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Michael_PJ comments on Setting Community Norms and Values: A response to the InIn Open Letter - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Michael_PJ 27 October 2016 07:20:54PM *  10 points [-]

This concerns me because "EA" is such a vaguely defined group.

Here are some clearly defined groups:

  • The EA FB group
  • The EA forum
  • Giving What We Can

All of these have a clear definition of membership and a clear purpose. I think it is entirely sensible for groups like this to have some kinds of rules, and processes for addressing and potentially ejecting people who don't conform to those rules. Because the group has a clear membership process, I think most people will accept that being a member of the group means acceding to the rules of the group.

"EA", on the other hand, is a post hoc label for a group of people who happened to be interested in the ideas of effective altruism. One does not "apply" to be an "EA". Nor does can we meaningfully revoke membership except by collectively refusing to engage with someone.

I think that attempts to police the borders of a vague group like "EA" can degenerate badly.

Firstly, since anyone who is interested in effective altruism has a plausible claim to be a member of "EA" under the vague definition, there will continue to be many people using the label with no regards for any "official" definition.

Secondly (and I hope this won't happen), such a free-floating label is very vulnerable to political (ab)use. We open ourselves up to arguments about whether or not someone is a "true" EA, or schisms between various "official" definitions. At risk of bringing up old disagreements, the arguments about vegetarian catering at last year's EA Global were already veering in this direction.

This seems to me to have been a common fate for vague group nouns over the years, with feminism being the most obvious example. We don't want to have wars between the second- and third-wave EAs!

My preferred solution is to avoid "EA" as a noun. Apart from the dangers I mentioned above, its origin as a label for an existing group of people gives it all sorts of connotations that are only really valid historically: rationalist thinking style, frank discussion norms, appreciation of contrarianism ... not to mention being white, male, and highly educated. But practically, having such a label is just too useful.

The only other suggestion I can think of is to make a clearly defined group for which we have community norms. For lack of a better name, we could call it "CEA-style EA". Then the CEA website could include a page that describes the core values of "CEA-style EAs" and some expectations of behaviour. At that point we again have a clearly defined group with a clear membership policy, and policing the border becomes a much easier job.

In practice, you probably wouldn't want an explicit application process, with it rather being something that you can claim for yourself - unless the group arbiter (CEA) has actively decreed that you cannot. Indeed, even if someone has never claimed to be a "CEA-style EA", declaring that they do not meet the standard can send a powerful signal.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 October 2016 10:39:49PM 3 points [-]

I think maybe this could be a way to implement what Will is suggesting. (Similar to your "CEA-style EA" notion?)

This seems to me to have been a common fate for vague group nouns over the years, with feminism being the most obvious example. We don't want to have wars between the second- and third-wave EAs!

The essay "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" is a discussion of problems in the feminist movement due to lack of structure.

Comment author: Rick 27 October 2016 11:42:38PM 3 points [-]

I would strongly advise against using the Freeman article, which is very out of date and doesn't represent the almost 50 years of progress in feminist thought that have come after it. In particular, intersectional feminism, which has now become one of the leading types of feminism, directly challenges the thoughts that Freeman put down, noting that the structures in feminism actually consistently were used to silence voices within the movement that did not fit within the mainstream. Crenshaw wrote one of the seminal articles on this, but there are many other modern authors who also share this view.

Silencing of voices within a movement is a really important issue:  many women in the civil rights movement were silenced in the name of ‘black unity’ (Audre Lorde is a good source on this); even today bisexual people have trouble finding a place in the LGBTQ movement (example); genderqueer women, transsexual women, non-hetero women, and women of color consistently are sidelined in women’s rights movements (Lorde again, she’s amazing); and national identities can be used to silence dissenters of any type. In the best of cases, these cases consisted of silencing the concerns of multiple members of the movement, in the worst of cases the ensuing dehumanization (“you are a danger to the cause!”) led to violence.

I've heard of people who don't fit the 'traditional EA mold' feel that this is happening in EA as well (quick example here). Even if it's not direct sanction, feeling that you are "not EA enough" can still create a problem.

Long story short, structure is bad, long live structurelessness.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 October 2016 01:00:14AM *  4 points [-]

I read a few pages of the Crenshaw article you linked. I'm not sure I see the two authors disagreeing. Every time Crenshaw talks about "structure", she's referring to the structure of society as a whole, which she sees as oppressive. Freeman's point is that just because society at large has an oppressive structure doesn't mean we should give up on the idea of structure altogether.

Re: silencing, the "Tyranny of Structurelessness" essay presented a mechanism by which this might occur under structurelessness that seemed pretty plausible to me. But even if it is actually the result of too much structure, I'm not sure that invalidates Freeman's arguments either. If what Freeman says is true, and structurelessness also has serious downsides, that means you want to strike a balance.

Like Michael_PJ, I see the outcome feminism arrived at as one we should work to avoid. So if structurelessness is popular among feminists, I don't see that as a very strong recommendation.

Comment author: Rick 28 October 2016 01:29:22AM 2 points [-]

A nice balance is probably best overall, good point. Although, I do think it may be worth looking into replicating the intellectual diversity that feminism developed over time (while avoiding the pitfalls, inshallah) - it might be something that could benefit the movement going forward.

Comment author: casebash 28 October 2016 09:02:00AM *  1 point [-]

The current situation in feminism is that if people feel you are being a bad feminist, then they write public critiques, they denounce you, they protest you, ect. This is incredibly divisive and it is not what we want to emulate, which is why we are proposing a more formal mechanism.

EDIT: I feel that my comment was a lazy comment and could probably have been more nuanced. I didn't mean that all feminists act it this way, just that there is a major issue with this occurring within feminism.

Comment author: Rick 28 October 2016 01:19:49PM 15 points [-]

I am sorry to hear that your encounters with feminism have primarily been divisive. My experience has been a bit different, and it may help for me to go into some quick details (OK, actually this post became quite long, which I apologize for - it's probably approaching blog length) and draw parallels with EA.

It took me a year to actually start engaging with EA. I love cost effectiveness, marginal thinking, and rigorously thinking about how to do the most good. My friends and colleagues do as well, but they do not engage with EA. To me, EA appeared, from the outside, to be a group that lays claim to something that is not unique to them, and then looks down on others - a very insular community with members that actively trash and condescend people who 'are not EA enough'. Other critics have expressed this view as well, and my initial forays into EA did not help this perception - some of my views are not standard EA views, and I had multiple people without economics backgrounds jump on me to explain that I was wrong while condescendingly explaining basic economics to me. This would be fine, if they were actually correct to do so - most of the times the loudest critiques were the most rudimentary and off the mark (for reference, I got my masters in economics and work directly in integrating economic thinking into aid programs, so I have a decent idea of what bad economic thinking looks like). Needless to say, these experiences and others left a sour taste in my mouth, and so I stopped engaging for a while.

This is similar to some people's experiences with feminism - when initially trying to break in, it can seem like a very insular community driven entirely by yelling at people who are not 'feminist enough'. I liked feminist ideals in undergrad, similar to how I enjoyed EA ideals, but avoided it because my perception was that I would not get anything from engaging in feminism because I would be expunged for 'not being feminist enough' (similar to why I avoided EA). I also didn't see a clear reason for engaging, since many of my friends already had feminist ideals without being a direct part of the feminist movement (similar to my friends and colleagues who hold EA ideas without engaging with EA).

The moment that really changed everything was in the first year of my masters, where I was hitting a economic problem that the tools I was using just could not solve - I went to my adviser, complaining that no one seemed to have thought about this problem before, to which he retorted "you know that the feminist economists have been working on this for decades, right? Talk to Professor XYZ and they'll help you". And I did, and next thing I knew I was getting a specialty in gender analysis of economics - because as I started to get more involved, I realized that behind that initial barrier was a rich world of diverse thinking on a variety of topics. I truly believe now that the most advanced and innovative thinking in economics today comes from feminist economists.

And it wasn't just academic feminists - once I got past that initial barrier, I started looking more into the very groups I originally avoided, and I soon realized that a lot of feminist activists were actively fighting to break down the barrier that I encountered, by advocating for 'calling in' rather than 'calling out' (among other things). Once you're inside, it is a very supportive and tolerant community, and it has helped me (and many others) grow as a person and as a thinker more than anything else in my life has.

Going back to EA, as I mentioned before there is a very similar barrier, in which to an outside person a lot of the people 'representing EA' online can be quite nasty to outsiders and divergent views. Once I got past this initial barrier, I realized that the majority of people identifying with EA are actually quite nice, and I realized that there are many in the EA movement who are actively trying to make people's first experience of EA more amicable and to make the movement as a whole more tolerant and respective of divergent views. It's essentially the EA movement's equivalent of the 'calling-in' problem, and the point that these discussions are happening make me very hopeful for the future.

None of this really helps answer the 'what about a formal mechanism' question directly, I just want to try and express my belief that better engagement with social movements like feminism (all of whom have dealt with similar problems to the EA movement!) is important. Offhand saying that 'feminism failed on this point, so we can't learn from them' without really engaging with members of the feminist movement is not a strong way forward.

In terms of examples off the top of my head of how feminist actors have tried to mitigate the 'bad actor' problem, my first thought is the issue of problematic 'allies'. The response has to write guidance (less formal version here) on how to be a good ally, and to generally set forth 'community norms' that show up in various places (blogs, posters, listservs, whatever). When someone does not adhere to these norms, in the best of cases you can help them understand why going against the norm is bad and help them be a better ally, and in the worst of situations the movement as a whole at least has some plausible deniability ("don't tell us that person is representative of us, they're clearly breaking all of the norms that we've clearly detailed all of these places!").

Comment author: AGB 28 October 2016 04:09:32PM 4 points [-]

I'm sorry to hear that your initial impression of EA, much like your initial impression of feminism, consisted of 'multiple people without economics backgrounds jump on me to explain that I was wrong while condescendingly explaining basic economics to me'. That's a problem, and we should try to fix it.

Feminism has the same problem, I would argue on a much grander scale. If feminism is making progress towards solving this problem, I haven't noticed; if anything the direction of travel seems to be the other way. You observe that 'once you're inside, it's a very supportive and tolerant community', but that's very much beside the point. The problem we're trying to solve is not how the community feels on the inside, it's how it looks from the outside. On this score I really sincerely doubt feminism is a good example to look at, however nice (most of) the actual people involved are when you directly interact with them, which I'm sure they are.

I think to really counter this you need to argue that feminism actually has better external optics than I and casebash think it does.

Comment author: Rick 28 October 2016 04:21:51PM 9 points [-]

Ah, I see the issue now - you are assuming that I'm saying that feminism has a model that we should directly emulate, whereas I am just saying that they are dealing with similar issues, and we have things to learn from them. In short, there are leaders in feminism who have been working on this issue, with some limited success and yes, a lot of failures. However, even if they were completely 100% failing, then there is still a very important thing that we can learn from them: what have they tried that didn't work? It is just as important to figure out pitfalls and failed projects as it is to try and find successful case studies.

The key is getting that conversation started, and comparing notes. Your perception of feminism and the problems therein may change in the process, but most importantly we all may learn some important lessons that can be applied in EA (even if they do consist primarily of "hey this one solution really doesn't work, if you do anything, do something else").

If you are truly 100% not convinced that we can learn this from feminism, then that's OK: you can talk to leaders of any other social movement instead, since many of them have dealt with and thought about similar problems. Your local union reps may be a good place to start!

Comment author: AGB 28 October 2016 04:32:47PM 6 points [-]

"However, even if they were completely 100% failing, then there is still a very important thing that we can learn from them: what have they tried that didn't work? It is just as important to figure out pitfalls and failed projects as it is to try and find successful case studies."

This is completely fair. You're right that I thought you were suggesting we should emulate, which on closer inspection isn't an accurate reading of your post.

With that said, my experience of talking to the 'nice' people more internal to feminism (which includes my soon-to-be-wife, among others) about this is that they tend to deny or excuse the external optics problems, rather than making a bona fide attempt to deal with them. You can't compare notes if they don't have notes. If you know leaders who are aware of and actually trying to fix the problem, then I agree you should talk to them and I hope you do learn something of their positive or negative experiences which we might be able to apply.

Comment author: Rick 28 October 2016 04:39:13PM 1 point [-]

Yeah, I can see how that could be an issue, and honestly I do lean towards the "the external optics problem is the patriarchy's fault, not ours - telling us that we are 'not nice enough' is just a form of silencing, and you wouldn't listen to us anyway if we were 'nicer'" viewpoint, but I can see how that can make this discussion difficult. I'm just mostly hoping that the discussions on 'calling-in' within feminism move forward - even a quick google search shows that it's popping up on a lot of the feminist sights targeted to younger audiences - it may be on oncoming change, and hopefully it'll pick up steam.

Congratulations on your engagement by the way!

Comment author: casebash 28 October 2016 10:19:44PM *  0 points [-]

This is an excellent comment that clarifies a lot. I completely agree with everything you've said in this comment, but I also agree with AGB that, at least from an outsider's perspective, it is hard to find people within feminism who have "notes" that we could learn from. Of course, an insider like yourself would likely have a much better ability to locate such ideas.

Comment author: casebash 28 October 2016 09:54:24PM *  2 points [-]

Thanks for providing such a detailed comment as a response to what I must admit was one of my lazier comments.

I should make my critique more nuanced. I don't believe that all feminists or even the majority of feminists are involved in or necessarily support the kind of witch-hunts or social shaming that I see occurring on a regular basis. My claim is simply a) these witchhunts occur b) they occur regularly c) feminism does not appear (from my admittedly limited external perspective) to have made much progress dealing with this issue. That said, I will definitely read the "calling in" vs. "calling out" article.

I have to agree with AGB that most feminists seem relatively unconcerned with these issues. They may point out that this is not all feminists or even most feminists and that it is unfair to hold them responsible for the actions of other actors; both of which are true. Nonetheless, they generally fail to acknowledge that this is a systematic issue within feminism or that feminism tends to have these occur more often or with more viciousness than in many other movements. Furthermore, if this kinds of incidents occurred within EA at even a fraction of the rate that they seem to occur within feminism, then I would be incredibly concerned. This holds even if the amount of drama within feminism is "normal" - a "normal" amount of drama would still not be good for the movement.

After all, they reason, some incidents will always occur in any movement once it reaches a certain size. I, and many only observers, think that, on the contrary this is a problem that is especially bad for feminism and is a directly result of several ideas existing within the movement without any corresponding counter-balancing ideas. Nonetheless, I cannot provide any proof of this, because this is not the kind of statement that can easily be verified.

Let's take for example the idea that external optics is the fault of the patriarchy. It is undoubtedly true that much of the criticism of feminism, especially from the right, is extremely unfair and motivated because feminism is challenging certain "patriarchial" ideas, such as traditional ideas of the family and gender. On the other hand, this can be used as a fully general purpose response to all criticism and it makes it very easy for people to dismiss criticism. On the other hand, within EA, there is a social norm that it is acceptable to Devil's Advocate any criticism, without anyone doubting that you are on their side.

Another idea is the concept of "mansplaining". I'm sure that many men do come into conversations with an extremely limited view or understanding. But again, this serves as a fully general purpose counter-argument and it would be against EA social norms to use an ad hominem to dismiss someone's argument just for being somewhat naive.

So even though many EAs may believe that the current criticism is largely poor quality and motivated by entrenched interests or "emotional" arguments and even though many EAs may fail to intellectually respect their opponents (as per your critiques), the current social norms act to limit the damage by ensuring a minimum standard of decency.

Regarding economics, you are probably right that many EAs with think that they know more economics than they actually do. I make this mistake sometimes. This is definitely a problem - but at least it is a better situation compared to most other social movements. I continually hear critiques of capitalism from people with no economics knowledge whatsoever (some people with economics knowledge also critique capitalism, but these are drowned out out by the mass of people without such knowledge). EA seems to have a high enough proportion of economics majors or otherwise quantitative people, that a large proportion will have enough economics exposure to produce at least a shallow understanding of economics. This has its disadvantages, but I still consider it superior to them having no knowledge.

I'm not convinced that the "Ally" formula is an example of successful mitigation. I imagine that some people have certainly been bad allies in the past, which has motivated these issues, but I am also worried that it will harm the intellectual diversity of the feminism movement by limiting the ability of allies to defend views that don't match that of the movement as a whole.

Comment author: Raemon 27 October 2016 10:50:41PM 1 point [-]

I think I like the ideas suggested here better than the various permutations suggested elsewhere. Or at least agree with the concerns raised.