Alex Payne

Writer, backer, erstwhile technologist.

Wouldn't Censorship Be Exciting

Let’s start with a disclaimer: I am not an organizer of the Strange Loop conference. I’ve presented at it, and for the past several years I’ve co-organized a pre-conference event about emerging programming languages. I’m unable to attend Strange Loop this year, much to my chagrin. Spending a few days in St Louis in September has become an annual routine for me. I care very much about the Strange Loop community, but I do not speak for its organizers.

The Strange Loop organizers have worked hard to create not just an event in which people fling technical ideas from their mouths into waiting ears, but a community. That community is one of the most diverse and welcoming you’ll find in technology, and that’s no accident. Achieving that diversity has required outreach, intention, and – yes – policing. I know that the language of “safe spaces” is tiresomely overused and sometimes wrongly employed, but it captures the essence of a conference that plays host to speakers and attendees of myriad backgrounds and orientations.

Yesterday it came to my attention that the organizers of Strange Loop had scheduled a talk by the author of Urbit. Urbit’s author, like many of us, writes online. In particular, he writes about a form of far-right politics that could be described as fascistic. Uncomfortable, to be sure, but as someone who publicly holds political views that stray from the mainstream, who am I to judge?

The reason I joined the call for Urbit’s author’s invitation to be rescinded is not his political views. Had he spoken, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve interacted with someone who espouses a politics divergent from my own at a technology conference, and nor would I hope it would be the last. I value a diversity of viewpoints, as must anyone committed to democratic processes. The fact that the person in question explores far-right viewpoints in his writing in no way led me to call for his rejection. I am unafraid of bad ideas; they are but litter on the street, blowing about the ankles, destined for the darkness of the storm drain by their own pathetic motion. Let them roll. Let them drown.

Strewn throughout the Urbit author’s writings are statements in support of racism and slavery. To my mind, this is where the line is crossed from the abstract debate of politics into something more visceral and emotional: hate. Hate is a necessary component of any defense of racism, slavery, and other dehumanizing practices. Hate is necessary to reduce a person to a commodity or strip them of rights based on innate traits. Couch it all you want in the trappings of academic writing: hate is always laid bare for what it is.

Hate has no place in the Strange Loop community, nor in any community with a future. Some have found it convenient and exciting to assume that Urbit’s author was uninvited – nay, censored! – due to his political views. Trust me: those views could not be less frightening or less interesting. What does concern me is the idea that Strange Loop attendees would no longer feel welcome because an avowed racist and proponent of slavery has been given a tacit endorsement by virtue of his speaking slot.

That speaking slot, of course, was not intended for a discussion of politics or race or slavery. It was intended for a discussion of software. And wouldn’t it be tidy to assume that we can separate the two, leaving our identities backstage as we step up to a podium of pure ideas? Untidily, this is not how the real world functions. The views we commit to in public travel with us, for better and for worse. What we believe helps us form community, and so too can it repel others away from us. In our communities, we establish norms and standards. Violating those standards often results in expulsion. The views we commit to have social consequences – yes, even at a technology conference.

Because these hateful views laze within self-styled political writing, some have claimed political discrimination. That would indeed be a scandal, but it’s not what happened here. The community in which Urbit’s author travels feeds on outraged reactions to their views. They are, after all, fascistic: uninterested in consensus and validated by fear. All the more reason to invent a scandal where none exists, offering a moment of relevancy and meaning in what must be a tiresome day of hauling around stale, warmed-over ideas under the forgettable banner of the “neoreactionary”.

The author of Urbit has not been censored. His software is readily available for examination and discussion online. I should know, having examined and discussed it without Birkenstocked progressive thugs dragging me from desk. There are meetups about Urbit in a number of cities. Other conferences may choose to host him. You could even run your own conference and invite him. Ah, but then where would you find the time to be so deliciously outraged? You’d be busy handling the logistics, the promotion, the speaker selection, and indeed the community policing that goes into running a successful conference. You might even have attendees of your own with concerns to accommodate. How is one supposed to play the victim, crying “thoughtcrime!”, with so much to do?