There’s two ways I can see EA develop after the latest community drama: The community can have all the necessary debates in good faith, grow past them, and become a more mature movement. Or, neither side feels heard, nothing changes, and way too many competent people lose trust in EA and focus their energies elsewhere. After all, I’ve heard people from either side declare EA’s moral bankruptcy in consequence of the Bostrom email debate.
In order to shift the balance towards a little bit more of movement maturation and a little bit less of quitting, we need to talk. The conversations to be had here are between you and me, between him and them, and not between a small band of anonymous rebels on the one side and the EA establishment at CEA on the other. The more isolated and unheard people feel in their opinions, the more angry and polarized things get. Starting to pop the bubbles starts right in our own local EA groups.
For that, I’d like to share some tools that I found useful for resolving conflict in groups. It might be worthwhile to explore them on your own, and it might be even more worthwhile to spread them in your local EA group.
But how does this fit into our other community building work?
To answer this question, I’d like to summarize my favorite EAF post on community building of all times: Jan Kulveit’s “Different forms of capital”.
He claims that there are different forms of capital we can optimize for in community building, and that there are two EA tends to over-optimize for:
- Financial capital: The total amount of donations committed and sent to our charities of choice.
- Human capital: The number of active community members and their level of commitment.
Further, he argues, there are two other forms of capital EA tends to neglect, probably because they are harder to measure:
- Network capital: The number and closeness of ties between community members.
- Structural capital: The institutions and processes we have in place for doing stuff in a sensibly structured manner.
And I’d like to add a fifth dimension:
MemeticKnowledge capital: The sum total of the useful ideas, psycho- and social technologies we have widely available in the community. An instance of memeticknowledge capital without which EA would be unthinkable is the capability to use language. Some other examples for memeticknowledge capital include knowledge about priorization, forecasting, productivity tools, about where and how to apply for grants, how we think about mental health and staying productive in the long-term. And, our strategies for addressing and resolving conflict with friends, colleagues, and fellow EAs.
I think it would be wise for EA community building to start explicitly taking all five of these factors into account. In line with that, this post aims at increasing the community’s
memetic knowledge capital. Trying these tools one-off to resolve a particular issue is good, but what I’m hoping for is that over time, they just become part of the way we do things. That way, they’d have the strongest and long-lasting positive impact on our network capital through frequent and casual prevention and repair of conflict.
Social technologies for resolving and preventing conflict
Rule 0 (coined by Seek Healing)
WHY: The longer we sit on irritations, the bigger they grow, until at some point we write very, very long and elaborate EA Forum posts. Addressing points of conflict sooner rather than later helps create less friction and improve feedback loops in groups of people, no matter how uncomfortable it initially is.
HOW: Rule 0 is a rule of thumb that goes like this:
“If you feel queasy about addressing something with somebody, that’s a sign that you should try to address it.”
Doing EA Better gave some good reasons why it is particularly hard to do this if your opinions go against EA orthodoxy. But this just means that Rule 0 is even more important: If more of us take this as a rule for life, we gain more practice in addressing difficult things, people see us doing so, and we shift EA's conflict averse customs.
Nonviolent Communication is a useful tool for doing Rule 0 properly, though it takes a while to master. Working through Lindsay/Boghossian’s “How To Have Impossible Conversations” might be the 80/20 version of learning NVC.
CFAR’s Double Crux
WHY: Often, we get all tangled up in the emotional side of a disagreement, or seem too alien to each other that we never properly find the heart of the matter. Double Crux is a tool for navigating towards the core (“crux”) of the disagreement between two people, while not paying too much attention to arguments that aren’t actually crucial for either side. It can help turn an adversarial discussion into collaborative truth-seeking.
HOW: See the respective section in the CFAR handbook. Bonus points for organizing a Double Crux workshop for your local group that uses political conflict points within the EA community as practice material. (Though this can probably done in a polarizing, net negative fashion.)
WHY: If Double Crux doesn’t work for you, Yes/No-debates offers a more structured approach to get to the same destination.
HOW: See the instructions at https://yesnodebate.org/, find someone to practice with, and off you go!
WHY: When things get heated, people tend to listen to their counterpart in order to respond rather than to understand. Usually, this results in neither side feeling heard and things just getting worse. Street Epistemology offers a useful framework and toolbox for learning to listen in order to understand, as well as for helping the person you listen to get a deeper understanding of what and why they believe. Sometimes, this mode of questioning gets people to question their own beliefs while bypassing the backfire effect. In it’s purest form, SE was developed by atheists as a tool for (consensually) nudging people to reevaluate dogmatic beliefs. Used less purely, it can be remarkably useful for being a better listener and debate partner.
HOW: https://streetepistemology.com/ offers general resources and a link to the SE Discord server with regular practice calls.
WHY: Through many generations of evolution in the ancestral environment, humans have learned to easily differentiate between friend and foe, in-group and out-group. Instinctively, we treat people we see as part of our in-group with kindness, care, and compassion, and if our brain puts someone into the category of “out-group”, it is all too easy to be inconsiderate or outright mean to them, to interpret their statements in bad faith, and to be very annoyed just by the sound of them breathing. Perspective-taking has the purpose of having your brain move someone from the out-group into the in-group drawer while building more accurate models of their reasons to be as they are.
Step 1: Pick a person you have trouble with. Imagine you are them. Speak from their perspective, in “I”-statements - either to a friend, or to an inanimate object. Start with superficial qualities like how the person you want to empathize with looks and what they do with their life, then narrow in on the context you have in common (in this case, probably EA), and move towards describing from their perspective your key disagreement, and which reasons they have to disagree with you. The start could look somewhat like this: “I’m Sam, 32 years old, white, male, black hair, about 1,80m tall, average build. I work at the Sn-Risk Prevention Network as a data scientist. …”
Step 2: Step out of that role, and talk/write about what you’ve learned. If things went well, you should have slightly more understanding for the other person and be ready to move on to plan next steps.
This may sound odd, but it actually works. I learned it as an evidence-backed method in counseling training (without making time to check the relevant studies myself), got a ton of good from it over the years, taught it in counseling trainings for teacher trainees for whom it was a mindblowing game-changer, and used it with EAs in coaching sessions who, too, found it enlightening more often than not.
Authentic Relating Games
WHY: It’s easy to be frustrated with a community and its leadership when you feel like you don’t belong. AR games are structured practices for allowing people to connect on a deeper, more personal level. While there are AR games specifically tailored to help with tense situations, the main benefit is preventive: Building enough psychological safety in a community that disagreements become easy and are a shared problem to solve, not a battle.
HOW: Under https://www.authrev.org/manuals, you can find the “Authentic Relating Games Mini-Manual” as a free download. It contains a bunch of easy-to-facilitate games along with instructions how to do so. Including Hot Seat, which has become a staple activity at EA Germany’s retreats and house parties (and one of the secret sauces of our community).
Develop a healthy hot takes-culture
WHY: Nothing is more isolating in a community than feeling like there are things you can’t say, or parts of you you can’t show. You can change that through the way you engage in casual conversation.
- Add “What is a belief you hold that is controversial in your bubble?”, followed by curiosity and the will to understand, to your list of staple conversation starters. Note: The emphasis is on "in your bubble". If this is used to create shared knowledge and acceptance of conflict lines within EA, it's a useful tool for reducing polarization. If you use it in a way that elicits beliefs that are common within EA and controversial in the wider culture, however, you may feed an "us-vs.-them"-mindset in a way that is detrimental to EA's culture.
- Read, internalize, and preach Scott Alexander’s “Kolmogorov Complicity and the Parable of Lightning”. (It’s way more readable than it sounds.)
…so what shall I do with this?
You can learn the methods yourself, self-study with friends, or organize workshops in your community. If you want somebody to facilitate a workshop for you, I might be able to connect you to someone capable and willing.
Thanks to Christopher Leong for the first, second, and final nudge to write this post. Thanks to Luz Quinonero for comments on the draft.
I'm intentionally not linking much to that drama here, because I'm undecided on whether I think more or less people should get tangled up in it. Additionally, I hope that the information in this post is more timeless than what is the latest community drama at its date of publication. I'm fairly confident that people getting tangled up in January 2023's drama one year later would be net negative.
See the debate in this comment thread if you're curious why I changed the term.
Conflict of interest: I'm friends with some people at Authentic Revolution.