Thoughts on LambdaConf 2016

Posted on March 26, 2016 by Alissa

This article is written in response to the article Wrestling With Inclusion at LambdaConf. Twitter hashtag #lambdaconf.

We need to understand the consequences of our decisions. You decide to take an action, and then consequences follow. In this case, a racist speaker was given a speaking slot at a tech conference. That was the action. What are the consequences?

Racism is not to be taken lightly. Period. Racist words, spoken or written, are detrimentally painful to their targets. You don’t just recover from being told you are subhuman. This isn’t a mild injury, and the cumulative effects of racism at the individual and the institutional level traumatize people and deny them entry into society. A racist speaker being given a speaking slot at a conference must be seen in this light.

Now, it must also be acknowledged that there is fear and pain on all sides of this discussion. Racism stems from fear of the “other”, and this is often assumed to be fear of someone because they are different, but really it’s the fear that they are the same. If you define your identity as opposed to someone else’s, if you define whiteness as not-blackness or blackness as not-whiteness, then your identity is threatened when the other group is acknowledged to be similar to you. We hold our identities so near and dear that we often take measures that deny others humanity only so we don’t have to change. To be clear, I’m not advocating for color-blindness; I’m advocating that a strong notion of “other” births fear.

And so I invite everyone to realize that you could have been born anyone, anywhere, at any time past or future. Who you are born is a roll of the die. If you think the situation you were born into has anything to do with you, you are wrong. As we grow, we make decisions that shape our identities, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about infant you, fresh out, being held for the first time, naked, on your parent’s chest.

But now we’ve all grown up, and we’ve all made decisions, and those decisions all have consequences. By giving an individual a speaking slot at a conference, you are excluding the group of people who refuse to be in the same room as that person. If you give a speaking slot to a Black Lives Matter activist, you are excluding the group of people who refuse be in the same room as them. If you give speaking slot to Yarvin, you are excluding the group of people who refuse to be in the same room as him, and it’s important to view this group of people in the context of systemic racism.

Thus a conference can be viewed as the ever-shifting intersection of these groups of people, of these bubbles. Each speaker you allow or disallow shifts the intersection of these bubbles, thereby both including and excluding various people. It is naive to think an “everyone is allowed to speak” policy is the ultimately inclusive policy, because by including any one person, you necessarily exclude others. And so the question to the conference organizer becomes, what do I want the intersection of these bubbles at my conference to look like? If I accept that I must exclude some people, who is it most important for me to include?

If I were organizing LambdaConf, I would not invite Yarvin to speak, because I would rather include the people who disagree with him than include the people who agree with him. And so the self-centered individual wonders, what if I get rejected from a conference because of my viewpoint? And guess what, this very well may happen! If a conference organizer decides that they want to include the people who will not attend if you do, then they can and will decide to exclude you. But the thing is, you can have a public discussion about this! You can stand up for yourself and your viewpoints and others will stand up for you. And ultimately you will need to choose between your viewpoint and membership in that community, without forgetting that communities can and do change. You must fight for membership in communities that reject you, while simultaneously creating communities that accept you.

We define community by deciding who we most want to include. And we cannot include people who exclude those who we must include. Every community operates at this level. Every community is an ever shifting overlap of bubbles, and no individual will have membership everywhere. Where and how each community draws these lines is completely up to them, and no community will draw them in exactly the same way.

Additionally, it should be pointed out that a community can decide whether it separates behavior outside that community from behavior within it. For example, a conference may accept a speaker on the grounds that they not discuss their moral viewpoints at the conference. Or, a conference may decide that morals cannot be separated from the individual, even if they agree to only talk about tech. Both of these decisions exclude people, and the outrage I see on both sides stems from the terrifying reality of exclusion and loneliness.

Then the question remains, how do you disagree with a community that you are not allowed to join? How do you discuss ideas with people who disagree with you? Doesn’t ostracism make the divides between us even greater? In this situation, ostracism only recognizes a divide that is already there, deep in society. One could, in theory, view a tech conference as a place to build a bridge across the abyss, a place where people from all sides can come together and find common ground in technology. The problem is, the divide is too great even for this. You cannot just forget about racism for the day, when a prominent racist is sitting right in front of you.

So I call to all people on all sides who have the desire and the willingness to have the hard conversations, to do so and to do so frequently. But we must always remember that some people do not wish to engage in such conversations, and that is their right. And as such, if someone says they don’t want to talk to you, the conversation is over. There are many issues along which people become divided, and the depths of those divides vary greatly. Each divide is unique, and some can be bridged successfully at a tech conference, some cannot.

There is no censorship happening here, no impingement on free speech. The excluded person may still express their views at other conferences and in other communities, and you are still free to engage them individually in discussion. You can create a community and invite everyone, no restrictions, just know that everyone won’t show up. In the end, we must recognize that some communities are constructed to allow us, and others are constructed to reject us. Choose your viewpoints, and then shape a set of communities, or choose your communities, and then recognize that you must hold certain viewpoints. And then by all means, adapt, learn, and admit to being wrong! You can always change your mind.