When to say no

If you’re not a software developer, you may have missed it, but there’s been a huge outcry recently in the world of functional programming, about a conference called LambdaConf. The problem is not the conference itself, but the fact that one of the papers selected for presentation turns out to be the work of a well-known racist whose online postings have argued that blacks are naturally suitable for slavery. In fact, this same person submitted a similar paper to an earlier conference called Strange Loop, who initially accepted it, and then rejected it after they found out who the author was. The LambdaConf organizers were familiar with that incident, and decided not to reject the speaker, on free speech grounds, as long as he agreed to abide by the conference Code of Conduct while in attendance.

To most people, the world of “functional programming” is probably one of the more obscure corners of an obscure field. It’s made up of people who are going back to some of the original computer science research of the 50’s and 60’s and finding some techniques that computers back then couldn’t handle well, and using them to get some amazing results on modern equipment. It’s the new hotness, and a lot of cutting-edge research and development is happening there.

And, I am happy to report, the functional programming community has been actively and even aggressively working to promote diversity and inclusiveness in its outreach. Not only do they offer special scholarships to traditionally-marginalized minorities, they go out of their way to solicit speakers from these groups, not as token speakers addressing social justice issues, but as technical experts in their fields, presenting interesting topics in functional programming.

That’s why the decision to give the platform to an open racist is provoking such outrage. Conference organizer John De Goes, however, is defending his decision to proceed with the speaker as a principled stand in favor of “inclusivity.” The very principles of diversity and inclusion that lead the FP community to reach out to marginalized groups, he argues, are principles that mandate that we not exclude speakers on the grounds that their “off-topic” speech, outside of the venue, are objectionable.

[O]utside the confines of functional programming, the diversity goes way up. Some attendees are amoral atheists, some are devoutly religious; some are communists and others are staunch Democrats or Republicans.

In fact, all the above are represented in this year’s lineup of speakers. I don’t want to overemphasize this, but even in our group of speakers, we have views that are diametrically opposed to one another, and which can make people feel very uncomfortable

We absolutely reject the notion that just because someone attends or speaks at the conference, the conference must somehow “endorse” their views…

Yet, even inclusion has its limits.

We would never allow a violent criminal to attend LambdaConf. There is always a line. There must be one. The question is, where do we draw that line?

De Goes, after consulting with other selected speakers, decided that racism belongs on this side of the line, as a matter of opinion that reasonable people can disagree about. And that, too, adds to the outrage among other functional programmers, such as those who have signed the Statement on LambdaConf 2016.

Needless to say, the racist himself, and his supporters, are crying censorship and martyrdom, and not a few are using the backlash against LambdaConf as evidence of a left-wing, SJW agenda that’s hostile to whites and America and freedom and, I dunno, puppies or something.

My feeling is this: if you know there’s a line, and if you claim to care about diversity and inclusivity, then you ought to understand why racism, as an emphatic antagonist against diversity and inclusivity, belongs on the other side of that line. You cannot tell minorities “we value you as equals” while at the same time allowing that “you are inferior and deserve to be slaves” is an equally valid opinion. If you do, what you’re really saying is “your equality is only a matter of opinion, and should be subject to change at anybody’s whim.”

Mind you, it took me a while to reach this opinion. My initial reaction, when I read De Goes’ post, was to equate this with the ACLU supporting the KKK’s right to hold public rallies and such. In other words, as something distasteful but necessary for free speech. After reading the reactions of a number of well-respected leaders in the FP community, however, I realized that my impression was heavily influenced by my experience as a privileged white middle-class male. Those who are not as privileged see things differently, and now, after thinking about it some more, so do I.

There is a difference between the ACLU supporting the KKK’s right to hold rallies, and LambdaConf inviting a racist to speak. The ACLU is indeed supporting freedom of speech, including freedom of objectionable speach, which is exactly right and proper. But the ACLU is not inviting the KKK to be a guest speaker at an ACLU civil liberties conference. LambdaConf is inviting a racist, knowing he is a racist, knowing he sincerely advocates the idea that minorities are more racially suited for slavery than for equality. And they’re paying him to come speak.

They do not have to issue this invitation. They do not need to put his name in their program. Most of the papers submitted to the conference were not accepted for one reason or another, and it’s perfectly legitimate to say, “We are here to promote diversity and inclusion, and your presence here will be a detriment to that goal, so it is not acceptable.” That’s what Strange Loop said, but LambdaConf didn’t. And nothing good is coming from that decision.


  1. says

    What is socially acceptable is actually decided by the silent majority. What we’re seeing now is a reduction in the size of the silent majority. Most people don’t want to be or think of themselves as bigots, racists, or what have you, but they appreciate the convenience of not having to give their beliefs any thought and accept the “reasonableness” of the dominant voices they hear. The more people hear from people like us, the less reasonable racists, sexists, and religionists sound and the less middle ground there is for them to hide in the tall grass.

    For people who are openly bigoted, their position of privilege in society is waning and they’re starting to get desperate because the traditional threats they’ve always used don’t work anymore, so they point to anyone who publicly disagrees with them as bigots. This unfortunately can’t work but instead pushes people into our camp. Most people know that racism is unreasonable even if they aren’t able to fully articulate what racism is or recognize all of the little ways it benefits or harms them, but it’s still really obvious to them when other people defend it nakedly.

    The old days when people could admit that they did not know (Good Germans) are fading. Today with the Internet the only reason for not knowing anything is not wanting to know which is the same as wanting to believe the lies. The collective forces of racism, sexism, classism, and religionism which have been loyal allies throughout human history are simply no match for the collective forces of feminism (which has included anti-racism for decades), skepticism, and atheism which have only come into alignment in the past decade.

    Any time I read someone criticizing PZ Myers or Richard Carrier it turns out to be either directly or indirectly a defense of bigotry. I recently stumbled across a thread where a bunch of “physicists” were arguing about increasing the top end of human intelligence and they couldn’t help but jab at PZ, but all the comments were not so naked defenses of eugenics or social darwinism just without using those specific terms. They have to be really careful not to use the obvious terminology anymore, but it gets really hard to explain how to increase top end intelligence without either genetic engineering (which they explicitly weren’t advocating) or forcing selection on people somehow as if the smartest people in society don’t already associate with one another (which apparently was a point against PZ somehow!).

  2. sonofrojblake says

    I’d look at it this way:
    “De Goes, after consulting with other selected speakers, decided that expressing opinions belongs on this side of the line, and other behaviour on the other.”

    I disagree with his choice, but I can see why he made it. It’s defensible.

    Racist opinions and behaviour are going to happen – we can all be guilty of it. There are two possible responses.
    (a) “You are a racist.”
    (b) “That thing you just said/did was racist.”

    The first defines the perp as persona non grata and doesn’t admit of the possibility of change, and human nature being what it is probably leads to a double-down.

    The second targets specifics and leaves the perp a face-saving path to learning and being a better person.

    I may very well be being overly charitable here, by I interpret De Goes’ stance as option 2. I’d further note that his explicit reference to the Code of Conduct is notice that while they’re anticipating behaviour that would give them an excuse to eject him, absent such behaviour, he’s OK.

    Isn’t that the right message to send?

    • Deacon Duncan says

      My initial response was much the same as yours, but again, I attribute my own reaction to my experience as a privileged white male who has never experienced or been targeted by the kind of racism that Moldbug espouses. Having seem the reaction of those who have, I’ve thought a lot more about why they feel so strongly. And what’s missing from De Goes’ “principled” stand is a sense of context. Those who actively advocate racial inequality in this culture and in this political environment, with a major presidential candidate drawing much of his support from white supremacists, with #blacklivesmatter activists being denounced as thugs, with minorities routinely being stripped of their right to vote through gerrymandering and profiled drug charges/convictions—that’s more than just expressing an opinion. The position De Goes’ is taking is a virulent form of passive racism: “It’s not a problem for me, therefore it’s not a problem, period.” That’s not just sending the wrong message, it’s making LambdaConf an accessory to injustice.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Any time I read someone criticizing PZ Myers […] it turns out to be either directly or indirectly a defense of bigotry.

    PZ Myers wrote a “it really is appalling, something must be done” blog post about how Amazon treats its employees inhumanely… but shilled for Amazon with a link on the very same page because he’d benefit from it too.

    His response when this was pointed out was that he had “a responsibility to promote my book” – i.e. to make as much money for himself as possible, regardless of how that was achieved – and pleaded shortness of time for the fact the Amazon link was still there, despite having had plenty of time to write the blog post nobody had asked for. He concluded with the words “fuck off”.

    I’d call that virtue-signalling venal self-serving hypocrisy.

    There you go: no defence, direct or indirect, of any bigotry there. Happy? 🙂

    • says

      This presumes that it’s PZ Myers’ fault that Amazon has a practical monopoly on internet book sales. If you live in a town where the only place to shop within 100 miles is Walmart, it doesn’t matter how much you disagree with their policies.

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