LambdaConf-Yarvin Controversy: Call for Feedback

From: John A. De Goes
Date: Thu, 10 Mar 2016 15:06:00 -0700
Subject: The Staff @ LambdaConf 2016 Need Your Feedback!
To: Courtney De Goes, Sophia De Goes, Matthew De Goes, John A. De Goes

Dear Speaker at LambdaConf 2016,

We need your help! I will explain what I mean by that in a second, but first, I ask that you keep the contents of this email confidential until we have collected all feedback and make a public announcement about whatever policy changes come from your feedback.

See below for the long-winded brain dump explaining the current situation, our tentative thoughts on the matter, and why we need your feedback…


My recent post on inclusion at LambdaConf could not have been more timely.

No, I’m not referring to the March 4th release of Zootopia, although I can’t deny the thematic similarities. The movie speaks strongly and sometimes even poignantly on the complexities of getting along in a world where diversity is the norm (go see the movie, even if you don’t have kids!).

Rather, I’m referring to an issue with one of our greenlit proposals.

Sometime after the anonymized proposal was endorsed by committee and made it to the official lineup, our volunteer speaker coordinator uncovered something he thought we should know about. 

The author of the proposal, apparently, holds controversial political views.

More than that, the author had been uninvited from speaking at StrangeLoop, albeit not so much for his views, as for the tweet-storm that ensued after his talk was announced.

Suddenly, a strange email I got from one of the speakers made a lot more sense:

“I wanted to thank you for a very good and possibly even slightly brave decision, and add my personal promise (having of course signed the CoC, but that’s a button-click) that you won’t regret it.”

After it sunk in what was going on, I remember feeling a visceral combination of shock and horror. I had, indirectly, accepted a speaker who was uninvited from StrangeLoop – one of the best and most-respected conferences in the world!

Since then, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about something that, due to inexperience, I never gave any thought to. Namely, what sort of policies should LambdaConf adopt regarding who may and may not speak at and attend the conference.

The answer to that question is made incredibly difficult by the abundant diversity of all the people interested in functional programming.

Too Different?

I know dozens of people who attend and speak at LambdaConf. In fact, I know many of them well enough to know or hazard a guess at what they believe on a range of divisive topics.

Here’s a sampling of what some attendees and speakers believe:

Focusing on the ways in which we’re different can be… unpleasant.

Look around you: the person sitting next to you on the bus, making you a triple shot espresso at a cafe, treating you at a doctor’s office, or chatting about logic at LambdaConf, may hold views that are diametrically opposed to your own. 

Of course, LambdaConf does not and cannot endorse any of these views (even my own personal views!). If LambdaConf has a belief system, it’s that functional programming is beneficial to software development, and more developers need to learn how to do it.

This is the messy, complicated world we live in. Some days, especially when we spend time reflecting on these differences, it feels like we’re just too different to get along.

Belief Versus Behavior

Most conferences already have a solution to the question of how we can get along despite our differences. It’s called a Code of Conduct.

Among other things, Code of Conducts allow events to state upfront how they expect people to behave, and to clearly communicate what happens if people don’t follow the rules.

There are lots of different codes out there, but I’ve found all of them share this in common: they focus on the behavior of attendees, not their thoughts or beliefs.

LambdaConf is no exception, although we put a slight spin on the classic Code of Conduct: instead of setting expectations, we require that all staff, speakers, volunteers, and attendees make a pledge of conduct

The difference is almost too small to notice: a code tells you how the conference expects you to behave, while a pledge is a personal vow to behave in a certain way. To break a code, you have to be willing to break someone’s rules; to break a pledge, you have to be willing to go back on your personal vow.

While we keep working to improve this pledge, the current version is shown below:

As a participator in the LambdaConf event, I hereby pledge the following:

That in the words I speak and the actions I take, I shall demonstrate respect, dignity, and empathy for my fellow human beings; that when I disagree with ideas, I will do so constructively, respectfully, and graciously; and that I will communicate non-violently with empathy and honest self-expression;

That I shall embrace and celebrate the abundant diversity in the human species, and refuse to feel threatened by those different from me;

That I shall not talk or act in ways that could make minority groups feel bullied, harassed, intimidated, stalked, stereotyped, or belittled; examples of minority groups include women, people of color, lesbians, gays, and people who are disabled, bisexual, transsexual, asexual, intersex, transgender, and gender-variant;

That if I become aware of any behavior by others which is inconsistent with this pledge, I shall take immediate action to report such behavior to event organizers;

That if there comes a time I no longer wish to keep this pledge, or if I wantonly behave in a manner inconsistent with these promises, I shall immediately cease participation in the event, without expectation of refund or redress.

I hereby acknowledge that my status as participator in this event may be terminated at any time if, in the sole opinion of the event organizers, I have been determined to break this pledge.

The pledge is opinionated enough that we have had people abandon proposals and registrations because they were unwilling to make the pledge (which probably means it=E2=80 =99s working!).

On the flip side, a wide range of people with very different belief systems have made the pledge (including conservative Christians, liberal Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, amoral atheists, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, socialists, anarchists, and many more).

Yet, for all its value, this pledge says nothing about what views people express in other public forums; only how they behave at the event itself.

The question is, is this enough? Maybe not.

Beyond Behavior

The step beyond behavior at the event is behavior everywhere else

There is nothing that stops us from requiring that everyone behave consistently with the pledge at all times. If you made a private joke that could be offensive to some minority group, for example, then you would have broken your pledge and be ineligible for participation at LambdaConf.

The step beyond behavior is belief. We have the ability to extend the pledge so that it covers beliefs you hold inside your head. It may be very difficult to come up with a set of values that a large group of people share, but not necessarily impossible.

There are a few other issues that would have to be solved, beginning with fair enforcement.

If two people have an unsanctioned belief, but only one of them tweets about it, then the other would still be eligible to participate. Similarly, if two people privately violate the pledge, but the second’s behavior comes to light, the first would still be welcome.

There’s also the question of how much due diligence should the conference do: should we have a dedicated task force to pore through blog posts, Github commits, tweets, posts, articles, interviews, videos, and so forth, looking for violations?

The final issue is that people can and do change over time, and any policy that goes beyond just behavior at the event must take this into consideration. 

Perhaps someone told a sexist joke one time, but now consciously avoids them. Are they as welcome as someone who has never told any sexist jokes? Can you identify changes through questionnaires, or is something more rigorous needed to separate those who have truly changed from those merely claiming change?

I think these are all good questions. 

While I don’t claim to have definitive answers, part of me is uneasy with moving beyond behavior. Namely, the part of me that speaks at other conferences.

The Speaker Perspective

As a speaker at a number of professional conferences, I personally don’t like the idea that a conference might comb through my tweets, blogs, interviews, and videos, and then decide that I am a “bad person” who can’t speak on a topic unrelated to my personal views.

I’m an atheist, with many anti-religious and anti-political views – one who doesn’t even believe in right and wrong (at least, not like everyone else does).

I am constantly evolving, of course, and I do make decisions I regret, but “despite” my niche and highly controversial views, I work hard to be kind and gracious and help as many people as I can (surprise!).

=46rom my biased perspective as John-the-Speaker, I don’t want a “Code of Belief”. I want a Code of Conduct. I will conduct myself with integrity, graciousness, and empathy at every conference I attend, but I will believe whatever the heck I want to believe!

Nonetheless, this is a short-sighted perspective. I’m not just a speaker – I am also an organizer. One who wants LambdaConf to be both diverse and inclusive. One who wants to cultivate a broad community of people passionate about functional programming. 

And it’s not clear that merely ensuring good behavior at an event is enough to accomplish that.

The Dilemma

I’ll admit it: my first reaction to learning we had green-lit a proposal from a speaker who was uninvited to StrangeLoop was panic. I desperately wanted to know more. 

One of our staff members spent half a dozen hours poring through blogs, articles, and videos – all first-person sources (which is important). 

She uncovered the following facts about the speaker (which may be erroneous or out-of-date, so take them with a grain of salt):

Are these views racist and sexist? Absolutely, since they don’t admit the possibility that, for example, an asian female with no background in computer science might do a better job at “governance” than any white male software engineer.

Are these views endorsed by LambdaConf or held by any staff members? Hell, no!

Should these views alone disqualify this person from speaking on a topic that, as judged by a blind and independent committee, is a good fit for LambdaConf?

Now that is the million dollar question. And whatever the answer, it will have massive ramifications for future editions of the conference.

LambdaConf 2017 and Beyond

I don’t want to come out of this messy situation with a single decision, but rather, with a well thought out policy that helps set the stage for future editions of LambdaConf.

I prefer a clear guide that tells speakers (and other attendees) who is welcome at LambdaConf, what is expected from them, and why. And I prefer the process to be predictable and repeatable, rather than driven by ad hoc emotional tweet-storms.

Currently, I see three paths forward which are consistent with these goals:

  1. Take the position that it doesn’t matter what you believe, it matters how you behave. Allow anyone to speak at or attend the conference if they can swear to uphold the pledge of conduct (assuming there are no safety concerns or reasons to think they would break their pledge, e.g. past violations at different conferences);
  2. Extend the pledge to cover a core set of beliefs, carefully arranged to be compatible with people who are religious and non-religious, moral and amoral; and require that attendees and speakers possess these beliefs and demonstrate possession in their actions (with appropriate evidence-based policies for dealing with violations).
  3. Do not extend the pledge, but require that people follow the pledge at all times and under all circumstances (with appropriate evidence-based policies for dealing with violations).

In addition, I see a fourth path, which is to ban people from the conference if they are “sufficiently” disliked (in the same way we would “ban” some local food vendor if their food proved unpopular). I do not believe this is consistent with the above goals of predictability and repeatability (since it is, in effect, a popularity contest), but I’m still open to the possibility.

I’m not sure which of the above positions is best. I think reasonable people might side with any of them, although they probably lead to very different outcomes.

I have discussed the issue at length with all staff members. To varying degrees, we all have a preference for keeping the pledge focused on behavior at the conference. 

But LambdaConf is not just me and the other staff members – it’s a whole community, and the answer to which direction is best for the community is far from obvious. 

Toward that end, I need your help!

Call for Feedback

This decision is too important to make alone. I’ve sent this message to the speakers of LambdaConf 2016 who are members of one or more minority groups. Though almost everyone will have an opinion on this matter, the staff and I feel that yours matters most.

We want to hear your feedback. We will read every word, and make a decision based on majority consensus (no matter what that is!).

Your feedback is 100% confidential and anonymous, and we will never share your views without your explicit permission (although we may discuss aggregate results).

To give us feedback, please visit the following survey:

Whatever decision comes from your feedback, we will be open and transparent about it; it will make history, and probably have ramifications well beyond LambdaConf.

Final Thoughts

We are not the same. We all hold very different beliefs. In many cases, our beliefs are diametrically opposed to each other. 

Nonetheless, I still believe that we have the power to live together, to work together, and to attend conferences together. Not because we are the same, but in spite of the fact that we are not. LambdaConf itself is the handiwork of an amoral atheist and a conservative Christian!

Of course, it’s not always clear what living together looks like. In particular, given LambdaConf’s goal to cultivate an inclusive and diverse community of people passionate about functional programming, it’s not clear where the boundaries should be.

What are the necessary conditions for harmony in the face of diversity?

I honestly don’ t know. So while you ponder the question and hopefully provide us with your feedback, I will leave you with a quote from Judy Hopps, the protagonist in Zootopia:

“Lif e’s a little bit messy. We all make mistakes. No matter which type of animal you are, change starts with you.”

Yeah, I know, it’s just a silly Disney movie. But it certainly struck a chord with me…


John & the rest of the staff (Courtney, Matthew, Sophia)