Thoughts on Strangeloop and Moldbug

I was doing very well at not engaging with this, and then I got into a Twitter conversation about it last night. This was about as frustrating as you would expect given the limitations of the medium, so now I feel compelled to write out my thoughts in long form.

For those just joining us: Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug, was going to be talking about his software, Urbit, at Strange Loop. Someone made the connection “Hey isn’t this guy that massive racist online?”, this blew up, and now he has been uninvited from the conference. Naturally this has a lot of people very angry about things on both sides.

I have mixed feelings on the subject, mostly due to an inability to hold any stance other than “it’s complicated”. I’m perfectly comfortable with banning him, and I think it was the right call, but I also probably wouldn’t have condemned a decision to not ban him.

Essentially the following are what I consider the two reasonable approaches:

  1. “No part time assholes”. We don’t care if he would obey the code of conduct, we still don’t want him. We are building a community here and we do not want known racists to be a part of that even if they agree to play nice because it will bias strongly in favour of people who can tolerate racists and against people who will never be comfortable in their presence even if they are playing nice.
  2. “The ideas are what are important”. There are plenty of great ideas that came from terrible people. As long as those people agree to obey the code of conduct and we have a reasonable expectation that they will (e.g. they don’t have a history of abusive behaviour at conferences, they’ve not previously claimed they would obey a CoC and then failed to do so, etc), if they have something interesting to say we are prepared to hear it.

(Note that I do not consider the version without an enforced code of conduct a reasonable position. If you can’t guarantee that you will protect the safety of people attending your conference you have no business running a conference).

I have a strong personal preference for the former, as it creates the sort of communities I think we need more of and that I personally want to be a part of, but I think “the ideas are what are important” style conferences are also useful. There are terrible people who have otherwise great ideas that are worth spreading, and a world in which they only get to speak at McRacismConf isn’t actually a better one, because the people who still want to hear those ideas will end up going to McRacismConf to hear them and being exposed to more racism, and the people who don’t want to go to McRacismConf will miss out on some useful ideas.

Edit to add: McRacismConf is indeed a bit of a straw man. The real failure mode here isn’t conferences about racism, it’s unchecked conferences without a code of conduct with a plethora of assholes. The problem is that by insisting that conferences hold to the no part time asshole rule you create an incentive for people to go to conferences which are welcoming to full time assholes.

The problem is that if you have known racists or other bigots speaking, people from marginalized groups will make the entirely reasonable threat assessment that it’s probably not going to be a great environment for them and steer clear. This is bad because excluding marginalized people from all your industry’s conferences is bad, but it’s also bad even if you only care about the ideas.  There are also a lot of people from marginalized groups who have great ideas and you’re going to be missing out on those in the “the ideas are what are important” conferences.

So I think there is need for both approaches and a lack of a one size fits all solution. However, I also think you need a lot more communities which exclude part time assholes (especially given we have so many full time assholes in tech, and such a problem with already excluding marginalized people), and I am glad that The Strange Loop have decided to be one of them.

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