Concerns with ACE’s Recent Behavior

Epistemic Status: I feel pretty confident that the core viewpoint expressed in this post is correct, though I’m less confident in some specific claims. I have not shared a draft of this post with ACE, and so it’s possible I’ve missed important context from their perspective.

EDIT: ACE board member Eric Herboso has responded with his personal take on this situation. He believes some points in this post are wrong or misleading. For example, he disputes my claim that ACE (as an organization) attempted to cancel a conference speaker.

EDIT: Jakub Stencel from Anima International has posted a response. He clarifies a few points and offers some context regarding the CARE conference situation.

Background

In the past year, there has been some concern in EA surrounding the negative impact of “cancel culture”[1] and worsening discourse norms. Back in October, Larks wrote a post criticizing EA Munich’s decision to de-platform Robin Hanson.The post was generally well-received, and there have been other posts on the forum discussing potential risks from social-justice oriented discourse norms. For example, see The Importance of Truth-Oriented Discussions in EAand EA considerations regarding increasing political polarization.

I’m writing this post because I think some recent behavior from Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) is a particularly egregious example of harmful epistemic norms in EA. This behavior includes:

  • Making (in my view) poorly reasoned statements about anti-racism and encouraging supporters to support or donate to anti-racist causes and organizations of dubious effectiveness

  • Attempting to cancel an animal rights conference speaker because of his views on Black Lives Matter, withdrawing from that conference because the speaker’s presence allegedly made ACE staff feel unsafe, and issuing a public statement supporting its staff and criticizing the conference organizers

  • Penalizing charities in reviews for having leadership and/​or staff who are deemed to be insufficiently progressive on racial equity, and stating it won’t offer movement grants funding to those who disagree with its views on diversity, equity, and inclusion[2].

Because I’m worried that this post could hurt my future ability to get a job in EAA, I’m choosing to remain anonymous.

My goal here is to:

a) Describe ACE’s behavior in order to raise awareness and foster discussion, since this doesn’t seem to have attracted much attention, and

b) Give a few reasons why I think ACE’s behavior has been harmful, though I’ll be brief since I think similar points have been better made elsewhere

I also want to be clear that I don’t think ACE is the only bad actor here, as other areas of the EAA community have also begun to embrace harmful social-justice derived discourse norms[3]. However, I’m focusing my criticism on ACE here because:

  • It positions itself as an effective altruism organization, rather than a traditional animal advocacy organization

  • It is well known and generally respected by the EA community

  • It occupies a powerful position within the EAA movement, directing millions of dollars in funding each year and conducting a large fraction of the movement’s research

And before I get started, I’d also like to make a couple caveats:

  • I think ACE does a lot of good work, and in spite of this recent behavior, I think its research does a lot to help animals. I’m also not trying to “cancel” ACE or any of its staff. But I do think the behavior outlined in this post is bad enough that ACE supporters should be vocal about their concerns and consider withholding future donations.

  • I am not suggesting that racism, discrimination, inequality, etc. shouldn’t be discussed, or that addressing these important problems isn’t EA-worthy. The EA community can (and should) have these discussions, but we should employ the same epistemic standards as we do when discussing any other issue, and we should assume good faith when people disagree with progressive orthodoxy.

Overview of Behavior I Find Concerning

Blog Post on “Black Lives Matter”

Note: ACE seems to have removed the following statement from its blog, and I’m not sure why (maybe ACE realized the post was bad, but I don’t want to speculate without evidence). In any case, the original link now redirects to a post from 2017 on diversity, equity, and inclusion, while I link to an archived version of the original post below.

I think one recent example of bad behavior from ACE is its June 2020 statement on Black Lives Matter. I don’t see much wrong with this statement’s basic message: I think it can be fine for organizations to make public statements on issues outside of their core focus, and I don’t think we should demand that all blog posts be super rigorous. But I think this post was quite bad for a few reasons:

  • The language used in the statement makes it hard to interpret and assess factually

  • It made bold claims with little evidence

  • It recommended readers spend time going through resources of questionable value

For example, here is a section from the post:

In Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, decolonial theorists Aph and Syl Ko eloquently argue that the oppression of nonhuman animals is inextricably linked to the oppression of human animals in that they have the same root causes of white supremacy and patriarchy.

If the root causes of racism and speciesism are the same, then we may be able to make even more positive impact by addressing both issues simultaneously.

Taken at face value, these claims seem pretty absurd. For example,”inextricably linked” implies that societies without white supremacy and/​or patriarchy wouldn’t oppress animals.

Maybe a more reasonable interpretation, suggested in the second paragraph, is something like “white supremacy, patriarchy, and the oppression of animals share some of the same causes, and so addressing some of those root causes may reduce both animal suffering and racism.” Unfortunately, the writing style makes the precise claim unclear and so it’s difficult to evaluate.

Another issue with the post is that some of the linked resources are quite bad. For example, it suggested that readers consider committing to Black VegFest’s 7 points of allyship (Note: Black VegFest has also received funding from ACE[4])

The pledge contains statements such as:

There is no such thing as an equal playing field under white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. In the current system, white people have the power to usurp anything Black lives create simply by being white.

and

White vegans/​ARs will respect the sanctity of Black space and will not enter unless their presence is necessary. Black space is for the growth and betterment of Black people. Allyship and being accomplices begins with white people learning to respect Black space.

I don’t want to come across as mean or snarky, and the main point of this post isn’t to critique social justice ideology. But even as a progressive-leaning, educated person raised in a Western country, those quotes sound like nonsense to me. And to my eyes the pledge itself is closer to a faith statement than a serious plan for combating racism. So I think it’s pretty concerning that at least one person at ACE thought that pledge was worth recommending.

I think a major EA-aligned research organization should have much higher standards for content they put out, even if it’s only a blog post. Still, I’m glad that ACE removed the post and replaced it with a link to a post that appears better written and more nuanced.

Withdrawal from the 2020 CARE Conference

Last August, ACE made a Facebook post announcing its withdrawal from the 2020 Conference on Animal Rights in Europe (CARE). Those who are interested can read the full post, but I quote a few key paragraphs below:

ACE began reconsideration of our participation a few weeks ago when an ACE supporter informed us that a person who had recently made inflammatory comments related to race in a Facebook forum was publicized on the CARE website as speaking on the topic of Black Lives Matter. The ACE supporter, a white male ally, had independently written to the CARE organizers to address his concerns about this contradiction.

ACE also shared this concern, especially because two of the three speakers we had planned to send to CARE are women of the global majority (of color). We wanted to avoid placing them in a situation where they had to share a platform with a person whose statements made them feel unwelcome and unsafe.

In fact, asking our staff to participate in an event where a person who had made such harmful statements would be in attendance, let alone presenting, would be a violation of our own anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy. Naturally, we want to abide by our own policy and support our staff in feeling comfortable in all of their workspaces, including the online sphere of virtual conferences and Facebook forums.

ACE doesn’t mention exactly which statements it considers harmful, but the person who was scheduled to speak made a few comments[5] that questioned the effectiveness of dedicating EAA resources to anti-racism and questioned some views commonly held by progressive activists.

Edit: In addition to posting comments, he also ‘liked’ a comment that described Encompass, an organization that promotes racial diversity in the animal advocacy movement, as a “hate group”. I think this was inappropriate, but upon reflection I wouldn’t put that much weight on him ‘liking’ that FB comment. This doesn’t change much in my overall assessment of ACE’s behavior.

From my perspective, these so-called “inflammatory” and “harmful” comments were generally respectful in tone and expressed pretty reasonable views—certainly nothing that should be considered outside of the overton window of EAA discussion.

ACE then goes on to say:

ACE decided to withdraw from the conference reaching out to its organizers and failing to find a compromise: we ultimately decided on Monday to withdraw our ACE representatives because we did not feel the conference environment would be truly receptive to our staff members who are Black and of the global majority, and because the sheer emotional labor that has gone into this process has taken a significant toll on all of our speakers.

One could reasonably disagree with some of the comments that the planned speaker posted, but his comments seemed far from anything that would reasonably make people feel unsafe at a conference, and very far from something that would justify barring him from speaking. So I’m very concerned that ACE is implying that the CARE organizers made a mistake in letting this person (who ultimately withdrew from his scheduled talk) speak at the conference.

Edit: I think that his behavior could understandably make someone with strong pro-racial justice views feel unwelcome or unsafe at the conference. But I don’t think that comes close to a justification for barring someone from speaking.

Norms of free and open discussion are critical to our ability to engage in truth seeking. And discussions about cause prioritization and cost-effectiveness are cornerstone to EA. So ACE’s behavior here seems antithetical to core EA values.

ACE’s comments are made worse given its powerful position in the EAA movement as a grant maker and charity evaluator. Conference organizers may now reasonably worry about being denied funding or having their organizations receive unfavorable reviews from ACE if they host any speakers deemed remotely controversial. It may also cause animal advocates to self-censor views deemed controversial for fear of being denied speaking and career opportunities.

Penalizing Charities Based on Statements from Staff

Another concerning behavior from ACE is that it appeared to have heavily punished Anima International (the employer of the planned CARE speaker reference above) in its 2020 charity review.

Edit: I should note the speaker holds a country-level Executive Director position at Anima. In addition, there another country-level ED who posted some critical comments in the same Facebook thread.

In its 2019 review of Anima International, ACE rated Anima’s “Leadership and Strategic Vision” (criterion 6) as being “strong” with a high degree of confidence. ACE also gave Anima a “strong” rating with a high degree of confidence in criterion 7 (having a healthy culture and sustainable structure), which includes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

But in its 2020 review of Anima, published in November, ACE downgraded Anima from a “top” to “standout”, a change which will likely result in substantially reduced funding to Anima through ACE. ACE also now gives Anima a “weak” rating for “Leadership and Culture” While I can’t know for sure whether this decision was appropriate, or the extent to the downgrade was due to Anima staff’s views on DEI, some statements in the 2020 review are quite concerning:

Our impression, however, is that the racial homogeneity at the organization has resulted in a limited understanding of racial issues, which has presented itself in some of the public and private communications we’ve witnessed from Anima International’s staff in the last year

In particular, we think leadership staff publicly engaging in conversations about the relevance of racial equity to the animal advocacy movement may have had a negative impact on the progress of racial equity in the movement

Additionally, in ACE’s summary of the review, it notes

We think Anima International’s leadership has a limited understanding of racial equity and that this has impacted some of the spaces they contribute to as an international animal advocacy group—such as coalitions, conferences, and online forums.

as a weakness of the organization.

The poor rating on “Leadership and Culture” is despite Anima staff reporting higher than average levels of satisfaction and staff overwhelmingly agreeing that Anima has an inclusive culture, diverse staff members, and protects staff from discrimination and harassment. Indeed, ACE’s assessment of Anima’s performance on this criterion seems quite positive, with the exception of some comments from leadership regarding racial equity.

It’s hard to directly compare the reviews from 2019 and 2020, as ACE’s evaluation criteria changed somewhat. Nevertheless, given the overall positive assessment, it’s strange that Anima was awarded a “weak” rating in this category, and I think it’s likely that Anima is being heavily punished for the public comments made by staff members.

Of course, since much of the dialogue between ACE and Anima has been private, it’s possible that some Anima staff made private comments that are much worse than what is public (Edit: It’s worth noting Anima apparently requested its private correspondence with ACE be made public, see Jakub Stencel’s comment). But I find it unlikely that any of the private statements would have been bad enough to reasonably justify penalization in the review. And due to ACE’s previous statements, I have little confidence in its opinion on whether a given statement related to racial equity is harmful.

I’m worried that ACE will continue to put pressure on charities to censor the views of their staff. Leadership from charities seeking an ACE evaluation could be incentivized to self-censor in order to secure a favorable review. It may also put pressure on charities to adopt policies or take costly actions to signal their commitment to DEI, which could reduce their effectiveness. Collectively, this may contribute to a toxic culture of fear, deceit, and wasteful signalling.

On a related note, I’m also concerned that in a recent blog post, ACE explicitly states that it is unable to fund “groups or projects that do not support ACE’s views on diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) for its Movement Grants Program.

This could plausibly be used to deny funding to good project ideas from those who disagree with ACE on issues related to DEI. And conversely, ACE could be more likely to fund bad project ideas from people who align with ACE’s views, given the priority it seems to assign to DEI.

These actions are harmful to the movement

Edit: By “social justice norms” I’m referring to a set of discussion norms and epistemic norms that are common in many social justice communities. These include, for example, placing great emphasis on standpoint epistemology, displaying great intolerance and hostility toward dissenting views, and a general skepticism of empirical evidence. But I don’t mean to imply that all social justice norms are bad, and I don’t view social justice and EA as incompatible. There are definitely people who embrace norms of openness and free inquiry and who also identify as social justice advocates.

Embracing certain social justice norms may lead the movement to allocate resources less effectively

I believe that the adoption of these norms will cause ACE and other EAA groups to spend more time supporting social-justice related causes, and less time on effective animal advocacy. I don’t think anti-racist and or pro-DEI work is necessary bad, but I think we need to be able to openly discuss whether it’s really worth funding “intersectional” or social-justice aligned work from groups like, and whether those resources wouldn’t better be served funding organizations that are purely focused on helping animals. At the very least, a rigorous case should be presented before funding intersectional or anti-racist organizations, and those who disagree with decisions to support that work shouldn’t be branded as racist or ignorant.

Embracing certain social justice norms may attract bad actors

Embracing social justice norms may cause us to attract more people from social justice communities who care little about the principles of EA or even animal advocacy, but will be drawn to the movement if it seems they can gain support and funding. This seems quite bad for the long-term effectiveness of the movement.

Embracing certain social justice norms is likely to create a hostile epistemic environment and reduce trust

There are countless examples of toxic discourse norms in social justice heavy fields, such as parts of academia and journalism. In these communities, people who question progressive orthodoxy or make innocuous statements deemed “offensive” are often bullied, harassed, threatened, forced to write presumably fake apologies (and then often bullied for writing an insufficiently sincere apology), and sometimes even fired from their jobs. For some specific examples of social-justice driven cancel culture, see this list compiled by Larks.

If EA (or EAA specifically) adopts these toxic norms, community members will be incentivized to hide their beliefs in order to gain funding, employment, and social approval[6]. I’d like people in the EAA community to be able to argue in good faith and express disagreement with each other, and be unafraid of criticizing views held by powerful organizations or people within the movement. In keeping with the good faith principle, I won’t be asking ACE to write an apology, as I don’t believe it should issue one unless it truly thinks it acted wrongly.

I’d like to close with an excerpt that resonated with me from a popular comment from Anna Salamon on a previous post:

It seems to me that the EA community’s strength, goodness, and power lie almost entirely in our ability to reason well (so as to be actually be “effective”, rather than merely tribal/​random). It lies in our ability to trust in the integrity of one anothers’ speech and reasoning, and to talk together to figure out what’s true.

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.”

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, but not as much as our ability to think and speak together is worth


  1. I feel this term has become overly-politicized and has become less useful. For example, some have described Trump’s impeachment or some of Dr. Seuss’ work going out of print as examples of “cancel culture.” Nevertheless, I’m using it here because it’s a well established and widely recognized term. ↩︎

  2. See the recent blog post “Apply for funding from ACE movement grants”. Note that movement grants are small grants to organizations/​individuals and are separate from ACE’s standard charity evaluation process. ↩︎

  3. For some examples, see many of the comments on this post in the EAA Facebook group. ↩︎

  4. See ACE’s post Announcing Our Fall 2020 ACE Movement Grants ↩︎

  5. See comments made by Connor Jackson here ↩︎

  6. This is anecdotal, but I’ve heard several people privately criticize the emphasis on racial justice in EAA, but who were afraid to say anything publicly for fear of being bullied or denied job/​funding opportunities (I would count myself among this group). ↩︎