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What to do When a Speaker’s Alter Ego is Found to Be a Racist?

Say your conference uses a blind speaker selection process to ensure you get a fair, diverse group of speakers. Then you accept as a speaker a guy who in addition to having created an experimental computing platform ends up having a pretty well-known alter ego that, according to an article in Inc., “convey[s] blatantly racist views.”

That’s what happened to a functional programming conference called LambdaConf, scheduled to be held in Boulder, Colo., over Memorial Day weekend. Founder John A. De Goes was tipped off by a volunteer that speaker Curtis Yarvin, who was chosen in a gender- and person-anonymized process and endorsed by the review committee, writes some controversial material under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug.

As De Goes writes in a blog post, “My immediate reaction could be described as a combination of shock and horror. No conference organizer ever wants to face a controversial hailstorm like this!”

He explains that, after agonizing over the issue with LambdaConf staffers, they decided to keep Yarvin on the speaker roster in, weird as it may sound, the spirit of inclusiveness. (The Strange Loop conference, which last year found itself in a similar circumstance, booted Yarvin as a speaker after people started complaining about his political views.)

De Goes writes, “We all agreed on one thing upfront: LambdaConf does not and cannot endorse any of the wildly different, diametrically opposed, and controversial opinions held by speakers, attendees, volunteers, and vendors.

“We absolutely reject the notion that just because someone attends or speaks at the conference, the conference must somehow ‘endorse’ their views.”

He goes on to detail some of those views, which are in fact hugely diverse—and some of them could be offensive to other speakers, attendees, etc., etc. So after a lot of discussion, they decided to focus on behavior, not belief systems, when making these types of judgment calls.

So as long as he isn’t violent, he’s still in. As De Goes writes, “Curtis is NOT allowed to talk politics at the conference. Rather, it's about respecting a separation between personal beliefs and professional life."

In a lengthy post on Medium, Yarvin assures that, “Yarvin will be speaking and attending. Moldbug is neither speaking nor attending. Yarvin is not interested in anything except system software and will ignore you … if you bring up any other subject.” (He also explains why he doesn’t consider himself a racist, though he understands why you might think he is.)

Would this decision turn off the diverse crowd of programmers LambdaConf is trying to attract? Would sponsors drop like flies? So far, according to Inc., they’ve only lost five or so speakers, and maybe three sponsors, and they’re expecting to beat last year’s attendance numbers.

What would you do if one of your speakers ended up having a controversial alter ego that many of your attendees/fellow speakers/staffers/sponsors would find offensive? My knee-jerk reaction was to of course rescind the invitation, but after reading De Goes' explanation, well, he does make some good points.

Obviously, the best option is to not find yourself in this predicament to begin with. But if you’re lining up 80 speakers, as this conference organizer was, how deeply do you dig into their backgrounds to make sure there aren’t some unsavory skeletons ready to tumble out of their closets?

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