You Come At The King, You’d Best Not Miss

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.

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About Simon Penner

Injecting compassion and humanity into political discussion. Disagreements welcome, but you must be kind and charitable.
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12 Responses to You Come At The King, You’d Best Not Miss

  1. Skythe says:

    Did you really compare public healthcare to, say, Trump nuking Iran?

    You know there are planes of reality (Germany for example or several scandinavian countries) that have one without the other. It’s not like you open pandora’s box of public healthcare, and it comes with a red button for nuklear warfare.

    Like

    • Gabriel says:

      Indeed, and the ACA was passed by Congress. The court cases about it have focused on Congress’s power. It’s commonly called “Obama’s” but it is just an odd example.

      If you want some executive power expansion, how about drone strikes?

      Like

    • Rob says:

      I would honestly be surprised if he made that comparison, which is a good thing because he didn’t. In fact, he very *explicitly* said that Trump couldn’t do things like that because there are taboos against it. Nobody decided to use nuclear weapons “just in case” Russia decided to strike a week from then, and so there is no precedent for using nuclear weapons excessively (except before we really knew their destructive power).

      What he did say is that if Trump bends the laws in his favor, it will be because the laws weren’t soundproof in the first place. Not only that, it will be because *we made* these laws less than perfect, in order to accomplish something. In the case of Obama’s health care, do you think it’s unexploitable? Opening the pandora’s box of public healthcare won’t start a nuclear war, but it might make it easier for Trump’s administration to deny people healthcare on suspicions of “terrorism” or something equally unfounded.

      Like

      • Gabriel says:

        Which part of the Affordable Care Act grants the executive branch the ability to order the denial of health care coverage?

        Like

      • Alex says:

        @Gabriel
        The part where an executive agency defines who cannot be denied care based on preexisting conditions. Rephrase a couple of paragraphs in an obscure regulation manual and suddenly you don’t get that protection if you’re a terrorist, or a communist, or a registered democrat.

        Like

    • Xmas says:

      Skythe,

      How could Trump drop a nuke on Iran without the express permission of Congress through a declaration of war?

      Like

    • Sandman says:

      Public healthcare may not be the best fit, but there’s plenty of other Obama examples to choose from: the President’s not supposed to be able to execute American citizens without a trial, but Obama decided Anwar al-Awlaki had to die and so his side told the libertarians, “Do you want the terrorists to win? Well, do you?”.

      And now that the murderous apparatus Bush and Obama have designed may fall into Trump’s hands, everyone’s panicked. Most of these panicked people don’t seem to think the murderous apparatus should never have existed in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric L says:

        The fact that there are good examples of post-9/11 power expansion makes the choice of the ACA that much weirder. Many libertarians don’t make a distinction between the government doing more stuff and the government having more power, but they’re not the same thing. No dictator has ever taken control by using a government run health care system. The parts of government useful to would-be autocrats tend to be the military, police, and intelligence agencies — all things I believe most libertarians think the government should have — the issue is getting the tradeoffs right when deciding how much power the government (or branches of it) should have to carry out their most essential functions. If the bonus functions need to be reined in too, it’s for unrelated reasons.

        Like

  2. TK-421 says:

    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?

    Because merit is impossible to judge without some level of participation, and ability-to-participate is not distributed evenly across the population, so the set of actual attendees will strongly biased by selection effects unless you explicitly compensate for it.

    And also because “merit” is not a single, intrinsic characteristic, but is a function of environment and skill development. Many people will end up learning more and creating more when able to collaborate with their peers, and lowering the barriers to entry to conferences increases the rate at which that can happen.

    Like

  3. Pingback: The fear of Il Donalduce « Quotulatiousness

  4. Tom says:

    You offer childcare and scholarships because many people simply can’t go without it. A huge number of techies work partially from home, and daycares won’t keep your kids for a week while you travel. This has the effect of letting getting more good people (a lot of whom are women) to your conference who wouldn’t otherwise be able to go. It’s not “need vs merit”, it’s “merit and need”.

    Like

  5. “I had the contrarian thought: why should we have to do this?”
    “We?” So you’re part of the group running the conference? Funny, the rest of the article doesn’t read that way.
    As for “having” to do this: I would think that if you were in contact with the people running the group, and they said that they “had” to do this, there’d be some quote to that effect. Instead, it seems like the organizers are choosing to do this because *they* want a greater diversity of people there.
    If I’m wrong, I’m sure you’ll point me to where they’ve said otherwise.

    “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?”
    For example, let’s say you have two people, one who scores 95% on the “scholarship merit test,” and one who scores 94%. Let’s say the former person could afford to come to the conference without a scholarship, and the latter cannot. If you sponsor the former to come, you get someone who would be there already. If you sponsor the latter, you get both people coming, at the same cost.

    “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.” Again, your point seems to be that they’re not doing this of their own free will, but you’re not providing any evidence of “pressure.”

    “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.”
    You’re making all sorts of assumptions here: that people who require accommodation are “outsiders,” that they aren’t “dedicated to learning,” and that, once again, the only reason they’re accommodating people is that “SJ techies” are demanding it, as opposed to the organizers actually wanting a diversity of voices at the conference. Do you have proof of any of this?

    ———-
    “As a Canadian, seeing the 2016 election from the outside, people’s reactions to Trump confuse me. […] 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.”
    […]
    “On paper, Trump can’t do anything too bad. In practice, he can, because previous presidents have set the precedent.”

    So why do people’s reactions to Trump confuse you? Because people are reacting to the power he would have in practice instead of the power he should have, in theory? That seems like a sensible way to react.

    ———-
    As a footnote:

    There are two kinds of argument: those which are written to preach to the choir, and those which are written to convince the doubtful.

    If you want to preach to the choir, then, by all means, use such terms as “SJW” — they are quite good at firing up the base and getting your people outraged at the injustice of your enemies.

    If you wish to engage with the people you disagree with, and try to convince them of your points, maybe not sticking them with a label which tars them all, with one brush, as your enemies, would be a good place to start.

    Just sayin’.

    Like

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