Sunday, April 3, 2016

LambdaConf should reconsider its policy

Normally I reserve my blog for Haskell posts, but some people are using the LambdaConf controversy as ammunition against the functional programming community. I don't believe that John De Goes speaks for our community but the only way we can prove that is for people who disagree with him to also speak up. I'm also not writing this post to shame John De Goes (because then nobody wins) but rather to try to convince him to change his mind (so that everybody wins) either for this conference or for future conferences.

My biggest issue with the LambdaConf policy is that the policy does not achieve the stated goal of being fair or neutral. As Justin put it:

Cultivating true neutrality requires an active effort to combat the systematic ways that underprivileged groups are excluded. An excellent example of this principle is LambdaConf's on-site child care. This policy disproportionately benefits attendees who have children, but it is still a just policy because it rebalances a scale that was originally tipped against parents.

True justice is about evening the playing field and right now the playing field is very slanted. Neoreactionaries like Curtis are not underdogs; they (unfortunately) have a loud and influential voice in our society. Curtis in particular already has an active platform through his blog and runs no realistic risk of ever being silenced. However, his presence is driving away underrepresented people just beginning to find their own voice and silencing them will undermine healthy civil discourse more than silencing Curtis.

I understand the desire to have a bright line so that conference policy can be enforced predictably and transparently, but there is no bright line when it comes to fairness. Justice requires judgement, action and leadership, not hiding behind formulas or recipes. This is why laws are interpreted by judges, lawyers, and juries and not by machines.

I would like to conclude by asking people (on both sides) to disagree respectfully and approach all discussions with an open mind. The purpose of the debate is to persuade people who disagree, not to score internet points from people who agree. The functional programming community needs to be a good example for other programming communities.


  1. Disagreeing respectfully I think is the best we can do in scenarios like this.

    There is no right answer here, not even shades of grey.

    As a past organizer who got burned in a (vaguely) similar scenario as the organizer here I came to the conclusion that the only way to win was to not play the game. (I quit the role).

    1. I suspected that some might have taken that route. Overall I think it's an unsatisfactory outcome. Entirely justifiable though.

    2. We can't let that happen! That could lead to underrepresented people being driven out of organising conferences or deciding not to contribute in the first place. Let's all agree not to lob incendiary insults like "fascist supporter" or "censor" at each other. It's only a technical conference, for goodness sake.

  2. I disagree disrespectfully.
    If the people you dislike really were powerful and influential, you wouldn't be able to purge them whenever you wanted to.

    1. The counter-argument to this is that Curtis Yarvin is still a speaker at the conference, despite collective action.

    2. Yes, it seems like the no-platforming wreckers have finally overreached to the point that people are willing to fight back.
      The $20,000(+) donated to save the conf from blackmail is an important message.

      You tried to boil the pot too fast, and convinced a lot of innocent people that they'd be the next victims of the purge.
      Maybe you should have done something about the violent communists on your side chanting about why we need gulags? That probably would have helped.

    3. One last note before I stop cluttering up your comments.
      Looking at what happened last time might illustrate how the vast majority of people now feel about no-platforming:

      I especially enjoyed the response of a supporter of the blacklisting: "I'm overjoyed that, as you put it, a climate of fear exists for fascists, misogynists, racists, and similar. I hope that this continues and only worsens for these people."

  3. kinda wish I understood what was going on but maybe better if I stay out of it :P

  4. I think your tactic of essentially appealing to affirmative action is the best one to try to justify the position you're advocating for. It's got some plausibility to it.

    But you need to expand upon two things a little more for it to seem wise. First, upon what principle does one choose to tilt the playing field, and is "holding oneself hostage" okay? (That is, if a community you wish to include organizes itself to not partake unless you exclude someone else, do you say, "Well, it's that one or all these folks", or do you conduct the analysis as if everyone was making the decision independently? If the former, is there a safeguard against overly-reactionary leaders who end up stifling members of their own group by organizing them to boycott stuff all the time?)

    Second, what do you say to the point of this actually _encouraging_ the distasteful ideas because rather than being engaged and repudiated, they're ignored? (So that subcommunity gets to feel righteous and persecuted, rather than embarrassed to say anything so obviously dumb.) See, for instance, for a strong defense of critical engagement rather than censure.

    1. My first stab at a general principle is the "underdog" rule. The more oppressed or disenfranchised a group is the more special considerations they should be given to preserve their voice because theirs is at greater risk of being extinguished.

      I don't really view boycotts as "holding conferences hostage" any more than I view unions as "holding corporations hostage". It's just a form of collective bargaining, no more insidious than economic bargaining we routinely perform and expect in our everyday affairs.

      However, I actually do believe in critical engagement and I think an even more compelling argument for this was made by Mill in "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion". He lays down several really compelling reasons why we should protect (even promote!) dissenting viewpoints even if we are 100% sure that our point of view is infallible and opposing views are offensive. These were at the forefront of my mind and one of the reasons that I was originally in favor of John's decision initially. Some of them include:

      * the need to deepen our understanding of our own position by testing it so that it doesn't become a "dead dogma"
      * to establish the strength of our position by surviving open opposition
      * encouraging innovative thought and avoiding chilling effects

      For the first two points, I feel that the Curtis's viewpoint is sufficiently well represented to not require any special protection. We can have a vigorous discussion about his viewpoints without making him a conference speaker; indeed we already have had such a discussion as part of the controversy! I know that I certainly have a much clearer objection to his viewpoint than I did before. Also, the viewpoint of minorities is already very heavily tested by well-meaning people who don't notice their unconscious bias to question everything minorities say while uncritically other opinions.

      I think the third point (chilling effects) is a risk that cuts both ways, and I weigh the chilling effect against minorities from including Curtis to be greater than the chilling effect against Curtis by excluding him.

      In other words, I do care about protecting speech, and I judge minority speech as currently requiring greater protections than Curtis's because they are being actively oppressed in material ways that dwarf being denied a speaker slot at a conference.

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    3. "chilling effects is a risk that cuts both ways"

      Steve "a tech antifa needs to beat Eich to death" Klabnik doesn't seem to have any problem getting uninvited to conferences. The chill only ever seems to cut one way.

      I apologize if I seem rude. The deliberate political cruelty that never seems to stop has been putting me on edge.

    4. Gabriel, your final point that you made here about protecting speech was actually really thought provoking for me. I'm going to take it and readjust my thoughts about the situation.

    5. @Altereggo It's okay! I have a thick skin :)

      I agree with you that it's a political decision. The reason I agree is that the reactionary political position is (almost by definition) one that defends some historical status quo. This position was at some point the mainstream position and was therefore defended articulately by our forebears. Indeed, Curtis's own position was defended very strongly by his favorite author: Carlyle.

      Vice versa, the progressive political definition is (almost by definition) one that is arguing for an untested worldview that is still putting down its philosophical roots. Therefore progressives have a natural tendency to (politically!) side with groups and viewpoints that are at greater risk of intimidation and exclusion.

      Make no mistake, progressives are calling for Curtis's exclusion, because they view his presence as a greater risk to excluding blacks. The reason this case is so controversial (in my mind) is that Curtis's viewpoint is ancient enough that some people view his position as endangered and therefore also worthy of protection. However, this is where I fall back on empirical measures to assess which side is more threatened: Curtis has a blog and a voice and I doubt he lives in fear for his life for his neoreactionary position. On the other hand, black people literally live in fear and that fear is amplified by people like Curtis who argue that oppression is natural which can be very easily be misunderstood by other people to justify further harm and discrimination against black people.

      Words have power, sometimes a power that the speaker may not have originally intended (like how Donald Trump's words have led to outbreaks of violence at his own rallies) and wherever there is power then politics has to step in.

      BUT, I agree that the left should hold itself just as accountable as it holds the right. If a speaker like Steve makes death threats, even jokingly (which can also very easily be misunderstood to lead to harm) that is conduct unbecoming of a speaker. So I do agree with your point that the left should hold itself to an equally high standard.

    6. The left will never hold itself to a standard any more than, say, the police will. No mob will ever hold itself accountable, and you don't suggest any way of putting it in check... possibly because you don't think it could ever threaten you?

      You support allowing unaccountable mobs of _actual communists_ to blacklist and bankrupt people they disagree with. Are communists not part of an old enough tradition that resulted in "harm"?

      If one side of this is going to revel in creating "a climate of fear" that they only want to make worse, I think I'll stick with the decent people over at Status451.
      You're welcome to join us when the mob decides you're next.

    7. So one part that I'm not sure I agree with is the implication that the people who disagree with you communists. I know that I'm certainly not a communist sympathizer.

      I also don't want to "join" anybody (either the left or Status 451) because I prefer to think for myself and seek a more complete truth instead of senselessly rooting for "my team" whose progress can only come at the expense of the "other team".

      For example, one of the things that I don't understand is why you defend Curtis by attacking the left. Suppose the left were guilty of every single evil you described: how does that strengthen the case for keeping Curtis? There are more choices than "join Status451" or "be a communist". A positive affirmation of Curtis would be far more convincing to me than a negative rejection of the left, because I can reject both Curtis and the left.

    8. "the implication that the people who disagree with you communists."

      You mean the ones with hammer and sickle icons in their twitter bios, who call themselves communists and talk about labour camps for class enemies?
      I'm not making an accusation here. It's what they call themselves!

    9. That's literally one person that you're talking about (Steve Klabnik). Even if he claimed to be a communist that does not in anyway imply that other people who disagree with you are communists.

      Nor does it really answer my original point. Even if you did prove that everybody who disagreed with you was a communist that's not really a defense of Curtis because I can simultaneously reject Curtis and communism.

    10. "Curtis has a blog and a voice and I doubt he lives in fear for his life for his neoreactionary position. On the other hand, black people literally live in fear"

      1. You're engaging in xyism. If you tell the truth - 'some black people literally live in fear' - your rhetoric breaks.

      2. I wouldn't be surprised if Yarvin receives death threats. Seems like you're making a big underdetermined assumption that no threats he receives have caused him to fear.

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  6. 1. Yarvin clearly was the underdog here, since his was the voice in danger of being extinguished. The person with unpopular ideas is the true underdog, and the most important safe spaces are the safe spaces for those who are insensitive to the perceptions of others. Collectivism is the true underlying evil...racism is just one manifestation of collectivist evil. The anti-Yarvin movement was another manifestation of collectivist evil.

    2. Most of our biases are unconscious. We guard against these unconscious biases using methods such as double-blind peer review. That process chose Yarvin. To that extent, then we have to consider whether Yarvin himself could be the target of unconscious bias. We do that to protect the rights of all minorities, because systems like double blind peer review are the best ways to protect minorities from bias. And the most endangered minorities and victims of bias of those that we are not conscious of. Yarvin may be one of those minorities and victims of bias.

    3. By trying to pull Yarvin, people were oppressing minority conference members who wanted to the very best speakers, as determined by an bias-minimizing process of blind review. As a result, Gabriel and others who tried to silence Yarvin are now complicit in the oppression of minorities.

    1. So I do agree with you strongly one point: that mob/collective actions on both sides is evil and needs to stop. I've witnessed both sides act like a mob and it's shameful.

      However, I disagree about Curtis being the underdog here. You can say that he is a minority opinion, but I don't believe that "minority" and "underdog" are synonymous. For me the side being oppressed is the underdog (and there are numerous examples of police-on-black violence to support this), not the side advocating that oppression is a natural and just part of society (as Curtis did in his post on Carlyle).

      The worst that has ever happened to Curtis is that he's been rejected from speaking at conference, which is pretty high up the Maslow hierarchy of needs (self actualization). In contrast, underprivileged groups have to worry about things much lower on Maslow's hierarchy of needs such as physiological integrity (i.e. not being murdered by police for no reason in broad daylight) and safety (being at a conference surrounded by people who believe they are lesser human beings). I'll bet these underprivileged groups wished that the worst of their worries was being rejected from speaking at a conference.

      Curtis is very much a victim of bias and I will not claim otherwise. The goal of the bias against Curtis is to counter-balance much stronger pre-existing biases against minorities. The tweet I linked in my post summarizes my feelings on this well.

      Do I think privileged/white/male/whatever people should be punished for being privileged/white/male? No.

      Do I think people (regardless of privilege/gender/color) should be held responsible for saying that oppression is a good thing? Yes. I know my employer certainly holds me responsible for my public words and actions, so why shouldn't conferences do the same?

      Do I think that a mob should play judge/jury/executioner in these sorts of cases? No.

    2. "For me the side being oppressed is the underdog (and there are numerous examples of police-on-black violence to support this),"

      In this case no one was being oppressed. Some feelings were in danger of being hurt. Equating the two trivialises actual oppression imo.

      "not the side advocating that oppression is a natural and just part of society (as Curtis did in his post on Carlyle)."

      A couple of observations:

      1. A consistent opposition to the oppression that MM sees as natural/desirable requires anarchism, since the government - citizen relationship is also part of the continuum of oppression (or a form of slavery to use MMs language). MM makes this explicit in his approving reference to Nozicks Tale of a Slave.

      So most people are on the 'side' endorsing some form of oppression. The flavour of the oppression endorsed by MM is different to the politically dominant form right now.

      2. You're presenting a false dichotomy. It's possible to both be oppressed (any form of oppression) at the same time as advocating a given (different) form of oppression yourself.

    3. So the tale of the slave, specifically, is not as convincing if I'm reading it as a tongue-in-cheek critique of democracy. The reason it's not convincing to me is because the laws passed (in theory) are at least superficially designed to appear fair. Passing a federal law for the sole purpose of sending a single person to jail would never pass muster. Also, the argument that the target person's vote is not the tiebreaker is superficial because it holds true for everybody else's vote, too.

      By the way, I do see the parallel to Curtis's situation in the sense that if we are to exclude Curtis it should be on the basis of a consistent policy and not word it so finely so that it only excludes exactly Curtis because then that would be no different than the federal law that sends a single person to jail.

      I still get the overall gist of what you're saying even if I disagree with the specific example you chose. I also did understand the broader point that Curtis was channeling from Carlyle that a functioning society requires obligations of some form in order to function and the difference between such obligations and slavery (in Curtis's eyes) is too fine of a distinction.

      However, the part where I disagree with Curtis is roughly about here:

      > It is only a short step from seeing the State as an enforcer of voluntary and binding obligations, to an enforcer of involuntary and arbitrary obligations. No society can possibly exist without uncontracted obligations.

      I don't accept prima facie that the last sentence is true, even if it is the current state of affairs (the example he gives immediately afterwards is property).

      In fact, I would go so far as to argue that most of the problems with our society are precisely related to enforcing uncontracted obligations. For example, I would argue that we should greatly increase inheritance taxes to reduce how much established power persists from generation to generation.

      That's not to say that I believe we can eliminate uncontracted obligations, but we should actively fight to minimize them as much as possible and view them as harmful to the correct and proper functioning of society. We should not hold them up as justification for other forms of uncontracted obligations.

      Regarding your second point, I agree, but as I mentioned in another comment thread the degree of oppression is very different. Curtis is being denied a privilege very high on the Maslow hierarchy (speaking at a conference, i.e. self-actualization), which I view more as a privilege, whereas the oppression he is justifying is denying much more fundamental rights lower on the hierarchy to others (i.e. autonomy, belonging and possibly physiological safety if he incites others who read his blog to harm).

  7. Step 1: stop seeing minorities as automatically oppressed and unsafe, stop validating unfounded fears

    Step 2: realize that the pushback didn't come from radicals, but from people in the community who are simply tired of the years of dishonest histrionics and want to get back to talking about code

    Step 3: realize that sjws can lose but will never admit this, because their entire belief system revolves around white make oppressor guilt, and this is their way to atone

    1. I would like to clarify that I don't view the people that I disagree with as radicals and I can understand and empathize with their disagreement. I have no desire to "win" or to see them "lose"; I'm only trying to persuade the other side to change their minds while still keeping an open mind myself because I think there is some truth to both sides.

  8. Thanks for explaining your position more fully in response to my previous comment. However, can you explain your signature on the statement?

    It makes no mention of the difficulties, and if one didn't know better it comes across sounding like LambadConf invited Yarvin because the organizers agreed with him or simply didn't care. With that presentation, it looks to me like an attack on well-intentioned and demonstrably thoughtful but possibly misguided people. Why are we attacking *them*? There are really hurtful and wrong ideas out there.

    Respectful disagreement I understand. But you seem to be lending your voice to disrespectful attacks.

    1. I didn't read the statement as accusatory and there was a lot of discussion in the e-mail thread leading up to the publication of the statement to avoid an accusatory tone.

      I can't speak for all the signatories, but I know that I am still on good terms with John De Goes and I don't hold this against him personally.

      Nor do I have a grudge against LambdaConf. I actually want LambdaConf to succeed and this post was written in hopes of protecting the future of LambdaConf.

    2. I do read it as accusatory, and I read it as dishonest. I know the more detailed opinions of a number of the signers and know that at least for them it wasn't meant that way, but I think on an impartial reading, it is. The only way it could not be, I guess is if nobody ever finds out about this except those well-versed with the whole situation.

      Here are the key problems:

      (1) "This year, it selected Curtis Yarvin as a speaker [...] an apologist for slavery."

      No mention of why! It sounds intentional. ("We at LambdaConf like apologists for slavery.") This is implicitly accusatory.

      "Yarvin's selection as a speaker says to marginalized people that their humanity is considered merely another matter for debate."

      Again, that makes it sound like Yarvin was selected _for_ his views instead of _in spite_ of his views. Maybe John de Goes doesn't see the statement this way, but if I were some not-very-well-informed observer, that's exactly what I'd be lead to think.

      "LambdaConf [...] does not protect current and potential members of that community who are vulnerable to those who would deny their humanity."

      Which entirely misses the point that de Goes said that they went out of their way to make sure that there was no physical danger. Again, it sounds like an endorsement of Yarvin.

      Unless you read all the blog posts (e.g. yours), the impression is "Well, there are a few functional programmers who don't like slavery, but a bunch of them don't really see any problem with it."

      Inasmuch as you can trade in perception for political power, that actually *aids* the relatively small group of people who actually believe or like to pretend they believe Yarvin's point of view. That is, it's helping him.

      It sounds like the picture is this:

      <-good guys.........bad guys->

      when the picture should be this:

      <--decent people.....eeegh!->

      Since even the illusion of company can be leveraged to gain traction, I think this is a really bad idea. I really don't think he needs any help (or publicity--goodness, he's gotten a lot of publicity from this).

      So I appreciate that there was a lot of discussion, but I think the resulting statement is divisive. Too late now, I guess, to really fix it (retractions have their own problems: you can't get the message you want to out there), but something to keep in mind for next time.

      Something with the logic/message in this blog, but in highly compressed form, would have been great.

  9. This is an intriguing issue. I notice a couple of points for discussion. They have been discussed before, but this brings them up again.

    - To what extent can speech be a bad thing? What retributions against speech are justified?
    - I lean towards the opinion that retribution against an act should be not only of similar magnitude, but of similar type. A.k.a., if you disagree with what someone says, the proper way to go against them is to say your side. To what extent boycott is similar enough to speech, I'm not sure.
    - To what extent should we not associate with someone who does bad things? Goes said he wouldn't talk about his political views at LambdaConf. On the other hand, I don't think many people would want their kids to be baby sitted by, say, a Nazi or Bank robber (note: I'm not calling Goes or anyone in particular a Nazi or Bank robber. I'm just showing the other extreme of this spectrum.)

    I'm not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I think these questions are a good high-level way to view this issue.

  10. Thank you for this post. I'm glad someone is taking on this issue. By presenting a speaker you are in a sense endorsing his/her views.

    I'm a big believer in free speech, but free speech doesn't mean I have to listen to you or give you a platform: it just means that the government can't arrest you.

  11. Nice to have techies not shying away from political discussion... cheers for entering the fray !

    By the way I totally and amically disagree with you : shutting down a 100% tech speak on account of unrelated political views would hurt both technical progress and freedom of speech in the long run - and social evolution is not a short-term affair. De Goes had it right and I hope he will hold his ground in the future.

    1. Thanks for the amicable disagreement! I appreciate all discussion :)