This is a post I wrote up a little while ago and recently decided to share here. I suspect its lessons will lack external validity beyond the US, but I'm curious to hear if anything resonates with non-US students. 

I take as a prima facie good that we want to increase recruitment and retention, regardless of political inclination. If you want to bemoan the prospect of diluted epistemics or weigh the merits of left-wing students vis-à-vis moderates, you can go nuts in the comments.


Spaces and Bodies: Appropriating Leftist Rhetoric for EA Retention

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” — Nelson Mandela

In two years of introducing college students to Effective Altruism, I have consistently found that leftist political beliefs can inhibit the retention of promising EAs. I’m not referring to your garden variety college liberals, who constitute the majority at many schools, nor the more elusive old-guard Marxists (though the objections of this latter group, including the neglected longrun returns to community organizing, deserve their own attention). Instead, I am referring to students who “move in activist spaces,” focusing on issues like criminal justice, climate change, sexual violence, and immigration reform. 

I attend a very liberal university, where I have worked with an even more liberal housing justice organization for the past four years, including most recently as its director, so I am receptive to these students’ objections, but I often find them specious. I have also talked to other students who lived with a foot in both worlds before rejecting EA in favor of activism (or vice versa). I hope this post will equip community builders to anticipate, pre-empt, and address the concerns of college leftists because this group is worth recruiting and retaining.

Language

Leftist rhetoric abounds with poetic terms like “spaces,” “bodies,” and “ways of knowing/being.” I won’t attempt an exhaustive list, but I encourage community builders to familiarize themselves with these phrases and deploy them appropriately. Here are four opportunities that often arise when introducing students to EA.

PlayPumps

Many introductory college fellowships begin with Doing Good Better, and MacAskill’s account of PlayPumps International elicits universal disgust. Social justice-minded students might identify the PlayPumps debacle as a failure of accountability. Activist organizations sometimes ask “Who do we stand accountable to in our work?” By developing such a flawed product and then doubling down when those flaws were exposed, PlayPumps demonstrated that it was not accountable to the communities it professed to serve.

QALYs

When discussing global health and development, QALYs arise to intermediate tradeoffs between the duration and severity of ailments, as well as the severity of qualitatively distinct ailments (e.g., blindness vs malnutrition). In these conversations, you can reassure students that QALY estimates derive from surveys of people with lived experiences of various health conditions. Making this connection can prove useful because identitarian organizations often emphasize that they “ground their work in lived experience” or “center the voices of people with lived experience.”

Global Health & Development

More broadly, when discussing this issue area, I think community builders should not shy away from terms like oppression and imperialism. In fact, you may find it useful to counter people’s commitments to proximal issues like police brutality by presenting donations to global health causes as reparations. Leftist students are likely to hold that their country is responsible for the suffering that these donations could address, and they also likely believe that they have personally inherited the benefits of this exploitation, strengthening their sense of reparative obligation.

Career Choices

While we have good reason to avoid guilt framings when we introduce newcomers to EA, some people react positively to discussion of the privileges of high income and career flexibility that attend living in a rich Western country. Simple online tools can convince students who might not consider themselves wealthy of their relative position in the distribution of global resources. Some students express that, as the children of immigrants, they find it particularly difficult to justify their unconventional career paths and donation decisions to their families. I find that it can be useful to proactively identify this concern. 

Framing

Beyond your specific language, activist students might be more receptive to certain ways of packaging EA concepts. Here are five instances of framing that I have found useful.

Optimism

Progressives are invested in bringing about a better world, and leftists are often interested in “imagining” just alternatives to the status quo. To accommodate this mentality, you can indulge in some flowery longtermist utopianism of the “music we lack the ears to hear” variety. Some might find it cheesy, but if they respond well, you can direct them to The Precipice for a masterclass in this technique. 

Examples

You can gain some trust by drawing on social justice cause areas to illustrate your points. For example, slavery in the US evokes the possibility of an ongoing moral catastrophe, and criminal justice reform presents tractable opportunities to do good. See the introduction to What We Owe the Future for a thorough example.

Selflessness

If you encounter reluctance to deprioritize pet causes that "feel more meaningful," you can point out that privileging one’s emotional experience over the needs of those served is a feature of voluntourism programs. These students likely view voluntourism as an outlet for white guilt that fails to benefit those purportedly served. With global health and development, specifically, you should anticipate debate over the white savior complex. As a cautionary note, however, I think pointing out features of white supremacy culture is ultimately a losing game for EAs right now; for example, many of the characteristics in this popular article apply to EA, including suspicion of emotional decision-making.)

Diversity

If your conversation tends to center Will MacAskill, Toby Ord, and Peter Singer, you can sympathize with your students’ frustration over the influence of these three white men. But this frustration should motivate us to expand recruitment rather than reject EA entirely. 

Playing God

Another common objection implicates us for “playing God.” I think the best response involves problematizing the act-omission distinction as Holly Elmore does in this passage: “Making better choices through conscious triage is no more ‘playing God’ than blithely abdicating responsibility for the effects of our actions. Both choices are choices to let some live and others die. The only difference is that the person who embraces triage has a chance to use their brain to improve the outcome.” If you dig deeper into this objection, you may find that it is justified on epistemic grounds; ie, "who am I to make this decision on someone else's behalf?" If this is the case, you can respond that EA takes epistemic humility very seriously, but there are of course some circumstances under which we have enough information to act in someone else's best interests (eg performing CPR).

Cause Areas

There are some further points that might resonate with activist students when discussing particular cause areas and interventions.

Factory Farming

There are a number of ways that factory farms hurt the worst-off people in our society, including dangerous working conditions, air and water pollution, and violations of indigenous values.

Cash Transfers

Students who work with people experiencing homelessness will be painfully familiar with the paternalism that plagues social services. Just as individuals often harbor reservations about giving money to panhandlers, many nonprofits will only provide in-kind support to their clients. Donations to GiveDirectly, then, might appeal to students as a means to disrupt the usual paternalistic logic of nonprofits. Doing Good Better presents cash transfers as a benchmark against which other interventions should be compared: there is a burden of proof to justify why another intervention might outperform cash transfers (e.g., if there is no market for the service). And GiveWell employs this reasoning in their recommendation process.

Structural Change

You should endorse it. Dismissing structural change would be a nonstarter for many activist students, particularly if the justification is tantamount to “the revolution is low-probability.” Make sure they read That One Article. In addition to being bullish on systemic change, these students may be extra averse to charity, particularly since the release of Dean Spade’s essay “Solidarity Not Charity.” But even the most committed activists recognize the importance of mutual aid and harm reduction, even though they do not target root causes. And, after all, Friedrich Engels may have been the first person who earned-to-give (but you probably don’t want to bring up the rest of that article).
 

Students with experience in social justice organizing can become valuable assets to EA, and I think these suggestions are simple to incorporate into conversations, so it is worth the time to tailor our messaging to these newcomers.

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It seems incredibly important that EA, as a community, maintains extremely high epistemic standards and is a place where we can generally assume that people, while not necessarily having the same worldviews or beliefs as us, can communicate openly and honestly about the reasons for why they're doing things. A primary reason for this is just the scale and difficulty of the things that we're doing.

That's what makes me quite uncomfortable with saying global health and development work is reparation for harms that imperialist countries have caused poor countries! We should work on aid to poor countries because it's effective, because we have a chance to use a relatively small-to-us amount of money to save lives and wildly improve the conditions of people in poor countries—not because aid represents reparations from formerly imperial countries to formerly subjugated ones

I think many people who identify with social justice and leftist ideologies are worth recruiting and retaining. But I care more about our community having good epistemics in general, about being able to notice when we are doing things correctly and when we are not, and conveying our message honestly seems really important for this. This objection is not "leftists have bad epistemics," like you mentioned at the start of this article - you should increase recruitment and retention but not lower your own epistemic standards as a communicator to do so.

I think parts of this post are quite good, and I think when you can do low-cost things that don't lower your epistemic standards (like using social justice focused examples, supporting the increase of diversity in your movement, saying things that you actually believe in order to support your arguments in ways that connect with people). But I think this post at the current moment needs a clear statement of not lowering epistemic standards when doing outreach to be advice that helps overall.

The goal with roping in the anti-imperialist crowd should be "come for the deontological thing (i.e. justice or reparations), stay for the consequentialist thing (i.e. independent of history, looking forward, the next right thing to do is help)." The first part (where we essentially platform deontology) doesn't actually seem super dangerous to me, in the way that compromising on epistemics is dangerous. 

I agree with quinn. I'm not sure what the mechanism is by which we end up with lowered epistemic standards. If an intro fellow is the kind of person who weighs reparative obligations very heavily in their moral calculus, then deworming donations may very well satisfy this obligation for them. This is not an argument that motivates me very much, but it may still be a true argument. And making true arguments doesn't seem bad for epistemics? Especially at the point where you might be appealing to people who are already consequentialists, just consequentialists with a developed account of justice that attends to reparative obligations.

I think some of the gain from using language that appeals to this flavor of left wing students/activists … … will come at the cost of turning off people who find this stuff (woolly language, emotion and enecdotr over logic, blaming/shaming people born into the dominant group, criticising ‘white saviours’ etc.) repugnant.

The people turned off by this stuff may not speak up about it, because it makes them a target. But I suspect that many people are indeed in this category. And the fact that EA doesn’t doing this stuff/doesn’t speak this language … is a hidden strength and an appealing feature we should not lightly discard.

Ya maybe if your fellows span a broad political spectrum, then you risk alienating some and you have to prioritize. But the way these conversations actually go in my experience is that one fellow raises an objection, eg "I don't trust charities to have the best interests of the people they serve at heart." And then it falls to the facilitator to respond to this objection, eg "yes, PlayPumps illustrates this exact problem, and EA is interested in improving these standards so charities are actually accountable to the people they serve," etc. 

My sense is that the other fellows during this interaction will listen respectfully, but they will understand that the interaction is a response to one person's idiosyncratic qualms, and that the facilitator is tailoring their response to that person's perspective. The interaction is circumscribed by that context, and the other fellows don't come away with the impression that EA only cares about accountability. In other words, the burden of representation is suspended somewhat in these interactions.

If we were writing an Intro to EA Guide, for example, I think we would have to be much more careful about the political bent of our language because the genre would be different.

That makes sense in that context. Still I think that generally bringing in people to EA under the pretence that it is substantially lefty in these ways and accommodating to this style of discourse could have possibly negative consequences. If these people join and use this language in explaining EA to others it might end up turning others off.

Thanks for writing this. I think you do an excellent job on the rhetoric issues like language and framing. These seem like good methods for building coalitions around some specific policy issue, or deflecting criticism. 

But I'm not sure they're good for actually bringing people into the movement, because at times they seem a little disingenuous. EA opposition to factory farming has nothing to do with indigenous values - EAs are opposed to it taking place in any country, regardless of how nicely or otherwise people historically treated animals there. Similarly EA aid to Africa is because we think it is a good way of helping people, not because we think any particular group was a net winner or loser from the slave trade. If we're going to try to recruit someone, I feel like we should make it clear that EA is not just a flavour of woke, and explicitly contradicts it at times.

As well as seeming a bit dishonest, I think it could have negative consequences to recruit people in this way. We generally don't just want people who have been lead to agree on some specific policy conclusions, but rather those who are on board with the whole way of thinking. There has been a lot of press written about the damages to workplace cohesion, productivity and mission focus from hiring SJWs, and if even the Bernie Sanders campaign is trying to "Stop hiring activists" it could probably be significantly worse if your employees had been hired expecting a very woke environment and were then disappointed. 

Oh wow. I knew the situation in leftist orgs was bad, but I didn't expect it to be quite this bad. I think reading this has made me grow more grateful for the relative sanity of EA orgs as a result.

I don't think anything here attempts a representation of "the situation in leftist orgs" ? But yes lol same

I don't know what you mean by "anything here," but I'm referring to the link that Larks shared.

Oh I see! Ya, crazy stuff. I liked the attention it paid to the role of foundation funding. I've seen this critique of foundations included in some intro fellowships, so I wonder if it would also especially resonate with leftists who are fed up with cancel culture in light of the Intercept piece.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/MCuvxbPKCkwibpcPz/how-to-talk-to-lefties-in-your-intro-fellowship?commentId=YwQme9B2nHoH6fXeo

I think one of the best narratives we can use with leftists/social justice types is allyship: EA is, in practice, about being allies to marginalized populations that lack the resources to improve their own welfare, such as the global poor, non-human animals, and people/beings who are yet to be born. We do this by using evidence to reason about what interventions would help these populations, and in the case of global poverty, we factor poor people's preferences about different types of outcomes into our decision-making.

There's another whole category of discussion that you didn't mention that strongly touches on the class and opulence topics, even though those would come up later in the EA onboarding funnel than intro fellowships: lefties are quite likely to experience cognitive dissonance at conferences with catering staff, coworking spaces with staff, the however-many star hotel in the bahamas, etc. because lefties tend to see the world from the lens of the staff and not from the lens of the customers. This seems to have a lot to do with lefties working those jobs themselves. 

Heck, I can't go into a restaurant I used to run deliveries for (now that I'm in IT and am a customer) without at least a quarter of a moral crisis, without obsessing over trying to be the least bad customer in the joint, etc. I know the sexy thing in EA right now is emphatically not people who see the world that way, we're going after optimal careerists from the upper classes and so on, but in the case of lefty retention in particular (insofar as that even matters), this is a critical consideration. 

“Lefties are quite likely to experience cognitive dissonance at conferences with catering staff…”

 

are you saying that Lefties will experience cognitive dissonance because they don’t believe in going to things that have working class staff? Or that they will feel unease seeing people less fortunate than them? Or am I missing something here?

I am skeptical that people who are so subject to framing effects that the strategies used in this post are required to convince them of ideas are the kinds of people you should be introducing to your EA group.

The reason EA can do as much good as it can is because of its high level of epistemic rigor. If you pull in people with a lower-than-EA-average level of epistemic rigor, this lowers EA as a whole's ability to do good. This may be a good idea if we're very people-constrained, and can't find anyone with an EA average or greater than EA average level of epistemic rigor.

However, though EA is people-constrained, it is also very small, and so I very much doubt you can't find anyone with a greater level of epistemic rigor than these insanely-framing-effect-susceptible folks, and I encourage you, and all other group organizers, to take such people's inability to be convinced by arguments that don't pattern-match to arguments-from-my-tribe as a deep blessing!

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/MCuvxbPKCkwibpcPz/how-to-talk-to-lefties-in-your-intro-fellowship?commentId=YwQme9B2nHoH6fXeo

This is a response to D0TheMath, quinn, and Larks, who all raise some version of this epistemic concern:

(1) Showing how EA is compatible with leftist principles requires being disingenuous about EA ideas —> (2) recruit people who join solely based on framing/language —> (3) people join the community who don't really understand what EA is about —> (4) confusion!

The reason I am not concerned about this line of argumentation is that I don't think it attends to the ways people decide whether to become more involved in EA.

(2) In my experience, people are most likely to drop out of the fellowship during the first few weeks, while they're figuring out their schedules for the term and weighing whether to make the program one of their commitments. During this period, I think newcomers are easily turned off by the emphasis on quantification and triage. The goal is to find common ground on ideas with less inferential distance so fellows persevere through this period of discomfort and uncertainty. To earn yourself some weirdness points that you can spend in the weeks to come, eg when introducing X risks. So people don't join solely based on framing/language; rather, these are techniques to extend a minimal degree of familiarity to smart and reasonable people who would otherwise fail to give the fellowship a chance.

(3) I think it's very difficult to maintain inaccurate beliefs about EA for long. These will be dispelled as the fellowship continues and students read more EA writing, as they continue on to an in-depth fellowship, as they begin their own exploration of the forum, and as they talk to other students who are deeper in the EA fold. Note that all of these generally occur prior to attending EAG or applying for an EA internship/job, so I think it is likely that they will be unretained before triggering the harms of confusion in the broader community. 

(I'm also not conceding (1), but it's not worth getting into here.)

In these conversations, you can reassure students that QALY estimates derive from surveys of people with lived experiences of various health conditions

Is this true, as an empirical matter? My (very) brief understanding of the literature is that it's mostly done on random samples of the population (which includes both healthy and unhealthy people), rather than lived experiences of people who actually have such health conditions (in other words, the evidence is anticipatory rather than experiential).

Your understanding is mostly correct. But I often mention this (genuinely very cool) corrective study to the types of political believers described in this post, and they've really liked it too: https://www.givewell.org/research/incubation-grants/IDinsight-beneficiary-preferences-march-2019 [edit: initially this comment began with "mostly yes" which I meant as a response to the second sentence but looked like a response to the first, so I changed it to "your understanding is mostly correct."]

That seems a bit misleading since the IDinsight study, while excellent, is not actually the basis for QALY estimates as used in e.g. the Global Burden of Disease report. My understanding is that it informs the way givewell and open philanthropy trade off health vs income, but nothing more than that.

That puts EA in an even better light!

"While the rest of the global health community imposes its values on how trade-offs should be made, the most prominent global health organisation in EA actually surveys and asks what the recipients prefer."

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That's also simply not true because EAs use off-the-shelf DALY/QALY estimates from other organizations all the time. And this is only about health vs income tradeoffs, not health measurement, which is what QALY/DALY estimates actually do.

Edit: as a concrete example, Open Phil's South Asian air quality report takes its DALY estimates from the State of Global Air report, which is not based on any beneficiary surveys.

Yeah, you're right.

I'm not familiar with the Global Burden of Disease report, but if Open Phil and GiveWell are using it to inform health/income tradeoffs it seems like it would play a pretty big role in their grantmaking (since the bar for funding is set by being a certain multiple more effective than GiveDirectly!) [edit: also, I just realized that my comment above looked like I was saying "mostly yes" to the question of "is this true, as an empirical matter?" I agree this is misleading. I meant that Linch's second sentence was mostly true; edited to reflect that.]

Again, it informs only how they trade off health and income. The main point of DALY/QALYs is to measure health effects. And in that regard, EA grantmakers use off-the-shelf estimates of QALYs rather than calculating them. Even if they were to calculate them, the IDinsight study does not have anything in it that would be used to calculate QALYs, it focuses solely on income vs health tradeoffs.

Right, I'm just pointing out that the health/income tradeoff is a very important input that affects all of their funding recommendations.

As far as I am aware, it is not true.  Given most health conditions are rare, and even common health conditions are experienced by a minority of the population, DALY and QALY valuations are mostly produced by people with no lived experience of the condition they are ranking.

Thank you for writing this post that I disliked. It is, for the record, well written. 

I'm sure I'll fail to dig up links, but I've seen intralefty dissent about the "bodies" thing, so I'm really not inclined to try to be more appealing to someone who really likes the word "bodies". 

You wrote

go nuts in the comments

And the nuts I'd like to go today consist of my pet theory that language is the number one ailment of the left, and the very last lever we should try in increasing retention (which, by the way, I don't inherently endorse. I'm not google or amazon, I don't think volume of customers is the most important thing for EA and certainly may not be the best thing for EA, but that is a totally different rant). 

The crux about the "ways of knowing/being" and "lived experience" is actually standpoint epistemology (SE). Seems like not a small literature, I've just figured EA has enough philosophy majors that one of them can handle it which is one reason I haven't gotten around to doing a writeup on it for the forum myself (the enterprising reader will notice that there's still a couple months left of the redteaming contest, nudge nudge). The way I tend to break it down when I'm in your shoes is literally ask "when do you think SE would outperform expertise from someone who's trying really hard but doesn't have skin in the game?", then I use cancer to show SE's limitations (we do not trust cancer patients more than cancer specialists when we're reasoning about what causes tumors to grow or shrink), then I just say "I believe that such n such cause area is a region of the world where SE can be outperformed by so n so experts". And I'd rather identify cruxes, agree to disagree, and go our separate ways than hand out speech welfare to SE. A rather strong version of the claim is that even racism, a domain that tends to make SE look it's best, doesn't inherently require you to have skin in the game if you want to come up with ways to fix it, but I don't think a properly EA rejection of SE is necessarily an endorsement of this strong version. 

A rather uncharitable take is that after several years in the left I decided that they were mostly defined by an arms race to see who could complain most poetically and had very little to do with fixing anything, and there's an associated claim that memeplexes are upstream of behavior, that you can detect this tendency to merely complain in the vocabulistics. Now you might point out the good works in the community - people earnestly looking for levers in the CJR space, or food not bombs volunteers - but I would claim that if you look at their information diets, there's a great deal of zines and artworks that have this poeticism problem. My pet theory is that this information diet contributes to burnout, because it's all very "capitalism is unbelievably intractable => it's most likely better to minimize your impact on the world and not be categorical-imperativey about the petty crimes you commit because such n such poem made the crime sexy", it's not conducive to any movement with any useful properties at all. 

So no, my friend, it's going to be a hard pass from me on language as a lever to increase our lefty retention. They have systematic ambition-killing agitants in their memeplex, and the best thing we can do for them is help them out of that. 

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/MCuvxbPKCkwibpcPz/how-to-talk-to-lefties-in-your-intro-fellowship?commentId=YwQme9B2nHoH6fXeo

TL;DR  Of Leftists, Leftists that focus on climate disruption and structural change are the most naturally EA-aligned .

 

Thanks for this post, it gives a lot of actionable specifics. This comes from someone that is one of those “a foot in both worlds.”

BTW: I worked a lot on sexual violence prevention and climate disruption in university. (Which I think was very utilitarian. I did BOTECs demonstrating sexual violence was the biggest issue affecting the student population, and working in the small scope of a university campus (bigger fish in a smaller pound) gave me a lot of useful policy and politics experience you don’t get working on national issues (small fish in big pound)).

 

A note to my EA peers:

Don’t let the more vocal reactionary camp of the Left distort your whole view of the community. There are multiple strains of Leftism. In my interactions with non-Leftist EAs, I’ve come across multiple EAs that seem to think Leftists are 90% this reactionary type. My very very very rough guess is that they constitute between 20-40%. 

 

Potentially useful framework to identify low-hanging fruit leftists

I am going to suggest an oversimplified framework that can be helpful for identifying which Leftists/Progressives are most likely to appreciate EA.—A spectrum from reactionary to strategic.

I’ve seen Leftists all across this spectrum in my experience in activist circles. There is a reactionary faction that tends to overlap with the social justice camp that is very fired up about injustices on an identarian basis. My guess is that these are much more time-intensive converts.

The camp that I think is a low-hanging fruit is the camp that my friends and I occupy: strategic Leftists—these are systems thinkers that use a lot of utilitarian reasoning and will be disciplined in trying to reach those ends. My Leftist friends that are EA, EA-sympathetic, and who might become EA in the future are from this camp.

Here are the two highly visible things I would use to approximate where Leftists are on that spectrum:

  1. Cause selection amongst Leftists causes
  2. How much they engage (or don’t) in unconstructive culture war interactions

#1

Look for Leftists that prioritize climate disruption and structural change (i.e. money-in-politics, voting, and other government reforms) because they are likely making those choices based on considerations of existential risk (climate disruption) and return on investment/force-multiplier effect (structural change). A Leftist that isn’t trying to maximize impact and isn’t being strategic are likely the ones that, for example, are one month focused on gun control because of school shootings, the next month focused on pro-choice protests.  

#2

Reactionary Leftists don’t restrain themselves from engaging in the culture war. They feel just and righteous engaging in interactions that likely polarize their opponent even farther from their position. Strategic Leftists know this hurts their agenda and will be more patient and deliberate in their language when engaging with a person with opposing views. They will also know to shift the focus from culture war issues to class/anti-establishment issues with Right-wing populists.

 

Note:

This is my working theory informed by my experiences. There is risk it is not generalizable and that the Leftists friend circle I am in is not representative.

I would be interested in working with anyone on trying to test this framework.

 

What Leftists can offer to EA

  • Good organizers.
    • They have learned to organize and build communities without a lot of money, as well as to thoughtfully build inclusive spaces (caveat: we have seen some of this go overboard to where identity trumps intellectual merit).
  • The value of politics
    • They understand how government is a force multiplier and that most things we care about eventually intersect, or are even bottlenecked by, government and politics.
    • This is why in university I chose to spend my time working on political stuff instead of engaging more with EA. EA has since grown more into appreciating the power of policy and politics, and thus EA needs more talent to scale into this space (and Lefties becoming EAs can help with this).

 

What EAs can offer to Leftists

  • A broader view of existential risk
    • i.e. things other than climate disruption
  • The divergence of justice and effectiveness
    • i.e. in most scenarios you are hurting your agenda through antagonism and shouting people down, even if the other people are engaging in soft bigotry. Leftists need to be more utilitarian in their interactions.
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