Joshua Paling

Eleanor Saitta was the closing speaker for RubyConf Australia, and her speech ended something like this: "This conference was very white, and very male. Here's a list of 37 women that you could have invited to speak." (shows slide of names).

Not surprisingly, it caused a lot of controversy, and lots of people thought it was an unfair move to end the conference with a proverbial punch in the gut to the volunteers who worked day and night to organise it. I kinda agreed at first, but as I mentioned in a ridiculously long comment on Ryan Bigg's 'violence in the ruby community' post, often with moral dilemmas, the answer when you're zoomed up close on an issue isn't the same answer you get when you zoom back and take into account the bigger picture.

And furthermore, true moral dilemmas usually involve choosing the least sucky of two options that suck. (If only one option sucked, there'd be no dilemma, right?)

So… first an annecdotal story, and then my thoughts, zoomed back and a few days after the fact, on this particular event.

American History X

The first time I came across the term, and concept, of 'affirmative action' was a decade or more ago, in American History X. In the film, "A former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did."

At one point, the boy's father describes how two black firefighters were hired even though they scored lower on the testing than did other white applicants, as part of affirmative action policies.

Father: Yeah sure, everything's equal now; but I got two guys watching my back responsible for my life, who aren't as good as two other guys. They only got the job because they're black, not because they were the best.

Derek: That sucks.

Father: Yeah. Is that what America is all about? No, America is about best man for the job. You do your best, you get the job. You know, this affirmative action crap, I don't know what that's about, it's like some hidden agenda or something going on. You see what I'm saying?

Derek: Yeah I do. I don't know. I didn't think about it like that.

My younger self felt racism was wrong, but still found it hard to logically argue against the point of view presented. I could emotionally argue against it. But emotional argument is far easier, and far less powerful, than logical argument.

Zoomed in

The mistake I was making is that I was zoomed up too close. Taking into account this as a single isolated issue, it does suck. If the policy were implemented nation-wide, it's not unreasonable to expect a handful of firefighters may have lost their lives in incidents that could have been prevented had they been alongside the coworkers who scored higher in the test (yep, the white ones).

(As an aside, one failure of the film is that it never present a logical argument against this point; it only presents an emotional one. I had to wait years before my prefrontal cortex was developed enough to form it's own logical rebuttal.)

Zoomed out

Zoom out, and you realise that although the above situation sux, things like slavery, followed by centuries of less severe but still pretty damn serious oppression, also suck. Like, not just a little bit, either.

And you realise that wether you opt for 'affirmative action' or not, you're trading with human life and death. And not just the deaths of blacks as a result of the inequality they suffer. Consider this hypothetical:

A hundred hypothetical murders Lets say, hypothetically, a hundred wealthy US people were robbed then murdered by homeless, desperate people. Statistically speaking, you'd expect the majority of the perpetrators to be black, and victims white. And ultimately, the root reason you'd expect that traces back to racial inequality - lack of education, job opportunities, etc.

If you had, through 'affirmative action', actively prevented inequality (between races, and between all people), you'd expect that many of those perpetrators wouldn't have found themselves in such a desperate position (yay! you saved their lives), and therefore many of the victims wouldn't have found themselves on the receiving end of desperations wrath (yay! you saved their lives, too!). But meanwhile, some people such as our firefighter friends above, may well have died as a result of that same affirmative action (damn, that really does genuinely suck).

The definition of a moral dilemma

That situation, where were trading off between things that both suck, is a moral dilemma. They're never straight forward. They're hard, complex, and multi-faceted - hence the term dilemma.

Either way, innocent lives will be lost. That sux. Both choices have aspects that really suck. And our job is to suck it up and just pick the one that sux the least.

Affirmative action sux far less than a lack thereof. Which means it doesn't suck.

I hope anyone who hasn't had a lobotomy will at this point agree that in the dilemma above, affirmative action is far better than the alternative.

When you zoom out, it sux less than a lack thereof. Although lives may still be lost as a result of it, more lives will be saved, and the current inequalities will not be perpetuated. The ideal result (total equality) would, if it were reached, mean our firefighters no longer dying, and nor our hypothetical victims of a robery and murder.

Now, I'm not all that up to date on these things. I just think about stuff a lot, and the dialogue is pretty much within my own head. So, I don't know if 'affirmative action' is still a thing, or the in vogue term or whatever. But it's the one I'm going with. To me, I think the simplest way to describe 'affirmative action' is doing something that isn't equal (eg. giving black fire fighters some leeway in the test) to help solve a previously created bigger inequality (eg. forcing a race into slavery, finally freeing them, but continuing to severely oppress them for centuries)

From American History X to Ruby Conf

Yeah, they're related because we've got a moral dilemma here, too.

Zoomed in

When the conference closed with a slide criticising the organisers for a lack of diversity, that sucked. They had worked their arses off, for free, and had put on an amazing show. And as it turned out, they had tried to proactively create diversity:

@Dymaxion I took it as a personal challenge to find female speakers for #rubyconfau14 and emailed many. I wish we could have gotten more ^EM

— RubyConf Australia (@rubyconf_au) February 21, 2014

And they took the criticism well, too:

@Dymaxion sometimes it is harder to convince ladies to come and speak. Thank you for list. Will definitely keep it ^EM

— RubyConf Australia (@rubyconf_au) February 21, 2014

But they also would have taken it personally to some extent, and it no doubt would have thrown a bit of a wet blanket on all their hard work, and their Friday night after-party. And that sux. Lots of people came to the organiser's defence, and I can see why.

People pointed out that Pat's keynote promoted inclusivity and diversity in a way that made everyone's heart warm, and didn't offend anyone. And they were right.

Zoomed out

Centuries of gender inequality sux, too. Like, not just a little bit, either.

I've got 10 month old, boy/girl twins and I'll sure be pissed off if, twenty years from now, Annika still earns significantly less than Luke for the same work. And income inequality is barely scratching the surface of it all.

If some feelings have to be hurt, and some feathers have to be ruffled to improve the situation, well, that sux, but it's the lesser of two sucking things, if that makes sense. I hope the Ruby Conf organisers, being the awesome people that they are, don't take it too hard on themselves. I hope they realise that in this case, they were the scapegoats in what is really the whole communities issue.

I hope they realise their hurt feelings were the tradeoff, the thing that sucked, in order to help undo another massive thing that's been sucking for a long time.

Was it worth it? Was it right? Was it moral?

Eleanor's final slide shocked, ruffled feathers, offended the volunteers who worked so hard, and sparked heated debate and emotions. But you can bet your bottom dollar that come Ruby Conf 2015, there'll be significantly more diversity amongst speakers. And I don't think she would have achieved quite the same impact in any other way.

So I guess it was worth it.

Moving Forward

Everyone's had their rants. Whether or not you think Eleanor went about things the right way or not, it seems the community agrees that proactively seeking diversity amongst speakers is a good thing.

So, lets come up with strategies for that. And let's zoom back to take in the big picture, stick with logic, and look for practical, long term solutions.

PS - Congrats if you made it to the end! I promise I tried to fit this into a tweet but I just could't find the right wording.