A bug report for the “Statement on LambdaConf 2016”

As a programmer, I’m well familiar with the problem that the outcome of the code I write doesn’t depend on my good intentions, but on the logical consequence of what I actually wrote.

Thus, in case it would be helpful, I’d like to offer a bug report for the Statement.

To summarize, the Statement advocates banning Yarvin from giving a technical talk about Urbit at LambdaConf in order to:

Protecting the vulnerable

From the posts linked from the Statement, I understand that banning Yarvin would protect the vulnerable in several ways:

If I’m missing anything please let me know.

On the flip side, what impact does banning Yarbin have?

Note that people go to a technical talk because they believe the information may be interesting or useful to them.

Knowledge that might be available elsewhere, but they take the time to go to a technical talk because they believe that learning in that way will likely be easier or more accessible to them.

Thus, when you ban people from going to a technical talk, you deny people access to technical knowledge.

Regardless of who they are. They might be a person of color, they might be gay, they might be a woman, they might be a straight white male, they might be liberal or conservative.

Perhaps they find the speaker’s views outside the talk repugnant, sickening, disgusting, counterproductive, harmful to society.

As a free individual, they have the right to decide for themselves that this technical knowledge is more important to them than such revulsion they may feel. Or not.

Unless we take that right away from them. Unless we deny them their agency. Unless we decide for them that we are not going to allow them to learn from a talk that they wish to learn from.

Not everyone who has been systematically excluded believes the solution is to exclude them some more.

Once we accept the necessity, the desirability, the usefulness of excluding people from technical knowledge as a tool to fight racism against them, where does it end?

I imagine it’s likely many people who signed the Statement see no reason to go any further, and such concerns would be entirely hypothetical if no one wants to go see a talk by Yarvin anyway.

The Statement was clearly written with the best and highest of intentions. However, if we stop and consider for a moment not the intentions of those who signed the Statement, but what the Statement says, would not many of the same arguments apply to a page in a functional programming wiki about written by Yarvin about Urbit?

To a publisher selling a book about Urbit written by Yarvin?

To a library lending a book about Urbit?

What about those who we judge is 95% as racist as we judge Yarvin to be? 50% as racist? 20% as racist? What other technical knowledge do we attempt to exclude people from in order to fight exclusion against them?

The desire to take a strong stand against racism is commendable. As a strategy to fight exclusion, excluding people from attending technical talks is lousy.

Making a Statement

The Statement states that allowing Yarvin to give a technical talk on Urbit, allowing people to attend a technical talk on Urbit, says to marginalized people that their humanity is up for debate.

In a purely literal sense that’s not really true, since talks at LambdaConf aren’t allowed to debate people’s humanity, they’re restricted to the technical topic.

But it does have symbolic value.

If someone takes a costly action in support of something they claim to believe, that lends credibility that they actually believe it.

For example, if someone were to confront a racist bully at a risk to themselves, that would lend credibility to their statement that they oppose racism... that they’re not merely claiming, “oh, I’m not a racist” without bothering to do anything about it.

The next step however, that we should take that strong action in order to demonstrate that we actually do care about racism, has a bug in it.

Suppose the signatories of the Statement are successful, and Yarvin is banned.

What happens next year?

We’ve made a powerful symbolic statement, but haven’t done anything to actually reduce racism. In fact, racism is still a huge problem.

And alarmingly, with the power of the Internet, racism could easily become worse. Harrassing people used to take effort, but with the Internet now one person can harrass and bully hundreds of people while sitting on their couch munching on potato chips.

So, next year we wish to continue to make a strong statement against racism. However, we’ve already banned the neoreactionaries. Doing nothing doesn’t make a strong statement. In order to make the strong statement again, we’ll need to find someone else to ban.

If we could do something that would actually defeat racism, we could do that thing, instead of making statements about it.

Banning Yarvin in order to send a message that we really care about marginalized people is an admission that we don’t know what to do to actually help marginalized people. It’s a concession of defeat.

A warm welcome

When do we cross the line into abuse of power, at the risk enabling bullying and intimidation?

Not that we intend to do that of course! But in an objective sense, not looking at intentions, but at actual outcomes, where’s the line?

The essential dividing line is whether the use of force is necessary and minimal.

As one example of a policy, we could say that making racist comments is not allowed at a conference, and if someone does they will be told to stop, and if don’t stop they’ll be told to leave, and if they don’t leave we’ll call the police, and if they’ve don’t listen to the police they’ll be removed in handcuffs.

That’s not to say this should be the only policy, but just to point out that in the example of this particular policy each step is necessary to enforce the policy, and also the minimal amount of force that needs to be used at each step.

What happens when we decide that it’s OK to eject someone from a conference or to prevent them to speak at a conference, not because that will actually do anything, not because that will actually prevent any racism, but because we want to make a statement about racism and to keep people from feeling offended?

Who gets to decide who gets banned, blacklisted, fired from their jobs?

The majority.

There’s a hope expressed in the Statement that by banning neoreactionaries, the rest of us can then enjoy a warmly welcome conference together.

Which might be true.

However we’re saying that it’s OK to oppose offensive opinions not just with words, but also with force.

And while I’m sure this the last thing any of the signatories of the Statement would want, using force to silence opinion is the action of a bully.

Our hope may be to only cause fear and intimidation for the neoreactionaries, but an unfortunate result is to also create fear and intimidation for others who may hold an unpopular opinion that the majority finds offensive.

Fighting Racism

Imagine for a moment that we’re successful at fighting racism. That we win!

What would the path to get there look like?

To change behavior, people find a small reinforcement which is immediate and consistent is more effective than a large one which is delayed and occasional.

For example, a small punishment which is certain and immediate is more effective at deterring crime than the possiblity of a large punishment happening later.

Thus while making large dramatic gestures such as banning people feels good, I suspect that being successful will turn out to instead require a multitude of small steps, a million small efforts.

To make it so that someone doesn’t get to engage in racist behavior for one weekend is a small, unimpressive victory. And yet it is an actual victory.

Is LambdaConf’s adjustment to their code of conduct and their policy changes exactly the right steps that are needed?

Probably not yet.

However LambdaConf is taking the time and making the effort to figure out what needs to be done to effectively oppose racism.

I support LambdaConf because I believe such efforts are more likely to actually be successful in ending racist behavior.