Personal Thoughts on the LambdaConf Controversy
Unfortunately, my blog post on wrestling with inclusion at LambdaConf has divided many in the tech community.
Since so many have provided their feedback, I want to explain my personal thoughts here, and invite others to share thoughtful and gracious responses.
I don’t speak for the rest of the staff, for any of the people we surveyed, or for anyone else who has come to a similar conclusion. Anyone else who happens to support LambdaConf’s policy does so for their own (quite diverse) reasons.
Let me state upfront that I don’t have all the answers, I’m probably wrong about a lot, and I remain forever open to learning and improving.
As you read, I want to ask one favor of you: that you see with eyes unclouded by hate.
We are deeply emotional creatures, but we are also rational creatures, too.
Many times, my emotions have led me to desire a violent solution to a problem (e.g. the time a taxi driver almost ran over my expecting wife!). But my mind has allowed me to step back and help me understand the drawbacks of reacting to something based purely on emotion.
No matter what you think about these issues, I’m not going to hate you, ignore you, vilify you, or speak evil of you. If I feel threatened by your ideas or your response, I will acknowledge that fear and try to let it go.
First, I want to clarify a few points on the process we undertook to reach our decision:
- None of the people we surveyed were in any way responsible for the decision. We asked for feedback, and we listened, but ultimately it was a staff decision.
- We were only interested in feedback on conference-wide policy, not feedback on any particular person or their beliefs (this was a choice I’ve been very upfront about).
- We had to dig into personal beliefs to make sure they didn’t suggest a safety threat.
- The survey wasn’t scientific, and I’m sure it wasn’t perfect. But it shows that minorities can and do agree with our decision (lots more have since voiced support).
- What came out of the process is a stronger version of the pledge, with clearly spelled out safety and trust exceptions, and a commitment to not only update our policies over time, but to be transparent about how we do so.
Our process may be flawed, but it took a month and countless hours, involved getting lots of feedback from minorities, was upfront and transparent, and was voted on by a four-person committee comprised of 50% women.
For comparison, Typelevel and PrlConf also made decisions about the issue. They made their decisions in hours, not weeks. I fully support their decisions (their conference, their rules), but I’d love to have seen their processes.
We don’t actually know what their processes looked like, because they haven’t said. In fact, no one is even asking what process they used, because for many people, the process doesn’t matter: it’s the outcome that matters.
It’s easy to pick on a process when you don’t like the outcome.
Pick Your Minorities
Pick any belief at all. I bet you can find someone in a group currently underrepresented in technology who shares that belief.
Thus, if you exclude people based on their beliefs, you will necessarily exclude people in minority groups.
Stated differently, pick and choose your minorities.
One of the women we surveyed explained the issue beautifully:
So, it would seem to me that basing conference attendance and participation on beliefs or behavior outside of the conference would lead to some pretty gnarly value judgments about which classes of participants are more important to you: do you want women there who also believe in free market capitalism? Or do you only want socialists, even if that ended up excluding some women?
Fundamentally, I don’t think this issue is about minorities for some people.
First, a lot of minorities support our policy, and that fact is uncontested.
Second, looking on Twitter and elsewhere, I’ve seen lots of stuff like this:
- I’ve seen a white male try to explain to a woman speaker why her reasons for supporting our policy were wrong;
- I’ve seen a white male unfollow a woman and former colleague who voiced support for our policy (she left Twitter as a result);
- I’ve seen a white male argue with a Nigerian person that his support for our policy was wrong.
I can’t explain any of this unless the controversy is really about something else.
Personally, I think that something else is good versus evil.
Good Versus Evil
Some people just don’t want a bad person invited to a tech conference, even if their talk was picked by a blind committee, they are peaceful, they reject any type of violence, and they don’t pose a safety threat.
Unfortunately, morality is outside the purview of science. You can’t run scientific studies to figure out which beliefs are good, and which are bad.
If you decide to start measuring how bad people are, then you have to accept it’s subjective. Different people will come to different conclusions.
If some people are bad, then some are worse than others, and if some are good, than some are better than others. So you have to decide how good is good enough.
If you don’t support subsidized welfare or health care, are you good enough? If you support military drone strikes, with its attendant casualties, are you good enough? If you purchase electronics made with real slave labour, are you good enough? If you’re a Bible affirming Christian who thinks homosexuality is sinful, are you good enough?
Every conference that plays this game is going to make different choices. All these choices are subjective, and many will change over time.
That’s fine by me. We absolutely need gatherings for all communities. Just don’t pretend it’s an objective choice, or that your choice won’t be exclusionary and alienate some minorities along with lots of other people.
Fear of The Other
I believe racism, sexism, ageism, sizeism, homophobia, transphobia, and all other forms of irrational bias are caused by fear of The Other.
That’s when you feel threatened by someone who is different than you, and respond with anger or hatred, or by inventing all kinds of silly reasons to make yourself feel less threatened (i.e. “puffing up your chest”).
Given how ubiquitous fear of The Other is, I think it’s probably universal. Maybe in the world in which our ancestors evolved, fearing someone different and unfamiliar conferred some survival advantage (maybe they’re out to get your food or take your kids?).
But for developed countries that have law and order, the fear doesn’t help. In fact, it causes mental anguish, physical violence, and death.
That sounds exactly like a disease, and I’d suggest we treat it like one, and work to eradicate it not through more fear, but through evidence-based treatment.
Maybe one day we can just take a pill every day and all our fear will be gone. Or maybe we can use gene therapy to eradicate it from our genome.
Until then, however, I’d suggest three things:
- Let’s admit that we have all experienced the fear for some type of Other, and make sure it’s safe for everyone else to admit it (“I’m an alcoholic”).
- Let’s acknowledge that applying negative reinforcement, such as various forms of exclusion in professional settings, will probably create more fear, especially if the people applying the negative reinforcement are motivated by fear themselves.
- Let’s take a look at exposure therapy, which has been shown to help reduce or eliminate fear. Maybe there are other techniques that are effective, too.
These are my personal views, they may be totally wrong, and I don’t expect you to believe them. In principle, however, they’re testable. Scientific studies could prove or disprove them (or maybe they already have, for all I know!).
If science proves them correct someday, I’d say that’s a powerful incentive to turn the knob down on the professional ostracism of sick people.
Some people have claimed that if a conference invites a speaker to talk about something, the conference is providing a platform for the speaker’s other views.
First, that’s redefining what “platform” means.
By definition, if you invite a speaker to speak about
foo, and have promised to kick them out if they speak about
bar, then you are giving them a platform to speak about
foo, and denying them a platform to speak about
Second, no conference can coherently endorse the views of its speakers. Speakers possess radically conflicting views. How can a conference coherently endorse A and not-A?
Third, all these arguments are some form of guilt by association.
Someone out there believes you’re guilty by association, too. Someone believes you’re a bad person for buying a computer made with slave labor by corrupt capitalist companies. Someone else believes that using Uber means you are sexist. Someone believes you should quit your job rather than work for your morally bankrupt and greedy company. Etc.
Guilt by association arguments are not scientific or objective — they’re subjective and everyone has different views about them.
Speak \/ Attend
LambdaConf doesn’t draw a distinction between volunteer, attendee, or speaker. They are all required to be uphold the pledge, and the safety and trust exceptions apply equally.
Many of the arguments I’ve seen for denying someone an opportunity to speak apply equally to attendees.
For example, if someone shouldn’t speak at a conference because they’re bad, they shouldn’t attend either, because they’re still bad.
If someone shouldn’t speak at a conference because others are uncomfortable in the same room, then they shouldn’t attend either, because others will be uncomfortable in the same room.
If someone shouldn’t speak at a conference because that would be “endorsing” the speaker’s views on topics they aren’t allowed to talk about, then they shouldn’t attend, because allowing someone to attend your conference is “endorsing” the attendee’s views.
In addition, if there’s some other argument out there which isn’t symmetrical, you have to consider the fact that a random attendee may choose to participate in an unconference.
So if you draw a distinction between attendees and speakers, then really, you need to moderate the proposed unconference topics not by the content, but by the morality or personal beliefs of the people delivering the content.
That is, you need to walk up to that whiteboard, look the attendee in the eye, and say, “No, we found out you are an anarcho-capitalist, therefore we are not allowing you to speak about immutable data structures.”
Even that’s not enough, since an attendee could, while in a hallway, begin speaking to other attendees about something related to their profession. If the topic is interesting, a crowd might spontaneously form (as if often does!). If you don’t prevent this from happening, you put yourself in the same position.
Personally, I don’t see any reason to differentiate between speakers and attendees.
Note that in Colorado, at least, it’s actually illegal to prevent someone from attending your conference based on their religion or creed!
We’re living in a time of great transition. Before technology, we used to have a wonderful and clear separation between our personal and professional lives.
But with the advent of technology, we’re sharing more and more, and the two are blurring.
Sometimes we share publicly and voluntarily (blogging, tweeting), and sometimes we share unintentionally (getting doxxed, getting hacked, accidentally replying all, mistakenly sending a public message, mistakenly choosing the wrong recipient).
Increasingly, our personal views, which have nothing to do with our professional lives, are becoming known by more people in our professional circles.
Like all things, this has some positive effects and negative effects.
However, I believe there is room in this world for professional conferences that allow peaceful professionals who can treat others professionally to speak on professional topics — topics that are unrelated to and independent of their personal (and potentially offensive and / or immoral) beliefs.
I also think that, while I fully support privately-funded conferences making moral judgments about attendees and speakers, there are broader professional implications.
If you don’t want bad people at your conference, do you want them at your place of work? Do you want pull requests from bad people, even if they’re treating you nice? Do you want to buy things from bad people? Do you want to sell things to bad people? Do you want to buy things whose components are made by companies run by bad people?
Are you going to measure people’s badness by scouring the web, or by conducting scientific tests, such as subconscious bias tests and functional MRIs?
Picture what our society would look like if no one could separate personal and professional lives in any domain. Would that create a society where people co-exist peacefully? Or would there be even more hatred and violence and death?
Which of these would you prefer?
If you would prefer violence, perhaps some sort of great purge for all the bad people, do you think it will stop after just one purging? Or, after the bad people are purged, will everyone on your side find new differences to fight about?
Will you start turning on each other because some of you believe it’s an abomination to consume the flesh of other animals? Will you start turning on each other because some of you want to genetically engineer new species derived from human DNA, which might be more intelligent, stronger, and longer-living than humans? Etc.
Come to your own conclusions.
You may not think so now, but one day, you might be vilified on social media.
Your views might be misrepresented. You might be branded as a bad person. You may be called really awful things. Or maybe it doesn’t happen to you, maybe it happens to one of your personal beliefs, and someone out there knows you happen to hold the belief.
This is not exactly a random process, but it can happen to anyone. I know because it just happened to me, partially because I stated that I am an amoral atheist.
If we all give up on maintaining any kind of separation between personal life and professional life, then this could be devastating for you.
You could lose your speaking slot at a conference. Heck, you could be banned from speaking at all conferences. More than that, you might lose your open source communities, and you might lose your job. You might lose your whole support network.
You might lose everything.
I’m sure many will say, you deserve all that and more if you’re a bad person. But the thing is, even if you agree with this, you have to acknowledge that social media makes mistakes (just look at the social media hysteria following any terrorist attack!).
Social media is often a platform for false, distorted, and misrepresented information. There’s irrational groupthink and perverse game mechanics (see the end).
I don’t like that. I really don’t like that.
I don’t have the power to change it, but in one small arena of professional life, I can protect people from this devastation. I can guarantee that people can attend my conference no matter what happens in the world of social media.
Think about how that makes you feel for a second.
If, for some reason, some angry Twitter mob turns against you tomorrow (like all the people who attacked me for being an amoral atheist), would you be happy that you could still attend and speak at LambdaConf?
Further, would knowing that our policies are principled instead of ad hoc give you the ability to trust LambdaConf?
For me, the answer to both questions is yes.
As Alissa Pajer has so articulately, brilliantly, and graciously pointed out, different conference policies will select for different communities, and different communities will select for different conferences.
Some people have claimed that a policy which allows a neo-reactionary to speak at the conference will produce a conference dominated by neo-reactionaries.
However, I believe this is incoherent, because Christians, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, socialists, communists, and people of all colors, gender identities, and sexual orientations come and speak at LambdaConf.
Clearly, the conference cannot be dominated by people who are simultaneously all of these conflicting things!
So no, I don’t buy that. Not one bit.
Personally, if a conference allows all peaceful people to attend and speak so long as they treat attendees exceedingly well, then guess what I think it’s going to select for?
Wait for it… a diverse community of peaceful people who are willing to treat attendees exceedingly well, even when they strongly disagree with them!
That doesn’t sound terrible to me. In fact, I wish the whole world were more like this.
Now, I realize, this is a personal opinion, and you may have a totally different and conflicting opinion. But ultimately, this issue is not subjective. We don’t have to speculate about what’s going to happen, we can just watch and see.
If LambdaConf turns into something I don’t recognize, then I’ll shut it down faster than you can say “Code of Conduct”, and I’ll concede that I made a bad call.
On the other hand, it’s possible that by drawing a distinction between personal and professional lives, even in an era where technology often blurs them, we help protect people from social media gone rogue.
It’s possible that LambdaConf becomes a model for peaceful, professional co-existence in a world increasingly dominated by politics, fear and hate.
It’s possible that by fostering peaceful (but otherwise unbiased) diversity, we convince attendees they don’t have to be afraid of The Other.
It’s possible we persuade attendees that treating others with respect, dignity, and empathy, and communicating nonviolently (with empathy and honest self-expression) is good for far more than just professional conduct at a tech conference.
Even as we continue to discuss these issues with the broader community and refine or change our views, LambdaConf 2016 will proceed as planned.
We have some amazing speakers lined up, some of whom don’t agree with our policies, and some of whom do agree (we welcome both!).
Some speakers canceled as a result of our recent announcement (or because of the Twitter storm). This was an unfortunate loss, but we absolutely support every one of these speakers to attend or not as they see fit.
Thankfully, some speakers have volunteered to do double duty, and I’ve gotten many wonderfully supportive emails from new folks volunteering to chip in.
We are still doing a bit of re-jiggering, but we should have at least three concurrent tracks for the entire 3-day conference, plus the unconference on Sunday. Attendees have lots to choose from at any one time. Of course, everyone’s free to attend only the talks they’re interested in, and chat only with the people they want to chat with.
Attendee-wise, LambdaConf 2016 is already bigger than last year, and more people keep registering.
In the past few days, we’ve also seen a huge bump in the number of people applying for our diversity scholarship program (49 applications so far), and we’re doing everything in our power to give out as many scholarships as possible.
In my opinion, 2016 will be a year that no one who attends will ever forget. Because of the ordeal many have been through, I think deep bonds will be created that last a lifetime.
As for me, I desperately want a world where we can co-exist peacefully despite our differences. I want a world where people work to meet their needs through the power of nonviolent communication, rather than fear-driven negative reinforcement. I want a world where people do not fear The Other, but where they recognize that fear gets in the way of our own personal happiness and where they seek treatment.
You don’t have to, but personally, I believe that like breeds like. I preach this philosophy to my daughter and two sons.
I believe that contempt breeds contempt. That meanness breeds meanness. That hatred breeds hatred. That violence breeds violence.
But I also believe that kindness breeds kindness. That empathy breeds empathy. That love breeds love. And that, in the end, love conquers all.
I guess that makes me a typical Boulder nut job! Albeit, a nut job who gets really, really, really excited about functional programming.
Do you love functional programming? Are you peaceful, and can you pledge to treat attendees exceedingly well?
In that case, regardless of your personal beliefs, I invite you to join me and other professionals in a professional setting, to talk about professional things (not personal beliefs!).
I’m gonna be the crazy bald guy out front, holding up the “free hugs” sign (hey, only if you want one!), and maybe occasionally getting a bit emotional.
But what the hell. In my own personal belief system, we only got one life to live, and that’s it.
I choose to live mine fearlessly and positively.