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John A De Goes

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Wrestling With Inclusion at LambdaConf

Last year, StrangeLoop rescinded an invitation to a speaker because of the controversy that erupted (nay, exploded) when his talk was announced.

The controversy had nothing to do with the talk, which by all accounts was a great fit for the eclectic topics served up every year by the conference. Rather, the controversy surrounded the speaker’s political views, which were penned under a pseudonym years prior.

I learned about all this quite recently, and for a very unexpected reason: the same speaker submitted a talk to LambdaConf.

The gender- and person-anonymized talk was endorsed by the review committee, and made it all the way onto the schedule board before a volunteer brought the issue to our attention.

My immediate reaction could be described as a combination of shock and horror. No conference organizer ever wants to face a controversial hailstorm like this!

Decisions, Decisions

I’ll admit it: we never planned for this contingency.

LambdaConf started in 2014 (I still love the cheesy western theme!), and the event is really my and Courtney’s first real experience organizing anything on this scale.

The first version of LambdaConf didn’t even have a code of conduct (I didn’t know what that was until the following year!), a formal CFP, or a proposal review process. I just wanted to get a bunch of passionate people together to talk about functional programming!

So when our volunteer pointed out the hailstorm of controversy awaiting us, I pulled the staff together (me, Courtney, Matthew, and Sophia), and we discussed the issue.

The most expedient thing to do, of course, would be to sweep the issue under the rug.

However, we all agreed that wasn’t fair. We needed to tackle this issue head on, and come out not with a single, ad hoc decision made behind closed doors, but a policy that we could all get behind, share with the world, and use to guide us for future editions of the conference.

So we set out to do just that.

The Limits of Inclusion

Functional programmers are a diverse group, even inside the confines of functional programming.

Some like their FP dynamic. Some like it static. Some like it SML-flavored, and some prefer it LISP-y. Some choose emacs, some choose vim, and weenies like me opt for Atom.

However, outside 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.

To give a few examples of the beliefs our speakers hold: views that capitalists should be sent to forced labor camps for their crimes against humanity; views that gays should repent of their sins and turn to Jesus for salvation; views that anyone who votes for Trump is by definition a bigot and worthy of scorn and ostracism; views that right, wrong and even human rights are all incoherent concepts; and views that abortion is murder (and also, that it is a fundamental human right).

Yep, we’re a diverse bunch, and that’s the first thing the staff discussed.

We all agreed on one thing upfront: LambdaConf does not and cannot endorse any of the wildly different, diametrically opposed, and controversial opinions held by speakers, attendees, volunteers, and vendors.

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

Beyond that, I recently and very publicly came out as pro-inclusion for the devoutly religious, including conservative Christians like my sister-in-law Courtney. So we discussed how inclusion is, in some ways, a fundamental tenet baked into the core of LambdaConf.

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?

Conduct versus Beliefs

The staff and I discussed the issue for days, including one in-person meeting in which we argued for all possible sides.

In the end, we all converged on the same opinion: that LambdaConf should focus on the behavior of attendees, rather than their belief systems.

Assuming personal safety isn’t an issue (more on that later), we concluded that anyone who can treat others well (as defined by our Pledge of Conduct) should be welcome, regardless of their own personal belief system.

However, none of us felt comfortable making this decision alone. We weren’t committed to the position, and we could see valid and convincing arguments for many other views.

In the end, we acknowledged that LambdaConf is much more than just myself and the other staff members — it’s everyone who works hard to prepare amazing material; it’s everyone who attends; it’s everyone who volunteers.

In light of this, we decided to reach out to our minority group speakers, because, while everyone in the world would have an opinion on this matter, we believed the opinion of those vastly underrepresented in tech should carry more weight.

Soliciting Feedback

I wrote up the situation in a letter, and prepared an anonymous survey with a bunch of different options the staff and I had discussed and plenty of places to introduce other options or leave detailed comments.

I remember queuing up the email: adding the emails to the BCC field, choosing a subject, and then copy/pasting the letter from Google docs.

But even after the email was ready to go, I was too terrified to send it.

What would all these amazing speakers think of us? Would they hate us for even entertaining the thought of allowing people of all belief systems to attend the conference?

Would this be the end of LambdaConf???

The email stood there for hours, just sitting there. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t make myself hit the send button.

Eventually, I Skyped to Matthew, the only other staff member online. “I’m too afraid to send it,” I said.

It’s completely honest and open,” he replied. “People can’t ask for more than that. And if they do, and hate LambdaConf, then we had a good run.

Resignation. That was the key. What will be, will be. We were transparent about everything, and we could not make a decision without feedback.

So I hit the send button. And I think I got about 4 hours of sleep that night…

Diversity Everywhere

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from the survey. But part of my brain was working on a hypothetical LambdaConf Pledge of Values, and (selfishly) trying to figure out a way to avoid excluding either myself or Courtney from our own conference.

When the (mostly anonymous) feedback started rolling in, I was absolutely stunned.

I expected opinions to be intelligent and eloquent, but I did not expect the huge variety of feedback, arguing – much like the staff and I did — for every possible view.

Despite the diversity of opinions, however, a majority of minority group speakers converged on the same position tentatively held by staff!

It was eye-opening and even transformative to read so much insightful, heartfelt, and eloquent feedback. Feedback that is helping to shape the way I think about diversity and inclusion in professional contexts.

Feedback Highlights

Below are a few quotes from some of the amazing feedback we received:

Expanding the pledge of conduct to include beliefs and/or behavior out of the conference is a political judgment and will decrease actual diversity of thought.

I don’t bring diversity to the conference because I have a uterus; I bring diversity because I have different life experiences, some of which have led to beliefs other people disagree with because of their own backgrounds.

We’re all better off from being around people who don’t think like us, who think things that push the envelope, who question ideas others take for granted.

That’s what keeps progress moving forward.

Banning only encourages backlash and bitterness and is ultimately counter-productive to building a community that includes diversity of thought and belief.

Well, I believe in free-market capitalism.

A well-known and popular programmer has tweeted, repeatedly, that he supports violence (real violence, e.g., the firing squad) for people who believe that. I do not have any reason to believe he would actually shoot me if we were at the same conference together, and since he also supports a lot of feminist issues, I have every reason to believe he would, in fact, treat me personally better as a woman at a tech conference than many of the men in attendance would.

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?

To me, the fact that I believe he’s not going to hurt or threaten or stop me participating on the grounds that I’m a woman is plenty, and I’ll maybe just avoid talking politics with him at the conference. Maybe talking politics, economics, and the like should just be discouraged there and instead we can all just talk about cool new programming languages.

I feel an individual’s behavior at the conference should be the criteria for inclusion I seems to me that the spirit of the pledge is to make everyone feel welcome and safe.

As such, I’m actually uncomfortable with the idea that someone could be barred from the conference for being “disliked enough” by the majority group attending the conference, or “anytime/anywhere”.

Both would make it impossible for someone to (for example) rehabilitate themselves socially after having a change in views. Also, until quite recently, I would have been sufficiently disliked at most conferences simply for being openly trans. Having to “possess the [compatible] values” feels like thought-policing.

What matters is if they can behave well, are respectful at the conference, and so on. Their internal state is of no consequence, IMO, including for reasons in the prior paragraph.

On a more philosophical note: one of the things that has stuck with me most from my activist days was that shunning people who held opposing views (often people with power and privilege) was unproductive. We had our greatest victories when we kept the lines of communication open, demystified each other, and didn’t self-segregate.

The us-versus-them mentality is not helpful for social change in an individual or in society generally. People have a hard time changing their views about things if they’re not exposed to “The Other”. Of course this requires people to be respectful, which is the point of the pledge in the first place ;)

As a speaker (and I find this choice extremely hard), I don’t want a conference where we refuse speakers based on their beliefs only. I would not want to be prevented to speak when enough people dislike me.

While I would not want to alienate some parts of the community, the implications are just too scary. Maybe there will be enough GG like types that say they don’t feel safe in the company of someone who draws mean comics on them! Ultimately, everyone may believe what they want to believe, as long as they treat others respectfully.

I may not agree with the disputed speaker’s views but all I want is for a safe conference. I am not sure if other women or other minorities in tech would feel the same though. Safety is also a feeling of trust so it is great you are getting feedback like this. Thanks.

I personally care more about how somebody behaves rather than what that person believes in. Simply because, we can’t know what everybody believes in, and I wouldn’t even know or want to know other people’s beliefs unless the way they behave offended me or made me feel threatened. So my vote is to make sure everybody follows the pledge, and talk to both parties when there are reports of offensive behaviors. If the event really was offensive, and the offender doesn’t recognize any wrongdoings or refuses to change, then appropriate measures need to be taken.

Dear lord, don’t let social media have any more power than it already does.

Of course, not everyone shared these views.

Harmony in Diversity

While the majority of surveyed speakers thought we should keep the pledge focused on behavior, and ignore belief systems, many had other views about what should be done.

These views ranged from establishing a committee to make one-off decisions, to taking into consideration how likable someone is, as judged by attendees or other speakers.

In several cases, we believe these differences are so strong, they will cause a few speakers to not attend. That’s OK — it’s a personal choice and we support them 100%, knowing full well each person believes they are making the best choice for them.

I firmly believe that people with good intentions will come to very different conclusions on this issue. And I vehemently reject the notion that, just because two people disagree, one of them must be “bad” and one of them “good”.

Black and white stories make for great popcorn flicks, but real life is not so simple.

All surveyed speakers of LambdaConf, regardless of their position on this issue, have graciously and thoughtfully put a lot of time into reading the backstory, wrestling with the different possibilities, and finally coming to reasoned and heartfelt positions.

We respect every single person’s views on this issue, no matter what they are, and we refuse to vilify each other over our differences.

We encourage everyone reading this to do the same!

Policy Changes

The staff of LambdaConf is in unanimous agreement to keep the pledge of conduct focused on behavior, and to refrain from excluding people for their belief systems.

While we’ve collected and reviewed feedback on this decision, we alone are responsible for this decision. So if you don’t like it and want to blame someone, blame us!

To address some of the issues raised while reviewing feedback, we would like to formally augment the pledge with the following two critical points:

  • Safety Exception. If the staff or a committee appointed by the staff believes that attendees might reasonably feel physically unsafe if in the presence of someone, then we will reserve the right to ban the person from the conference. Our initial ideas include the following criteria for evidence:

    • First-person evidence that someone engaged in hate speech, advocated violence towards groups that might attend the conference, or intentionally and actively incited the above behavior in others;

    • Confirmed eye-witnessed, second-person evidence of the above;

    • Any material evidence, such as videos, photographs, or police reports, which demonstrates a person has initiated physical violence against others;

    • Confirmed eye-witnessed evidence, or material evidence, that demonstrates a person has a history of public verbal abuse.

  • Trust Exception. If the staff or a committee appointed by the staff believes that a person is untrustworthy, and will not uphold the pledge of conduct, then we will reserve the right to ban the person from the conference. Our initial ideas include the following criteria for evidence:

    • If a person has broken the code of conduct at another conference, then such a person will not be allowed to attend LambdaConf for some period of time after the last violation (with some statute of limitations to allow for social rehabilitation, say 5 years?).

We feel that the pledge of conduct, combined with the safety and trust exceptions, will create an environment that is physically safe, and in which all attendees will be treated well by other attendees.

There is still a potential for attendees to feel uncomfortable in the presence of others, even if they are being treated well. Ultimately, this possibility exists in any large gathering of people with diverse views — including open churches, schools, universities, companies, and professional conferences like LambdaConf.

Fleshing out and adopting these policies is not the only change that we’ll be making.

Among other things we want to do between now and the end of the year:

  • Tweak the pledge to accommodate some of the feedback, and probably include a new clause along the lines of the following:

    • That in consideration of the professional nature of this event, I will refrain from discussing potentially offensive and divisive topics unrelated to the topic of programming (specifically religion, morality and politics); except in the company of willing participants to such conversations, and even then, only in a manner consistent with the pledge;
  • Document and refine policies that detail how the staff will respond to a report of a pledge violation;

  • Document the committee review process for proposals;

  • Detail all the situations in which we may ban someone from attending or speaking at the conference (consistent with the above), and in which situations (if any) people can expect a refund;

  • Detail the policies for changing the pledge or other policies that can affect people’s ability to speak at or attend the conference.

Our goal with all of the above will be to act with complete transparency and integrity, and we welcome any feedback you have on these upcoming changes.

Current Verdict

Based on this new LambdaConf policy, any speaker’s political views would not, by themselves, disqualify the speaker from attending LambdaConf.

However, we must still consider the safety and trust exceptions.

To address the safety issue, we read or skimmed nearly everything the speaker has written online (which is no small task), watched all videos we could find, and spent countless hours on Google doing background research. We ignored second-hand sources, which seemed largely based on other second-hand sources or on the writings of those quoting the speaker.

To summarize, we could not find any evidence whatsoever that the speaker poses a physical threat to anyone at the conference. In addition, we could not find any evidence the speaker would engage in verbal abuse.

However, we decided this was not enough. Social media has muddled this issue so much, we decided it was imperative to do more, so we wrote the speaker and asked for a public statement clearly stating the speaker’s views on violence.

This is the statement we obtained:

One: I’m a writer, not an activist. I’m neither a leader nor a member of any kind of organization. I promote only one kind of action: reading old books. I’ve explicitly denounced any other form of “direct action,” violent or otherwise. Instead I promote passive unresistance, or “passivism.” Frankly, any “follower” who needs me to explain this is a dangerous fool and hasn’t read enough old books.

Two: Politics of any sort is out of scope at a functional programming conference. I pledge to treat other LambdaConf guests as if they were colleagues at a large company or fellow students at a university, and neither utter nor show any content that’s out of scope or otherwise disturbing. My pen name has been “doxed,” but professionally I behave as if it was a secret.

Three: violence is unacceptable and frankly preposterous at a functional programming conference, even over an issue as charged as strict versus lazy evaluation. The strongest possible pledge is to not respond with verbal or physical violence even if assaulted myself. I have no hesitation in making this pledge.

We believe this statement is consistent with our own research.

The second issue we needed to look into is the trust exception. Here, we found a case where the speaker attended a professional conference, discussed and did not stray from the topic (programming), and there were no incidents at the conference.

Because of all this, we do not believe the speaker poses any safety threat to anyone at the conference, and we believe the speaker will uphold the pledge, as the speaker has already personally promised to do (if we are wrong about this speaker or any other attendee, of course, we’ll move swiftly to enforce the pledge).

In keeping with these new policies, if evidence arises that anyone planning to speak at or attend the conference presents a safety danger for others, or cannot be trusted to uphold the pledge, we will evaluate that evidence and make decisions appropriately.

Final Words

This is a complex world we live in.

In a world of such abundant diversity, it’s difficult to decide whether and how we can work with people who hold belief systems that are completely incompatible with our own.

I don’t have ultimate answers to this question, but I do think that, for now, the position we’ve arrived at is a good one for many professional events like LambdaConf (StrangeLoop came to a different conclusion, but one that is no less right for them).

If we can treat each other well, if we can behave as respectful professionals despite the many ways in which our belief systems clash with each other, then I believe there is hope.

Hope that we can still see each other as human beings, even when we disagree. Hope that we don’t have to feel threatened by others. Hope that no matter how we view the world, no matter what we think is best for ourselves or for others, and no matter what future we hope for, we can all treat each other with compassion and humanity.

I’ll leave you with a few personal words from the other members of the staff, beginning with Courtney, my partner-in-crime at LambdaConf:

While I am not personally a programmer, I have friends and family both who are programmers, some who are “functional” programmers, and some who are not.

In the last two years, I have gained a great appreciation for the functional programming community, and the extremely diverse people who contribute to this community with their thoughts, intelligence, hard work, and passionate enthusiasm for solving problems through functional programming.

As an organizer, I’m extremely gratified and grateful that LambdaConf attendees come from different jobs, program in different languages (sometimes, they don’t even code yet), different countries, and have widely varying thoughts and beliefs about everything (including how to approach a particular problem within the same language).

I have seen and heard many discussions on how this or that could theoretically or practically work… or not.

I have seen these same people pull out a laptop and start working right there to prove their point.

I have seen someone who is stuck come out of a talk with a new idea or approach.

I have seen long-time programmers sit down with someone new who asked them a question to talk or show them what can be done with their code.

The very idea behind LambdaConf is that a group of smart people, working in different programming languages, with different ideas about how to make those languages better and use them to solve new and different problems, can come together to share what they’ve been working on, and learn what others have discovered in this large and growing field.

Our staff has worked hard over the last 2-3 years to make LambdaConf the best possible conference we can imagine. Part of this is acknowledging that a large group of diverse and passionate people will often have opposing ideas and beliefs, and doing our best to create a safe environment for the discussion and progress of functional programming — without letting our differences outside of that realm interfere.

This year we have given a great deal of thought to our Pledge of Conduct and whether it is sufficient to foster the kind of community that we want LambdaConf to be. After doing research we asked ourselves and others if it was enough? Too much?

After much discussion, I have come to the following conclusion:

LambdaConf is all about functional programming. It is not about everything that can, does, and sometimes should divide us outside of it. But it is about this one thing, this one community, this one large subject that you are all passionate about and seek to improve our world with.

Next up, Sophia, who has a unique perspective, coming from a different profession entirely:

I am not a software engineer or coder. I am a physician.

Professionalism in my work demands avoiding divisive topics of conversation. I do not engage in political debate with patients or fellow physicians. We might talk of pending legislation and its theoretical impact on our work, such as prior to passage of the ACA. However, I would never dream of sharing my private ethical system or political stances at work, much less at a medical conference where I know fellow attendees less than the people I work with every day. I would assume that the same holds true for software engineers, both as regards to workplace conversation and conference conversation.

Excluding people for non-relevant beliefs or attributes is segregation. Segregation is never the answer. Isolating people does not breed greater understanding or sympathy for one another. The separate-but-equal stance does not harmonize a society, nor does its promise ever come to fruition, as the courts recognized in the South.

From a professional standpoint, I have learned much from people I would not care to socialize with. I attended medical school in Texas, and trained in the South, dealing with people who held sexist views. Proving I could equal and outperform my male counterparts was a sure way to overcome inherent bias.

I hope that all LambdaConf speakers and attendees will seize this opportunity to represent their own niche of humanity with self-confidence, poise, and professionalism.

Finally, Matthew — our ever-talented graphics designer — had his own thoughts:

Each and every day we all interact with individuals whose beliefs, creeds and interests are vastly different from our own. We have discussions, make purchases, and exchange information with them, all never knowing these details of their lives.

People with vastly different beliefs come together around all kinds of different things, from the love of coffee, to running triathlons, and everything in between.

In the case of functional programmers, one such event is LambdaConf.

LambdaConf is about functional programing, and in my opinion, anyone who is willing to uphold the Pledge of Conduct should be allowed to attend. Providing of course, they haven’t shown a habit of breaking previous COCs, and don’t pose a physical threat to others attending.

The Pledge of Conduct is in place to ensure that everyone is safe and enjoys the conference, on equal footing.

I believe we can all agree to act as professional adults in a professional environment and enjoy both the content and conversation with others in attendance. It’s our choice what talks we attend and who we talk to!

So come, enjoy the content and the amazing food, and please do tell me what you think of the artwork!

This was not an easy process to get through, but I am glad to be on the other side.

I speak for the entire staff when I say that we are super excited to get back to planning what is sure to be the most amazing edition of LambdaConf yet!

I hope to see you there…