LambdaConf, Yarvin and Moldbug

I’ve spent the last weekend enjoying the excellent National Folk Festival in Canberra and thinking a lot about the question of whether or not Curtis Yarvin should be invited to LambdaConf, and if so, whether or not I want to attend. This post is about the latter.

I am only interested in going to LambdaConf if I can do so in opposition to the ideas that Curtis Yarvin published under the name of Mencius Moldbug. Even if Yarvin is right when he protests that he is not a racist (and I’m not sure that he is right when he makes that claim), I believe his ideas have fueled and provided cover for a large number of people who do have racist views. He has the power to speak and write in such a way as to push back against those people, but he has not done so. He has the power to say that slavery as an institution in the USA was evil and wrong, but as far as I know he has not done so. He has the power to say that any movement in the direction of a return to slavery in the USA would be evil and wrong, but as far as I know he has not done so.

For a while, I thought I could attend LambdaConf and do so explicitly in opposition to Moldbug: I could wear a badge that had the word “Moldbug” in a red circle with a line through it, and I could have “I Stand Against Moldbug” in the footer of all my slides. Since Curtis Yarvin has said that he, Yarvin, is attending in a professional capacity, and that the Moldbug identity has no connection to his professional capacity, I thought this might be a viable option. Unfortunately, then Yarvin published a post in a Reddit AMA clarifying a Moldbug post, writing as Curtis Yarvin, and using the first person pronoun. This suggests that the line between Yarvin and Moldbug is not as clear as all that, and that to attend in opposition to Moldbug would be to attend in opposition to Yarvin, which would be an ugly and nasty sort of thing to do. So I don’t want to do that.

My next hope was that I could attend LambdaConf in opposition to Moldbuggian ideas. I could wear #BlackLivesMatter merchandise and RISE logos and Black Girls Code tees and put a rainbow sticker on my laptop and find unmoldbuggian examples to thread through my talk. But as I thought more about the way this would work in practice, I remembered something about John de Goes’ original post, in particular the proposed addition to the pledge of conduct:

That in consideration of the professional nature of this event, I will refrain from discussing potentially offensive and divisive topics unrelated to the topic of programming (specifically religion, morality and politics); except in the company of willing participants to such conversations, and even then, only in a manner consistent with the pledge;

My reading is that attending in opposition to Moldbuggian ideas might be viable this year, but if they could change the code of conduct for this year they would have, and it would make this approach unviable. The presence of people who do not stand entirely behind all aspects of the pledge of conduct means talking about the things it promotes can be divisive, and means even people who want to boost the inclusion of minorities (the list in the pledge includes women, people of colour, disabled individuals, and non-cis sexual orientations and gender identities) have to leave that desire at home. The general direction here is that people should attend exclusively in their professional capacities, and leave the personal and political sides of themselves at home.

There’s a sense in which this years LambdaConf is now an experiment in a particular way of dealing with issues of this sort. I could go in support of unmoldbuggian ideals this year, and possibly contribute to the success of the experiment, but attending in the same manner the next year would probably be impossible. I’d like to avoid this outcome.

In fact, I think the only viable way to attend in opposition to Moldbug is to go proudly and strongly in support of the idea of that split between the personal and professional. There are two problems with this: the first is that I have no idea how to attend strongly and proudly in support of that distinction; the second is that I am not proudly and strongly in support of that idea. It’s one thing for Yarvin to leave his political views at home, but somebody whose ancestry didn’t give them fair skin doesn’t get to leave that behind and present as white for the weekend. Somebody who is queer might be able to choose to pass as cis and straight for the weekend, but I can’t endorse asking them to do so. There are so many aspects of the personal that cannot be left behind that I cannot say I am proudly and strongly in support of separating it from one’s professional identity.

Since I do not currently believe I can attend LambdaConf in opposition to Moldbuggian ideas, I do not currently plan to attend LambdaConf this year.

There are many events; their organisers make choices. There are many potential attendees; we choose which events we want to participate in. I choose not to participate in this one.

That I can make that choice is indeed a luxury for which I am grateful. I hope that De Goes succeeds in making LambdaConf into an event where people who are frequently marginalized by our industry are welcome, and can find a foothold to get into or advance within our industry. I hope that MoonConf succeeds in creating a space where people who feel that they cannot attend an event that sponsors Curtis Yarvin can connect, learn, and share ideas.

There’s a number of things I am deliberately not arguing here:

  • that LambdaConf must exclude Yarvin. I think De Goes and the committee are free to try this experiment in requiring their attendees to leave objectionable views at the door.
  • that a government should
    • exclude Yarvin from participating in official events. Governments excluding people for their beliefs has not worked terribly well on either side of the aisle.
    • allow Yarvin to participate in official events. I do believe that Right and Wrong exist, and that it is entirely possible that Yarvin holds, continues to hold, and has worked to propagate views, and to argue for the implementation of views, that are Wrong.
  • that Yarvin holds, continues to hold, and has worked to propagate, and to argue for the implementation of, views that are Wrong. I think much of his writing is disingenuous at best, but I haven’t read enough of it to conclude that he’s wrong in such a manner that he ought to be excluded. I think I can make a decision on this matter without putting myself through that. I do, however, trust David Nolen’s, Sara J Chipps’, and Bodil Stokke’s reactions to his writing enough to think that I’d probably want him to be excluded. Please don’t @mention these folks in relation to this blog post, they have said what they want to say on this matter and are quite capable of jumping in if they wish to discuss it further
  • that people need to be objectively and evilly Wrong for them to be excluded. Dan P and Alissa (Please don’t @mention these folks in relation to this blog post, they have said what they want to say on this matter and are quite capable of jumping in if they wish to discuss it further) make strong arguments that building an inclusive community can require choosing to exclude people who will produce too much discomfort amongst the people who make up that community.
  • that people must remain eternally responsible for things they claim once. Yarvin has not given any sign of having changed his mind on the problematic things in question, so the notion that he’s being attacked for something he said once in the distant past is not an argument that has any force for me.
  • that if Yarvin were to say All The Right Things after reading this blog post I would change my position. I haven’t read enough of his writing to know how he’d need to change his positions to make me think they didn’t need to be opposed.
  • That this list contains all the things I’m not trying to say with this post.

I’d also like to thank Amar Shah for shedding light on the feedback-gathering process and to Julia Moronoki for her thoughtful post about why she and Christopher Allen are continuing to sponsor the conference (again, please don’t @mention them). In general, I’d like to thank everyone for making most of what I’ve seen of this conversation into a respectful argument and not a screaming bunfight.

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