A statement and an apology
Since the Time article on sexual harassment came out, people have been asking for information about one paragraph of it, about an “influential figure in EA”. I wanted to respond to that.
This is talking about me, more than five years ago. I think I made significant mistakes; I regret them a lot; and I’m sorry.
I think the actual mistakes I made look different from what many readers may take away from the article, so I first wanted to provide a bit more context (some of this is straightforwardly factual; other parts should be understood as my interpretation):
We had what I perceived as a preexisting friendship where we were experimenting with being unusually direct and honest (/“edgy”)
Including about sexual matters
There was what would commonly be regarded as oversharing from both sides (this wasn’t the first time I’d mentioned masturbation)
Our friendship continued in an active way for several months afterwards
I should however note that:
We had met via EA and spent a good fraction of conversation time talking about EA-relevant topics
I was older and more central in the EA community
On other occasions, including early in our friendship, we had some professional interactions, and I wasn’t clear about how I was handling the personal/professional boundary
I was employed as a researcher at that time
My role didn’t develop to connecting people with different positions until later, and this wasn’t part of my self-conception at the time
(However it makes sense to me that this was her perception)
I was not affiliated with the org she was interviewing at
I’d suggested her as a candidate earlier in the application process, but was not part of their decision-making process
On the other hand I think that a lot of what was problematic about my behaviour with respect to this person was not about this incident in particular, but the broad dynamic where:
I in fact had significant amounts of power
This was not very salient to me but very salient to her
She consequently felt pressure to match my vibe
e.g. in an earlier draft of this post, before fact-checking it with her, I said that we talked about “feelings of mutual attraction”
This was not her experience
I drafted it like that because we’d had what I’d interpreted as conversations where this was stated explicitly
(I think this is just another central example of the point I’m making in this set of bullets)
Similarly at some point she volunteered to me that she was enjoying the dynamic between us (but I probably interpreted this much more broadly than she intended)
She was in a structural position where it was (I now believe) unreasonable to expect honesty about her experience
As the person with power it was on me to notice and head off these dynamics, and I failed to do that
(Sorry, I know that’s all pretty light on detail, but I don’t want to risk accidentally de-anonymising the other person. I want to stress that I’m not claiming she provided any inaccurate information to the journalist who wrote the story; just that I think the extra context may be helpful for people seeking to evaluate or understand my conduct.)
In any case, I think my actions were poorly judged and fell well short of the high standards I would like to live up to, and that I think we should ask from people in positions of leadership. Afterwards, I felt vaguely like the whole friendship wasn’t well done and I wished I had approached things differently. Then when I found out that I’d made the person feel uncomfortable(/disempowered/pressured), I was horrified (not putting pressure on people is something like a core value of mine). I have apologized to the person in question, but I also feel like I’ve let the whole community down, and I would like to apologize unreservedly. It’s extremely important to me that our community is a welcoming place for everyone, and I feel dismayed that I have contributed to it not being so. If there’s anyone else whom I’ve ever made feel uncomfortable or pressured, I’d love to hear about it — I think I might benefit most from a conversation, but I’d also welcome anonymous feedback.
Was this incident an isolated case? Yes and no. I think this was by some way my most egregious mistake of this type. However, in my time in EA there have been four other occasions on which I expressed feelings of attraction towards someone in a way that — in retrospect as I’ve developed a more nuanced understanding of power dynamics — I regret. (In most of these cases I’m still on very good terms with the person.) I’ve slowly been improving my implicit models (so I never quite make the same mistake twice), but honestly it’s gone more slowly than I think it should have done.
There were several intertwined mistakes here:
I was not attendant to implicit power dynamics
I was aware that hard power (like employer relationships or grantmaking) mattered, but I was pretty blind to the implications of the soft power that came from being older and more central in the community
I entangled personal and professional (without being clear about how I was handling that)
I was aware that it was important not to let personal relationships cloud professional judgements, but I didn’t understand the point as deeply as I do today; moreover I was not properly alive to the importance of keeping these legibly-to-others separate (& I didn’t discuss how I was approaching it with this person)
I didn’t respect normal societal standards about what’s oversharing, or what conversational implicature might be, especially re. anything sexual
I think this meant that misunderstandings were especially likely; I think it was particularly egregious when combined with the above issues
I made decisions about how to communicate while flinching internally
I should have been more conscious that I was feeling a lot of shame (over all kinds of things, including the fact of being attracted to people!), and that this meant I would think less well than normal. I should consequently have taken steps sooner to address this
(How could I have come to make these mistakes? I was leaning into my own view-at-the-time about what good conduct looked like, and interested in experimenting to find ways to build a better culture than society-at-large has. I was newly open to polyamory, and newly exposed to circling and saw something powerful and good about speaking truths even when they were uncomfortable. And I was naively optimistic that we could ~do away with interpersonal power dynamics, so that of course someone would tell me if they were ever uncomfortable. (I now think that this kind of power differential represents exactly the circumstances in which it’s unfair to expect the disempowered person to be able to correct conversational dynamics which are off.) And then I was making decisions quickly without reflecting appropriately — and I was slow to correct mistakes after the fact — because shame impeded my metacognition from looking closely at what was going on.)
What can you expect from me going forward?
Some updates I’d already made (simplified):
Don’t be edgy
Make sure that anything intimate comes up only in relationships where there’s a good existing foundation of trust
Don’t consider romantic engagements in cases where there’s a big age gap
It’s good to make handling of personal/professional matters legible to others
Attend significantly to implicit power dynamics for anything relating to attraction/romance
You won’t always know if someone is uncomfortable, or is feeling pressure in some direction
Attend significantly to implicit power dynamics even for things that aren’t romantic
Avoid communicating while triggered
Consider not being open to polyamory (NB I’ve been in a relationship with my wife for 17 years, which has in practice been monogamous, but for the last few years we’ve been open to the possibility of polyamory)
Shame is a big problem for me
Talk to a therapist to sort it out (this plan actually got interrupted by the FTX crisis)
Don’t express feelings of attraction towards anyone (except my wife) until I’ve sorted this out
What’s the right thing to do now? First, I want to ensure never to repeat these mistakes. I won’t know what my final personal policy updates are for a while longer — some of them might be quite subtle, and I’ll continue to work on these with a therapist, but in the interim I’m planning to hold off on:
Expressing feelings of attraction to anyone
(this is a continuation of the 2022 policy update; it’s because I want to sort out what’s up with my dubious track record on this, not because I think that nobody should ever express attraction)
Being open to polyamory
I don’t know whether I’ll be open to these again in the future. In any case the timeframe on which I might pick these back up will be decided in consultation with my therapist.
Second, I think it’s helpful if the community is able to process this with my visibly not being in any positions of power. Therefore I have resigned from the EV UK board, my most substantive position in the community, and am consequently no longer in an oversight role for any of its projects. (Although I’m still listed on the FHI website, I actually left FHI over a year ago.) Note that I’m not saying “I deserve to lose my positions of authority” — in this case that would ultimately be a decision for the rest of the board. Rather, I think it’s best if right now I give them and others as much space as I can to consider the most appropriate actions.
For right now, I am also pausing other activities which may give me power:
Starting any new mentor relationships;
Recommending funding for anything or connecting people with funders;
Organizing events (in the immediate, I’ve stepped back from any decision-making for the Summit on Existential Security).
Again I’ll make decisions about when to resume these in consultation with my therapist.
(I don’t think I have a way of fully giving up soft power without committing not to be a part of the community in the future, something which doesn’t feel like the right move to me. Instead I will just share that I love it when people do the things that seem to them to be good and true, even when I disagree, or where the consequences might be bad for me personally.)
Third, I think it’s important to ask how the culture or structures we have could be different in ways that would reduce the risk of such harms. I know that this is also important to the person whose story appears in Time, who said in a recent email to me “I deliberately did not name you as I want to draw attention to [systemic issues]. We should expect individuals to make misjudgements over time.”. I don’t want to shirk responsibility here — I absolutely think that I could and should have made better judgements. But I also think that holding my flaws at a fixed level, I might not have made these errors in a different culture, and it’s generally good to look for multiple different levels on which things could have been fixed. I don’t think I should be the arbiter of what should be implemented here, but I think it’s possible I have access to helpful inside-view data, so I plan to continue reflecting on this. Topics that I especially want to think about:
When is radical openness good, and what are the bounds on that?
When is oversight important, and what types would meaningfully help?
What tools could help people better track soft power, and its impacts?
Are there mechanisms that could help to empower the voices of the disempowered?
I then plan to feed thoughts to the community, CEA’s Community Health team, or other parties as appropriate.
I’ll leave things there for now. I’m very happy to hear thoughts of other things I should be doing. (Though some of the conversations around this I won’t want to have in public, in order to protect people’s privacy.) But in closing let me say again: I’m so, so sorry to anyone whom I’ve ever made uncomfortable, and I’m so sorry to the broader community for having contributed to these dynamics.