the hardest thing about hiring is avoiding the fash

4 September 2017 11:25 PM (hiring | fash | icfp | fascism | antifa)

Most of the literature on hiring is about technical ability, and indeed that's important. But no job is solely technical: there are communication and cooperation aspects as well. The output of a group is not simply the sum of its components.

In that regard I have a thesis: the most important thing about hiring is to avoid the fash. Fascist sympathisers are toxic to the collective organism and you do not want them on your team. The tricky thing is honing your fashdar to suit the purpose.

I am currently in Oxford for ICFP, one of the most prestigious conferences of my field (programming languages). I came to be refreshed with new ideas and to maintain contacts, for collaboration and also for future hires. This evening I was out with a group of folks, and the topic of conversation for much of the evening was the abstract value of free speech versus anti-fascist activity.

Unfortunately, one participant was stuck on free speech side of the debate. All day the conference has been doing logical programs and term equivalence, but somehow this person didn't deduce the result "free speech fundamentalism == fash", at least within the current evaluation context.

In the US we are raised to see speech as an axiom. As such it must be taken on faith, and such faith is only present in people not physically threatened by the axiom. For example, as an immigrant to France, speech against immigrants in France is not simply an abstract topic to me. It means that my existence does not have the same value as someone that was born there. More broadly it also applies to second-generation immigrants, or to people of color, as whiteness is also part of what it means to be a native French person. Treating the speech of all equally is probably a good ideal among speakers of equal power, but in the current context, enshrining "free speech" as a Trump card of social value is fash. Saying "Latino people are lazy" is obviously more threatening to Latinos than "white people are lazy" is to whites (ed: not that these sets are disjoint!); but under the "free speech" evaluator, these terms are equivalent. "Free speech" as an abstract interpreter of value is too abstract.

I thought with this person we had a good discussion trying to get them closer to a justice-affirming perspective, but in the end they turned out to also believe that women were predisposed to not be good computer scientists -- "genetic differences", they said. Never mind that CS was women's work until it became high-status, and this after the whole discussion of the effects of speech; it does not take an abstract interpretation specialist to predict the results of this perspective on the future gender composition of the industry, not to mention the concrete evaluation of any given woman.

I will admit that I was surprised at the extent to which men's-rights-activist and racist talking points had made it into their discourse, and the way the individualist edifice of their world-view enabled their pre-fascist ideas. I use the term advisedly; the effects of advocating these views are prior to fascism.

My conclusion from the interaction is that, now more than ever, when it comes to future collaborators, in any context, it is important for anyone for whom justice matters to probe candidates deeply for fascist tendencies. If they show a sign, pass. Anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-queer, and anti-black behaviors and actions often correlate: if you see one sign, often there are more underneath. Even if the person claims to value egalitarianism, the perspectives that guide their actions may not favor justice in your organization. In retrospect I am glad that I had this interaction, simply for the purpose of knowing what to filter out the next time I am in a hiring decision.

3 responses

  1. Arthur A. Gleckler says:

    I'm sorry to see this kind of name-calling in your blog. The use of labels such as "fascist" to describe someone with whom one disagrees is a disturbing trend.

  2. Scott F. says:

    I deeply respect the side of this story you have to tell, and I wasn't here to see what went on, but I think you're being a little uncharitable to the conclusions you're drawing here. First, this seems to be an extremely emotional topic to you, for an obviously personal reason that is not to be discounted, and it sounds like the speaker didn't respect that.


    - Did the speaker actually *say* any of the numerous things in this post? You mention many things that it appears the speaker did not say, and that leads me to believe that you didn't really have a nuanced conversation, but merely stereotyped them off of their (I believe) partially flawed viewpoint. It's hard for me to understand what the speaker said, and the portrait you're painting of them.

    - To be clear, I very much disagree with the speaker, I worry that trudging anywhere near the "biological differences" line between men and women invites a slippery slope. I'm sure there are biological differences between the sexes, but at all implying that accounts for gender representation is troubling. If the speaker did verbatim say that women were worse programmers, I am deeply concerned and that has no place at a conference. If they merely hinted at differences in biology, however, (which it sounds like they may have been), I think you might be taking things a bit too far.

    - The tone of this post is unprofessional. You've woven bits and pieces of a private conversation into a much broader narrative that the speaker as a fascist (which you later clarify is only to mean that they exhibit pre-fascist behavior). I would be hesitant to attempt rational conversation with you at a conference even though I think I largely agree with you, for fear I would have a tirade written about me out of context. You seem to have decided this person is all "evil" based on a few choice disagreements (which, again, I largely agree with the substance of your views).

    - I do not think that very many people at all agree that free speech fundamentalism == fascism. I haven't seen anything in this post that leads me to believe the speaker was endorsing fascism. It merely looks like the speaker has a dangerous viewpoint on a few issues that trouble me. I would be very interested to see a response by the speaker to clarify their point of view. I concede you're likely right: they likely have some other points of view that I would also find deeply troubling.

    - I applaud your ability to be able to freely choose who you work with. But you appear to be using an extremely aggressive meterstick for what person you potentially consider fascist. I have certainly found that when I press people for more I can often find out what side they're on.

  3. wingo says:

    Hi. I have deleted a couple comments; general policy here, linked from the about page.

    I would like to make a few specific replies. Firstly I would note that I am very sorry to see that Arthur is upset by a description of bad behavior rather that the behavior itself and its effects on other people. This latter aspect is the root of the problem and it is useful to apply a name to actions that have anti-woman, anti-queer, and anti-black effects, even if those actions are "just" speech. It's true that there is a spectrum, and free speech fundamentalism is more on the "collaborator" side of the spectrum than brownshirts. But vigorously defending the right of fascists to speak and wishing that anti-woman discourse should be free of consequence enables the actual honest-to-god fascists.

    More concretely, if I am building a team, I do not want this speech on my team -- at all. I would not want a man, for example, to casually suggest that many rape allegations are fraudulent, in any context -- and I would not want someone to argue for the right of this speech to be debated or even heard.

    In that way I disagree with Scott as well -- this was an entirely professional topic, as it related directly to the composition of the profession. Regarding the point about charity and whether my interpretation is accurate, I think it doesn't matter. I believe in my interpretation but the point stands generally.

    As far as the impacts on the person, you will notice that I have not named them and I think actually they mean well (though I think they miss the mark). They may change over time. In a similar way how one might say that "industry needs compiler specialists" I think it is totally reasonable to say "industry needs people with an understanding of how their behavior affects other people". All of our academic departments and industry groups claim to want a more diverse composition, and if this is really the goal, we have to remove the kind of behavior that makes it hard for people from marginalized groups to succeed.

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