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Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

Someone said this to me recently:

I think the pace of cancellations and attempted cancellations has been picking up steam and has gotten pretty damn fast very recently. It is possible I am not sufficiently familiar with base rates, but it does seem like the current pace is quite high, so either it has accelerated or people on the peripheries of our community are unusually likely to be targeted. In either case this is cause for concern.
Eg, REDACTED1's firing, REDACTED2 asked to resign his VP position (but he still gets to be faculty), petition to remove REDACTED3 from his honorary titles.

Also lighter stuff like REDACTED4 forced to delete his Twitter account, and different spats within newsrooms, that I'm not following as closely.
In either case, I've updated towards being much more cautious than usual. There are already things I don't talk about, but I've updated to putting "nuanced takes on social justice topics" as on par with "criticizing the Chinese government as a Chinese citizen" for things I don't publicly talk about.
I talked to other people who are online a lot, and some current college students. The general consensus was substantial concern/alarm, and that people who are older and/or less aggressively aligned may have missed.
Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

There are 34 votes on this post, so at least I'm comforted slightly by the nonzero number of people who think it's not terrible.

Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

I'm glad Singer has survived through stuff (and indeed, arguably his willingness to say true&controversial things is part of his appeal). For what it's worth, there's historical precedent for selective self-censorship of true views from our predecessors, cf Bentham's unpublished essay on homosexuality:

discussed the essay in the light of 18th-century legal opinion and quoted Bentham's manuscript notes that reveal his anxieties about expressing his views

The decline of Mohism seems like a good cautionary tale of a movement that tries to both a) get political and b) not be aware of political considerations.

Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

FWIW, I don't think a cultural revolution is very likely, just likely enough (>1%) that we shouldn't only think about object-level considerations when deciding whether to sign a petition or speak out publicly in support of someone.

I also suspect history professors will not be able to answer this honestly and dispassionately in worlds where a cultural revolution is likely.

Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

First of all, I sincerely apologize for any offense it may have caused. For what it's worth:

1. I obviously do not think we're living in a cultural revolution yet. The amount of harm caused by the 1960s cultural revolution to lives and livelihoods is severe, and the existing job losses and social disapproval caused by SJ actors is very minor in the grand scheme of things.

2. I do see how this comparison can be offensive. I'm not sure how else to disseminate my worries accurately without causing offense.

3. I personally think we're obviously not in the cultural revolution now, but that there's a moderately high probability that we are on that trajectory (over 1% seems intuitively defensible, my true probability is probably like 7%)

4. I think if we are on the trajectory of a cultural revolution, calling it early will definitely be wrong-think. It's unclear to me how to think about this. My guess is that if we're 10 years away, this weird claim will be swept under the rug relative to other offenses, and the positive benefit of open communication now + creating norms around minimally invasive self-censorship will be helpful. If on the other hand, cultural revolution-like activities are within the 1-5 year timescale, using such language will be too "on the nose" and this post itself is a structural risk...

5. One possibility is to move all conversations about this offline and try to approach EA leaders in person, which the pandemic certainly makes difficult.

6. One thing I did not mention in my post but those seem quite relevant is that conditional upon a cultural revolution-like event happening, it's hard to predict which side will launch a cultural revolution. This is also why I think we should not go out of our way to support SJ as a movement (though individuals can make their decisions based on their conscience or individual bids). The rise of various right-wing demagogues in the West also looks quite dangerous to me, and would be a structural risk to the movement as well, though my personal guess is that right-wing demagoguery tends to be parochial, so is less dangerous to a geographically mobile movement. Another thing driving my thoughts here is that we're too much culturally left at our roots anyway (at least by American/Anglophone standards), so surviving a right wing dictatorship is likely a lost cause.

Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

I received this as a private message. It was unclear to me if it was initially intended as a comment, but I asked and they gave permission for me to do this:

I'm quite bothered by the implicit assumption that this is in fact a cultural revolution. I think the degree to which people will find supporting Hsu offensive is completely dwarfed by how offensive people will find offshoots of the Floyd protests as equivalent to the Cultural Revolution. As noted in, there are steel man versions of the Hsu complaint in particular (though I don't personally have a view).
So if you're trying to preserve EA credibility, implicitly saying we're living through a Cultural Revolution could be extremely damaging.
Should be "is completely dwarfed by offensive people will find the idea that offshoots of the Floyd protests are equivalent to the Cultural Revolution".
One can defend or not defend Hsu (again, I haven't looked at it enough to have a personal view) without making extreme claims about Cultural Revolutions, and both routes (defending or not defending) seem *way* better than crying Cultural Revolution.
If it isn't clear, I'm biased here, in that I personally find the Cultural Revolution claims offensive.
Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

I received this as a private message:

Hi, this is meant to be a reply to your reply to Anna. Please post it for me. [...]
Agreed that Anna seems to be misinterpreting you or not addressing your main point. The biggest question in my mind is whether EA will be on the wrong side of the revolution anyway, because we're an ideological competitor and a bundle of resources that can be expropriated. Even if that's the case though, maybe we still have to play the odds and just hope to fly under the radar somehow.
Seems like hiring some history professors as consultants might be a good use of money for EA orgs at this point. It would be really helpful to have answers to questions like: Did any society ever manage to stop a cultural revolution after it has progressed to a stage analogous to the current one, and if so how (aside from letting it exhaust itself)? From historical precedent can we predict whether EA will be targeted? Were there relatively small groups that managed to survive these revolutions with their people/culture/property/relationships intact and if so how?
Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

I'd be very excited to know of historically successful examples of this.

Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

First of all, thanks so much for your time for providing an insightful (and poetic!) comment.

It seems to me that the EA community's strength, goodness, and power lie almost entirely in our ability to reason well

Mostly agreed. I think "reasoning well" hides a lot of details though, eg. a lot of the time people reason poorly due to specific incentives than because of their general inability to reason.

Finding the real leverage points in the world is probably worth orders of magnitude in our impact.


Our ability to think honestly and speak accurately and openly with each other seems to me to be a key part of how we access those "orders of magnitude of impact."

Agreed, but I think the more relevant question is whether the expected harm of being up against the wall in a cultural revolution is likely to hinder our accuracy more than the expected accuracy loss of some selective self-censorship, particularly in public.

I do find The Weapon of Openness moderately persuasive as a counterargument, as well as the empirical results of the pro- and anti- censorship questions raised around covid.

In contrast, our ability to have more money/followers/etc. (via not ending up on the wrong side of a cultural revolution, etc.) seems to me to be worth... something, in expectation

I think you're being really cavalier about being on the wrong side of the cultural revolution. Maybe the revolution will be light, or it won't happen at all, but if we're on the wrong side of a cultural revolution half as big as China's, I think the movement de facto cannot exist in the Anglophone world if we're seen to be as the wrong side.

I also think you're maybe modeling this as me proposing that we as a community strongly side with the winning side here and try to acquire power and influence that way, which I empathetically am not. Instead I'm mostly proposing that most of us treat the possibility of a cultural revolution like the weather, and don't fight hurricanes until we understand geo-engineering much better.

I'm leaving open the possibility that a small number of us should try to be on either side of this, whether in a "vote your conscience" way or because they individually think they want resources or whatever, but by default I think our movement is best protected by not trying to acquire lots of political power or to fight revolutions.

I would love to try to discuss in detail, back and forth, and see if we can work this out.

I will try my best to talk about this more, but I can't promise I'll respond. I'm both pretty busy with work and (this is closer to my true rejection) find talking about these concepts kinda emotionally exhausting.

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