Avoiding Munich’s Mistakes: Advice for CEA and Local Groups

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one per­son were of con­trary opinion, mankind would be no more jus­tified in silenc­ing that one per­son, than he, if he had the power, would be jus­tified in silenc­ing mankind.
  • John Stu­art Mill, On Liberty, p23

We strive to base our ac­tions on the best available ev­i­dence and rea­son­ing about how the world works. We recog­nise how difficult it is to know how to do the most good, and there­fore try to avoid over­con­fi­dence, to seek out in­formed cri­tiques of our own views, to be open to un­usual ideas, and to take al­ter­na­tive points of view se­ri­ously. …
We are a com­mu­nity united by our com­mit­ment to these prin­ci­ples, not to a spe­cific cause. Our goal is to do as much good as we can, and we eval­u­ate ways to do that with­out com­mit­ting our­selves at the out­set to any par­tic­u­lar cause. We are open to fo­cus­ing our efforts on any group of benefi­cia­ries, and to us­ing any rea­son­able meth­ods to help them. If good ar­gu­ments or ev­i­dence show that our cur­rent plans are not the best way of helping, we will change our be­liefs and ac­tions.


This post ar­gues that Can­cel Cul­ture is a sig­nifi­cant dan­ger to the po­ten­tial of EA pro­ject, dis­cusses the mis­takes that were made by EA Mu­nich and CEA in their de­plat­form­ing of Robin Han­son, and pro­vides ad­vice on how to avoid such is­sues in the fu­ture.

As ever, I en­courage you to use the nav­i­ga­tion pane to jump to the parts of the ar­ti­cle that are most rele­vant to you. In par­tic­u­lar, if you are already con­vinced you might skip the ‘ex­am­ples’ and ‘quotes’ sec­tions.


The Na­ture of Can­cel Culture

In the past cou­ple of years, there’s been much dam­age done to the norms around free speech and in­quiry, in sub­stan­tial parts due to what’s of­ten called can­cel cul­ture. Of rele­vance to the EA com­mu­nity is that there have been an in­creas­ing num­ber of highly pub­lic threats and at­tacks on sci­en­tists and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als, where re­searchers are ha­rassed on­line, dis­in­vited from con­fer­ences, had their pa­pers re­tracted, and fired, be­cause of mass on­line mobs re­act­ing to an ac­cu­sa­tion over slight word­ing on top­ics of race, gen­der, and other is­sues of iden­tity, or guilt-by-as­so­ci­a­tion with other peo­ple who have also been at­tacked by such mobs.

This is col­lo­quially called ‘can­cel­ling’, af­ter the hash­tags that have formed say­ing #CancelX or #xisover­party, where X is some per­son, com­pany or other en­tity, hash­tags which are com­monly trend­ing on Twit­ter.

While such mobs can­not at­tack ev­ery per­son who speaks in pub­lic, they can at­tack any per­son who speaks in pub­lic, lead­ing to chilling effects where no­body wants to talk about the top­ics that can lead to can­cel­ling.

Can­cel Cul­ture es­sen­tially in­volves the fol­low­ing steps:

  1. A vic­tim, of­ten a re­searcher, says or does some­thing that irks some­one on­line.

  2. This critic then harshly crit­i­cises the per­son us­ing at­tacks that are hard to re­spond to in our cul­ture—the ac­cu­sa­tion of racism is a com­mon one. The goal of this at­tack is to sig­nal to a larger mob that they should pile on, with the hope of caus­ing mas­sive dam­age to the per­son’s pri­vate and pro­fes­sional lives.

  3. Many more peo­ple then join in the at­tack on­line, in­clud­ing (of­ten) con­tact­ing their em­ployer.

  4. Peo­ple who defend the vic­tim are at­tacked as also be­ing guilty of a similar crime.

  5. See­ing this dy­namic, many as­so­ci­ates of the vic­tim pre­fer to sever their re­la­tion­ship, rather than be sub­ject to this abuse. This may also in­clude their em­ployer, for whom the loss of one em­ployee seems a rel­a­tively small cost for main­tain­ing PR.

  6. The on­line crowd may swiftly move on; how­ever, the vic­tim now lives un­der a cloud of sus­pi­cion that is hard to dis­place and can per­ma­nently dam­age their ca­reer and so­cial life.

  7. Other re­searchers, ob­serv­ing this phe­nomenom, choose to re­main silent on is­sues they think may draw the at­ten­tion of such can­cel mobs.

It’s cer­tainly the case that such a pat­tern of be­havi­our ex­isted be­fore, but the is­sue seems to have be­come sig­nifi­cantly worse in re­cent years.


There have been many ex­am­ples of this form of abuse in re­cent months. Below I’ve in­cluded quotes illus­trat­ing a few, but I en­courage the in­ter­ested reader to re­search more them­self. If you’re already aware of these cases, es­pe­cially since the first one is already so promi­nent in our com­mu­nity, feel free to skip to the sec­tion ti­tled ‘Can­cel Cul­ture is Harm­ful for EA’.

One dis­ad­van­tage of these ex­am­ples is they show only the tip of the ice­berg. They can show us the cases where some­one was forced into a hu­mil­i­at­ing apol­ogy, or fired from their job, but they can­not show us the mas­sively greater cost of ev­ery­one who self-cen­sored out of fear. Those who write on this sub­ject in­vari­ably seem to re­ceive a slew of grate­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tions from aca­demics who were too afraid to speak out them­selves.

Scott Alexander

Scott Alexan­der is one of the most skil­led com­men­ta­tors of our age, with a gift for in­sight­ful and always gen­er­ous com­men­tary, as well as a close ally of the EA move­ment. He has writ­ten hugely in­fluen­tial posts on a wide range of top­ics, in­clud­ing iden­ti­fy­ing Motte and Bailey ar­gu­ments, Moloch, rea­son, the bizarre world of IRBs, why de­bates fo­cus on the most worst pos­si­ble cases, hi­er­ar­chies of in­tel­lec­tual con­trar­i­anism, cost dis­ease, and he was early to the repli­ca­tion crisis. And of course, the Biode­ter­minists Guide to Par­ent­ing.

One offshoot of this was the Cul­ture-War threads on his as­so­ci­ated sub­red­dit, de­signed to seg­re­gate Cul­ture War type dis­cus­sions from the other com­ment sec­tions on his blog. While he didn’t di­rectly par­ti­ci­pate very much, and largely handed off mod­er­a­tion to oth­ers, it not only achieved its pri­mary goal (keep­ing Cul­ture War out of most of his com­ment sec­tions), but also pro­duced some very valuable dis­cus­sion:

Thanks to a great found­ing pop­u­la­tion, some very hard-work­ing mod­er­a­tors, and a unique rule-set that em­pha­sized try­ing to un­der­stand and con­vince rather than yell and shame, the Cul­ture War thread be­came some­thing spe­cial. Peo­ple from all sorts of poli­ti­cal po­si­tions, from the most bor­ing cen­trists to the cra­ziest ex­trem­ists, had some weirdly good dis­cus­sions and came up with some re­ally deep in­sights into what the heck is go­ing on in some of so­ciety’s most ex­plo­sive con­tro­ver­sies. For three years, if you wanted to read about the so­cial­ist case for vs. against open bor­ders, the weird poli­tics of Wash­ing­ton state car­bon taxes, the me­dieval Rule of St. Bene­dict com­pared and con­trasted with mod­ern codes of con­duct, the grow­ing world of evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian fem­i­nism, Ban­field’s neo­con­ser­va­tive per­spec­tive on class, Bau­drillard’s Marx­ist per­spec­tive on con­sumerism, or just how #MeToo has led to sex par­ties with con­sent en­forcers dressed as uni­corns, the r/​SSC cul­ture war thread was the place to be. I also benefited from its weekly roundup of in­ter­est­ing so­cial sci­ence stud­ies and arch-mod­er­a­tor baj2235’s semi-reg­u­lar Qual­ity Con­tri­bu­tions Catch-Up Thread.

The users of these threads, as with the rest of his blog and the wider EA ecosys­tem, skewed left wing (as is shown by the mul­ti­ple ex­ten­sive sur­veys done of his read­ers, with 1000s of users filling them out an­nu­ally). De­spite the ground truth, to some peo­ple it felt right-wing:

I ac­knowl­edge many peo­ple’s lived ex­pe­rience that the thread felt right-wing; my work­ing the­ory is that most of the peo­ple I talk to about this kind of thing are Bay Area liber­als for whom the thread was their first/​only ex­po­sure to a space with any sub­stan­tial right-wing pres­ence at all, which must have made it feel scar­ily con­ser­va­tive. This may also be a ques­tion of who sorted by top, who sorted by new, and who sorted by con­tro­ver­sial. In any case, you can just read the last few threads and form your own opinion.

Open dis­cus­sion of con­tro­ver­sial top­ics nat­u­rally leads to some con­tro­ver­sial opinions. Nat­u­rally, these are the ones your op­po­nents choose to high­light, so soon they run the risk of dom­i­nat­ing your rep­u­ta­tion—or at least, your rep­u­ta­tion among peo­ple who aren’t ‘woke’ to the dan­gers of can­cel cul­ture:

It doesn’t mat­ter if taboo ma­te­rial makes up 1% of your com­ment sec­tion; it will in­evitably make up 100% of what peo­ple hear about your com­ment sec­tion and then of what peo­ple think is in your com­ment sec­tion. Fi­nally, it will make up 100% of what peo­ple as­so­ci­ate with you and your brand. The Chi­nese Rob­ber Fal­lacy is a harsh mas­ter; all you need is a tiny num­ber of cringe­wor­thy com­ments, and your poli­ti­cal en­e­mies, power-hun­gry op­por­tunists, and 4chan­ners just in it for the lulz can con­vince ev­ery­one that your en­tire brand is about be­ing pro-pe­dophile, cater­ing to the pe­dophilia de­mo­graphic, and pro­vid­ing a plat­form for pe­dophile sup­port­ers. And if you ban the pe­dophiles, they’ll do the same thing for the next-most-offen­sive opinion in your com­ments, and then the next-most-offen­sive, un­til you’ve cen­sored ev­ery­thing ex­cept “Our benev­olent lead­er­ship re­ally is do­ing a great job to­day, aren’t they?” and the com­ment sec­tion be­comes a mock­ery of its origi­nal goal.

This leads to a nar­ra­tive that his blog was some­how ‘alt-right’:

Peo­ple set­tled on a nar­ra­tive. The Cul­ture War thread was made up en­tirely of ho­mo­pho­bic trans­pho­bic alt-right neo-Nazis. … [I]t was always that the the thread was “dom­i­nated by” or “only had” or “was an echo cham­ber for” ho­mo­pho­bic trans­pho­bic alt-right neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the sub­red­dit was dom­i­nated by ho­mo­pho­bic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the SSC com­mu­nity was dom­i­nated by ho­mo­pho­bic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that I per­son­ally was a ho­mo­pho­bic etc neo-Nazi of them all.

De­spite this be­ing clearly false:

I freely ad­mit there were peo­ple who were against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in the thread (ac­cord­ing to my sur­vey, 13%), peo­ple who op­posed us­ing trans peo­ple’s preferred pro­nouns (ac­cord­ing to my sur­vey, 9%), peo­ple who iden­ti­fied as alt-right (7%), and a sin­gle per­son who iden­ti­fied as a neo-Nazi (who as far as I know never posted about it). … I am a pro-gay Jew who has dated trans peo­ple and votes pretty much straight Demo­crat. I lost dis­tant fam­ily in the Holo­caust. You can imag­ine how much fun this was for me.

This lead to his be­ing sub­ject to vi­cious abuse:

Some peo­ple found my real name and started post­ing it on Twit­ter. Some peo­ple made en­tire ac­counts de­voted to doxxing me in Twit­ter dis­cus­sions when­ever an op­por­tu­nity came up. A few peo­ple just mes­saged me let­ting me know they knew my real name and re­mind­ing me that they could do this if they wanted to.

A com­mon strat­egy is to try to poi­son one’s re­la­tion­ships with real-life friends:

Some peo­ple started mes­sag­ing my real-life friends, tel­ling them to stop be­ing friends with me be­cause I sup­ported racists and sex­ists and Nazis. Some­body posted a mon­e­tary re­ward for in­for­ma­tion that could be used to dis­credit me.

And to get some­one fired:

One per­son called the clinic where I worked, pre­tended to be a pa­tient, and tried to get me fired.

In this case, it didn’t end up with his be­ing fired. ‘All’ that hap­pened was his suffer­ing a ner­vous break­down and clos­ing down one of the most pop­u­lar parts of his site (though it was some­what re­born un­der new lead­er­ship el­se­where).

The one pos­i­tive el­e­ment of this sorry story is Scott, a devo­tee to truth till the end, wrote up the story as a cau­tion­ary tale:

Fifth, if some­one speaks up against the in­creas­ing cli­mate of fear and ha­rass­ment or the de­cline of free speech, they get hit with an om­ni­di­rec­tional salvo of “You con­tinue to speak just fine, and peo­ple are listen­ing to you, so ob­vi­ously the cli­mate of fear can’t be too bad, peo­ple can’t be ha­rass­ing you too much, and you’re prob­a­bly just ly­ing to get at­ten­tion.” But if some­one is too afraid to speak up, or no­body listens to them, then the is­sue never gets brought up, and mis­sion ac­com­plished for the peo­ple cre­at­ing the cli­mate of fear. The only way to es­cape the dou­ble-bind is for some­one to speak up and ad­mit “Hey, I per­son­ally am a gi­ant cow­ard who is silenc­ing him­self out of fear in this spe­cific way right now, but only af­ter this mes­sage”. This is not a par­tic­u­larly no­ble role, but it’s one I’m well-po­si­tioned to play here, and I think it’s worth the awk­ward­ness to provide at least one ex­am­ple that doesn’t fit the dou­ble-bind pat­tern.

David Shor

David Shor was a poli­ti­cal sci­en­tist work­ing for a left-wing poli­ti­cal con­sul­tancy, which analysed data to try to help Demo­crat poli­ti­ci­ans win elec­tions in the US. On May 28th he tweeted a link to an aca­demic pa­per that ar­gued that while non-vi­o­lent protests pushed vot­ers to sup­port the Democrats, vi­o­lent protests pushed them to­wards the Repub­li­cans, saying

Post-MLK-as­sas­i­na­tion race ri­ots re­duced Demo­cratic vote share in sur­round­ing coun­ties by 2%, which was enough to tip the 1968 elec­tion to Nixon. Non-vi­o­lent protests *in­crease* Dem vote, mainly by en­courag­ing warm elite dis­course and me­dia cov­er­age.

This swiftly led to many heav­ily crit­i­cal and ag­gres­sive tweets. To illus­trate a typ­i­cal such ex­change I will quote one, Tru­jillo Wesler, at length:

Yo. Min­i­miz­ing black grief and rage to “bad cam­paign tac­tic for the Democrats” is bul­lshit most days, but this week is ab­solutely cruel.
This take is tone deaf, re­moves re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­pressed turnout from the 68 Party and reeks of anti-black­ness.

Shor earnestly replied:

The mechanism for the pa­per isn’t turnout, it’s vi­o­lence driv­ing news cov­er­age that makes peo­ple vote for Repub­li­cans. The au­thor does a great job ex­plain­ing his re­search here: <link>

Tru­jillo Wesler replied:

Do you think I didn’t read the pa­per and know what I was talk­ing about when call­ing out your cal­lous­ness?
I think Omar’s anal­y­sis is sloppy and un­der­whelming, but that’s not the point.
YOU need to stop us­ing your anx­iety and “in­tel­lect” as a ve­hi­cle for anti-blackness

… be­fore then tag­ging the CEO of Shor’s com­pany:

@dan­r­wag­ner Come get your boy.

The next day Shor apol­o­gised, and then a few days later he signed a non-dis­clo­sure agree­ment with the com­pany and was fired solely as a re­sult of the tweet.

This story has re­ceived a lot of press at the time; see for ex­am­ple this ar­ti­cle for more de­tails.

Steven Hsu

Steven Hsu is a physics pro­fes­sor at Michi­gan State Univer­sity, where he has worked on a wide va­ri­ety of pro­jects, in­clud­ing ad­vanced ge­net­ics work: his team de­vel­oped novel tech­niques to pre­dict adult height very ac­cu­rately from DNA, as well as a va­ri­ety of ill­nesses. Note­wor­thy for EAs, he cofounded Ge­nomic Pre­dic­tion, the first com­pany (to my knowl­edge) offer­ing con­sumer em­bryo se­lec­tion—a tech­nol­ogy whose po­ten­tial has been of great in­ter­est to EAs.

As well as a tenured pro­fes­sor­ship, he also held an ad­minis­tra­tive role as Se­nior Vice Pres­i­dent. In June the stu­dent union started to ag­i­tate for his firing:

The con­cerns ex­pressed by the Grad­u­ate Em­ploy­ees Union … and other in­di­vi­d­u­als fa­mil­iar with Hsu in­di­cates an in­di­vi­d­ual that can­not up­hold our Univer­sity Mis­sion or our com­mit­ment to Diver­sity, Equity, and In­clu­sion. Given this dis­cor­dance with uni­ver­sity val­ues, Stephen Hsu should not be priv­ileged with the power and re­spon­si­bil­ity of re­cruit­ing and fund­ing schol­ars, over­see­ing eth­i­cal con­duct, or co­or­di­nat­ing grad­u­ate study.
By sign­ing this open let­ter we ask MSU to fol­low through to its com­mit­ment to be a di­verse and in­clu­sive in­sti­tu­tion and to change its in­sti­tu­tional and ad­minis­tra­tive prac­tices so that the pas­sion and tal­ent of Black schol­ars, Indige­nous schol­ars, and other schol­ars of color (BIPOC) can be rec­og­nized and fostered within these uni­ver­sity halls.

A sec­ond let­ter ad­vo­cat­ing for his dis­mis­sal came out, which among other things high­lighted his work on em­bryo se­lec­tion:

Hsu also ap­pears to be dab­bling in eu­gen­ics through his be­liefs that em­bryos may be se­lected on the ba­sis of ge­netic in­tel­li­gence.

One might have thought that aca­demic free­dom would per­mit a pro­fes­sor who stud­ied ge­net­ics to hold such views, but that was not the case:

Not only do these views ig­nore the co­pi­ous so­cial sci­ence re­search on so­cial de­ter­mi­nants of in­tel­li­gence and ac­com­plish­ments, there­fore ren­der­ing them sus­pect in a schol­arly sense, it is also deeply dis­turb­ing that some­one whose role is to al­lo­cate fund­ing and provide au­thor­i­ta­tive in­put in de­ci­sions re­gard­ing pro­mo­tion and tenure cases for fac­ulty in a di­verse in­sti­tu­tion should hold such be­liefs.

In a twit­ter thread they ar­gued that his sci­en­tific work was bad be­cause they claimed that if true it would have un­de­sir­able poli­ti­cal con­se­quences:

Hsu has also en­ter­tained and hosted views ar­gu­ing that racial un­der­perfor­mance in col­leges is re­lated to *lack of seg­re­ga­tion* in ed­u­ca­tion and flaws in mul­ti­cul­tural­ity, un­der­cut­ting the ba­sis of Brown v. Board of ed­u­ca­tion.

Similarly, he was ac­cused of sup­port­ing the use of stan­dard­ised tests to mea­sure cog­ni­tive abil­ity:

Hsu is against re­mov­ing stan­dard­ized tests like the GRE & SAT be­cause he be­lieves they mea­sure cog­ni­tive abil­ity & that lack of Black & His­panic rep­re­sen­ta­tion in higher ed re­flects lower abil­ity, de­spite ev­i­dence these tests nega­tively im­pact di­ver­sity.

For brevity’s sake I shan’t quote ev­ery­thing they ac­cused him of, but one com­mon thread is sug­gest­ing that his sci­en­tific views, or at least car­i­ca­tures of them, were wrong be­cause, if true, they would con­tra­dict the (ex­treme) poli­ti­cal views of the au­thors, and that be­cause of this he could not be trusted to di­rect uni­ver­sity re­sources.

A counter-protest let­ter oc­curred, with a large num­ber of very promi­nent sig­na­to­ries, ar­gu­ing that his pro­fes­sional con­duct was flawless and that he had been badly mis-rep­re­sented:

The charges of racism and sex­ism against Dr. Hsu are un­equiv­o­cally false and the pur­ported ev­i­dence sup­port­ing these charges ranges from in­nu­endo and ru­mor to out­right lies. (See at­tached let­ters for de­tails.) We high­light that there is zero con­crete ev­i­dence that Hsu has performed his du­ties as VP in an un­fair or bi­ased man­ner. There­fore, re­mov­ing Hsu from his post as VP would be to ca­pitu­late to ru­mor and char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion.

Alas, this was not enough, as the pres­i­dent of his uni­ver­sity soon asked him to re­sign from the role:

Pres­i­dent Stan­ley asked me this af­ter­noon for my res­ig­na­tion. I do not agree with his de­ci­sion, as se­ri­ous is­sues of Aca­demic Free­dom and Free­dom of In­quiry are at stake. I fear for the rep­u­ta­tion of Michi­gan State Univer­sity.
How­ever, as I serve at the plea­sure of the Pres­i­dent, I have agreed to re­sign. I look for­ward to re­join­ing the ranks of the fac­ulty here.

Em­manuel Cafferty

Em­manuel was an or­di­nary util­ity worker in South­ern Cal­ifor­nia, who was tricked into mak­ing an ‘ok’ sign as he drove home one day:

At the end of a long shift map­ping un­der­ground util­ity lines, he was on his way home, his left hand ca­su­ally hang­ing out the win­dow of the white pickup truck is­sued to him by the San Diego Gas & Elec­tric com­pany. When he came to a halt at a traf­fic light, an­other driver flipped him off. … He flashed what looked to Caf­ferty like an “okay” hand ges­ture and started cussing him out. When the light turned green, Caf­ferty drove off, hop­ing to put an end to the dis­con­cert­ing en­counter.
But when Caf­ferty reached an­other red light, the man, now hold­ing a cel­l­phone cam­era, was there again. “Do it! Do it!” he shouted. Un­sure what to do, Caf­ferty copied the ges­ture the other driver kept mak­ing. The man ap­peared to take a video, or per­haps a photo.

Un­for­tu­nately, this is now con­sid­ered by some to be a white supremacist sign (though there is no ev­i­dence he was aware of this fact):

Two hours later, Caf­ferty got a call from his su­per­vi­sor, who told him that some­body had seen Caf­ferty mak­ing a white-supremacist hand ges­ture, and had posted pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence on Twit­ter. (Likely un­be­knownst to most Amer­i­cans, the alt-right has ap­pro­pri­ated a ver­sion of the “okay” sym­bol for their own pur­poses be­cause it looks like the ini­tials for “white power”; this is the sym­bol the man ac­cused Caf­ferty of mak­ing when his hand was dan­gling out of his truck.)

De­spite the fact he is 75% latin amer­i­can by an­ces­try, af­ter a se­ries of peo­ple called into his em­ployer to de­mand he was fired, his em­ployer duly caved:

Dozens of peo­ple were now call­ing the com­pany to de­mand Caf­ferty’s dis­mis­sal … By the end of the call, Caf­ferty had been sus­pended with­out pay. By the end of the day, his col­leagues had come by his house to pick up the com­pany truck. By the fol­low­ing Mon­day, he was out of a job.

More de­tails available in many places in­clud­ing here.

James Bennett

After wide­spread ri­ot­ing, on June 3rd the NYT pub­lished an ed­i­to­rial by an in­fluen­tial Repub­li­can Se­na­tor ar­gu­ing that the mil­i­tary should be used to re­store or­der:

The pace of loot­ing and di­s­or­der may fluc­tu­ate from night to night, but it’s past time to sup­port lo­cal law en­force­ment with fed­eral au­thor­ity.

He was care­ful to dis­t­in­guish be­tween peace­ful protesters and vi­o­lent ri­ot­ers:

[T]he ri­ot­ing has noth­ing to do with Ge­orge Floyd, whose be­reaved rel­a­tives have con­demned vi­o­lence. On the con­trary, nihilist crim­i­nals are sim­ply out for loot and the thrill of de­struc­tion, with cadres of left-wing rad­i­cals like an­tifa in­fil­trat­ing protest marches to ex­ploit Floyd’s death for their own an­ar­chic pur­poses.

And that the ma­jor­ity of vot­ers agreed that this was a good idea:

Not sur­pris­ingly, pub­lic opinion is on the side of law en­force­ment and law and or­der, not in­sur­rec­tion­ists. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll, 58 per­cent of reg­istered vot­ers, in­clud­ing nearly half of Democrats and 37 per­cent of Afri­can-Amer­i­cans, would sup­port cities’ call­ing in the mil­i­tary to “ad­dress protests and demon­stra­tions” that are in “re­sponse to the death of Ge­orge Floyd.”

Whether or not one agrees with the opinion, this seems squarely within the realm of typ­i­cal op-ed pieces. How­ever, many NYT em­ploy­ees ob­jected, in pri­vate and in pub­lic, tweet­ing things like:

A pa­rade of Times jour­nal­ists tweeted a screen shot show­ing the head­line of Cot­ton’s piece, “Send In the Troops,” with the ac­com­pa­ny­ing words: “Run­ning this puts Black @NYTimes staff in dan­ger.”

This lan­guage is very clever, be­cause com­plaints about work­place safety en­joy spe­cial le­gal pro­tec­tions that they would not if they made a merely poli­ti­cal ob­jec­tion, how­ever im­plau­si­ble the safety claim is.

Ini­tially the ed­i­tor in charge, James Ben­nett, defended the ed­i­to­rial:

Times Opinion owes it to our read­ers to show them counter-ar­gu­ments, par­tic­u­larly those made by peo­ple in a po­si­tion to set policy.

Shortly af­ter­wards, he was forced to re­sign, and a re­placed with a new ed­i­tor who made clear that such offen­sive con­tent would not be tol­er­ated.

More de­tails here and here.

Sev­eral months later the NYT pub­lished an­other ed­i­to­rial by a se­nior Hong Kong poli­ti­cian defend­ing their con­tro­ver­sial new se­cu­rity law. In most ob­jec­tive ways it is far more ob­jec­tion­able than Cot­ton’s piece—the law is ex­tremely dra­co­nian, in­clud­ing crim­i­nal­is­ing con­duct all over the world, but to my knowl­edge no ed­i­tor has been made to re­sign.

Greg Patton

Greg Pat­ton is a pro­fes­sor of busi­ness com­mu­ni­ca­tion at USC. As an ex­pert in Man­darin, he used a Chi­nese ex­am­ple to illus­trate the role of words like ‘um’ and ‘err’:

He also tries to mix in cul­turally di­verse ex­am­ples. When he talks about the im­por­tance of paus­ing, for in­stance, he notes that other lan­guages have equiv­a­lent filler words. Be­cause he taught in the uni­ver­sity’s Shang­hai pro­gram for years, his go-to ex­am­ple is taken from Man­darin: nèige (那个). It liter­ally means “that,” but it’s also widely used in the same way as um.

Un­for­tu­nately, when spo­ken out loud this sounds similar to a slur in US English. As a re­sult a group of stu­dents com­plained to the ad­minis­tra­tors:

[A] group of stu­dents sent an email to busi­ness-school ad­minis­tra­tors say­ing they were “very dis­pleased” with the pro­fes­sor. They ac­cused Pat­ton of “neg­li­gence and dis­re­gard” and deemed the Man­darin ex­am­ple “grave and in­ap­pro­pri­ate.” They refer­enced the kil­lings of Ge­orge Floyd and Bre­onna Tay­lor. “Our men­tal health has been af­fected,” they wrote. “It is an un­easy feel­ing al­low­ing him to have power over our grades. We would rather not take this course than to en­dure the emo­tional ex­haus­tion of car­ry­ing on with an in­struc­tor that dis­re­gards cul­tural di­ver­sity and sen­si­tivi­ties and by ex­ten­sion cre­ates an un­wel­come en­vi­ron­ment for us Black stu­dents.” The email is signed “Black MBA Can­di­dates c/​o 2022.”

De­spite counter-com­plaints by Chi­nese alumni, who felt that their lan­guage was be­ing in­sulted,

As the story made its way into the Chi­nese news me­dia, and onto the so­cial net­work Weibo, it was met with dis­be­lief and anger. A let­ter signed by more than 100 mostly Chi­nese alumni of the busi­ness school avers that the “spu­ri­ous charge has the ad­di­tional fea­ture of cast­ing in­sult to­ward the Chi­nese lan­guage.”

The ad­minis­tra­tor re­spon­si­ble is­sued an apol­ogy for Greg’s con­duct:

Dean Gar­rett emailed the M.B.A. Class of 2022 to let them know that an­other pro­fes­sor would take over. It was, he wrote, “sim­ply un­ac­cept­able for fac­ulty to use words in class that can marginal­ize, hurt and harm the psy­cholog­i­cal safety of our stu­dents.” He went on to say that he was “deeply sad­dened by this dis­turb­ing epi­sode that has caused such an­guish and trauma,” but that “[w]hat hap­pened can­not be un­done.”

Greg also apol­o­gised:

Pat­ton wrote a 1,000-word email to the Mar­shall Grad­u­ate Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tion in which he offered a “deep apol­ogy for the dis­com­fort and pain that I have caused mem­bers of our com­mu­nity.”

Nonethe­less, Greg was made to step down from teach­ing the course.

More de­tails here and here.

Can­cel Cul­ture is Harm­ful for EA

On many sub­jects EAs right­fully at­tempt to adopt a nu­anced opinion, care­fully and neu­trally com­par­ing the pros and cons, and only in the con­clu­sion adopt­ing a ten­ta­tive, highly hedged, ex­tremely pro­vi­sional stance. Alas, this is not such a sub­ject.

The rise of can­cel cul­ture is a threat to hon­est in­tel­lec­tual in­quiry—a core part of the EA pro­ject. The silenc­ing effect—whereby see­ing some poor soul be­ing de­stroyed makes other peo­ple keep quiet in self-preser­va­tion—in­timi­dates peo­ple from ex­plor­ing new and con­tro­ver­sial ar­eas. Yet it has been a con­sis­tent trend in EA thought that ex­actly this pro­cess of in­tel­lec­tual ground­break­ing is vi­tal to the EA pro­ject. EA arose out of a dis­satis­fac­tion with the ex­ist­ing state of af­fairs: dis­satis­fac­tion with peo­ple’s un­will­ing­ness to share with those in need, dis­satis­fac­tion with the poor epistemic stan­dards. EA was born out of pow­er­ful cri­tiques of these things—cri­tiques which were, and still are, highly con­tro­ver­sial.

I think it is easy for new­com­ers now, join­ing a move­ment that should get a lot of credit for pro­fes­sion­al­is­ing over time, to not re­al­ise quite how chaotic things were in the early days.

Earn­ing To Give, an idea which, while less cen­tral to EA than it once was, is still a key part, was ex­tremely con­tro­ver­sial, es­pe­cially when pitched in the early days as “Who is more moral: Doc­tors or Bankers?” If 80k had given in to the very offended peo­ple we would have lost an im­por­tant part of the move­ment—and if we had aban­doned the pro­gen­i­tors of the con­cept as ‘too con­tro­ver­sial’ we would have lost in­di­vi­d­u­als who are now highly re­spected lead­ers of the move­ment.

Similarly the early GiveWell was no stranger to say­ing highly con­tro­ver­sial and offen­sive things. They proudly crit­i­cised ex­ist­ing char­i­ties, even though many peo­ple ar­gued that do­ing so would de­ter donors from their en­tire sec­tor, pre­vent­ing in­no­cent lives from be­ing saved. I think ev­ery­one read­ing this would agree it is good that we have stuck with them!

This drive to fear­lessly ex­plore the un­known is even more im­por­tant when we move out­side of global health and into Longter­mism. It is only af­ter many many years that we have fi­nally figured out a re­spectable sound­ing method of pitch­ing many of the longter­mist ideas—a situ­a­tion we would not be in if we had shunned the ear­lier more con­tro­ver­sial ver­sions. It is nat­u­ral that some­one, dis­cov­er­ing a new vista of in­tel­lec­tual pos­si­bil­ities for the first time, should take a strong stance. Only by do­ing so can they fully ex­plore, and only by do­ing so can they prop­erly show to oth­ers why this is a fer­tile re­gion for their own en­er­gies. Later, more cau­tious thinkers can re­fine the early work of these pi­o­neers and make it more leg­ible to the main­stream. It is easy now for us to read early Xrisk writ­ings and cringe, but Rome was not built in a day and could not be built if we had shunned the founders for their many con­tro­ver­sies.

Similarly, the field of an­i­mal welfare, an­other core EA con­cern, is rife with con­tro­ver­sies. To many an­i­mal rights ac­tivists, fac­tory farm­ing is liter­ally the worst thing in the his­tory of the world. Com­par­i­sons with the holo­caust jump to their minds—both be­cause of the na­ture of the ac­tivi­ties and also be­cause of the colos­sal scope of the harm. Yet to the or­di­nary per­son, and here I count my­self some­what, what could be more offen­sive than to com­pare a lovely chicken sand­wich to geno­cide? Similarly, EAs have pushed for­ward the fron­tiers of an­i­mal welfare work, in­ves­ti­gat­ing in­ver­te­brates and wild an­i­mal suffer­ing. Some of the ideas be­ing sug­gested, like ma­jor ecosys­tem re­design­ing, are con­tro­ver­sial and ex­treme to say the least! Yet I am sure the reader is glad that we have not shunned these peo­ple.

One way of think­ing about the EA ap­proach to char­ity is that peo­ple should do two things: give a larger amount, and give more in­tel­li­gently. How­ever, over time we have come to ap­pre­ci­ate that the po­ten­tial with the lat­ter is far higher than the former. The av­er­age Amer­i­can already gives over 2% of their in­come to char­ity, and it’s hard for most peo­ple to dou­ble their in­come even if they re­ally try, so re­al­is­ti­cally at most there is scope for an or­der of mag­ni­tude in­crease or so. In con­trast, we know there are many or­ders of mag­ni­tude differ­ence in effec­tive­ness be­tween char­i­ties, even within one cause area.

We can use a similar de­com­po­si­tion for the de­vel­op­ment of the EA move­ment. We can grow by at­tract­ing new mem­bers, which is definitely valuable (so long as it doesn’t in­tro­duce value drift), but grow­ing along this axis is difficult. We have already iden­ti­fied the eas­iest re­cruit­ing groups—elite uni­ver­si­ties—and I think it is fair to say it will be quite difficult to add an ad­di­tional coun­ter­fac­tual or­der of mag­ni­tude in this way. Ad­di­tion­ally, many of the peo­ple we re­cruit will be com­ing from similar com­mu­ni­ties, so the value of ac­quiring them is only the in­cre­men­tal value that the EA move­ment adds over their prior ac­tivi­ties.

New pri­ori­ti­sa­tion re­search, in con­trast, offers vast po­ten­tial for im­prove­ment. Not only was it the source of the 1000x mul­ti­plier within global health char­i­ties, it is what causes us to fo­cus on third world health over the US in the first place—a huge im­prove­ment, but not an un­con­tro­ver­sial one. And out­side of global health the gains have been even larger, po­ten­tially even flip­ping the sign of wildlife con­ser­va­tion, and offer­ing us the en­tire Longter­mist agenda.

Ad­di­tion­ally, I think that in­tel­lec­tual dar­ing cause pri­ori­ti­sa­tion re­search is prob­a­bly benefi­cial, on net, for at­tract­ing new mem­bers. Is it pos­si­ble some peo­ple will be put off? Of course—prac­ti­cally any­thing you do will an­noy some peo­ple, at the same time that it at­tracts oth­ers. It’s no se­cret that EA has grown in no small part by pos­ing in­tel­lec­tual challenges to highly in­tel­lec­tual peo­ple and draw­ing them in. We are nerd-sniping; offer­ing the chance to dis­cuss some of the most im­por­tant is­sues in the world with some of the most in­tel­li­gent peo­ple in the world, for the low, low, price of 10% of your fu­ture in­come. It is no sur­prise that we draw heav­ily from aca­demic philos­o­phy de­part­ments and tech com­pa­nies, and ap­peal to some hy­per-an­a­lyt­i­cal mil­lion­aires and billion­aires.

If there truly are no new in­tel­lec­tual wor­lds left to con­quer, only steady re­fine­ments to our ex­ist­ing mechanisms, then per­haps it would not be so harm­ful to can­cel our pi­o­neers. Un­grate­ful, per­haps, but if their work is done, could EA en­ter a chrysalis of can­cel­la­tion, to emerge a fash­ion­able and unim­peach­ably mod­er­ate move­ment, fully in sync with the moral fash­ions of the cur­rent year? Yet I see no rea­son to think that the con­sis­tent his­tory of con­tro­ver­sial ideas prov­ing vi­tal to the pro­gres­sion of the move­ment is over. The pos­si­bil­ity of an­other cru­cial con­sid­er­a­tion be­ing dis­cov­ered, which trans­forms our un­der­stand­ing on an im­por­tant topic and bet­ter guides our ac­tions to­wards the good, is too im­por­tant and too likely to be set aside.

This is EA’s unique con­tri­bu­tion. Without the pi­o­neer­ing cause pri­ori­ti­za­tion, with­out the courage to ask im­por­tant ques­tions that none have asked be­fore, we add al­most noth­ing to global char­i­ta­ble land­scape. Only by offer­ing some­thing differ­ent and new—and in my opinion much, much bet­ter—is the EA pro­ject worth­while.

Quotes from EA Lead­ers on search­ing for new ideas

This con­cern for in­tel­lec­tual in­quiring into new causes is not a niche one; hope­fully this sec­tion, con­sist­ing largely of quotes from a huge va­ri­ety of EA sources about the im­por­tance of ex­plor­ing new in­tel­lec­tual ar­eas, will show this is a widely recog­nised is­sue. As these quotes are some­what lengthly, if you are already con­vinced feel free to skip to the next sec­tion.

For ex­am­ple, 80k has writ­ten about the im­por­tance of in­ves­ti­gat­ing a wide va­ri­ety of causes:

More­over, the more peo­ple in­volved in a com­mu­nity, the more rea­son there is for them to spread out over differ­ent is­sues. … Per­haps for these rea­sons, many of our ad­vi­sors guess that it would be ideal if 5-20% of the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity’s re­sources were fo­cused on is­sues that the com­mu­nity hasn’t his­tor­i­cally been as in­volved in, such as the ones listed be­low.

Similarly, Ben Todd re­cently em­pha­sised the im­por­tance of EA as an in­tel­lec­tual pro­ject in­ves­ti­gat­ing new ways of im­prov­ing the world:

If any­thing, I’m even more con­vinced that the ideas are what mat­ter most about EA, and that there should at least be a branch of EA that’s fo­cused on be­ing an in­tel­lec­tual pro­ject.

Rob re­cently wrote about the con­cen­tra­tion of EAs in ‘safe’ top­ics as be­ing a po­ten­tial prob­lem:

They feel low-risk and le­gi­t­i­mate. Peo­ple you meet can eas­ily tell you’re do­ing some­thing they think is cool. And you might feel more se­cure that you’re likely do­ing some­thing use­ful or at least sen­si­ble.

In the EA hand­book we have Kel­sey on the im­por­tance of be­ing open and sup­port­ive to weird ideas:

Next, we need to be con­tinu­ally mon­i­tor­ing for signs that the things we’re do­ing are ac­tu­ally do­ing harm, un­der lots of pos­si­ble wor­ld­views. That in­cludes wor­ld­views that aren’t in­tu­itive, or that aren’t the way most peo­ple think about char­ity. … Ba­si­cally, we need to cast a re­ally, re­ally wide net for pos­si­ble ways we’re screw­ing up, so that the right an­swer is at least available to us.
Next, imag­ine some­one walked into that 1840s EA group and said, ‘I think black peo­ple are ex­actly as valuable as white peo­ple and it should be ille­gal to dis­crim­i­nate against them at all,” or some­one walked into the 1920s EA group and said, “I think gay rights are re­ally im­por­tant.” I want us to be a com­mu­nity that wouldn’t have kicked them out. I think the prin­ci­ple I want us to abide by is some­thing like ‘if some­thing is an ar­gu­ment for car­ing more about en­tities who are widely re­garded as not wor­thy of such care, then even if the ar­gu­ment sounds pretty ab­surd, I am sup­port­ive of some peo­ple do­ing re­search into it. And if they’re do­ing that re­search with the in­tent of in­creas­ing ev­ery­one’s well-be­ing and flour­ish­ing as much as pos­si­ble, then they’re part of our move­ment’. …
I hope we have space to hear out more spec­u­la­tive things, and speci­fi­cally to hear out (1) ar­gu­ments for car­ing about things we wouldn’t nor­mally think to care about, (2) ar­gu­ments that our so­ciety is fun­da­men­tally and im­por­tantly wrong, and (3) ar­gu­ments that we are mak­ing im­por­tant mis­takes.

In­deed, EAG 2018 em­pha­sised the im­por­tance of in­tel­lec­tual cu­ri­os­ity to find a new po­ten­tial ‘cause X’:

The key idea of EA Global: San Fran­cisco 2018 is ‘Stay Cu­ri­ous’. As more peo­ple take the ideas be­hind effec­tive al­tru­ism se­ri­ously, we must con­tinue to seek new prob­lems to work on, and be mind­ful that we may still be miss­ing ‘cause X’.

And Will spoke about it at length in 2016:

Given this, what we should be think­ing about is: What are the sorts of ma­jor moral prob­lems that in sev­eral hun­dred years we’ll look back and think, “Wow, we were bar­bar­ians!”? What are the ma­jor is­sues that we haven’t even con­cep­tu­al­ized to­day?

It also fea­tures in CEA’s Guid­ing Prin­ci­ples:

We are a com­mu­nity united by our com­mit­ment to these prin­ci­ples, not to a spe­cific cause. Our goal is to do as much good as we can, and we eval­u­ate ways to do that with­out com­mit­ting our­selves at the out­set to any par­tic­u­lar cause. We are open to fo­cus­ing our efforts on any group of benefi­cia­ries, and to us­ing any rea­son­able meth­ods to help them.

The Guid­ing Prin­ci­ples even dis­cuss the need to be open to weird ideas:

We recog­nise how difficult it is to know how to do the most good, and there­fore try to avoid over­con­fi­dence, to seek out in­formed cri­tiques of our own views, to be open to un­usual ideas, and to take al­ter­na­tive points of view se­ri­ously.

The more clas­si­cally minded reader might ap­pre­ci­ate the wis­dom of John Stu­art Mill, one of the founders of Utili­tar­i­anism:

A state of things in which a large por­tion of the most ac­tive and in­quiring in­tel­lects find it ad­vis­able to keep the gen­eral prin­ci­ples and grounds of their con­vic­tions within their own breasts, and at­tempt, in what they ad­dress to the pub­lic, to fit as much as they can of their own con­clu­sions to premises which they have in­ter­nally re­nounced, can­not send forth the open, fear­less char­ac­ters, and log­i­cal, con­sis­tent in­tel­lects who once adorned the think­ing world. The sort of men who can be looked for un­der it, are ei­ther mere con­form­ers to com­mon­place, or time-servers for truth, whose ar­gu­ments on all great sub­jects are meant for their hear­ers, and are not those which have con­vinced them­selves. Those who avoid this al­ter­na­tive, do so by nar­row­ing their thoughts and in­ter­est to things which can be spo­ken of with­out ven­tur­ing within the re­gion of prin­ci­ples, that is, to small prac­ti­cal mat­ters, which would come right of them­selves, if but the minds of mankind were strength­ened and en­larged, and which will never be made effec­tu­ally right un­til then: while that which would strengthen and en­large men’s minds, free and dar­ing spec­u­la­tion on the high­est sub­jects, is aban­doned.
  • On Liberty, p40

In­deed, sup­press­ing an idea is harm­ful for those who be­lieve it and those who do not:

“[T]he pe­cu­liar evil of silenc­ing the ex­pres­sion of an opinion is, that it is rob­bing the hu­man race; pos­ter­ity as well as the ex­ist­ing gen­er­a­tion; those who dis­sent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are de­prived of the op­por­tu­nity of ex­chang­ing er­ror for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is al­most as great a benefit, the clearer per­cep­tion and live­lier im­pres­sion of truth, pro­duced by its col­li­sion with er­ror.”
  • John Stu­art Mill, On Liberty, p23

This topic has been dis­cussed on the EA fo­rum, in­clud­ing highly up­voted posts like this one:

EA is a nascent field; we should ex­pect over time our un­der­stand­ing of many things to change dra­mat­i­cally, in po­ten­tially un­pre­dictable ways. This makes ban­ning or dis­cour­ag­ing top­ics, even if they seem ir­rele­vant, harm­ful, be­cause we don’t know which could come to be im­por­tant.
For­tu­nately, there are some ex­am­ples we have to make this clear. For ex­am­ple, Mak­ing Dis­cus­sions In­clu­sive pro­vides a list of things that we should not dis­cuss (or at least we should be very wary of dis­cussing). We will ar­gue that there are ac­tu­ally very good rea­sons for EAs to dis­cuss these top­ics. Even in cases where it would not be rea­son­able to dis­pute the state­ment as given, we sug­gest that peo­ple may of­ten be ac­cused of re­ject­ing these state­ments when they ac­tu­ally be­lieve some­thing much more in­no­cent.

and this one, com­par­ing re­cent trends in the US to the Cul­tural Revolu­tion in China:

If the United States were to ex­pe­rience a cul­tural rev­olu­tion-like event, it would likely af­fect nearly all ar­eas of im­pact that effec­tive al­tru­ists care about, and would have profound effects on our abil­ity to pro­duce free open-ended re­search on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues. Given that many of the ideas that effec­tive al­tru­ists dis­cuss—such as ge­netic en­hance­ment, fac­tory farm­ing abo­li­tion, and wild an­i­mal suffer­ing—are con­tro­ver­sial, it is im­por­tant to un­der­stand how our move­ment could be un­der­mined in the af­ter­math of such an event. Fur­ther­more, con­for­mity pres­sures of the type ex­hibited in the Chi­nese cul­tural rev­olu­tion could push im­por­tant threads of re­search, such as AI al­ign­ment re­search, into un­de­sir­able di­rec­tions.

This post ar­gues against try­ing to fight back against can­cel­la­tions, as it is ex­pen­sive and risky to do so:

A friend of mine has par­ents who lived through the cul­tural rev­olu­tion. At least one grand­par­ent made a minor poli­ti­cal mis­play (his su­per­vi­sor wanted him to cover up em­bez­zling re­sources, he re­fused) and had his en­tire fam­ily his­tory (in­clud­ing minor land own­er­ship in an an­ces­tor) dragged out of him. He was de­moted, be­rated for years, had trash thrown at him etc. This seemed un­for­tu­nate, and likely limited his al­tru­is­tic im­pact.

How­ever, even he agreed that his origi­nal stance

As a gen­eral strat­egy, it seems much bet­ter for most peo­ple in the com­mu­nity to [...] quickly dis­avow any as­so­ci­a­tions that could be seen as po­ten­tially prob­le­matic.

was too strong, be­cause it is bad for team-build­ing (quot­ing from a third party he agreed with):

If I ex­pect my peers to lie or stab me in the back as soon as this seems use­ful to them, then I’ll be a lot less will­ing and able to work with them. This can lead to a bad feed­back loop, where EAs dis­trust each other more and more as they be­come more will­ing to be­tray each other.
Highly knowl­edge­able and prin­ci­pled peo­ple will tend to be more at­tracted to groups that show hon­esty, courage, and in­tegrity. There are a lot of con­tracts and co­op­er­a­tive ar­range­ments that are pos­si­ble be­tween peo­ple who have differ­ent goals, but some level of trust. Los­ing that baseline level of trust can be ex­tremely costly and cause mu­tu­ally benefi­cial trades to be re­placed by ex­ploita­tive or mu­tu­ally de­struc­tive dy­nam­ics.
Ca­ma­raderie gets things done. If you can cre­ate a group where peo­ple ex­pect to have each other’s back, and ex­pect to be defended if some­one lies about them, then I think that makes the group much more at­trac­tive to be­long to, and helps with im­por­tant things like in­ter­nal co­op­er­a­tion.

I also recom­mend Anna’s highly up­voted com­ment, strongly dis­agree­ing with the 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.”

Even pro-cen­sor­ship posts like this only ad­vo­cat­ing re­strict­ing some top­ics from be­ing dis­cussed in some spaces:

We ar­gue that be­ing a part of an in­clu­sive com­mu­nity can some­times mean re­frain­ing from pur­su­ing ev­ery last the­ory or thought ex­per­i­ment to its end in pub­lic places.

And even then, a highly crit­i­cal com­ment re­ceived far more karma than the origi­nal post, as well as this ex­cel­lent re­sponse.

To my knowl­edge no-one has ar­gued that peo­ple should be banned just for hav­ing dis­cussed an un­re­lated topic in an un­re­lated lo­ca­tion! The move by EA Mu­nich, which we will go over be­low, was con­sid­er­ably out­side the Over­ton Win­dow.

There is of course ex­ten­sive dis­cus­sion of and brave op­po­si­tion to the prob­lems of can­cel cul­ture out­side of EA, omit­ted here for brevity’s sake, but one could do worse than start the Philadelphia State­ment.

EA Mu­nich and Robin Hanson

Robin Han­son has been one of the old­est in­tel­lec­tual al­lies of the EA move­ment. His work has been ground-break­ing on a num­ber of top­ics that per­tain to EA, from Sig­nal­ling to the Great Filter to AGI take­off to Pre­dic­tion Mar­kets. His blog, co-hosted for a while with Eliezer, was one of the key origi­na­tors to the EA move­ment. This in­volve­ment has con­tinued over time, pro­vid­ing a steady source of in­ci­sive yet friendly crit­i­cism that is so vi­tal for any in­tel­lec­tual sound move­ment, in­clud­ing speak­ing at mul­ti­ple EA Global events.

Scott Aaron­son, ev­ery­one’s favourite Quan­tum Cryp­tog­ra­phy The­o­rist and au­thor of an ex­cel­lent book which I will definitely finish some­time very soon, had this to say about Robin in­tel­lec­tual virtues:

I’ve met many ec­cen­tric in­tel­lec­tu­als in my life, but I have yet to meet any­one whose cu­ri­os­ity is more gen­uine than Robin’s, or whose dogged­ness in fol­low­ing a chain of rea­son­ing is more un­touched by con­sid­er­a­tions of what all the cool peo­ple will say about him at the other end.
So if you be­lieve that the life of the mind benefits from a true di­ver­sity of opinions, from thinkers who defend po­si­tions that ac­tu­ally differ in novel and in­ter­est­ing ways from what ev­ery­one else is say­ing—then no mat­ter how ve­he­mently you dis­agree with any of his views, Robin seems like the pro­to­type of what you want more of in academia. To any­one who claims that Robin’s ap­par­ent in­com­pre­hen­sion of moral taboos, his puz­zle­ment about so­cial norms, are mere af­fec­ta­tions mask­ing some sinister Koch-broth­ers agenda, I re­ply: I’ve known Robin for years, and while I might be ig­no­rant of many things, on this I know you’re mis­taken. Call him wrong­headed, naïve, tone-deaf, in­sen­si­tive, even an ass­hole, but don’t ever ac­cuse him of in­sincer­ity or hid­den agen­das. Are his open, stated agen­das not wild enough for you??
In my view, any as­sess­ment of Robin’s abra­sive, tone-deaf, and some­times even offen­sive in­tel­lec­tual style has to grap­ple with the fact that, over his ca­reer, Robin has origi­nated not one but sev­eral hugely im­por­tant ideas—and his abil­ity to do so strikes me as clearly re­lated to his style, not eas­ily de­tach­able from it.

Scott Alexan­der wrote this of Robin’s dis­cern­ment back in the rel­a­tively early days of Effec­tive Altru­ism, not that long af­ter the name was coined:

Then Robin Han­son of Over­com­ing Bias got up and just started Robin Han­son­ning at ev­ery­body. First he gave a long list of things that peo­ple could do to im­prove the effec­tive­ness of their char­i­ta­ble dona­tions. Then he de­clared that since al­most no one does any of these, peo­ple don’t re­ally care about char­ity, they’re just try­ing to look good. Then he told the room – this beau­tiful room in the Fac­ulty Club, full of so­phis­ti­cated-look­ing char­ity donors who prob­a­bly thought they were there to get a nice pat on the back – that they prob­a­bly thought that just be­cause they were at­tend­ing an effi­cient char­ity talk they weren’t like that, but that prob­a­bil­is­ti­cally there was ex­cel­lent ev­i­dence that they were.

Even Bryan Ca­plan, one of the fore­most ad­vo­cates of ap­pease­ment, speaks highly of Robin’s char­ac­ter:

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one who knows Robin per­son­ally vouches for his sincer­ity and kind­ness.

And his in­tel­lect:

In a similar vein, since we should ex­pect a man of Robin’s in­tel­li­gence to to pro­duce a steady stream of origi­nal in­sight, the fact that he just un­veiled yet an­other gem is no rea­son to be amazed.

Of course, in some sense this is by-the-by: even were Robin an ir­re­deemable scoundrel, it would still be worth­while defend­ing him from un­just treat­ment. If or­di­nary peo­ple see that even the un­pop­u­lar are defended, they can have con­fi­dence that they too are se­cure. In con­trast, if they see that se­cu­rity comes only with pop­u­lar­ity, peo­ple will be en­couraged to con­stantly sig­nal their in-group bon­afides, and to always be watch­ing over their shoulders that the mob is com­ing for them next.

The trou­ble with fight­ing for hu­man free­dom is that one spends most of one’s time defend­ing scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that op­pres­sive laws are first aimed, and op­pres­sion must be stopped at the be­gin­ning if it is to be stopped at all.
  • H. L. Mencken

Re­cently, EA Mu­nich de­cided to de­plat­form Robin Han­son af­ter invit­ing him to give a talk on tort re­form. At the time they briefly sum­marised this as due to his ‘con­tro­ver­sial claims’; sub­se­quently they ex­plained them­selves some­what in a writeup, which is ap­par­ently a “pretty thor­ough” de­scrip­tion of their thought pro­cess. It, along with my sub­se­quent com­mu­ni­ca­tions with CEA on this topic, form the pri­mary ba­sis of this ar­ti­cle.

This de­ci­sion has been widely crit­i­cised, both on this web­site and el­se­where. I agree this de­ci­sion was a very poor one, and will fo­cus on what we can do bet­ter next time. The EA Mu­nich team are vol­un­teers, and I’m sure rel­a­tively ju­nior, so I do not place too much re­spon­si­bil­ity on them, though I am ex­tremely dis­ap­pointed with the ad­vice that came from CEA, who should know bet­ter. As such, this ar­ti­cle lays out what I see as the main mis­takes that were made, and how we can avoid mak­ing them in the fu­ture.

In his blog, Aaron sug­gests that there is not much more that CEA (his em­ployer) could have done, as the de­ci­sion is ul­ti­mately up to the lo­cal group. Similarly, in my com­mu­ni­ca­tion with them, CEA re­peat­edly em­pha­sised that ul­ti­mately it all comes down to the lo­cal group. Nat­u­rally, I fully agree with this—the in­de­pen­dence of lo­cal groups is some­thing that CEA should and must re­spect. But I dis­agree that this lets CEA off the hook. In cases where a lo­cal group comes to CEA for guidance, CEA has the obli­ga­tion to provide the best pos­si­ble ad­vice, and CEA clearly failed to do so here.

Mis­takes and How to Avoid Them

I re­al­ise that a gen­er­al­ised ex­hor­ta­tion to re­sist can­cel cul­ture can be difficult, es­pe­cially when pre­sented with plau­si­ble seem­ing and highly spe­cific con­sid­er­a­tions in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. So in this sec­tion I will try to foren­si­cally lay out the spe­cific mis­takes that were made in this in­stance, and how we can avoid them in fu­ture.

Defend core EA activities

Most im­por­tant is to con­stantly bear in mind that the pur­pose of lo­cal groups is not the avoidance of con­flict, or min­imis­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who are an­noyed with you: it is pro­mot­ing the goals and val­ues of the Effec­tive Altru­ism move­ment. In this case, EA Mu­nich, and CEA’s ad­vice to them, di­rectly un­der­mined one of the core ten­ants of EA, which is the free­dom and courage to in­ves­ti­gate new po­ten­tial cause ar­eas.

As we dis­cussed at length in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion, this re­quires peo­ple be will­ing to in­ves­ti­gate new moral is­sues, which ob­vi­ously are go­ing to sound weird (and po­ten­tially im­moral!) to many peo­ple. To avid car­nivores, the idea of in­vest­ing in an­i­mal rights sounds like im­morally im­pos­ing costs and re­stric­tions on real hu­man peo­ple, and ne­glect­ing the real prob­lems peo­ple have that we could be solv­ing, for the sake of … an­i­mals? But as EAs, we should push past the ‘am­bi­ent sense of un­ease’ and eval­u­ate such new ideas log­i­cally. Even if poorly pre­sented, we should be will­ing to steel­man them and give them a fair hear­ing; if the idea’s origi­na­tor saves us this work by writ­ing lengthy and de­tailed ar­gu­ments in their favour, all the bet­ter.

The ab­solute min­i­mum re­quire­ment is that CEA not ac­tively un­der­mine peo­ple who are do­ing this work. But re­ally, CEA should be liv­ing up to the talk and ac­tively sup­port­ing these peo­ple.

Robin is pre­cisely the sort of thinker who is dis­pro­por­tionately likely to come up with the next Cause X. He is the in­tel­lec­tual father of pre­dic­tion mar­kets, a sub­ject of im­mense dis­cus­sion and ad­vo­cacy in the EA com­mu­nity. He has writ­ten on the sub­ject of hu­man hypocrisy, and helped shed light on the very rea­sons that peo­ple ig­nore EA anal­y­sis in fa­vor of their lower mo­tives, and was the first to ar­gue in the EA com­mu­nity for giv­ing later in­stead of giv­ing now. He wrote ex­ten­sively on AI be­fore it was a ma­jor fo­cus of the EA com­mu­nity, in his de­bate on AI FOOM and his writ­ing on em­u­la­tions. He wrote one of the clas­sic pa­pers about mod­el­ing his­tory as a se­ries of ex­po­nen­tial growth modes, re­search cur­rently be­ing pur­sued with sub­stan­tial re­sources by Open Philan­thropy’s David Rood­man. Robin’s pro­duc­tion of novel ideas has greatly ex­ceeded most aca­demics, typ­i­cally writ­ten about in ac­cessible blog­posts. Poli­tics isn’t about policy. Against pres­tige. This is the dream time. Sto­ries are like re­li­gion. Inequal­ity Is About Grab­bing. This AI Boom Will Also Bust. If you want to know what is a likely Cause X, a de­cent way to ap­proach that ques­tion would be to start by look­ing at what­ever Robin Han­son has been blog­ging about a lot.

Of course, be­ing a pro­lific pro­ducer of pre­mium pri­ori­ti­sa­tion posts doesn’t mean we should give some­one a free pass for be­hav­ing im­morally. For all that EAs are con­se­quen­tial­ists, I don’t think we should ig­nore wrong­do­ing ‘for the greater good’. We can, I hope, defend the good with­out giv­ing carte blanche to the bad, even when both ex­ist within the same per­son. Which, then, was the tar­get in the can­cel­ling of Robin, as ex­em­plified in the Slate ar­ti­cle? Did they cor­rectly cas­ti­gate his vice, or were they slan­der­ing his virtue?

It seems clear to me that the ar­eas of Robin’s work refer­enced in the Slate ar­ti­cle—things like his post Two Types of Envy, where he points to a per­ceived in­con­sis­tency in how peo­ple talk about fi­nan­cial and sex­ual in­equal­ity, and the nega­tive so­cietal effects of, and men­tal health im­pacts to, large num­bers of dis­af­fected low-sta­tus males (e.g. the In­cel move­ment) - fall firmly within the cat­e­gory of what we are talk­ing about by ‘Cause X’ re­search. For those who dare to dis­cuss this as be­ing a prob­lem that af­flicts them, so­ciety is quick to offer mock­ery, but al­most never sym­pa­thy or solu­tions. Robin analy­ses these is­sues in de­tail, com­pares them to an­other ma­jor cause, and con­ducts em­piri­cal work to try to es­ti­mate their mag­ni­tude.

Now, mere in­differ­ence from EAs could be un­der­stood—many peo­ple make pro­pos­als for a Cause X, and most of them are ter­rible. Peo­ple do not have an au­to­matic right to a hear­ing, be­cause our time is limited and our at­ten­tion could be spent el­se­where. Similarly, dis­agree­ment is a perfectly rea­son­able re­sponse.

I can see the ar­gu­ment that we do not nec­es­sar­ily have to pub­li­cly defend ev­ery­one who is at­tacked un­fairly, as our poli­ti­cal and rep­u­ta­tional cap­i­tal is finite. This is a bit of a dan­ger­ous path to go down—if we do not stand up for our friends, who will stand up for us? - but it does high­light an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion, and I wouldn’t blame some­one who took this per­spec­tive. Defend­ing peo­ple from un­fair treat­ment is good and vir­tu­ous, but su­pereroga­tory.

How­ever, what I think is clear is that EA, and CEA speci­fi­cally, should not treat some­one worse as a re­sult of their good faith at­tempts at EA pri­ori­ti­sa­tion re­search than they would have oth­er­wise. To vi­o­late this is a fun­da­men­tal be­trayal of the move­ment and the com­mu­nity. If you would have had some­one speak in the ab­sence of their in­no­va­tive EA work, it is un­ac­cept­able to de­plat­form them in re­sponse to smears re­sult­ing from this work.

Dist­in­guish­ing be­tween truth-seek­ing crit­i­cism and at­tempted can­cel­la­tions.

Often, crit­i­cism is good! Peo­ple are of­ten wrong, and it is good to point this out, if pos­si­ble in a sen­si­tive fash­ion that is not un­nec­es­sar­ily nasty. But not all crit­i­cism is equal.

An ex­am­ple of what I think of as rel­a­tively good crit­i­cism is Alexey Guzey’s ar­ti­cle crit­i­cis­ing Why We Sleep. This ar­ti­cle is good be­cause it is log­i­cal and me­thod­i­cal, lay­ing out pre­cise ar­gu­ments for why we should be scep­ti­cal of the book. It does not at­tempt to dis­tort the au­thor’s in­ten­tions; it shows that even a gen­er­ous read­ing will find the book sadly defi­cient. Nor does he cherry-pick a small sec­tion; Alexey clearly ex­plains which sec­tion of the book he fo­cused on and why. The ar­ti­cle does not rely on in­sinu­a­tion, nor does it even di­rectly crit­i­cise the au­thor at all. Most im­por­tantly, it aims to es­tab­lish truth from false­hood.

Un­for­tu­nately, not all crit­i­cism is like this. In EA Mu­nich’s writeup, they high­lighted an ar­ti­cle in Slate. I think it should be clear to even an un­in­formed reader that this piece is not in any way a fair or ob­jec­tive ac­count. The Slate writer is de­liber­ately at­tempt­ing to frame him in the worst pos­si­ble light, in an ar­ti­cle full of in­nu­endo and vi­cious­ness. There is no care­ful eval­u­a­tion of Robin’s ar­gu­ments—in­deed, only one para­graph, to­wards the end of the ar­ti­cle, even pre­tends to be form­ing a coun­ter­ar­gu­ment. It does not at­tempt a char­i­ta­ble read­ing of Robin. It willfully se­lects a hand­ful of blog posts of his solely to make him look as bad as pos­si­ble. This is not an ar­ti­cle that is try­ing to make our be­liefs about the world more ac­cu­rate—it is try­ing to be­lit­tle and hu­mil­i­ate some­one. It is a hit piece.

One tech­nique for do­ing this anal­y­sis is to ex­am­ine the Fnords: if we re­move the filler words from the first few lines of the Slate piece, I think it is clear what the sub­text is, and how fair the ar­ti­cle is go­ing to be:

economist creepy liber­tar­ian-lean­ing pro­fes­sor no­to­ri­ous odd dis­con­cert­ing so­cio-sex­ual...

I would be very sur­prised if any ar­ti­cle that be­gan with such a tone was con­ducive to truth-seek­ing—save, per­haps, as a cau­tion­ary ex­am­ple.

So my ad­vice is to care­fully dis­t­in­guish be­tween truth-seek­ing crit­i­cism of some­one’s ar­gu­ments, and so­cial sham­ing ad hominem in­sinu­a­tion against a per­son. The former is po­ten­tially very valuable, the lat­ter… not so much. This is some­thing that in­di­vi­d­ual lo­cal groups should do, and that CEA, if it sees they are fal­ter­ing in this re­gard, can step in and gen­tly provide guidance.

Deter­min­ing the rele­vance of criticism

Some crit­i­cism is highly rele­vant. One par­tic­u­lar thing that crit­i­cism can tell us is that a po­ten­tial speaker is not as much of an ex­pert as we thought. For ex­am­ple, if you were con­sid­er­ing invit­ing a fa­mous aca­demic to tell you about the sci­ence of sleep, learn­ing that his book was highly in­ac­cu­rate is valuable, be­cause it im­plies that your po­ten­tial speaker is ac­tu­ally less knowl­edge­able than you as­sumed about the topic. If you in­vite him, he might tell you false things about sleep, which would frus­trate your pur­pose of learn­ing true things about sleep.

In con­trast, some crit­i­cism is not rele­vant. For ex­am­ple, crit­i­cism is less rele­vant if it is con­cerned with a differ­ent topic. In the case of the Slate ar­ti­cle men­tioned above, the ‘ar­gu­ment’ is ba­si­cally that Robin is creepy be­cause of the top­ics he wrote about in some blog posts. Given that EA Mu­nich had in­vited him to speak about a to­tally differ­ent topic, the rele­vance is sig­nifi­cantly re­duced. If the topic of his talk is also creepy… well, maybe you shouldn’t have in­vited him to talk about it! Fur­ther­more, as the Slate ar­gu­ment didn’t re­ally bother much to re­ally ar­gue that Robin was ac­tu­ally mis­taken, let alone sys­tem­at­i­cally fraud­u­lent like the sleep ar­ti­cle does, it doesn’t re­ally give us much rea­son to doubt Robin’s gen­eral in­tel­lec­tual cal­ibre.

Per­haps be­cause of the Horns Effect (mir­ror to the Halo Effect), it is easy to al­low one prob­lem to ‘spill over’ and af­fect your eval­u­a­tion of a per­son’s other at­tributes, even if this is not log­i­cal. I en­courage you to bear in mind that, even if some­one has flaws, they may not be rele­vant flaws. For this we can con­sult no less an au­thor­ity than the US Pres­i­dent (no, the pre­vi­ous one):

You know this idea of pu­rity and you’re never com­pro­mised and you’re always poli­ti­cally woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are am­bi­gui­ties. Peo­ple who do re­ally good stuff have flaws.
  • Obama, 2019

Ap­ply your stan­dards consistently

Rules and stan­dards are very im­por­tant for or­ganis­ing any sort of so­ciety. How­ever, when ap­plied in­con­sis­tently they can be used as a weapon to at­tack un­pop­u­lar peo­ple while let­ting pop­u­lar peo­ple off the hook. If you ap­ply a stan­dard only when ex­ter­nal ac­tors de­mand it, you are let­ting them con­trol you. But by be­ing cog­nizant of this, you can pro­tect your­self.

In this case, one of the main rea­sons EA Mu­nich gave for de­plat­form­ing Robin are that they are afraid of be­ing as­so­ci­ated with con­tro­ver­sial ideas, and of the con­se­quences of let­ting Robin talk. So the stan­dard here seems to be that con­tro­ver­sial ideas should be avoided.

How­ever, just the pre­vi­ous month they hosted a talk on psychedelic drugs (ac­cord­ing to Face­book). Need­less to say, psychedelic drugs are a highly con­tro­ver­sial topic! In the US they are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered Sched­ule I drugs with a high po­ten­tial for abuse. Possess­ing these drugs is in gen­eral (with very limited ex­cep­tions) a felony, with the po­ten­tial for very harsh penalties. The War of Drugs is a highly poli­ti­cal topic on which peo­ple have very strong opinions. In this case, EA Mu­nich could have no­ticed that a rule against con­tro­ver­sial top­ics would have ex­cluded this pre­vi­ous talk that they had been happy to let take place.

Of course, there is a big differ­ence be­tween the talk on psychedelics and Robin’s talk, which is that the sub­ject of Robin’s talk was a to­tally differ­ent and I think un­ob­jec­tion­able topic (re­form­ing tort law) - sug­gest­ing a greater de­gree of con­cern would have been due about the psychedelics talk.

So I recom­mend you con­sider the rea­sons be­ing given for de­plat­form­ing a speaker, and think about whether you would re­ally want to ap­ply those prin­ci­ples in gen­eral.

Fo­cus on get­ting the de­ci­sion right, rather than ap­pear­ances.

The other rea­son they gave fo­cused on the po­ten­tial nega­tive con­se­quences of let­ting Robin talk. This con­sisted in a frankly bizarre para­graph (quote be­low), sug­gest­ing that al­low­ing Robin to give a zoom talk to ~20-30 peo­ple, on an un­re­lated topic, might ac­ci­den­tally undo fem­i­nism and civil rights (or per­haps re-in­sti­tute slav­ery? un­clear), de­spite nei­ther be­ing his in­ten­tion. I am al­most loathe to quote it be­cause it seems like a straw­man:

Speci­fi­cally, women’s rights have been sup­pressed for most of hu­man his­tory, and we be­lieve that the rise of eman­ci­pa­tory women’s move­ments has been a tremen­dous hu­man­i­tar­ian achieve­ment over the last few hun­dred years. State­ments such as Han­son’s might rekin­dle mi­sog­y­nis­tic sen­ti­ments and de­stroy some of the progress made so far, even if that is not Pro­fes­sor Han­son’s in­ten­tion. In a similar vein, we see the dis­cus­sion around the tweet con­cern­ing June­teenth. We also be­lieve that Pro­fes­sor Han­son per­haps un­der­es­ti­mates the im­pact of these state­ments.

If this was a se­ri­ous con­cern of theirs then the nicest thing I can say is that they were hope­lessly mis­cal­ibrated.

It can be difficult to tell when one’s rea­son­ing is amiss. How­ever, I think this is where CEA could have helped. A rea­son­able thing to do, when learn­ing that this was a con­cern, would be to gen­tly ar­gue that EA Mu­nich was ex­ag­ger­at­ing the threat. The fact that they would write such an ar­gu­ment should have been a sign to CEA that EA Mu­nich was not be­ing ra­tio­nal, and as such CEA should en­courage them to re­con­sider their de­ci­sion.

In­stead, ap­par­ently CEA en­couraged them to re­con­sider the lan­guage in their jus­tifi­ca­tion:

Their lan­guage on him de­stroy­ing the progress of fem­i­nism was origi­nally stronger, and I sug­gested they tone it down.
  • Per­sonal communication

This is, I think, ex­tremely wrong­headed. Our ob­jec­tive should be to make the right de­ci­sion. A pub­lic sum­mary of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing should con­tain an ac­cu­rate ac­count of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing. If you feel the need to ‘tone down’ part of it, this could be a sign you re­gret part of that de­ci­sion… in which case you should con­sider chang­ing your mind. CEA should have taken the op­por­tu­nity to sug­gest that EA Mu­nich had mis­judged the situ­a­tion, and that they should con­sider chang­ing their mind.

Think about the wider im­pact and prece­dent.

It is nat­u­ral for the or­ganisers of a small group to just want the whole thing to go away. They just wanted to host some nice dis­cus­sion groups and tell peo­ple about AMF—they didn’t ask for any of this! In such a sce­nario, giv­ing in to the pres­sure and dis­invit­ing the speaker seems like the easy op­tion. Maybe it’s not the right one—EA Mu­nich did men­tion they were wor­ried about Can­cel Cul­ture, so they had some un­der­stand­ing of the is­sues—but it is at least an end to it.

It seems such con­sid­er­a­tions were high in the minds of EA Mu­nich, who spoke of want­ing to take the ac­tion that would leave the fewest peo­ple an­noyed with them.

Alas, this is a very poor de­ci­sion crite­rion. While it is easy, in EA we try to do what is right, and EA groups should ac­tu­ally try to live up to these virtues rather than ig­nor­ing them be­cause they’re hard. EA groups are de­signed for the benefit of the prin­ci­ples and ob­jec­tive of the EA move­ment, not the con­ve­nience of the or­ganisers. By giv­ing in, we grant a heck­ler’s veto to ner­dow­ells. Every in­stance of back­ing down cre­ates a prece­dent that con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers should be can­celed, which af­fects both this group and all other lo­cal groups. And it en­courages peo­ple to be quicker to take offense and to con­demn, a dan­ger that has been well un­der­stood since Ki­pling.

It’s im­por­tant not to think of giv­ing in as be­ing the ‘mid­dle’ route, or a ‘com­pro­mise’ de­ci­sion. I can see why peo­ple might naively think this: they see some peo­ple who sup­port a speaker, and some who con­demn him, so surely the mid­dle ground is to sim­ply not fea­ture the speaker in any way? But this is not the case—tol­er­ance it­self is the mid­dle ground, be­tween Catholic and Protes­tant, or Right and Left. Giv­ing one side—or rather, a small group of ex­trem­ists on one side—a veto is far from even­handed: it im­mensely priv­ileges that group. Alter­na­tively, we could af­ford ev­ery­one such re­spect—not merely the loud­est and most ag­gres­sive—which would at least be fair. But as al­most ev­ery­thing is offen­sive to some­body, the range of per­mit­ted opinions left would be very small in­deed! Only by say­ing to par­ti­sans of all stripes, “I know you are offended by this, but we judge ideas for our­selves, on their merit” can we have dis­cus­sion un­fet­tered by a poli­ti­cal cen­sor.

Now, one could ob­ject that this is hy­per­bole. After all, a group is not obliged to in­vite Robin to speak in the first place. Why then can they not equally un­in­vite him? Yes, it will be a lit­tle in­con­ve­nient, but there’s a pan­demic, so it’s not like any­one has paid for plane tick­ets or ho­tels.

Here one man’s modus po­nens is an­other’s modus tol­lens. For the same rea­sons I think it is bad to de­plat­form a speaker as the re­sult of a vi­cious can­cel cul­ture at­tack, I think it would be bad to not in­vite them in the first place for these rea­sons. There are many ac­cept­able rea­sons not to in­vite some­one—like timing, or rele­vance, or hav­ing a full sched­ule, or sim­ple be­ing un­aware of their ex­is­tence. But ap­peas­ing can­cel cul­ture is not one of them. We would be ill-served if, to avoid the risk of ever hav­ing to de­plat­form some­one, groups sim­ply be­came ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive about in­vi­ta­tions and never in­cluded any­one who wasn’t a CEA em­ployee!

Here I think an anal­ogy with US Labour Law might be illu­mi­nat­ing. Most work­ers in the US have ‘At-Will’ con­tracts: this means that the worker can quit, and the em­ployer can fire them, at ba­si­cally any time for any rea­son, ex­cept for for a nar­row group of for­bid­den mo­ti­va­tions. You can quit be­cause you’re not paid enough, or your col­leagues are an­noy­ing, or you’re just sick of the colour of the car­pets. You can fire some­one for be­ing un­pro­duc­tive, for hav­ing a name be­gin­ning with the let­ter ‘G’, or for sup­port­ing the wrong sports team. But you can’t fire them be­cause of their race, or be­cause they re­fused to break the law, or be­cause they took ma­ter­nity leave. This is be­cause these are prop­er­ties that the US Le­gal Sys­tem con­sid­ers im­por­tant enough to pro­tect, even in the gen­eral con­text of free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion.

Similarly, in gen­eral lo­cal groups should be free to do more or less what they want. We should want to let peo­ple ex­plore new ap­proaches, which might be bet­ter suited for pro­mot­ing Effec­tive Altru­ism. There is sim­ply a nar­row class of ac­tivi­ties which should be strongly avoided, and which CEA should strongly ad­vise against: de­plat­form­ing a speaker be­cause of Can­cel Cul­ture is such a pro­scribed ac­tivity.


In this par­tic­u­lar sce­nario, here are some things I think it would have been good for CEA to do, when asked for ad­vice by EA Mu­nich:

  1. Re­mind them that open­ness to un­usual ideas is one of the guid­ing prin­ci­ples of Effec­tive Altru­ism, and that lo­cal groups should up­hold and pro­mote this.

  2. Clar­ify the im­por­tance of fun­da­men­tal cause re­search that challenges ex­ist­ing ideas to the move­ment, and that we should not pun­ish peo­ple for en­gag­ing in it.

  3. Ex­plain that the Slate ar­ti­cle they linked is not a re­li­able source of in­for­ma­tion, and en­courage them to re­fer to Robin’s own work.

  4. Ex­plain that de­plat­form­ing some­one is a se­ri­ous ac­tion, and widely seen as not equiv­a­lent to sim­ply never hav­ing in­vited them in the first place.

  5. Ex­plain that Robin is very un­likely to ac­ci­den­tally undo fem­i­nism dur­ing his talk, and this should not be a ma­jor part of their de­ci­sion mak­ing pro­cess.

  6. Not take EA Mu­nich’s claim that they un­der­stood the dan­gers of Can­cel Cul­ture at face value: ac­tively dis­cuss this with them to en­sure they un­der­stand why it is harm­ful to the move­ment.

  7. To the ex­tent that EA Mu­nich made their de­ci­sion for poor rea­sons, en­courage them to re­con­sider.

The fi­nal de­ci­sion is of course up to the lo­cal or­ganisers. How­ever, I think by pro­vid­ing this ad­vice, CEA could have bet­ter equipped them to make the de­ci­sion in an epistem­i­cally vir­tu­ous way that sup­ported the goals of the move­ment.


Thanks to Nick Whi­taker and sev­eral in­valuable anony­mous proofread­ers for their ex­tremely helpful feed­back. Any mis­takes re­main my own. A draft of this doc­u­ment was shared with CEA and EA Mu­nich prior to pub­li­ca­tion, and one sec­tion re­moved as a ges­ture of good­will.

ed­ited 2020-10-15: typos