Lambdaconf‘s got me thinking a lot about what the purpose of a conference is. I think people have a variety of reasons for attending. Some go to network, find jobs or employees. Some go to socialize; conferences are good Schelling points for meeting other nerds. Lots of people go to learn. At least, that’s what they tell their manager when filing the expense report. More than a fair share go just to have an excuse to travel. And, as I’ve recently discovered, some go to parasitize (symbiotically, of course) and run their own conference-in-the-conference.
Conference organizers have the unenviable task of balancing these competing priorities and trying to accommodate all of them. This is hard. I would say it’s impossible, but Mammon provides. The only cost is, er, cost; we could accommodate everyone if we had infinite money.
But we don’t. And so organizers prioritize. In my experience, they primarily prioritize learning. It’s the easiest way to get the deeper pockets to pay for it, after all. And I think this is part of why political drama has been showing up more and more. Well-meaning individuals think that other things should be prioritized, and advocate for this in every way they can.
This hit me pretty explicitly while reading through some of the conference info. Thanks to the generosity of all of you fine folks, the organizers have had lots and lots of resources with which to accommodate different priorities. They advertise child care, ample diversity scholarships, all of those things that justice-minded folks ask for. I had the contrarian thought: why should we have to do this?
To many people, even anti-SJW folks, the answer is obvious: some people have valuable contributions to make, but can’t because the conference is inaccessible to them. But this does not suggest that diversity scholarships are the answer. If the purpose of the conference is to facilitate learning and creation, then giving out scholarships on the basis of need, instead of merit, is counterproductive. Why should we do it?
I think that the conflict between the SJWs and the rest of us is a conflict of worldviews. For many, the priority is just to do their jobs, build cool things, and exercise their brains. For SJWs, this is not the priority. It’s the secondary benefit. The priority is, well, it’s in the name: Social Justice. Excluding people for any reason, but especially for their socioeconomic class, is unjust. Justice, being their priority, drives them to push for this change. Not against people who oppose justice. But against people who have other priorities. This might sound cold and heartless, but as Scott laid out, if you don’t accept some ethical behaviours as supererogatory, you’ll be paralyzed by the sheer mass of injustice present in a population of 7 billion people.
In their advocacy of justice priorities over others, they pressure conference organizers to make substantial accommodations in order for the underprivileged people to have a seat at the table. To them, this is reasonable, because seat-at-the-table is the goal. To the organizers, this is frustrating and nonsensical, because the goal is learning. They don’t like having to deal with something irrelevant to their priorities.
All of the above is a build-up to a dumb joke. SJ techies want leaders and organizers to go out of their way, spending time and money, in order to bring a group of outsiders into a community dedicated to learning. They want us to do all the work. That’s strange, though, because I thought it’s not my job to educate you.
You come at someone, you’d best not miss; enemies can pick up dropped weapons.
A long time ago, Scott wrote a blog post about superweapons, and the dangers associated with them. He focuses on the culture war aspect. I think there is a more general principle here, and one that could use a highlight. Since social justice activism is a touchy subject, I’m going to go for a more neutral subject.
As a Canadian, seeing the 2016 election from the outside, people’s reactions to Trump confuse me. Especially as someone who appreciates well-designed systems, I can’t believe people’s gross ignorance of their own nation. People are so afraid of the terrible things Trump will do that protests like this happen. And yet, the vast majority of things people are afraid of are things he can’t do. Was I the only person who paid attention in civics class?
The US was founded as a nation as a response to an uprising against an autocrat. Its founders were horrified at the potential for another such autocrat to arise, and they designed their government accordingly. There was to be a strict separation of powers, with mutually opposed groups keeping each other in check. Most importantly, the office of the executive was intentionally crippled. The president was supposed to have very little power. The founders thought that mitigating potential bad leaders was more important than empowering potential good leaders.
So if Trump can’t do these bad things, what’s the problem? Well, the theory that the country was based on is solid. But you know what they say: In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. Perfect, beautiful ideas never survive implementation. In this case, there are no backwards arcs in the state machine.
On paper, Trump can’t do anything too bad. In practice, he can, because previous presidents have set the precedent. People like to make fun of small-c conservatives who want government out of their lives. Libertarians are a favourite scapegoat online, for similar reasons. Every time a president said “we need the power to do X”, a libertarian said “no, we can’t let you do that; your powers are restricted for a reason.” In the case of, say, Obamacare, we looked at the libertarians and said “why do you hate poor people? Why do you want them to die? Can you be so heartless? Can’t you make an exception this one time?” You should have listened to them, in detail. Once a proof of concept is committed to master, it is the new feature. “One” time never is.
Over time, various factions have engaged in special pleading. “We need this superweapon, just this one time. Can’t you see the challenge we’re facing? Are you really going to demand principles when people are suffering?” The same argument turned Rome into a dictatorship, millennia ago. When you shoot your superweapon at the king, you’d best not miss. He can pick it up from your fallen comrades.
When we at Status 451 talk about libertarianism and anarchy, this is why. We recognize that the long-tail risk of a bad leader is a much, much greater cost than the benefit of a good leader, and seek to design the system to be robust in the face of such a threat. It’s an attitude that falls out pretty easily from systems-thinking backgrounds like engineering and software.
But when we talk about this, when anyone talks about this, there’s a subtle distinction to be made. There are two parallel systems being designed. One is the formal system, the law. The rules we draft regarding what people can and cannot do. This is the theory.
The other is the informal system, the social norms. These are the implicit rules. These are not what we permit or deny. These are what we tolerate or reject. This is the practice.
In many arguments, people will play one against the other, identifying discrepancies and inconsistencies in people’s positions on these subjects. Weaponized equivocation can be very useful, and hypocrisy is a damning accusation. I try very hard to be consistent. Above is a legal, formal, theoretical example. Below is the practice.
Recently, the New York Times revealed that Peter Thiel is Batman. It turns out, this Silicon Valley billionaire has been pursuing retribution against Gawker, ever since they targetted him. Since this dropped, many people have been highly critical. This is billionaires blatantly leveraging our legal system for personal vendettas, they say. We can’t let these plutocrats corrupt our society like this.
They only say this because they dropped the superweapon when they started to retreat.
The superweapon, counterintuitively, is not third party litigation financing. No, the superweapon is social in nature. The superweapon is the one that Gawker drew first. It is the superweapon of fighting in the culture wars By Any Means Necessary. It’s the superweapon of people willing to fight dirty against their identified enemies.
Gawker even admitted as much. They claimed, publicly, that they did this because they felt Thiel to be homophobic (so much for ‘oppressed people can’t be X-ist’), and that he deserved to be attacked. They chose to fight dirty. They took a private, intimate detail of someone’s life, and used it for their own agenda against his consent.
They chose to burn civility and common decency to score some points. Now, that floodgate is open. They’ve dropped that weapon, and now they’re in its sights.
The alternative is demilitarization, dismantling of the existing superweapons and an embargo on building more. This seems an unpopular position. People, so sure of their own rightness, stock the armory and prepare to go to war. They load, aim, fire…. and miss. And then it’s too late; the weapon is out there.
You all should have listened to us when you had the chance.