Feb 24, 2015
* The people you think are totally wrong may not actually be totally wrong.
Effective altruism is a ‘broad tent’
As is obvious to anyone who has looked around here, effective altruism is based more on a shared interest in the question 'how can you do the most good' than a shared view on the answer. We all have friends who support:
Looking beyond just stated beliefs, we also have people with a wide range of temperaments, from highly argumentative, confident and outspoken to cautious, idiosyncratic and humble.
Our wide range of views could cause problems
There is a popular saying that 'opposites attract'. But unfortunately, social scientists have found precisely the opposite to be true: birds of a feather do in fact flock together.
One of the drivers of this phenomenon is that people who are different are more likely to get into conflicts with one another. If my partner and I liked to keep the house exactly the same way, we certainly wouldn't have as many arguments about cleaning (I'll leave you to speculate about who is the untidy one!). People who are different from you may initially strike you as merely amusing, peculiar or mistaken, but when you talk to them at length and they don't see reason, you may start to see them as stupid, biased, rude, impossible to deal with, unkind, and perhaps even outright bad people.
A movement brought together by a shared interest in the question ‘what should we do?’ will inevitably have a greater diversity of priorities, and justifications for those priorities, than a movement united by a shared answer. This is in many ways our core strength. Maintaining a diversity of views means we are less likely to get permanently stuck on the wrong track, because we can learn from one another's scholarship and experiences, and correct course if necessary.
However, it also means we are necessarily committed to ideological pluralism. While it is possible to maintain ‘Big Tent’ social movements they face some challenges. The more people hold opinions that others dislike, the more possible points of friction there are that can cause us to form negative opinions of one another. There have already been strongly worded exchanges online demonstrating the risk.
When a minority holds an unpopular view they can feel set upon and bullied, while the majority feels mystified and frustrated that a small group of people can't see the obvious truth that so many accept.
My first goal with this post is to make us aware of this phenomenon, and offer my support for a culture of peaceful coexistence between people who, even after they share all their reasons and reflect, still disagree.
My second goal is to offer a few specific actions that can help us avoid interpersonal conflicts that don't contribute to making the world a better place:
1. Remember that you might be wrong
Hard as it is to keep in mind when you're talking to someone who strongly disagrees with you, it is always possible that they have good points to make that would change your mind, at least a bit. Most claims are only ‘partially true or false’, and there is almost always something valuable you can learn from someone who disagrees with you, even if it is just an understanding of how they think.
If the other person seems generally as intelligent and informed about the topic as you, it's not even clear why you should give more weight to your own opinion than theirs.
2. Be polite, doubly so if your partner is not
Being polite will make both the person you are talking to, and onlookers, more likely to come around to your view. It also means that you're less likely to get into a fight that will hurt others and absorb your precious time and emotional energy.
Politeness has many components, some notable ones being: not criticising someone personally; interpreting their behaviour and statements in a fairly charitable way; not being a show-off, or patronising and publicly embarrassing others; respecting others as your equals, even if you think they are not; conceding when they have made a good point; and finally keeping the conversation focussed on information that can be shared, confirmed, and might actually prove persuasive.
3. Don't infer bad motivations
While humans often make mistakes in their thinking, it's uncommon for them to be straight out uninterested in the welfare of others or what is right, especially so in this movement. Even if they are, they are probably not aware that that is the case. And even if they are aware, you won't come across well to onlookers by addressing them as though they have bad motivations.
If you really do become convinced the person you are talking to is speaking in bad faith, it's time to walk away. As they say: don't feed the trolls.
4. Stay cool
Even when people say things that warrant anger and outrage, expressing anger or outrage publicly will rarely make the world a better place. Anger being understandable or natural is very different from it being useful, especially if the other person is likely to retaliate with anger of their own.
Being angry does not improve the quality of your thinking, persuade others that you're right, make you happier or more productive, or make for a more harmonious community.
In its defence, anger can be highly motivating. Unfortunately it is indiscriminate about motivating you to do very valuable, ineffective and even harmful things.
Any technique that can keep you calm is therefore useful. If something is making you unavoidably angry, it's typically best to walk away and let other people deal with it.
5. Pick your battles
Not all things are equally important to reach a consensus about. For good or ill, most things we spend our days talking about just aren't that 'action relevant'. If you find yourself edging towards interpersonal conflict on a question that i) isn't going to change anyone's actions much; ii) isn't going to make the world a much better place, even if it does change their actions; or iii) is very hard to persuade others about, maybe it isn't worth the cost of interpersonal tension to explore in detail.
So if someone in the community says something unrelated or peripheral to effective altruism that you disagree with, which could develop into a conflict, you always have the option of not taking the bait. In a week, you and they may not even remember it was mentioned, let alone consider it worth damaging your relationship over.
6. Let it go
The most important advice of all.
Perhaps you are discussing something important. Perhaps you've made great arguments. Perhaps everyone you know agrees with you. You've been polite, and charitable, and kept your cool. But the person you're talking to still holds a view you strongly disagree with and believe is harmful.
If that's the case, it's probably time for you both to walk away before your opinions of one another fall too far, or the disagreement spirals into sectarianism. If someone can't be persuaded, you can at least avoid creating an ill-will between you that ensures they never come around. You've done what you can for now, and that is enough.
Hopefully time will show which of you is right, or space away from a public debate will give one of you the chance to change your mind in private without losing face. In the meantime maybe you can't work closely together, but you can at least remain friendly and respectful.
It isn't likely or even desirable for us to end up agreeing with one another on everything. The world is a horribly complex place; if the questions we are asking had easy answers the research we are doing wouldn't be necessary in the first place.
The cost of being part of a community that accepts and takes an interest in your views, even though many think you are pulling in the wrong direction, is to be tolerant of others in the same way even when you think their views are harmful.
So, sometimes, you just have to let it go.
If you agree with me about the above, you might be tempted to post or send it to people every time they aren’t playing by these rules. Unfortunately, this is likely to be counterproductive and lead to more conflict rather than less. It’s useful to share this post in general, but not trot it out as a way of policing others. The most effective way to promote this style of interaction is to exemplify it in the way you treat others, and not get into long conversations with people who have less productive ways of talking to others.
Thanks to Amanda, Will, Diana, Michelle, Catriona, Marek, Niel, Tonja, Sam and George for feedback on drafts of this post.