1. An intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized.
I thought this inter-blog debate was interesting.
It started with Apophemi, whose views I mostly agree with (at least in this post). Here’s a few excepts:
There are things that lie too close to home for me to be comfortable debating them, which I’m sure at least a plurality of people in the ongoing Charming And Friendly Rationalist Dinner Party group would wholeheartedly disapprove of, seeing as I thus 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. [...]
An example: I cannot in good faith entertain the argument that high-scarcity societies are right in having restrictive, assigned-sex-based gender roles, even if these social structures result in measurable maximized utility (i.e. many much kids). I have a moral imperative against this that overrides my general impulse towards maximized utility, or rather (if you asked me about it personally) tilt-shifts my view of what sectors ‘deserve’ to see their utility maximized at the expense of a given other sector.[...]
Because of the conditions of discourse that not having limitations on what type of ideas can be acceptably entertained, these environments are also self-selecting. In other words, even when the people speaking loudest or most eloquently don’t intentionally discourage participation from people who are not like them / who may be uncomfortable with the terms of the discussion, entertaining ‘politically incorrect’ or potentially harmful ideas out loud, in public (so to speak) signals people who would be impacted by said ideas that they are not welcome.
I agree with Apophemi about many things. Part of my philosophy for “Alas” is that, at least on this blog, certain debates are closed. For example, I’m not interested in arguing about if Science shows that White people are genetically smarter than Black people; I’m convinced that science shows no such thing with any certainty, and more importantly, that the debate itself is harmful in just the ways Apophemi describes. Similarly, there are a number of anti-trans arguments I’m rather not see here. There are lots of places where those arguments are welcome, but I’d rather Alas be a place where trans people are welcome.
On the other hand, some debates are not closed in our society,1 even if they are distressing to have. There is more-or-less a consensus in our society that overt racism is wrong, but there’s no such consensus about reproductive rights, or about marriage equality, or about fat activism. Since there is no consensus, I think it’s important to be able to have these debates openly. And since I can’t function well in environments in which insults are hurled and people are overtly dehumanized, I try and create an environment for myself in which these topics can be debated with enough civility to reach my personal minimum threshold of bearability.
Of course, by creating such an environment, I inevitably exclude other people – people who find the demand to maintain that threshold of civility makes “Alas” into a place they find oppressive or hurtful.
So it won’t be surprising that although I largely agreed with Apophemi, I also had a lot of sympathy for this response to Apophemi by Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, a blog I quite like although I often disagree with Scott’s ideas. Scott wrote:
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.2
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).
I think this leans towards my own preference, which is to have lots and lots of different spaces. No conversation will be comfortable for everybody, so the optimum is to have as many different spaces making good discussions accessible to as many different sorts of people as possible.
Scott also included a very kind link to “Alas,” so thanks for that, Scott.
Scott loses me later in his essay, though, by going overboard in what (even if this wasn’t Scott’s intent) comes off as an attempt to deny that there is any problem at all. For instance, he argues that Yoga classes are taken more by women than by men, but it wouldn’t be reasonable to assume that yoga classes are driving men away with anti-male attitudes; rather, “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.” Okay, that seems reasonable to me.
He then says the rationalist community is the same way, and therefore there is no problem of women and some minorities feeling excluded by the dialog there. But unlike yoga class, we have direct evidence – such as the post Scott was responding to – that there are women and minorities who do feel excluded from rationalist communities, and say so clearly.
Nor do I think it takes a very great leap of empathy to realize why, for example, some Black readers would find serious discussion of how Black people are allegedly genetically less intelligent than whites or Asians, to be unwelcoming. (Scott points out that Less Wrong has no shortage of Asians. But, again, it’s not hard to see why claims that Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites and Asians may be, on average, easier for Asian readers to stomach than Black readers.)
The third post I want to point to is On inclusivity in Less Wrong: a response to Scott Alexander by Ben Kuhn. He has a similar reaction to mine to the Yoga metaphor: “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.” Overall, Kuhn argues for a middle ground:
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.
I don’t really have any solutions to offer, beyond my belief that all forums exclude in one way or another, and therefore we need a lot of different forums. But the trade-off between “discourse without limitations” and “we want to be welcoming” is always going to be an issue, whenever any forum is created. It’s something useful for blogrunners (and readers) to keep in mind.
- I’m an American, so that’s what I think of as “our society,” although I realize that not all “Alas” readers are Americans. [↩]
- I’m not sure I agree with Scott about this. I interpreted Apophemi’s essay as explaining why ze doesn’t feel comfortable posting on spaces like “Less Wrong,” without necessarily proposing any changes. [↩]