Why I’m not on the Rationalist Masterlist

Note:

This is inspired specifically by one person who identifies as a Rationalist whose writing set me off. However, I have attempted to explain in general terms why this has been a pattern with me, and why it means that despite thinking the LessWrong/Rationalist community seem super cool and interesting I cannot for the life of me seem to participate.

I have emotional biases regarding what types of communities I feel comfortable in that are causing additional effects on top of the identifiable process I try to explain here, but (in my fallible experience etc.) I’ve found said emotional biases are pretty much only present when this process is also present. To use an example from my first semester in college it has been present in a social group containing one person who has repeatedly misgendered me and entirely absent in a similar (same number of people, similar topics of conversation, common interests ex. politics and musical theater, roughly equivalent age/race/gender distribution, same area in which they repeatedly gather at the same times, same college; this is about as well as I can do without setting up a randomized trial in which I am a participant, which seems like it would flop) social group which contains zero such persons; you could make a decent argument that the fact that I react in this way to one person in a group of, say, twenty is emotionally charged, but that doesn’t change that I cease reacting in this way when no one that fits that criteria is present. So, to me, the criteria still seems worth describing.

I mean, also I want a magical golden gate to swing open in my head that will allow me to interact with the Rationalist community on its own merits, but I also want better painkillers with no side effects or some other variation on an immediate solution to my being physically disabled, so I’m pretty aware that I can’t get most of what I want in this life, like, ever.

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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.

(I could entertain their arguments in bad faith, but then I’d be angry and everyone involved would be unhappy, unless their explicit goal is to get in a bad-faith shouting match, in which case I would like to avoid them on their own merits-or-lack-thereof, thank you.)

On the other hand, most of these things involve warning signs for opinions whose holders are frequently detrimental to my health and safety, and therefore I feel pretty entitled to these boundaries, and pretty insulted at the implication that possessing such boundaries is inferior to not possessing them.

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.

However, this results in a knee-jerk intellectual squick when I run across someone entertaining or endorsing these arguments. (If I were being YouTube-commenter-style punchy about this, this entire post would have been a comment reading “‘Fertile women’ my ass.”, for the record.) This is because respect for said arguments and/or the idea behind them is a warning sign for either 1) passively not respecting my personhood or 2) actively disregarding my personhood, both of which are, to use some vernacular, hella fucking dangerous to me personally.

I am reasonably confident (insert p value here) that this attitude is self-replicating among people who are accustomed to being at risk in a specific way that generally occurs to marginalized populations. (I cannot speak for people who may have a similar rhetorical roadblock without it being yoked to a line of social marginalization, other than that I suspect they happen.) This would mean that rewarding the “ability” to entertain any argument “no matter how ‘politically incorrect'” (to break out of some jargon, “no matter how likely to hurt people”) results in a system that prizes people who have not been socially marginalized or who have been socially marginalized less than a given other person in the discussion, since they will have (in general) less inbuilt safeguards limiting the topics they can discuss comfortably.

In other words, prizing discourse without limitations (I tried to find a convenient analogy for said limitations and failed. Fenders? Safety belts?) will result in an environment in which people are more comfortable speaking the more social privilege they hold. (If you prefer to not have any truck with the word ‘privilege’, substitute ‘the less likelihood of having to anticipate culturally-permissible threats to their personhood they have lived with’, since that’s the specific manifestation of privilege I mean. Sadly, that is a long and unwieldy phrase.)

Environments for discourse which do not allow/encourage what I’m calling “discourse without limitations” are frequently (that I have seen) trash-talked in the context of environments which do allow/encourage that type of discourse. This trash-talking, that I’ve seen, can be either outright (via, for example, insulting feminists / an unexplained stereotype of people with tumblr accounts everyone in the discussion is assumed to hold despite the discussion being on tumblr / people who build ‘safe space’ communities / minority activists / etc.) or by inference (labeling the limitation-less type of discourse, which given these factors is exclusionary in a socially permissible fashion, as “Rational” or otherwise superior to other options). Even when motivated by largely innocent social signalling, this can be a pretty significant deterrent for crossover between these groups (people do not generally stick around in places they do not feel safe or wanted if no deterrents to them leaving are present).

Environments which favor people along lines of privilege/marginalization available in the general culture are sort of like fungi, in that they show up everywhere by default and given an absence of specific countermeasures their presence can be assumed (fungus analogy continues with “like mold on a loaf of bread that has not been specifically preserved”). 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.

Following sufficient rinsing and repetition, it may occur to someone in a ‘discourse without limitations’ community to wonder where all the (say) queer people and/or women and/or trans* people and/or disabled people and/or people of color and/or non-American-and-Northern-European people and/or citizens of the third world and/or people whose first language is not English and/or Jewish people and/or etc. (repeat and/or for any population ‘coincidentally’ discouraged from participating) went.

Or rhetorical-you could argue that women and/or minorities and/or historically disadvantaged groups are inherently irrational / otherwise not qualified for community membership, at which point I would proceed to avoid rhetorical-you, as above.

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Addendum:

In addition, even if there are limits on discourse (for example, “claiming a racial minority is inherently inferior to a racial majority will get you banhammered”), there’s significant linguistic signalling that can make up the difference between people who have more to lose from apparently innocent argument participating or not. For (specific to my experience) example,

- ableist insults,
– arguments against accusations of racism/sexism/cissexism/heterocentrism/ableism/etc. that boil down to “those are silly words and they aren’t in my spellcheck”,
– conflating terms describing marginalization (such as the above) with insults (i.e. “calling me racist is an insult”, “let’s discuss this without using meaningless insults like ‘misogynist'”),
– use of insults that have a history of being specific to women or that effectively mean “this person is like a woman”,
– apparent conviction that the appropriate plural of “a queer person” is “gays”,
– sense of being persecuted by “political correctness”*,
– pretty much any usage at any point of the word “insane” when we are not talking about a court case by now,

among other things, signal to me that I am not safe in the rhetorical environment I see these things in. To a lesser extent I’ve noticed other indicators that I will probably find interacting with a given person unpleasant even if they are not actively unsafe, such as using “he” as a third-person gender-neutral pronoun unless the person writing wants to discuss something specific to AFAB people, at which point they immediately switch to “she”… But I digress.

*I have failed so far to find a definition of “political correctness” in this context that could not be search-and-replaced with “trying to avoid hurting people” to either no effect or increased comprehensibility. You are free to attempt to change my mind on this, I guess?

In some cases, such as how extreme my reaction to “insane” in any context other than “not guilty by reason of insanity”, I used to have a much more relaxed attitude towards it as a warning sign and then I repeatedly got burned. That is, as a direct result of being more forgiving about people calling things and other people “insane”, I quickly acquired an expansive dataset indicating people who call things “crazy” or “insane” were much more likely to vocally disrespect mentally ill people or use people’s mental illness to attempt to discredit their arguments as soon as they found out about it. So it’s worth noting that people who have an “unreasonable” or “exaggerated” reaction to certain words and/or patterns of argument may be reacting from a history of encountering them / have, despite all rhetorical-your best intentions, no proof that rhetorical-you is inherently different and doesn’t really mean the things rhetorical-you say like that.

This is (among other things) why I heavily discourage the usage of slurs in a context of supposedly rational/reasonable debate. If nothing else, by using slurs in an argument rhetorical-you end up saying things other than what rhetorical-you apparently meant. (Okay, I’m using ‘r-you’ to mean ‘rhetorical-you’ from now on, the distinction is necessary since I think more easily in rhetorical second person but typing it out is getting old.)

If by “sluttiness” r-you mean “sexual promiscuity”, what is gained by using a gender-targeted insult that is likely to make a significant portion (i.e. women and/or queer people, who together are like… 55% of the world at least) of r-your potential audience uncomfortable and less likely to engage with r-your argument?

If by “sane feminists” r-you mean “feminists who I consider to be acting in a reasonable fashion” or “feminists with whom I am willing to debate due to preexisting common ground” and not “I believe mentally ill people are incapable of rationality or argument, and should have their opinions dismissed out of hand, so let’s make sure to talk about people who are not mentally ill now”, why are r-you saying the latter? If the latter opinion is, in fact, something (say) r-you would never, ever endorse, and in fact r-you are very close to several mentally ill people, and so on…

Then why are r-you choosing to propagate it?

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tl;dr: If you just typed in all honesty “I like eugenics”, even if I enjoy your posts about economics, congratulations, you freak me out and I really, really don’t know why I’m still reading your blog. Sorry (because self-preservation, I am regretful but not actually that sorry).

12 thoughts on “Why I’m not on the Rationalist Masterlist

  1. There are two ways for me to interpret this post:

    1) You’re okay with the existence of communities that participate in discourse without limits, but you think that there is also value in having communities in which some kinds of discourse are not welcome – in particular discourse that harms vulnerable people. Hence people who engage in discourse without limits should respect the people who engage in discourse with limits (eg. safe spaces). This is a very weak interpretation, and I can’t imagine anyone would disagree with it, so I’m assuming its not what you meant,.

    2) You’re not okay with the existence of communities that participate in discourse with limits and you think that certain types of discourse should never be tolerated, because such discourse harms vulnerable people. I also don’t think this is what you meant, so enlighten me.

    Frankly, I think that discourse without limits is a pre-requisite to truth seeking. If you have incorrect sacred cow beliefs then you are doomed to forever have an inaccurate picture of the world. You can’t be serious about truth if there are beliefs that you are not willing to question. Which you don’t _have_ to be, the world would be a strange place if everyone actually seriously cared about truth, but there are those of us who do care about truth.

    P.S. I’m a gay, black, non-North American who enjoys participating with discourse without limits. I don’t get offended easily because I don’t see the point. If my interlocutor is wrong then a good counterargument exists and if they are right then I’ve just increased the accuracy of my beliefs (yay!).

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m serious about this, it’s not just a phrase), but didn’t you just state that you have a cognitive bias that you know about but that you are struggling with/not willing to battle in order to gain insights because it makes you feel uncomfortable?
    Because I guess that happens to a lot of people (I’m still working on something similar) and that is something everyone has to work on (e.g. firm theists may have problems discussing atheism as a viable world view; not that I am comparing talking about the non-existence of gods with calling someone bad things at the object level).
    Also about specific phrases/words triggering your red flags (e.g. ‘sluttiness’, ‘insane’):
    Do they really hurt you or are they just uncomfortable? Because if they are the latter I would (and some of those are ‘yellow’ or red flags for me as well) just use them as a way to evaluate someone’s personality and then quickly downgrade the importance of their arguments (sometimes only those that have anything to do with the flag).
    Overall I find it really unfortunate that LessWrong seems to sometimes be a less than comfortable environment for non-cismale non-western people and would like to change that without degrading the quality of content or censoring unnecessarily.

  3. I get much of what you’re writing, but what’s your deal with “racist” and “misogynist”?

    I’m sure you’ve had the experience of people saying a word was “just descriptive”, when you saw that word as insulting, exclusionary, othering, or whatever. People try that trick all the time, and almost every insult has a purely descriptive meaning in it somewhere.

    The fact is that some people see “racist” as an insult. Probably most people see it that way.

    I’m old. I remember when almost EVERYBODY agreed that “racist” basically meant “ignorant violent scumbag intent on keeping people down based on an obviously stupid conscious belief in their inferiority”. Nowadays, SOME communities use it to mean something closer to “person who may have a hand, however indirect or unconscious, in perpetuating some unfairness related to race”. But that’s not what it calls to mind for most of us.

    “Racist” has a common understanding that’s an insult, whether you like it or not. “Misogynist” is much the same way. And there are others. If you use such words in general discourse the way you’d us them in an academic paper in women’s studies, you’re going to cause people to go into defensive mode. You can’t expect to import the technical jargon of a foreign community without misunderstandings.

    You may have picked up your habit of using the words that way in some completely different forum, in order to signal some kind of subtle understanding of the issues. But you still can’t ignore their effects in the forums you’re actually in at the moment… and trying to change the norms of those forums is usually a distraction from some other, more important purpose.

    Also, I hate to say it, but I don’t think those sorts of uses are always innocent. Maybe yours is, but social groups that talk a lot about inclusion, and talk a lot about avoiding insult, and talk a lot about the historical meanings of words and why you have to be careful about what words you use, generally seem to be just as bad about thinly veiled insults as their opponents.

    Frankly, I think many members of those communities WANT the impact of words like “racist”, but they don’t want to own the reasons that the words have impact. Expanding the definition of a high-impact word is a pretty common tactic. And so is using “plausibly deniable” insults.

    Many of the same people who throw around “racist” would get very upset if somebody called a person “colored”. I picked the word “colored” because it never even actually made it to “slur” status. It was always “just descriptive”, and any insult that came from it was from it being slightly erroneously so, or maybe sending a bit of an othering signal. Nonetheless, it bothers people, and because it bothers people, most of us don’t use it.

    If you want other people to avoid language that hurts you, and if you want them to take you seriously when you say you ARE hurt, then you need to give them the same courtesy.

  4. Wow … THANK YOU for writing this!

    This article perfectly articulates one of the reasons I can’t deal with that type of situation and it says it in words I’d never thought before … my subjective experience is that LR is sometimes interesting to read and then every so often, apparently out of nowhere, I read that somebody there thinks that people-like-me should not be allowed to survive/live/be around people-like-them. It’s somewhat like the emotional version of playing minesweeper without looking at the numbers – you’ll probably be fine with any given step you take, but every so often a bomb will go off under you and you’ll be damaged by it.

    I had never thought about this deeply enough to realise that prizing discourse without limitations will *necessarily* select your population to relatively more privileged people – probably because thinking about emotional bombs randomly being detonated in one’s vicinity does not make for a topic that’s easy to think about. (For me, the relevant people-like-me here resolves to “disabled people”, especially “severely disabled people”, but I can see by simple analogy that it will resolve out differently depending on whoever is the one doing the reading).

    Thank you for articulating this so clearly. I think that, having read this, I’ll now be able to explain it much more clearly next time the general situation comes up :)

  5. Wow, thank you for this. You’ve articulated something I’ve felt about the rationalist/LW community for a while, and it’s the reason why, no matter how interesting and cool and intellectually stimulating I find the people in the community and the discussions they have, I don’t feel like I’m really welcome or can fully participate.

    The snark about Tumblr and feminists and anyone who cares about politics and, occasionally, even the specific network I blog for just gets to be too much.

    Anyway, I couldn’t have written a post like this using as much LW lingo and therefore probably wouldn’t be taken as seriously as you hopefully will be, so I really want people to read this and at least think about it before dismissing it out of hand.

  6. Found your post through Hacker News (I think), and look forward to reading future posts. Thanks for sharing your perspective and experience.

    (I never realized before how my mentally ill friends might be experiencing the word “sane”. You’re right, I will work on speaking more precisely.)

  7. I used to hang out with some Less Wrongites but there’s some pretty nasty stuff lurking at the edges that made me profoundly uncomfortable. I totally get what you’re saying.

  8. If I may be so bold as to tl;dr your entire wonderful post: “rationalist” communities are invariably full of straight western affluent able-bodied cis white males who are way more into intellectual masturbation than into basic decency towards fellow human beings.

    I had a passing dalliance with them back in my very early 20s, when I too was a shithead laboring under the misapprehension that “rationalist” communities would treat even me, a nonwestern woman of color, like I was human. They quickly set me straight, and I quickly went on my way and found wonderful intersectionalist feminist communities who are truly interested in being less wrong… about things that actually matter, not masturbation technique.

  9. […] “Do they really hurt you or are they just uncomfortable?” Where do you draw the line? What about “I don’t get offended easily because I don’t see the point“? Let’s see if an analogy involving pain tolerance is useful at all here. […]

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