Before I get to the heart of what I want to share, a couple of disclaimers:
- I am one person and, as such, I recognize that my perspective is both informed and limited by my experience and identity. I would like to share my perspective in the hope that it may interact with and broaden yours.
- In writing this post, my aim is not to be combative nor divisive. The values of Effective Altruism are my values (for the most part - I likely value rationality less than many), and its goals are my goals. I do not, therefore, aim to “take down” or harm the Effective Altruism community. Rather, I hope to challenge us all to think about what it means to be in community.
Who am I and why am I writing this?
I’m a 22-year-old college senior, set to graduate with a degree in Human and Organizational Development in May. I learned about Effective Altruism last fall, when I transferred to a new university and started attending my school’s EA events and fellowships. I have become increasingly involved in the Effective Altruism community over the past 14 months - participating in intro and in-depth fellowships, taking on a leadership role in my school’s EA club, and attending an EAGx and an EAG.
So why am I writing this? Because I am at a point in my life where I have to make a lot of choices: where I want to live; what type of work I want to engage in; the people whom I want to surround myself with. When I found Effective Altruism, it seemed as though I had stumbled across a movement and a community that would provide me with guidance in all three of these areas. However, as my social and intellectual circles became increasingly entangled with EA, I grew hesitant, then skeptical, then downright sad as I observed behavior (both in-person and online) from those involved in the EA community. I’m writing this because I want to be able to feel proud when I tell people that I am involved in Effective Altruism. I want to feel as if I can encourage others to join without an added list of disclaimers about the type of behavior they may encounter. Lastly, I want the Effective Altruism community to revisit and continuously strive towards what the Centre for Effective Altruism calls the core principles of EA: commitment to others, scientific mindset, openness, integrity, and collaborative spirit.
Gender and Culture
According to the EA Survey 2020 (the latest year for which I could find data), the makeup of people involved in EA was very similar to that of 2019: 76% white and 71% male. Lack of diversity within movements, organizations, and “intellectual projects” is incredibly damaging for many important reasons. CEA writes several of these reasons on their Diversity and Inclusion page, but the one I would like to highlight is We don’t want to miss important perspectives. As the website reads, “if the community isn’t able to welcome and encourage members who don’t resemble the existing community, we will consistently miss out on the perspectives of underrepresented groups.” I agree with this statement and that is why I am concerned - I’m unconvinced that this community is effective in “welcoming and encouraging” people who don’t fit the majority white-and-man mold.
I question the welcoming-ness of the EA community because, despite fitting the EA mold in many ways - I’m white, American, in my twenties, and will soon graduate from a highly-ranked college - I still often feel as if the EA community is not something I want to be a part of. I can imagine that those with even less of the predominant EA demographic characteristics face exponentially increased barriers to entry. Several (yet not all) instances in which I’ve felt this way…
- A friend visited the Bay Area this summer to spend time with several of our mutual friends (all heavily involved in EA). He casually mentioned that some of them made a list ranking women in EA in the Bay that they wanted to hook up with.
- At an EAG afterparty, an attendee talked about how he scheduled a one-on-one with someone because he found her attractive.
- I read this blog post and the comments and controversy it generated. The amount of invalidation and general nastiness in the comments (that have since been deleted so I won’t link to them) shocked and saddened me.
- I read about Kathy Forth, a woman who was heavily involved in the Effective Altruism and Rationalist communities. She committed suicide in 2018, attributing large portions of her suffering to her experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault in these communities. She accuses several people of harassment, at least one of whom is an incredibly prominent figure in the EA community. It is unclear to me what, if any, actions were taken in response to (some) of her claims and her suicide. What is clear is the pages and pages of tumblr posts and Reddit threats, some from prominent members of the EA and Rationalist communities, disparaging Kathy and denying her accusations.
To be clear, I am not saying that all women have negative experiences in the EA community, nor that all men in EA are perpetrators. People of all genders can perpetrate sexual harassment, sexual assault, and generally offensive behavior. Furthermore, I anticipate responses to some of the instances that I listed above, especially the first two, expressing that they seem pretty minor, or not that big of a deal. And maybe, in your eyes, ranking women based on how attractive they are isn’t a big deal. Maybe you think it’s funny or just doesn’t hold much significance. But, based on my own experience and those of friends and acquaintances, I can assure you that to at least some of those women who are on that list - it is a big deal. Not just because it’s immature or grossly objectifying, but because it is our small, daily actions that inform culture, and behaviors like ranking women or scheduling meetings based on attractiveness may be small, but they contribute to a culture that accepts the objectification of women and the valuing of physical attractiveness above character and contribution.
Effective Altruism Has an Emotions Problem
I’m 89% certain that Effective Altruism has an emotions problem and I’m 98% certain that it’s alienating people from the EA community. What do I mean by that?
- On the forum in particular and in EA discourse in general, there is a tendency to give less weight/be more critical of posts that are more emotion-heavy and less rational. This tendency makes sense based on EA principles… to a certain extent. To stay true to the aforementioned values of scientific mindset and openness, it makes sense that we challenge people’s ideas and are truth-seeking in our comments. However, there is an important distinction between interrogating someone’s research and interrogating someone’s lived experience. I fear that the attitude of truth-seeking and challenging one another to be better has led to an inclination to suspend compassion in the absence of substantial evidence of wrongdoing. You’re allowed to be sorry that someone experienced something without fully understanding it.
- There are certain unofficial norms surrounding posting on the forum that I worry alienate people who are new to the community/people whose tendencies for writing fall outside of the jargon-ridden, bulleted, and rationalist styles that are predominant. While writing this post, I have adopted my own writing style to be more in line with the typical styles on the forum because I believe it will increase my chances of being taken seriously.
- An extreme extension of utilitarian, rationalist, and effective altruist logic can blind us to the negative experiences of individuals and major flaws in the EA community. I fear that people within the EA community are not always taking allegations of harm seriously out of concern that (1) there is “more impactful” work that they could be doing than investigating such allegations, (2) investigating allegations of harm against prominent individuals may damage the reputation of Effective Altruism, and (3) some individuals are having such a “high-impact” that they don’t want to find them guilty of an act that may impede such effective work.
I could tell you how tears streamed down my face as I read through accounts of women who have been harmed by people within the Effective Altruism community. I could describe how my fists curled and my jaw clenched as I scrolled through forum comments and Reddit threats full of disbelief and belittlement. I could try to convey the rising temperature of my blood as it boiled; I could explain to you that I could not focus in class for a full two days. But I don’t think that I will. I’m unsure that the Effective Altruism community has room for my anger.
What should we do?
First off, I want to acknowledge that there are some incredible, thoughtful people who are dedicating much of their time to thinking about how to foster a healthy and compassionate community within EA spaces. I recognize that the issues I have raised are complex and without a simple solution, and I appreciate those who have spent time thinking about how to make things better. Here are some ideas…
- Hold yourself and your people accountable. What we do and say informs who we are. If you see someone, especially someone you’re close to, say or do something you disagree with or that you believe contributes to an unwelcoming culture, let them know. This is especially relevant to people you call your friend. In order to do good better, we must aim to make ourselves better too.
- Listen to people when they tell you how they feel. Let people talk about how they feel. Humans are not devoid of emotions and we never will be; emotions are an integral characteristic of human experience, not a flaw in the way we operate. You don’t have to agree with or understand someone to extend compassion!
- Recognize that in order to create a healthy, effective, and compassionate community, we need to hold people accountable for their actions regardless of status, connections, or expected-value calculations about their potential for impact. Effective Altruism will not thrive if we unquestionably uphold people who cause harm.
I’m saddened by the negative experiences people in the Effective Altruism community have had, disappointed in the ways in which some people in the community have responded, and scared that the movement will continue to be a space that does not feel safe nor welcoming for many people. I want to be a part of a community where people aim to do the most good that they can do, innovate ways to do good better, and challenge one another to be better. But, if this same community continues to also create a culture that is ok with demeaning women (or anyone, for that matter), shields individuals from accountability because of their status, and predicates their expansion of compassion on the existence of strong evidence, I want nothing to do with it.
However, I am hopeful. I think that the EA community has the potential to become a space in which all people feel supported, safe, and welcomed. The ideas for change listed above are cursory and I plan on continuing to think and talk about what we can do to positively impact this community as it grows and evolves. Thank you, truly, for your time and consideration in reading this post. I’m happy to engage with anyone who has thoughts on what I wrote and I hope this inspires both introspection and community change.