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Dead code, Bias, Books
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Clojure Gazette
Issue 166 - March 28, 2016

Hi Clojurers,

I really considered not mentioning it here, but I feel morally compelled to bring up LambdaConf. LambdaConf is a budding conference focusing on functional programming. It had some of the most hard-technical talks I've seen in a while.

This week, the organizers of LambdaConf published an article describing a crisis they went through when they discovered that their anonymized presentation review process selected an internet-famous slavery apologist to present. The same presenter had been uninvited from Strange Loop a couple of years ago. The crisis centered around how to interpret and perhaps amend their policies regarding this controversial speaker.

The article seemed very sincere to me, and it was refreshingly transparent. I could imagine myself in the discussions. From the outside, it seems like everything was done with the best intentions. They wanted to make sure people felt safe, welcome, and listened to. In the end, they clarified their Code of Conduct and chose to invite the speaker.

John De Goes and the conference have been taking a beating on Twitter. Of course, Twitter being what it is, the discussion is less than civil on both sides. And unfortunately, the other speakers have inadvertently been roped into the flames because the article says the majority also chose to invite the speaker. It's a shame because the organizers and of course the speakers are bravely facing this person they disagree with. They are the ones who will sit next to him in the presentations, see him in the hallways, and rub elbows with him in the social events.

People who spoke out against the invitation were also the victims of internet flames. It's flames all around.

I hold nothing against the organizers or the presenters who chose to invite him. They faced a very difficult choice and they followed their principles. The organizers have the right to do what they want with the conference. It's theirs. And I don't know how well I would have fared in the same situation.

The crisis they faced was personal to me. I have entertained the idea of hosting a conference. And the diversity problem in our industry is painfully obvious. Though I'm part of the problem in ways I don't even know about, I have tried to educate myself about these issues. I am not a diversity expert by any means. I want to do what I can with this small platform I have. But if you're interested you should consult actual experts.

The thing that struck me most about the article is that it's trying to find a neutral stance. But in terms of diversity, there is no neutral stance. The number of presenters is finite. It's a zero sum game. And if you choose to invite Person A, you're going to exclude some Person B. Every choice of inclusion is also a choice of exclusion. You have to take some stand and you can't avoid that by hiding behind anonymized selection processes and policies about only caring about behavior at the conference.

So you've included a well-known, public, vocal racist. This isn't some random, base-line racist off the street (we're all racist to some extent). This person has a named platform, a brand. This person will meet people at the conference, will be displayed on your website, will be seen in the conference recordings. What repercussions will this have? Who will now decide to attend? Who will now decide not to attend? Does this further your diversity goals? Does this make your conference more or less like the one you want to organize? I can't imagine it does.

Inviting this person, to a significant extent, favors people who either agree with him or can choose to ignore him. But many people don't have that choice. Many people face systemic racism every day. They cannot feel welcome with him there. They will choose to spend their money on conferences that don't have policies that invite racists. Or for whatever reason they just don't want to be with this guy. Maybe I'm wrong, but even a small, additional bias, in a field that's already overwhelmingly biased against non-whites, is a step in the wrong direction.

Slavery is bad. It is violence. Racism is bad. It is violence. It's not even a difficult line to draw. If you advocate slavery, you will not be invited to my conference. I don't want you there. I don't care how good your tech is. Please unsubscribe if this offends you.

Thanks for reading this far. Please enjoy the issue.

Rock on!
Eric Normand <eric@lispcast.com>

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