LambdaConf is a conference revolving around a style of coding called functional programming. If you're not an engineer, you probably haven't heard of it -- at least, not before the last two weeks when the gathering gained attention on Twitter for all the wrong reasons.

The Memorial Day weekend event held this year in Boulder, Colorado, is hosting Curtis Yarvin, creator of experimental computing platform Urbit, as a speaker. Yarvin's online writings, many under his pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, convey blatantly racist views. He expresses the belief that white people are genetically endowed with higher IQs than black people. He has suggested race may determine whether individuals are better suited for slavery, and his writing has been interpreted as supportive of the institution of slavery.

Conference attendees and speakers are expressing anger and frustration on Twitter, with many broadcasting their plans of whether to attend. Some sponsors have dropped out. A website has appeared for an alternative functional programming conference called MoonConf, slated for the same dates and in the same city as LambdaConf.

For his part, Yarvin himself has taken to online platform Medium, writing a 2,854-word post titled "Why you should come to LambdaConf anyway," in which he states he is not racist, "But, I see why you might think so." In an email to Inc., Yarvin claims he applied to speak at LambdaConf to talk about Urbit, not cause controversy.

Part of a larger problem 

In the San Francisco Bay Area, people pushing for greater diversity in the world of tech say what's playing out with LambdaConf has wider implications.

"Everyone I know who is not a white dude who has weighed in, has weighed in on the side of not supporting the conference," says Brennen Byrne, CEO and cofounder of Oakland-based cybersecurity startup Clef. 

He says programming conferences play a significant role in the careers of engineers, as they do for researchers and academics in other fields. For a startup like Clef, which makes explicit efforts to recruit a diverse staff, it's a problem if minority coders feel uncomfortable at conferences. "We know already that people are being pushed out of this career," Byrne says -- and if minority programmers don't feel comfortable at conferences, that will only contribute to such a trend.

LambdaConf founder and chief organizer John A. De Goes  wrote in a blog post that the conference decided to keep Yarvin as a speaker in order not to set a precedent of discriminating against attendees because of their beliefs. "LambdaConf does not and cannot endorse any of the wildly different, diametrically opposed, and controversial opinions held by speakers, attendees, volunteers, and vendors," he wrote.

His wife Sophia, who helps him organize the conference which is now in its third year, says in a phone interview with Inc. that she and her husband do not agree with Yarvin's views but that they and other organizers could not find reason to dis-invite him absent concerns that he would act violently. "I guess, by analogy, I wouldn't ban Muslims because other Muslims are extremists," she says.

As of Tuesday she said that of the 80 speakers scheduled at the conference, about five had pulled out. She estimated that a handful -- maybe three -- sponsors had pulled out. Despite the maelstrom online, she estimated up to 350 would attend in May compared to between 275 and 300 last year.

Her husband says in a text message that he and his friends have been targets of online harassment. But he believes allowing Yarvin to speak does not relate to free speech. "Curtis is NOT allowed to talk politics at the conference. Rather, it's about respecting a separation between personal beliefs and professional life," writes De Goes.

Fear of speaking out 

Many who wrote on Twitter and in blog posts that they oppose Yarvin's inclusion as a speaker have declined to speak with Inc. or haven't responded to inquiries. One past attendee who purchased a ticket but says he does not think he will attend tells Inc. some may fear they will be  harassed online should they speak to the press. The attendee himself requested anonymity.

"I went to LC last year, and I've never felt more included around the tech community (I'm openly gay and a bit awkward)," he writes in an email. He praises De Goes for attempting to create an inclusive environment but continues, "Inviting (Yarvin) was a huge misstep. Tolerance of those who advocate *intolerance* toward a disenfranchised minority is not actually tolerance."

Jon Sterling, organizer of LambdaConf workshop PrlConf, decided to cancel the workshop, writing in an open letter: "We cannot possibly organize a workshop under the umbrella of a conference that values the free expression of racist and fascist views over the physical and emotional safety of its attendees and speakers."

Not all who oppose Yarvin's views say they will boycott the conference. The writers of a forthcoming book on the programming language Haskell say they are coming to support other speakers and attendees.

"Somehow in the massive Twitter storm and hatemailing, what's been lost is that Yarvin is but one speaker out of a pool of about 80," wrote Julie Moronuki in a blog post. "A substantial number of them are women and minorities. A lot of them are speakers who can't afford to go to other conferences."

A history of speaking

This isn't the first time Yarvin has caused controversy by applying to speak at a programming conference. The Strange Loop conference last year announced it was rescinding an invitation for Yarvin to speak after speakers and attendees raised concerns about the "Moldbug" writings. At that time, Strange Loop creator Alex Miller said he decided Curtis' inclusion "would overshadow the content of his talk and become the focus."

Some say they think Yarvin applies to speak at conferences, especially those that use blind speaker selection processes such as LambdaConf, as a trolling tactic. "Now that he's done it twice, it's clearly a strategy," says Valerie Aurora, principal at diversity and inclusion consultancy Frame Shift Consulting. "The true purpose is to get a bunch of people angry and fighting on Twitter."

Yarvin tells Inc. that he applied to speak at LambdaConf to speak about his company, not draw attention to his personal views. He says he has spoken at other conferences, mentioning that he gave talks both as Yarvin and as Moldbug at the 2012 BIL culture and technology conference.

Yarvin disputes that he agrees with the institution of slavery, but many interpret his writings as screeds supportive of bondage of black people. He writes in an email to Inc., "I don't know if we can say *biologically* that part of the genius of the African-American people is the talent they showed in enduring slavery.  But this is certainly true in a cultural and literary sense.  In any case, it is easiest to admire a talent when one lacks it, as I do."

In Yarvin's Medium blog post, he wrote that while he disagrees with the concept that "all races are equally smart," he is not racist because he rejects what he refers to as "IQism."

"Yes, racism is creepy. (If it's sincere. There's nothing creepy about Dave Chappelle.) But most people are wrong about why it's creepy. The creepy idea is actually that people who score higher on IQ tests are in some sense superior human beings," he wrote.

Some might dismiss Yarvin a fringe extremist, a guy on the far-right anti-democratic neoreactionary movement. But followers on Twitter and Reddit openly agree with his views, and his perspective holds influence beyond the confines of the conference.

That concerns diversity recruiters, who associate Yarvin with a breed of "alt-right" conservatism gaining momentum politically, as evidenced by the rise of Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

Y-vonne Hutchinson, executive director of diversity recruitment firm ReadySet, says the LambdaConf controversy indicates pushback against efforts to make the tech field more diverse. "This is what happens when environments of inequity are pushed to be equitable," she says.

As for diversity in tech, she says the goal should not be to "get as many different folks through the door" as possible, but to make disenfranchised groups feel comfortable. Allowing Yarvin to speak "tells underrepresented groups that they are excluded," she says.

Published on: Mar 31, 2016