Being Open and Honest

I’ve been around the EA community for nearly a decade, and I’ve become close friends with so many amazing people through my local chapter in NYC. One thing I’ve overheard quite frequently when I’m at meetups with first-timers is that these friends will sometimes say things like “EA is this weird philosophy” or “EA is this fringe movement that believes AI is trying to kill us all.”

Now, to be clear, these are not wholly inaccurate. 😅 However, I do worry that the self-deprecation or quasi-disparaging language may be going too far. There’s definitely a place for humor and not taking ourselves too seriously, and these could just be isolated incidents owing to how New Yorkers can be edgier than most people, so please take this as anecdotal. But in my observation, being sarcastic or needlessly harsh about the movement (or worse, the people) that you actually admire and respect isn’t the way I’d choose to represent the community or the ideas of EA more broadly.

Personally, I think that EA has been a tremendous source of joy and fulfillment in my life, so I do my best to reflect that joy when I speak about effective altruism to folks who may be unfamiliar. After all, EA has enriched my life, and I know that my friends feel the same way, so I don’t feel the need to use terms like weird or culty to describe the community, even if I do acknowledge that some of the ideas and practices are a bit out of the ordinary. Still, there is nothing objectionable about wanting to do the most good you can do. I’ve written before that I think we should be vocal about what works, and while we shouldn’t shy away from critiques or points of contention where we may disagree with the dominant narratives of the movement (indeed, we should highlight those points to show that there are still tons of open questions in EA), I don’t think we need to self-abnegate when we do so.

I definitely invite your thoughts here. Have you had similar experiences? When you’re talking about EA with newcomers, do you use words that could be perceived as negatively valenced? If so, do you think it helps? I might just be oversensitive here, so I’m willing to recalibrate. If you share my intuition, though, and you think we should generally avoid language that could potentially signal to our interlocutors that we’re disparaging the very ideas and principles that we ourselves espouse, then I’d encourage us to be earnest with our values and talk openly and honestly about why we hold the beliefs that we do, and to do so with love! ❤️