LambdaConf 2016 Controversy

This post has 3 goals. To attempt to provide an overview of the controversy for those who are just discovering it, to separate truth from truthiness from bullshit in the discussions surrounding it, and to unpack my own personal reactions as a white man who cares deeply about both freedom of speech and safe communities.

(CW: Racism)



Timeline

Introduction

I didn’t start out intending to write this long post. I’ve historically viewed myself as a “rationalist” and a bit of a “devil’s advocate”, and in the process of understanding whether and why people agree with LambdaConf, or support Curtis Yarvin, or at least tolerate him (and where I fell on this spectrum), I had to unpack a lot of my own thoughts and reactions.

Full disclosure, I had no plans to attend LambdaConf and that has not changed. I am a programmer, but I am not currently an active member of the FP community (unless perhaps writing this post means that I am). I can probably describe what a monad is and in what ways it is and is not like a burrito.

However, I don’t think it needs to be a programmer who writes this, because this is not a programming dilemma. It just happens to be in a technical field, so the argument that the controversial speaker’s technical opinions can be segmented from his social ones carries more weight. Try to imagine this same controversy at a conference for social workers, elementary school teachers, or human resources managers. Programming might be the only field where this controversy could have actually gotten off the ground.

I believe the organizers of LambdaConf and many of the individuals defending the decision to allow Curtis Yarvin speak are smart and moral people who see Constitutional rights being threatened by mob rule and feel a responsibility to speak up, draw lines in the sand, and make tough decisions. I respect that, but I think they’re in the wrong here. This post is for those people, who have a twinge of doubt over the whole sordid business but side with “free-speech”. I hope they give me the opportunity to argue my case to the end.


I think LambdaConf was wrong. I believe the position was tenuously arguable before Curtis Yarvin’s Medium post on “Why [people] should still attend LambdaConf”, but not after it. If you’re interested, I summarized the other problems with LambdaConf’s initial decision, but the rest of this will specifically be about Yarvin’s beliefs, his tactics, and the tactics of those who support him.

I believe that positioning Yarvin’s writing as intellectual, innocent, and misunderstood is factually inaccurate and, with no ill will intended towards the LambdaConf organizers, either inadequately researched or dishonestly reported. At least prior to Yarvin’s response to the LambdaConf controversy, it was possible (although perhaps not accurate) to argue that he had moved past performing the work of advocating publicly for the politicization of his personal beliefs. That is no longer true.

Yarvin continued to advocate for his political ideas, even as part of his defense of LambdaConf’s decision, simultaneously revealing the lie in 3 central reasons given for why he was allowed to speak:

  • that LambdaConf is not providing a platform for his political beliefs
  • that he is not a leader of the movement (that he helped found)
  • that he can disassociate his political work from his technical work

Again, I’m not drawing a moral conclusion here, but those premises have all been revealed as false in the wake of Yarvin’s letter. You can argue whether he should or should not be denied a speaker position or entrance to a professional conference in light of these facts, but that’s a different argument than the one that we started with. It also seems to be a question that LambdaConf would have answered differently, if I’m reading their first official letter on the initial decision correctly.

Escalation

I started this essay on March 29th, intending to write solely about my thoughts on the debate tactics used by Curtis Yarvin in defense of his ideology. Unfortunately, since I started, the situation has continued to escalate, with no new statements from LambdaConf as the situation progressed, until a “Final Statement” from them on April 11th. I feel compelled to give an overview of these events, although I’m sure others will expound on this more wisely before it’s actually over.

Arguments on social media began almost immediately between the factions who disagreed with the LambdaConf decision and those who supported it. Some sponsors dropped out, either due to their own beliefs or due to pressure on social media. From the people who supported the decision, new sponsors stepped in to fill the funding gap. One of them was a blog, and at least some writers of that blog employ some truly civil rhetoric, clearly designed to charm their opponents.

Many of the people who took offense at the initial decision pointed to this sponsorship as evidence of the argument that trying to remain neutral just ends up supporting the worst elements of a community. A significant number of individuals signed a statement on LambdaConf 2016 saying they disagreed with the decision. The wording of this statement very intentionally does not prescribe a specific action for LambdaConf to take, in order that a larger number of people might agree with its core sentiment — that LambdaConf created an environment unwelcoming to a significant portion of its target community, and they wished it had worked out differently.

Almost as if to prove their point, a list was created of all of the signers of this letter (and other notable “SJWs”) with the overt intention of “outing” (a lists of aliases is included), naming & shaming, and denying these individuals professional opportunities (while also including a nice bit of plausible deniability by saying that this list is also a resource for those who might wish to hire them. Sure.). This list also has the less explicitly stated purpose of intimidation by providing “enough information on the SJW that he/she/it should be identifiable enough for a prospective employer/friend/spouse to identify them” (while specifically prohibiting doxxing because, of course, that’s illegal). This list claims that individuals on the list called for someone to be “fired, disinvited, shunned, or no-platformed”, which is simply false for the signers of the “Statement on LambdaConf 2016”, which makes no such (or any) demand.

LambdaConf published a “final response” 2 days later, that doesn’t mention this list at all. I’m not sure how they could have a “final” response that doesn’t address a list with the explicitly stated goal of disenfranchising en-masse the people who argued against the decision they made, but whatever.

I could, and probably should, hold off on publishing this until all the fallout has settled and the rads have declined, but instead I’m going to lay out the core point I initially intended to. I don’t think it’s significantly impacted by the events that have happened over the last week. If anything, the argument is probably strengthened in the wake of recent events.

Curtis Yarvin

I’ve written at length specifically detailing Yarvin’s beliefs and his tactics. I spent a long time parsing content, and I’ve attempted to provide a reasonably fair appraisal (although I’m sure his supporters won’t see it that way). Please, read these posts before yelling at me on the internet, so we can hopefully have a meaningful disagreement about something I’ve gotten wrong.



To summarize my conclusions: If you’re feeling generous, Yarvin might not be “a Racist”, but he at least has internalized racist beliefs. He seems to have no interest in addressing these biases, and has instead built a philosophical framework to justify them. He is an intelligent and relatively skilled writer, who hides his arguments behind a smoke-screen of obscurity, “science”, fuzzy logic, and “civility”. He claims to have no influence and be no sort of leader, but this is demonstrably false (whether he actually wishes it or not). His disavowal of “leadership” in the movement he helped create makes the ideas associated with it more dangerous, not less.

Yarvin employs many debate tactics designed to make his arguments more difficult to critique, appeal to a general audience (without actually allowing them to understand), artificially create respectability, and move accountability for his ideas away from himself.

Asking the Wrong Question

In his post aimed at convincing people to attend LambdaConf, Yarvin laid out what he claimed the real question was —

That might be worth asking, but I think it’s sort of missing the point. I’ll try to answer that question at face value, then propose an alternate question.

We can look at Yarvin’s beliefs, and most specifically to his essay on Carlyle. Those quotes aren’t cherry-picked, other than as necessary to break down a 9,000 word post into its thesis. Yarvin gets a lot of flack for this post, where he endorses the possibility of slavery as a valid system of governance, based on the premise that a democratic state is already full of social and economic contracts enforced by the state. It’s a fact that Yarvin sees this as a logical progression. It’s not even a particularly novel idea, it’s just one that’s not often endorsed publicly in the US because of the unresolved spectre of the North American slave trade and our masturbatory fetishization of capitalism.

But there’s something missing from all the criticism of Yarvin “endorsing slavery” and the insistence from the neoreactionary camp that it’s “not chattel-slavery”. The missing part of that conversation is that the problem most of Yarvin’s critics have with him is exactly the same reason his more ignorant proponents support him. It isn’t his interest in rehashing 200 year old political theory, or equating capitalism with feudalism. It’s how it dovetails so nicely with his theories regarding race.

As a white man, I have the option of exercising a few privileges in this situation.

I could exercise the privilege to not personally care that Curtis Yarvin has racist beliefs (lowercase). He does. That’s not really up for debate, it’s just proven by his own words. I think that’s basically ok, although I’m sure I’ll take some flak for saying so. It’s unfortunate, but a lot of “decent” white people have the same beliefs. Probably a lot of people we work with, who bite their tongue every day, because they know that it will be taken as badly as this has been. These lowercase racists should educate themselves, but it’s our unfortunate responsibility to try to handle their ignorance with as much grace as we can when they let it show, and point them to the education they’ve clearly lacked until that point. I know repeating the same 101 stuff gets tiresome, but every time lowercase racists see some controversy like this blow up, it seems like a personal attack on their morality and what they perceive as their own rational understanding of the issues. You’re totally welcome to your outrage, but it’s not helpful to them to conflate their failings of ignorance as deep moral failings as well before they have the tools to understand.

I also have the privilege to not care if Yarvin is a Racist with a capital “R”. I would classify these as people who have been presented with evidence that they ignore, and who actively seek to enforce injustice for racist reasons. I’m certainly suspicious of Yarvin on this point, based on which pieces of evidence he accepts and which he ignores, and the political beliefs he chooses to endorse. I’m reminded of an acquaintance with a PHD, who I’ve heard say truly stupid things about black people against all evidence to the contrary, far worse than we’ve publicly seen from Yarvin, without irony, and using less polite terms. Intelligence is no panacea.

But if, like me, you have the privilege to ignore Yarvin’s racism, and if, like the organizers of LambdaConf, you have exercised that privilege at the cost of other people’s willingness to participate in your community, I ask you to consider just one more thing. Consider that Curtis Yarvin has created and grown an ideology whose foundation stones are racist sociology, very debatable science, and power structures that have in the past supported institutional racism far worse than that visible in current American society. Yarvin built this ideology for years while hiding behind a pseudonym, and still eschews ownership of that ideology in the greater world. Even if he disowns his past conclusions, it will live on without his support. Ideas are tricky that way. My racist relatives can be unpleasant, but none of them have written any manifestos.

I don’t think the big question is “Is Yarvin a Racist?”, but is something more like, “Is Yarvin a leader in a movement aimed at enshrining bigotry on a large scale through use of manifestos, bad science, uncivil rhetoric, and internet intimidation tactics?”. Three weeks ago, when I was unfamiliar with Curtis Yarvin’s work and the NRx movement, that question probably would have seemed ridiculous to me. But now, after reading Yarvin’s writings and watching how this debacle has unfolded, it no longer does.


To respond to Yarvin’s “real question” — If he (or anyone else who feels less than fully informed on the issue of race) wants to educate themselves, there’s resources out there that will give them the tools to join the conversation in a “civil” way, from bite-size, to snacks, to full-course meals, and even open buffets. Protip: The way to talk about race correctly is not insisting that black people are dumber, and then explaining why that fact is simultaneously irrelevant and critical to your worldview. Even if you feel compelled to believe the “science” of NRx, the social studies piled on top of it make it an unreliable source. If you want to have a discussion about that “science”, you should want to help solve all the systematic bias tainting the sample first. Otherwise it’s just very, very bad science.

Conclusion

I respect Yarvin’s right to his ideas. I’ve added a few books to my reading list for when I get the same opportunity as Yarvin to take a few years off to just read and write essays. I can even respect his ignorance, to a point. Everyone’s a beginner on a given subject at first.

But the intent and flaws of methodology in Yarvin’s past writing should be fairly obvious to anyone who has followed along to this point without major objection. For those who directly support his actual ideas —

  • His literacy doesn’t mean that his ideas have correct premises or conclusions.
  • His intelligence doesn’t mean that his arguments are logically sound.
  • His denial of his own bias doesn’t mean he has none.

I feel I’ve done a fair job of explaining these fallacies, and why at least some of Yarvin’s arguments succumb to them.

Furthermore , for those supporting “free speech” itself as part of this argument —

  • SCOTUS has recognized limitations on the first amendment.
  • The right to say something doesn’t obligate others to listen.
  • Asserting that a technologist’s politics are able to be wholly divorced from their work is a privilege fairly unique to our industry (and we should question the truth of that assertion).
  • An individual requesting entry to a space does not require giving them a space at the cost of other professionals feeling welcomed and comfortable.

If I intentionally didn’t bathe for 5 years based on some ideology and then tried to get into your conference space covered in urine and blood, you’re allowed to let me in, but I wouldn’t expect it.

There’s also some easy truths specifically relevant to this controversy—

  • Algorithms are not inherently apolitical.
  • Politics cannot be entirely separated from community.
  • Not all political stances are equally reasonable.
  • Not all science is equally valid, and social sciences are inherently political (due to point 2).
  • Ideas and words have power.
  • Years of advocation qualifies as “behavior”.
  • An inclusive environment is not the same as a welcoming one.

You can argue these facts if you like, and I’d be happy to listen to well-reasoned rebuttals, but they seem self-evident to me and many others. I read LambdaConf’s “Final Statement” and they seem to give lip-service to refuting a few of these self-evident truths, but I find little real content there.

One more easy truth. A member of a community can be toxic, even if they’re not a bad person. Interpersonal relationships can fall apart based on a misunderstanding that neither party is “in the right about”. I’m not saying this situation is at all like that (I think it’s far worse), but if you have a situation like that, inviting both to your event might seem like a simple neutral solution. Making one of them a guest of honor eliminates that neutrality, and you should opt for the less toxic individual if maintaining your community is your goal. Perhaps you’ve already thought this through and decided Curtis Yarvin is the less toxic option. That’s fine, but many people think you’re wrong on that point, and there is literally no other measure of how toxic a member of a community is than that community’s reaction to them. This is also the reason that the people who find Yarvin a toxic element feel a social responsibility to speak up. If they don’t, they see a community they care about being poisoned.

Finally, I have to explain the only one of my conclusions that I’ll categorize as a personal opinion. Some of the things Yarvin frames as true are so inflammatory that it is irresponsible to present them to a general audience without the training and tools to evaluate them. The idea that “we’re all adults, so we can handle some words” is specious for an industry where humanities training is largely ignored. In university, it makes your coursework less impressive to technical hiring managers. Once in the workplace it’s frequently treated as a bonus at best, an indication of lesser technical prowess on average, and idiocy or brainwashing at worst. Engineers, for all their smarts and logic, are probably less suited to philosophy than other professions, because their opinion of their own super-brains is so damn high.

Here’s the thing. This isn’t about Curtis Yarvin or his fringe beliefs. These principles apply to everyone, everywhere. You can’t shout “Fire” in a crowded theater. You also can’t whisper it to people, one by one, until some idiot does the shouting for you.


I’ll end by quoting the same essay that Yarvin seems fond of, Solzhenitsyn’s “Live Not By Lies” —

Our path is to talk away fro the gangrenous boundary. If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.
That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.


[Edit] In response to notes on content received since publication

  • If you want to argue semantics, yes “algorithms” are “just math” and hence apolitical. Politics come in the implementation. But algorithms that are not implemented by someone for some purpose don’t do anything. I’m not implying that adding integers is a political act.
  • I think calling this a “hit piece” is unfair, although I can understand that emotional reaction. I can only ask that you believe me that this is an attempt to gather my own thoughts on the issue via critique of specific political speech describing specific beliefs, an attempt to assign more human motives to a man who’s been villainized, and a jumping off point for anyone new to the discussion of the problems raised by this controversy. I did not mean this as a personal attack on Curtis Yarvin or any other party. I hope it isn’t taken that way by anyone who reads it, and I certainly didn’t intend it that way.
  • “Just because people claim to be on the side of empathy and morality, doesn’t mean their actions are good, or that they’re sincere or even honest with themselves.” I agree wholeheartedly with the content of that statement, although perhaps not its implication.
  • An earlier version of this essay categorized status451 as being “mostly in line” with Yarvin’s beliefs. This was sloppy on my part, as I’m not familiar enough with their ouvre to make that statement. I’m reading more of it now.