Thanks to Ruthie Byers for inspiring many of the points in this post and providing awesome feedback on a draft.
There was recently something of a
brouhaha kerfuffle1 in the Less Wrong community over inclusivity to minorities. A person known as Apophemi wrote a blog post about why ze2 didn’t participate in Less Wrong, noting that ze felt threatened by dispassionate discussion of certain issues:
I… require adherence to these ideas or at least a lack of explicit challenges to them on the part of anyone speaking to me before I can entertain their arguments in good faith.
This raised the hackles of some Less Wrong folk, including Scott Alexander, at whom the essay was apparently primarily directed. So Scott wrote an excellent and detailed response, explaining that safe spaces were great, but there needed to be safe spaces for dispassionate discussion too:
This reminds me of the idea of safe spaces.
Safe spaces are places where members of disadvantaged groups can go, usually protected against people in other groups who tend to trigger them, and discuss things relevant to that group free from ridicule or attack. I know there are many for women, some for gays, and I recently heard of a college opening one up for atheists. They seem like good ideas.
I interpret Apophemi’s proposal to say that the rationalist community should endeavor to be a safe space for women, minorities, and other disadvantaged groups.
One important feature of safe spaces is that they can’t always be safe for two groups at the same time. Jews are a discriminated-against minority who need a safe space. Muslims are a discriminated-against minority who need a safe space. But the safe space for Jews should be very far way from the safe space for Muslims, or else neither space is safe for anybody.
The rationalist community is a safe space for people who obsessively focus on reason and argument even when it is socially unacceptable to do so.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that these people need a safe space. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been called “a nerd” or “a dork” or “autistic” for saying something rational is too high to count. Just recently commenters on Marginal Revolution – not exactly known for being a haunt for intellect-hating jocks – found an old post of mine and called me among many other things “aspie”, “a pansy”, “retarded”, and an “omega” (a PUA term for a man who’s so socially inept he will never date anyone).
As always, Scott’s post was a pleasure to read, and I think his broad point is right: Less Wrong shouldn’t go too far in the direction of becoming the kind of safe space that Apophemi wants it to be. As several commenters on the LW discussion of Apophemi’s post pointed out, there’s a trade-off between inclusiveness and freedom of speech, and there are places for communities on both sides of the trade-off.
However, I’m afraid that Apophemi’s extreme position inspired a too-extreme rebuttal, and the whole debate is distracting from a broader and more valuable point. Namely, there’s a tradeoff between inclusivity and free speech, but Less Wrong is not at a Pareto optimum in tradeoff-space. We can almost certainly improve on the dimension of inclusivity without sacrificing free discourse.
That is, Scott is too hasty to dismiss the suggestion “Less Wrong should become more inclusive” because Apophemi’s post anchored the discussion toward ways of becoming inclusive that also radically reduce freedom of discussion. The result of that is a temptation is to dismiss Less Wrong’s problems with inclusivity entirely. Which seems to be what led to Scott comparing Less Wrong to a yoga class:
I have been to several yoga classes. The last one I attended consisted of about thirty women, plus me (this was in Ireland; I don’t know if American yoga has a different gender balance).
We propose two different explanations for this obviously significant result.
First, these yoga classes are somehow driving men away. Maybe they say mean things about men (maybe without intending it! we’re not saying they’re intentionally misandrist!) or they talk about issues in a way exclusionary to male viewpoints. The yoga class should invite some men’s rights activists in to lecture the participants on what they can do to make men feel comfortable, and maybe spend some of every class discussing issues that matter deeply to men, like Truckasaurus.
Second, men just don’t like yoga as much as women. One could propose a probably hilarious evolutionary genetic explanation for this (how about women being gatherers in the ancestral environment, so they needed lots of flexibility so they could bend down and pick small plants?) but much more likely is just that men and women are socialized differently in a bunch of subtle ways and the interests and values they end up with are more pro-yoga in women and more anti-yoga in men. In this case a yoga class might still benefit by making it super-clear that men are welcome and removing a couple of things that might make men uncomfortable, but short of completely re-ordering society there’s not much they can do to get equal gender balance and it shouldn’t be held against them that they don’t.
The second explanation seems much more plausible for my yoga class, and honestly it seems much more plausible for the rationalist community as well.
So… women aren’t turned away by the rampant evo-bio-determinism? The discussions of pickup artistry? The generally ugh in the comment threads? Because it’s totally there. People find Less Wrong exclusionary. I’ve asked them and they said so, and as far as being discouraged from contributing goes, that’s the end of the story.3
My sense is that the site is getting better. But the atmosphere at some of the meetups (where there’s no danger of being immortalized on the internet) is still pretty dire. At the point at which there’s enough demand for the Bay Area mailing list to start a women’s-only group, we have a problem, no matter how hard we try to argue and excuse it away.
Scott goes on to try to show that Less Wrong’s demographics aren’t actually evidence that it’s exclusionary at all:
Most rationalists come from the computer science community, which is something like 80% male. A few come from hard science fields like math and physics, both of which are 80 – 90% male. There is zero need to invoke “discourse without limitations” as an explanation for why the rationalist community is heavily male-dominated…
Also economics (30% female) and psychology (seventy percent female). Rationalists are about 10% female. And computer science already suffers from unfriendly discourse.
We’re not actually missing all those groups you mention as minorities who might be driven away. In fact, in many cases, we have far more of them than would be expected by chance. For example, we contain transgender people at about five times the rate in the general population (1.5% vs. 0.3%), and gays/lesbians/bisexuals at about three times the rate in the general population (15% vs. 4%). People who Jewish by descent are four times the national average (8% vs. 2%), and people with mental disorders are either around equal to the general population or much much higher, depending on how one interprets the data I did a terrible job collecting (sorry). We have more people with English as a second language than almost any other online community I know (the country with most rationalists per capita continues to be Finland) and members from Kenya, Pakistan, Egypt, and Indonesia.
If we’re comparing to the base rate for computer science above, why compare to the general population here? We’re significantly worse than computer science on people of Jewish descent; foreigners (30% in grad schools, e.g.) and hence probably ESL speakers also; and probably even Asian people, though I can’t find any statistics. You can cherry-pick your indicators and reference classes any way you like.
And even against the general population, we’re worse than average for Hispanic and Black Less Wrongers, which Scott omitted—this argument doesn’t really present a balanced case.
Worse, the hypothesis fails in the other direction as well. There are lots of groups that are horribly offensive towards minorites yet nevertheless manage to have very many of them. Across nearly every denomination, far more women than men go to church – if you go to a Catholic Mass, you will see pews full of ladies at levels the atheist community can only dream of. The atheist community is so feminist that there has been a serious movement to replace it with “Atheism Plus” that excludes all non-feminists; the Catholic Church is so regressive that it won’t let women become priests and thinks they were created as a “helpmeet” for man. And yet women, in aggregate, love the one and hate the other.
It seems likely that Scott is right here, but with this specific example there’s some creative reinterpretation going on.
My understanding is that atheism is famous for having gender issues. The splinter movement is because atheists were so bad at being inclusive that atheist feminists decided they needed to start over. So I think “so feminist that…” is something of a misleading phrase. Atheism Plus seems roughly analogous to, e.g., Catholic feminist theology, which totally exists (not to the level of “exclude all non-feminists!” but it’s there).
We could always see whether it might help to inviting some feminists in, listen to them without protest, and agree to do whatever they say…
I think this line is a good place to sum up my issues with this post.
Basically, the rebuttal of Apophemi is fine. I agree, discourse without limitations is an important part of Less Wrong and shouldn’t go away, fine. But that’s no excuse for overreaching and ignoring the middle ground. Less Wrong does have problems with discourse that marginalizes people. We need to at least notice that we’re making a trade-off here, and look for ways to improve along both axes when we can.
Apparently “a brouhaha has the connotation of undue excitement,” which I didn’t realize when I wrote this. Thanks to Nathan Cook for the correction! ↩
I follow Scott Alexander in using the gender-neutral for Apophemi, as ze complained about being misgendered but didn’t give a clear indication of zir gender. ↩
Examples commonly cited include Eliezer’s post on gender, filled with biodeterminism and heavy-handed tit-for-tat egalitarianism and completely neglecting socialization (of course nothing is allowed to be socially determined, because social scientists are bad at statistics); almost all discussions of PUA; and a general low-grade grossness emanating from the comment threads of most relevant articles. ↩