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.