Effective Altruism and feminism

Disclaimer stolen from Ben’s blog: “this should probably not be the first thing you read about effective altruism. It’ll give you a pretty biased impression! If that’s you, try something from the reading list I compiled instead.”

So there’s been a bit of arguing on the internet in the past week over whether the Effective Altruism (EA) movement needs to be more inclusive. I was hesitant to comment on this at first, because one of the big things I like about online EA spaces is their relative freedom from the kind of stupid arguments that tend to consume much of the internet. But enough people are already arguing about it that I don’t think adding my 2 cents at this point could hurt. (And, I think sensible people’s aversion to these arguments is sometimes part of the problem.)

Initial disclaimer, the recent discussion has focused on feminism. Ozy’s reaction to that is to say that the EA movement really needs to be more welcoming to religious people. In principle, I agree that we shouldn’t be gratuitously pissing off religious people and it would be wonderful if someone had any great ideas for how to redirect some of the bajillions of dollars that Catholics donate to charity every year to the Against Malaria Foundation. But I don’t have any such great ideas, and I do have things to say on the feminism angle, so I’m going to talk about that.

TLDR; I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a blanket ban on anti-feminists in EA. Apparently some people have (in private) seriously discussed doing that. When people say things like that, they’re thinking of the guy who literally thinks women should be subservient to men, and not thinking of the sex worker who thinks the feminist movement is unfixably messed-up on sex worker’s rights. The latter might be wrong, but that doesn’t mean she should be excluded.

That said, I think there are some cases where people need to be more supportive when someone says, “Hey, here’s this thing that makes me uncomfortable.”

My take on this is partly influenced by the problems by the problems I see in the LessWrong community. LessWrong is distinct from EA, but it helped birth the Bay Area EA community and there’s still a lot of overlap. These are issues I mostly don’t see in more strongly EA-branded spaces like various EA Facebook groups and the EA Forum, but because of the overlap they still end up mattering.

I have a lot of issues with LessWrong, but relevant here is (1) tribalism, in the form of many people having an inflated opinion of the LessWrong in-group and being dismissive of people not in the in-group (2) thinking that worrying about PR is beneath them, and indeed a threat to good rationalist discourse.

So for example, take the original that got people arguing about EA and feminism: Ben Kuhn wrote a post on making the Effective Altruism movement more welcoming, and one of the comments on the post was:

I think this is a great post, but find it ironic that you start with a quote from one of the least welcoming people I’ve encountered in the movement. Being a woman I find it pretty alienating to read posts that talk about ‘the already thin line between feminism and literally being Voldemort’, and the more often I see his vitriolic posts about feminism being endorsed by people in EA the more I question whether I can stay in the movement.

She’s talking about Scott Alexander, who used to be one of the most popular posters on LessWrong before he started his own extremely popular blog, Slate Star Codex. He actually said the Voldemort thing, and Ben had linked to and quoted from another one of Scott’s anti-feminist rants in his post. Mind you, the quote wasn’t about feminism, but Ben apologized for giving the impression he endorsed the post and removed the link (while leaving the quote).

I think this (annonymous) woman’s expression of discomfort was reasonable. Yet people yelled at her for it. And the justifications given for yelling at her are absurd. I’ve seen people–both in Ben’s comments and discussion elsewhere–accusing her of wanting to enforce uniform pro-feminist politics, or dismissing her complaint as being about “insufficiently progressive poltiics”, or claiming talk of being “welcoming” is just ideological code.

But she never said any of that. She said she’s uncomfortable seeing feminism compared to Voldemort. It isn’t hard to imagine an EA movement that isn’t conspicuously feminist or progressive or whatever, but is also free of that kind of vitriol being directed at feminists. This isn’t hard.

Then there’s the people who say, “How could anyone be made to feel uncomfortable by Scott? He’s so charitable to his opponents!” Not when talking about feminists he isn’t–as is obvious when you read his posts on the subject. I think this actually makes the problem worse–Scott likes to talk about how much he believes in being charitable to your opponents, but when he’s charitable to neoreactionaries but not feminists, I suspect for a lot of people this speaks volumes about him.

(Note that I think this is partly LessWrong in-groupyness: there were some neoreactionaries in the LessWrong in-group, but feminists get seen as outsiders.)

Oh, and for the people trying to defend Scott’s feminist credentials, I think it’s worth listening to Scott’s own words on the subject:

I notice that, no matter how many long rants against feminism I write, everyone continues to assume I am a feminist. It’s like, “He doesn’t make too many spelling errors, his writing isn’t peppered with racial slurs – he’s got to be a feminist. He probably just forgot the word ‘not’ in each of his last 228 sentences.”

His writing is not terribly ambiguous on this point. Also Ozy would like people to stop using the fact that zie used to date Scott as evidence of Scott’s feminist credentials, and I suggest people listen to zir.

I say all this, but I also repeat what I said at the beginning of this post that “ban anti-feminists” is a bad idea. If that confuses you, it shouldn’t. When a woman says, “hey, this thing makes me uncomfortable,” there are a lot of ways you can deal with the issue that are in between “ban all anti-feminists” and “yell at her for trying to force a single ideology on your group.”

In this case, you don’t need to ban Scott. If people were more careful about endorsing, or seeming to endorse, his anti-feminist vitriol, I suspect Ben’s commenter would feel a lot more comfortable. Or, heck, if more of Scott’s fans would recognize that “being criticized” kind of comes with the territory of “being a popular blogger who writes about controversial subjects,” and be less knee-jerk defensive of him.

Again, as I indicated at the beginning of this post, there are anti-feminists I sympathize with. That said, I think announcing “I hate feminism!” is still a generally bad idea, because a lot of people are going to take it the wrong way. The fact that I can sympathize with why someone would say p and don’t think they should be kicked out of the movement for saying p doesn’t mean I think saying p is a good idea, or that we shouldn’t be discouraging people from saying things like it, or that it’s a good idea to signal-boost blog posts saying p.

A final point: sensible people rightly dislike these kinds of nasty internet arguments, and tend to wish they’d just go away. And one way to try to make them to away is to offer up a formulaic, “well, both sides did bad things,” or position yourself as the middle ground between the extremes. Which is sometimes the right stance to take, sometimes both sides really are being about equally stupid.

But I think it can be tempting to take that stance even when oh, say, someone voices a reasonable complaint and a bunch of people yell at them for it. Even when you think the initial complaint is reasonable, it can be tempting to think, “well, maybe if I throw the other side a bone, they’ll stop yelling.” But this is a bad dynamic: it means that when something is making someone uncomfortable, they’ll find that even people who think their complaint is reasonable won’t stick up for them, which isn’t going to help them feel comfortable in the movement.

So please: when people are talking about things that make them uncomfortable within the movement, don’t play the “well, both sides…” game, if that’s not what you actually believe.

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