Making discussions in EA groups inclusive

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A draft essay recently posted in the Diversity & Inclusion in EA Facebook group sparked conversation among EAs about what is helpful and what is harmful when it comes to diversity and inclusion in this community. 12+ anonymous contributors subsequently crafted the following article to explain the effects of alienating conversations for those in marginalized communities.

Content note

Under “What is it like?” condescending views towards women are mentioned. Under “Example topics” rape, abuse, victim blaming, eugenics, mercy killings, autonomy, usefulness-based worth and gaslighting are mentioned. Under “Unsure about a discussion topic?” a view that questions the equal worth of disabled people is mentioned.

Document purpose

This document is written by 10 EAs belonging to different groups that are underrepresented in EA, who have experienced feeling alienated by certain discussions within the EA community. We want to provide information about what kind of discussions we have experienced as alienating and why, so that some of the impacts of such discussions can be better examined.

It is our belief that underrepresented groups should have a place in the wider EA community. The scope of this document is not to argue for the inclusion of underrepresented groups in the EA Community.

This document has three audiences in mind: 1. Organizers/moderators for groups that are aimed at underrepresented people in EA. 2. Organizers/moderators for groups that want to create a welcoming and inclusive environment. 3. Individuals in the EA community who want to create a welcoming and inclusive environment around them.

This document will not tell you never to speak of certain topics. The intention of this document is to be informative, not prescriptive. These are difficult decisions and we do not intend to over-simplify them.

We want to provide information so that each person and group can better make decisions about when, how and with whom to have certain discussions. In this way we hope that this document may be a basis for clearer principles of moderation within EA groups.

Please note that on the topic of biases and oppression the references given in this document are intended to be springboards for those who are extra curious. They are not intended to give proof. The ideas we mention in these areas are widely accepted in social psychology and sociology and are added for context. The main purpose of this document is to share our own experiences.

The principle of limiting debate to increase inclusion

First of all, we might ask ourselves how limiting openness to different ideas within a community can ever lead to increased inclusion. We argue that being a part of an inclusive community can sometimes mean refraining from pursuing every last theory or thought experiment to its end in public places. This principle may be easier to understand if we use an extreme example: if someone in an EA group started seriously proposing, using evidence and reasoning, that women are lesser and that humanity would be better off if women were controlled by men, most group members would not want there to be a serious debate on that topic. This because 1. They want to spend their limited time discussing topics that they find more serious and productive rather than explaining to someone the reasons why their science is wrong, their reasoning is poor and their perspective is harmful, 2. They recognize that having people even entertain this possibility can be deeply alienating to women in the community.

Just as it would be exhausting and counterproductive if we had to repeatedly justify whether EA is a good idea in EA groups, it is exhausting and counterproductive when underrepresented groups have to repeatedly justify for instance their equality or that the group should be inclusive for them.

We acknowledge that there is sometimes a trade-off between being inclusive to those who prioritize free exploration of all ideas and being inclusive to those who want a respite from discussion they find exhausting or damaging. Like most EAs, we have ideals of openness and rational discussion. We also believe, however, that the current average level of openness in EA communities to ideas that negatively affect underrepresented groups is contributing to the alienation of many EAs. We feel that different levels of openness can be appropriate for different spaces.

On truth and limiting debate

We do not want to spend the majority of this document talking about truth, because we feel that if people in underrepresented groups are truly seen as equal then them feeling comfortable in this space should be seen as a goal in itself, not just a means to reach truth. However, we understand that some are worried that if we limit certain discussions to certain contexts this will also land us further away from truth. So we will briefly address this.

We believe that a core part of EA is questioning beliefs and assumptions to fully understand their basis and assessing arguments for their strength and validity.

If we were all objective and society was fair this would mean any topic could be discussed by anyone at any place in a way that progressed truth. But we are not objective and society is not fair. Our ideas about certain groups are informed by a history of oppression in which some groups have been seen as inferior to others. There are still systematic demographic differences in who holds the majority of the economic and political power and we all still hold conscious and unconscious biases. This has to be taken into consideration in order to reach truth. In this context assessing arguments for their strength must include thinking about the biases that exist against certain groups. Having discussions where all valuable input is heard must include thinking about who has more and less power. And occasionally, staying clear of a topic will lead to greater truth in the long run, because we have avoided the alienation of the very people who could aid our understanding.

Online forums like Facebook, that allow only brief comments lacking in tone, provide particularly poor arenas for sensitive discussions. As a result, these discussions can very often be unproductive, and can also carry harms, such as one-sided debate resulting in biased and false conclusions, as well as the exclusion and further reduced participation from members of under-represented groups.

We believe that adapting to the context of societal oppression when we decide how to have certain discussions will get us closer to truth. This because 1. We will be better at seeing our own and others’ biases in the discussion. 2. We will listen more fairly to people with experience and/or expertise in the discussion. 3. People with experience and/or expertise are more likely to voice their opinion because they won’t feel threatened by the way we are conducting the discussion. 4.If we believe that talented and altruistic minds are distributed across all demographic groups, it follows that alienating one of these groups will limit the ability of EA as a whole to find truth - because we are not retaining the “best” minds.

Are some discussions in EA groups alienating?

As people in underrepresented groups within EA, we repeatedly find ourselves exposed to content or debates that we find alienating. This causes many of us to limit our contact with the community.

It is hard to get accurate data on what proportion of people feel alienated and/or are pushed to limit their interaction with a community because they will tend not to respond to surveys in the community. However, in the Facebook group Women and non-binary people in Effective Altruism 47 out of 52 poll respondents say that they have at some point felt put off by a discussion relating to a minority identity (e.g. a discussion on women, gay people, or disabled people) in an EA group or community. This shows that while there are some people that do not have this experience, it is a very common experience within this group.

What’s more, about half (27 out of 51) of the respondents said they have reduced their participation in some part of the community due to such discussions.

Keep in mind that there may be a selection bias in both directions. We can imagine that people who feel alienated by some EA communities may be more likely to seek out a group for women and nonbinary people. At the same time the respondents are people who are active enough in EA to see and respond to this poll - people who completely leave the community could not vote.

Why is this happening?

There are a lot of reasons why people are initiating alienating discussions, not intervening to stop such discussions and not taking it seriously when people object. We want to address three such reasons: Underrepresentation, negative biases against certain groups, and a lack of understanding of the nature of oppression.

Underrepresentation

Some groups are underrepresented in the EA community. In 2017, 70 percent of respondents to the Annual Rethink Charity EA Survey were male, 80 percent were atheists, agnostics or non-religious and 89 percent were white[1]. No matter what group you belong to we all tend to see our own experience as the norm. This can lead certain perspectives to be ignored, simply because they are underrepresented.

For instance, it can be tempting to think that our own understanding of which types of debates are offensive is objective and that people who feel put off by debates that are not on our personal “offensive-list” are just being overly sensitive. If you belong to one underrepresented group but not the others you may have the experience of thinking that the topics listed below that involve your own group are clearly offensive (assuming that you have a similar background) but the topics regarding other groups are fair play. If you belong to none of these groups this tendency to see your own perspective as the norm can be harder to identify.

Bias

Another important factor is that evidence suggests that most people in society have some subconscious negative biases against people within these underrepresented groups [2]. As EAs we are not exempt from such biases against women, people of colour, disabled people, LGBTQ people etc. This makes us more likely to create and entertain theories about these groups which are based on negative stereotypes. Even people belonging to an underrepresented group tend to have biases against their own group [3].

These biases are likely to contribute to the voiced discomfort of this group being taken less seriously [4]. Biases cannot be overcome by simply focusing on making a community meritocratic [5], more structural solutions are usually needed.

A lack of understanding of oppression in wider society [6]

A third factor in why alienating discussions are being had in the EA community is that to what degree you understand the oppression of a certain underrepresented group in wider society, tends to depend on whether you belong to that group.

People from underrepresented groups tend to have a better understanding of their own group’s oppression for three reasons: They have experienced it personally, they have been more exposed to it through their community and they are more likely to take a special interest in learning about it academically.

Because people outside of the oppressed group do not share the same complex understanding of what ideas form part of an oppressive structure, they may tend to think that the reactions of people within this group to alienating discussions are overreactions. They may even brand the person as being “overly sensitive”, “biased”, “irrational”, or less willing to engage with ideas.

If an EA woman responds dismissively when you suggest that women are not really oppressed, it is easy to think that she is just a rude person. Or perhaps that she has a self-serving bias or doesn’t much care what the truth of the matter is. In reality, it is likely she is acting from extensive experience of having heard that same argument used as a tool to oppress women.

(History tells us that when the unfair treatment of a group is denied this serves to uphold structures of oppression against that group. It doesn’t matter how clear the unequal treatment has been, there have always been people who argued that it wasn’t oppressive. For instance, Ruth Bader Ginsburg describes how, when she worked as a lawyer on gender discrimination cases “the judges didn’t think sex-discrimination existed”[7]. This was at a time when for instance Idaho law still explicitly stated that males took preference over females as executors [8].)

The fact that most people who do not belong to the underrepresented group in question do not have a good understanding of arguments that have been used to oppress that group, can create an imbalance in what is perceived to be an alienating topic.

Previous experience as a person in an underrepresented group can also have a significant effect on how a discussion is experienced. Other than the emotionally taxing nature of feeling that one’s autonomy, worth, freedom or safety are being challenged, there is also a cost in the form of time and effort. These discussions take up a disproportionate amount of time for people in the affected group, something non-group members may not be aware of.

“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” - Audre Lorde

How do people become alienated?

When people feel unwelcome in a group, they are unlikely to voice their discomfort, which can lead to the appearance of harmony. This can cause remaining group members to be confused as to why people from certain underrepresented groups don’t stick around. They may conclude that people from these groups simply aren’t as interested in the effective part of effective altruism, especially as there is evidence that suggests a broad range of people are biased towards seeing people who belong to these groups as less rational [9]. We argue instead that people from underrepresented groups are being put off by certain cultural aspects of the community, such as alienating discussions. A survey conducted by EA London [10] shows that women are just as likely to attend an initial EA event as men, but then are less likely to return.

What is it like?

Here is an example of what it may be like to be part of an underrepresented group when a post is made that relates to your group. While this is a hypothetical example, it is based on several real experiences of women in EA:

A man posts in a general EA group arguing that women on average are not really oppressed in this society. I know two things from my own experiences and from my studies: 1. Women have less economic and political power in society 2. The denial of the oppression of certain groups has been used to justify or ignore mistreatment of those groups through history and across cultures (see above). Oppression is an unfair treatment against a certain group. To deny oppression is to deny either the treatment of that group or the unfairness of that treatment.

Because of the history of this view I believe that it is likely to affect many people negatively if this view is spread. I want to protect myself and others from this. I think more specifically about the women who may see this, particularly the younger ones who are new to EA. I imagine that for some of them, it will lead them away from EA ideas and all the value EA engagement could have for them and for the world. Worse still, others may absorb the idea that the way women are treated is fair and shrink themselves, diminishing their own self-worth and diminishing the positive impact they could have on the world.

The problem is that I don’t know which one the poster believes. Is he unaware that women have less economic and political power in our society, or does he not think women having less power is oppression because people like me ought to have less power than people like him?

No one else is responding either to disagree with the poster or to tell him this isn’t the place for that debate. A few people, mostly (but not only) men, like the post. Unbeknownst to me many women are staying clear because they are too tired of another invalidation of their experience, and too afraid of being seen as irrational or overly sensitive, and many men are staying clear because they know they’ll piss people off on some side no matter what they say. Not knowing this at the time I’m wondering if they all agree with him.

I hesitate because I have a lot of work to do, and I know once I write something I will likely be faced with push back from the poster and some like-minded others. On top of that I’m likely to be painted in an unflattering light. However, I also believe that if the poster’s view goes unchallenged it will add another layer to the cultural sediment of women’s inferiority, it will further entrench this notion into the minds of those who already believe it and may sway some of those who were sitting on the fence towards this belief.

He uses all the right phrases about being open to changing his mind so I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt and show him the numbers. I stay patient and polite even though he seems to be defending treatment that is deeply harmful to me and people I care about and even though I am repeating information that is easily accessible through google and which I have given out many times before.

While he stays polite, it seems like he's not taking in anything I'm saying. Two days into the debate he makes a comment about women needing to be controlled “for their own good” and it becomes apparent he thinks women are not oppressed because men having power over women is the way things should be.

No men have intervened. I feel like I have just wasted hours on a debate that did not lead anyone closer to truth and has reawakened an old feeling of being devalued and unsafe due to my identity. And yet if I had not engaged, I would have made others in my group feel like they are even more alone. Not only did this discussion make it seem like it was up for debate whether the inequality between men and women is justified, it made it seem like most EAs agree with him that it is.

Example topics

In many cases it is not clear cut whether a debate should be discouraged, and judgment calls are necessary. A good start to making such calls is to know what kind of topics are felt to be alienating to people in underrepresented groups. Below we present examples of discussions in the community that have been felt to be alienating by some EAs who belong to underrepresented groups and who volunteered to contribute their ideas.

We believe that to understand what is off-putting to people within a certain underrepresented group, we need to listen to people within this group. We acknowledge that not everyone will find the same ideas alienating, nor is the list exhaustive. We by no means claim to speak for all people within these groups.

We provide this list so that each person and group in the community can decide for themselves what conversations to promote and limit in different settings based in part on an understanding of what is often off-putting to people from underrepresented groups.

Women and female-presenting people

· Whether it is or has been right or necessary that women have less influence over intellectual debate and less economic and political power

· Whether women need or have needed to have less freedoms and autonomy for their own good.

· (Warning: from personal experience one of the authors of this document highly recommends that you do not read this if rape is a trigger for you) http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/11/gentlesilentrape.html

· Whether men or women are less competent in a certain area because of evolution [11]

· Whether it can be a woman's responsibility that she is raped, oppressed or abused

· Whether having sex with men is a moral obligation/whether women want too little sex

Disabled people

· Whether the lives of severely disabled people are worth living

· Whether killing a severely disabled person who isn’t able to consent is a mercy

· The idea that a person’s worth or right to have a decent life is dependent on their contribution to the economy, to others’ happiness or to the gene pool (whatever that means)

· The idea that certain people shouldn’t have children in order not to “contaminate” the gene pool (this includes people with low IQ)

LGBTQ+ people

· Whether gay people contribute to the survival of the species

· Whether trans people are “delusional”

· Whether the name and/or pronouns you ask people to refer to you as should be respected

· Whether trans people are trying to trick people into sleeping with them

People of Colour

· Whether there are IQ differences between different “races”

· Whether current inequalities are due to evolution/ intelligence

People from the developing world

· Whether we should value people in the developing world less because they are less productive

· Whether people in the developing world are poor because of character flaws

Religious minorities

· Whether Muslim majority countries have political and economic problems because of moral shortcomings specific to Muslims.

· Whether Muslims have a victim mentality

Working class people

· Whether poor people are poor due to having lower IQ

· Whether working class people are stupid

Minors (as an exception, this contribution was made not by a minor themselves but by a parent of a minor)

· Whether corporal punishment of children or not-yet cognitively mature people has utility.

Additional resource: Unsure about a discussion topic?

As an individual you may at some point want to have a discussion relating to an underrepresented group e.g. a discussion on access to safe abortion or whether disabled people’s lives are worth as much as abled peoples. Thinking about it, you may be worried that discussing this topic in the normal EA groups may be off-putting to people within the underrepresented group. However, you may not want to limit the discussion to only groups that are particularly geared towards uninhibited freedom of speech, because you may want to be sure to get feedback from a diverse audience. Here are our suggestions for what you might do in this situation:

1. Imagine who may feel put off by your post. If possible, do a google search and look at whether people advocating for this particular group have anything to say about the discussion or possible biases underlying it.

2. Find a close friend who belongs to that underrepresented group, tell them about your predicament and ask if they would be willing to give you their insight as a person who belongs to the group in question. If you have no close friends in this group, you might again want to reconsider if you are a good person to be having discussions relating to that group. If your friend says no to talking about the topic, respect that, they have no obligation to educate you on subjects that may be very difficult for them or may take up a disproportionate amount of their time.

3. Ask your friend if they think your theory is based on stereotyped views about the group in question. Your friend's lived experience is likely to mean that they have a good idea of the kind of stereotypes that people have about their group. Be willing to learn from their insight and don't take it personally if they think your theory is based on some stereotyped views.

4. If you still want to have a public discussion ask your friend if there is a non-alienating way for you as a person who does not belong to the group in question to hold a discussion on this issue, and if so how to conduct that discussion. They might for instance tell you that there are certain offensive stereotypes that you have to explicitly say that you don't agree with in the post, in order for people not to misunderstand you.

5. If you decide to have the discussion and it draws criticism from members of an underrepresented group, think about whether the way you are conducting your discussion may be alienating and show a willingness not only to move your discussion but to re examine your ideas bearing in mind the implicit biases against underrepresented groups that we have highlighted in this document.

Footnotes

[1] https://rtcharity.org/ea-survey-2017-part-2/

[2] Example, biases against women in science: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_dialogue/---act_emp/documents/publication/wcms_601276.pdf, https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~srugheimer/Women_in_STEM_Resources.html,

Examples, biases against Black people: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01664.x , https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17594129
Example, biases in healthcare settings: https://bmcmedethics.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12910-017-0179-8

Example, biases against arab-muslim men in hiring: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0927537109000451

[3] Example: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181210165115.htm

[4] Example in healthcare: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/how-sexist-stereotypes-mean-doctors-ignore-womens-pain-a7157931.html study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5845507/

[5] http://www.spp.uwa.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/2860012/The-Paradoxc-of-Meritocrary.pdf

[6] Here’s an introduction: https://socwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/fact_3-2010-oppression.pdf

[7] https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-news/watch-ruth-bader-ginsburg-school-supreme-court-on-sexism-in-doc-trailer-628846/

[8] https://territory-mag.com/articles/reed-v-reed-fight-gender-equality/

[9] Example: https://cogsci.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Thesis2016PavcoGiaccia.pdf

[10] https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/2RfQT7cybfS8zoy43/are-men-more-likely-to-attend-ea-london-events-attendance

[11] Since it keeps coming up, here are a few resources about ethics and evolutionary psychology: http://bernard.pitzer.edu/~hfairchi/pdf/ScientificRacism.pdf https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1026380825208 https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1137507.Evolution

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