed him into a hero on right-wing news sites like Breitbart, which has long criticized the political leanings of the tech industry.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, said on Twitter that “censorship is for losers” and offered to hire Mr. Damore. Steven Pinker, a Harvard University cognitive scientist, said on Twitter that Google’s actions could increase support for Mr. Trump in the tech industry.
“Google drives a big sector of tech into the arms of Trump: fires employee who wrote memo about women in tech jobs,” Dr. Pinker wrote.
One of the most outspoken supporters of Mr. Trump in Silicon Valley has been Mr. Thiel, a founder of PayPal, who has since faced derision from other people working in tech for his political stance. In a sign of how deep that ill feeling runs, Netflix’s Mr. Hastings warned Mr. Thiel last August, a few weeks after Mr. Trump had accepted the Republican nomination for president, that he would face consequences for backing Mr. Trump.
Mr. Thiel, also one of the original investors in Facebook, had given a prime-time speech supporting Mr. Trump at the Republican convention. In contrast, Mr. Hastings, a supporter of Hillary Clinton, said earlier last year that Mr. Trump, if elected, “would destroy much of what is great about America.”
Mr. Hastings, the chairman of a committee that evaluates Facebook’s board members, told Mr. Thiel in an email dated Aug. 14 that the advocacy would reflect badly on Mr. Thiel during a review of Facebook directors scheduled for the next day.
“I see our board being about great judgment, particularly in unlikely disaster where we have to pick new leaders,” Mr. Hastings wrote in the email to Mr. Thiel, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. “I’m so mystified by your endorsement of Trump for our President, that for me it moves from ‘different judgment’ to ‘bad judgment.’ Some diversity in views is healthy, but catastrophically bad judgment (in my view) is not what anyone wants in a fellow board member.”
Mr. Thiel and Mr. Hastings declined to comment through their spokesmen; neither challenged the authenticity of the email. Both of the men remain on Facebook’s board.
Another prominent Trump supporter affiliated with Facebook, Mr. Luckey, did not last at the company. Last September, The Daily Beast published a story saying that Mr. Luckey had been secretly funding a pro-Trump political organization called Nimble America. Subsequent reports and social media posts accused Mr. Luckey of financing sexist and racist “memes,” viral internet content.
Mr. Luckey, whose company was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion, said in a Facebook post that the stories misrepresented his views, though he apologized for the negative coverage it brought to Oculus.
Mr. Luckey, through mutual agreement with his employer, stayed away from the Oculus offices to let the controversy die down, according to three people with knowledge of the episode who asked for anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. In December, before returning briefly to the office, he told colleagues he was committed to staying at the company, according to a copy of a message he posted on an internal discussion board, which was reviewed by The Times.
But by the end of March, Oculus said he was no longer working there.
A Facebook spokeswoman reiterated an earlier company statement saying that Mr. Luckey’s departure was unrelated to his political views. Mr. Luckey declined to comment on his departure from Facebook.
Some prominent Silicon Valley figures are concerned there is too much political conformity in the tech industry. On a podcast in May, Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist, said he knew of only two Trump supporters in Silicon Valley, Mr. Thiel and Mr. Luckey.
“What does it do to somebody when they feel like they literally can’t express themselves?” said Mr. Andreessen, a Facebook board member who backed Mrs. Clinton last year.