In the midst of all this controversy over Mr. Yarvin, something has come up that I feel the need to talk about.
One of the main points of the critics of Yarvin, of Lambdaconf, and of Status451’s actions is the idea that his attendance will create an emotionally unsafe environment, which will in turn prevent people who want to attend from attending. Because Mr. Yarvin is believed to have publicly supported the US institution of slavery, his presense will be alarming to people whos’ families were impacted by this dark history.
The official position of Lambdaconf, and the one that Status451 supports is twofold. First, that it is impractical and immoral to engage in thought policing, but easy and generally beneficial to engage in behaviour policing. As long as Mr. Yarvin refrains from harassing or antagonizing anyone while he is present, and stays on the topic of technology, he is welcome to give a relevant talk.
The second is the idea of defining social boundaries between different communities. The Lambdaconf community is a community separate from other communities, and will not hold people’s reputations in other communities against them in this one. This is a contentious position (a quick twitter search for our IGG page confirms this), but we believe a reasonable one. We come to this position because we recognize that people have a wide variety of beliefs, some diametrically opposed to others. Accepting this burden in the case of Mr. Yarvin obligates us either to accept this burden in other cases (forcing us to exclude large numbers of people), or to decide that Mr. Yarvin is a special case, and other peoples’ concerns do not matter. All of these alternatives involve excluding larger numbers of people, and enforce a conformity that threatens the diverse, pluralistic community that Lambdaconf wants to be.
Many people online have rejected the reasoning of that last paragraph, and most of the arguments are some variation of “can’t you see that slavery and racism are so much worse than everything else?”. The history of racism in the US is a great tragedy (worse even than our own history with Native Americans), but this argument betrays an ignorance at some of the atrocities that the rest of us have suffered. We quite reasonably get upset at instances of racism, because we’ve seen enough of its evil to develop the appropriate memetic immune response. But our immune system is not perfect, and has a few alarming gaps.
I support the consensus of Status451 on this issue. Not because I’m a cold, heartless person who ignores the emotional pain that our critics are experiencing. Far from it, I understand this pain. Because I understand it, I see all the other instances of it that don’t have people willing to engage in supportive activism. I see the tradeoffs being made when conference organizers support one group of disadvantaged people and ignore the other. The only way to avoid the tradeoff is to do what Mr. De Goes has done: define a simple, enforcable, uniform code of conduct, hold everyone to it, and make people responsible for settling everything else on their own terms. Anything else takes a side, for one group of people, against another.
“This is all fine and good”, I hear you say, “but we don’t care if we hurt some racist’s feelings. We even prefer it that way. Why are you wasting your time fighting for his rights?” I couldn’t care less about his unqualified reservations. He’s 99% off his rocker, and the 1% of useful ideas is buried beneath so much verbosity that it’s not worth looking for. It’s not him I’m concerned about. It’s people who have gone through the same hell that my family has. A hell that few know or understand, and none care to give us support for.
I’m fortunate enough to live in a wonderful place, filled with kind people. A place where few let ideology drive the agenda, and most people are pragmatists with their hearts in the right place. My grandparents, though, were not so lucky. Between my dad’s Russian family, and my mom’s Chinese, we got to enjoy not one, but two communist revolutions.
On the Russian front, we had the unfortunate situation of being an ethnic minority. Nobody cares much for minorities when the nation is in open rebellion. They’re dangerous. They’re outsiders. They were probably responsible for all the terrible things in the first place. GET THEM! On the Chinese side, well… it’s a really, really bad idea to be a landowner during a communist revolution.
Many of my male family members were murdered. Many of my female family members were raped. The ones who got through it had most of their things confiscated. Many were forced to keep their heads down and shut up or else. Some didn’t, and found out what or-else the powers that be had in store for them.
Somehow through it all, my parents made it through and escaped to the west, where I was able to have a better life than they did. I’m thankful every day that I’m one of the lucky ones.
So, when I see that Lambdaconf will be hosting a speaker who openly speaks about sending landlords to gulags, to say I feel emotionally unsafe would be an understatement. A quick trip to Mr. Sterling’s twitter account has him proudly showing off a hammer and sickle in his display name. To my family, that symbol might as well be a swastika, for all the pain and suffering it’s caused.
Thing is, I see things like this in tech communities all the time. There are lots of people who advocate communism, and more than a handful who brag about their Marxist affiliation. And nobody is stepping up to defend us, to give us safe spaces away from this. Moldbug’s writings are absurd and offensive, but at least they didn’t motivate the murder of millions.
But you know, I get it. It all falls back to the memetic immune response. Slavery was a horrifying atrocity. It caused untold amounts of human suffering, and to this day we still grapple with it’s legacy. That suffering is personal, real, for many people, and so of course we’re hyper-vigilant on this subject.
But for most of you, my atrocities aren’t real. They’re abstract. They’re facts you learned about in school. A million deaths is a statistic, after all. You studied the ideologies neutrally, while some people winked suggestively and said “Well, you know, capitalism isn’t that great either.” You can all think of this as abstract history in a far away land. I don’t have that privilege.
To the people asking Lambdaconf to ban Mr. Yarvin on the basis of his blog posts: do you support banning Mr. Sterling on the basis of his Twitter account? I don’t. The casual admiration of Marxist leaders is hurtful to me, but I don’t think he understands the impact his actions have. He certainly doesn’t mean me malice, and I don’t for a second think he wants to send me to the gulag, the way his intellectual heroes did to my family.
This is why Lambdaconf has made the decision that it has made. It’s a position born out of respect for the people like me, who don’t have anybody defending our safety in the same way. Mr. De Goes doesn’t decide to protect one group and not the other. He does the best he can and asserts his right to political neutrality. He can’t accommodate all of our tragic histories, and playing oppression olympics to decide whose concerns take priority is not reasonable. Instead, he asserts a simple rule: There are expectations regarding civil behaviour at his conference. He will make sure that, at his conference, we are all welcome and we are all safe. He can’t police what we do outside of his space, and so he won’t make promises he can’t keep.
If you think about it, this is a very appropriate policy for a technology conference. Core to most programming langauges is the idea of interfaces and encapsulation. A programmer defines an interface, a strict requirement that all programs must satisfy in order to talk to each other. This interface allows programs to hide the details of their operation, as long as they conform to the interface. Encapsulation.
Lambdaconf’s pledge of conduct is the interface that supports encapsulation. Nobody needs to know or care what you do outside the conference. Inside the conference, they get a guarantee that you will act within the scope of the pledge. This enforces safety and civility for everyone, while respecting peoples’ rights to have a private life. Respecting their rights to believe in crazy, offensive, or otherwise antagonistic things. I don’t have to worry about whether or not Mr. Sterling thinks I should be murdered. As long as I’m at Lambdaconf, I know he won’t do it.
Please, the next time you want to advocate against a policy you see as negative, check your own privilege and consider how you might be hurting others, before you cast blame.