Monday, December 18, 2017

Disagreeing without disliking each other

...increasingly seems to be impossible. Democrats dislike Republicans; Republicans dislike Democrats; even within liberal enclaves, very liberal campus activists dislike slightly less liberal campus activists. More than one of my friends has told me that, if they could work on any problem, they would want to stitch closed these schisms in our society.

Recently I had two experiences that renewed my faith that this was possible. I started contentious discussions with two very different groups:

1. The Redditors: A bunch of Reddit fans of a popular blogger who, in my view, can be biased against feminists. He had written a piece arguing that the focus on powerful men’s sexual assaults was “a hit job” on men. I wrote a rebuttal, decided I was feeling confrontational, and posted it where all his Reddit fans would see it.
2. The AlterConfers: The attendees of AlterConf 2017, a conference that “provides safe opportunities for marginalized people and those who support them in the tech and gaming industries”. I had been invited to speak about ethical dilemmas in computer science, and decided I would begin my talk by talking about criminal justice sentencing algorithms. I was going to argue that algorithms that created large racial disparities were not necessarily unfair.

These groups, as you can imagine, followed profoundly different norms. When I arrived at AlterConf, I was asked for my preferred pronouns (she/her) and told that the bathrooms had been “liberated from the gender binary”; when I posted on Reddit, a commenter immediately assumed I was male. At AlterConf I was asked whether my talk had any trigger warnings and handed red, yellow and green cards to indicate whether I was comfortable talking to other people; on Reddit, I found a similarly careful means of communication that relied on a totally different vocabulary -- “motte and bailey”; “toxoplasma”; “infinite regress”; “Taleb’s notion of time probability”; “eudaimonia”, “metis”, and “episteme”; "Foucaultian nihilism” and “biopower”.

I doubt the two groups would get along that well. At AlterConf, multiple speakers attributed social problems to cis white men; on Reddit, multiple commenters criticized feminists instead. At AlterConf, speakers discussed how to stop racial discrimination; on Reddit, commenters focused instead on discrimination against men. (Like African-Americans, they argued, men were discriminated against by the criminal justice system.)

Nor was I arguing positions that either group was particularly sympathetic to. Reddit isn’t known for loving feminist positions; similarly, arguing that the criminal justice system isn’t as racist as it appears to be isn’t a popular stance in activist circles. I was genuinely nervous before engaging with each group.

But in fact both interactions went remarkably well: no one got mad, I learned from both groups, and they learned from me. On Reddit, commenters pointed me to a long line of papers showing discrimination against men in criminal justice, which I wrote some code to check out -- more on this some other time. They also asked me for recommendations of other blogs to read, machine learning resources, why feminists acted the way they did, and why I had worked at 23andMe, so information flow went both ways. At AlterConf, I heard ideas for making tech conferences safer and more inclusive (take note, NIPS); making code reviews more pleasant; and finding books with more diverse protagonists, among many others. Conversely, many people came up to me after my talk to ask about tradeoffs in algorithmic fairness.

Why was this communication peaceful and productive? Here are some thoughts.

1. Both communities established strong norms of respectful discourse. These norms are wildly different, of course -- on Reddit, you get a lot of rationalist jargon, and at AlterConf, you get a lot of activist jargon. But they share a common goal: to allow everyone to participate in a free discussion without getting insulted or upset. And while I don't agree with all the ways these communities achieve this goal -- sounding super-rational can sometimes just conceal silly arguments or be pretentious, for example, and I think trigger warnings, while useful in some cases, are used over-broadly -- it helps to just establish a common intention that we're all trying to get along.

Sometimes, the norms are very effective at preserving civil discourse. For example, the one Reddit commenter who was overtly disrespectful, questioning how I had managed to earn my professional bona fides when I wrote like a high schooler, was swiftly downvoted and told they were violating the rules of the forum; their comment was then deleted. One norm I particularly like is charity, a term I heard mentioned frequently on Reddit. As I understand it, charity means "assume good intent and respond to the strongest version of the opponent's argument". I love this ideal, although I don't always achieve it [1].

2. I showed willingness to learn. On Reddit, I began my rebuttal with a long paragraph listing all the things I had learned from the original blog post, and when commenters disagreed with me, I asked them for references. At AlterConf, I started by saying I was grateful to be invited to speak because I thought the wider CS community could take a lot of useful lessons from AlterConf. I also told them that I was about to give a short talk on a controversial topic to a new community, which was always risky, so I was nervous and if they disagreed they should come talk to me because I liked talking to people who disagreed with me.

This willingness to learn was not an act: it helps me to approach new communities anthropologically, with openness, curiosity, and some degree of detachment, and view things I don't agree with as interesting and well-intentioned rather than stupid and malignant. Of course, I don’t always manage to do this.

3. We came from similar tribes. On Reddit, I could credibly claim to be a rationalist math nerd, and the fact that I was in the Stanford CS program was a good thing; had I picked a fight on Breitbart, I suspect I’d have been cast as a liberal elite. Similarly, at AlterConf, I started by saying I studied police discrimination to try to establish that my heart was in the right place.

I'm not sure any of these strategies would allow you to bridge a wider schism and engage with, say, Fox News commenters. But maybe we don't need to do that yet. Even within the Democratic party, there are schisms that if bridged would help us win elections. And, more broadly, if you start by reaching out to the most distant people who will listen to you, perhaps little by little that frontier grows more distant.


[1] In my experience, the activist community isn’t always charitable either; I dislike how people are sometimes demonized when their intent is benign, as I’ve discussed before. But at AlterConf everyone was nice to me.

Friday, December 8, 2017

No, Scott Alexander, the focus on powerful men’s sexual assaults is not “a hit job” on men

I want to rebut a recent piece in which Scott Alexander, a widely read blogger, criticizes the focus on sexual assaults committed by powerful men (as opposed to assaults committed by women). I think this post is worth responding to because Alexander's blog is incredibly widely read among computer scientists and my other analytical friends -- it may be the most widely-read blog in my social circle -- and I don't think it covers gender issues fairly, and this post is an example of that.

There are a couple important things Alexander gets right. He's right that society decides not to care about certain classes of sexual assaults; there's probably been more coverage this year of Taylor Swift getting groped than all prison rape combined. He's right that society is wrong to make fun of men who are assaulted by women, and I agree the media should seek out reports from men as well. Reading his post and some of his references increased my already-held belief that we should take men more seriously when they are harassed or assaulted by women, so credit to him for that. He makes a thought-provoking argument that men might care more about assault if they believed it could happen to them too and they'd be taken seriously if it did.

But then the post says a bunch of things that are less reasonable.

First, he repeatedly implies that the current conversation is only about men assaulting women. This is factually incorrect; plenty of men have also gotten in trouble over accusations of assaulting men -- Kevin Spacey, George Takei, James Levine, we could go on.

Then he says that the focus on male assaulters is "a hit job on the outgroup [men]. Do I think that sexual harassment is being used this way? I have no other explanation for the utter predominance of genderedness in the conversation."

Here's another explanation: it's extremely obvious that male-on-female assault, a very common and damaging kind, has some unique characteristics worth discussing -- like the fact that men are generally physically, professionally, and economically more powerful, which fundamentally changes the dynamic of the assault. This discussion is long overdue, and we're having it now. Another reason the assaults of powerful men are worth discussing specifically is that it's a very bad idea to give assaulters, who definitionally don’t have enough regard for others' suffering, access to, say, America's entire nuclear arsenal. So the fact that two of America's last four presidents have been accused of assault or harassment by multiple people is worth talking about. When there are credible allegations of assault against female presidents, senators, media moguls, etc, we should absolutely talk about those those too.

(Note, incidentally, that there are many other ways in which the current conversation is biased and incomplete: other groups being largely left out of the headlines are prisoners, people of color, transgender people, and people whose abusers aren't famous, but somehow his hypothesized "hit job" is against men only. This is odd.)

Alexander also says that focusing on male-on-female assault is like talking only about black-on-white crime or Muslim-on-Christian terrorism: it implies you have an insidious agenda, like Richard Spencer. (Comparing feminists to Nazis is a very tired rhetorical tactic -- feminazis, anyone? -- but let's move on.) These comparisons are wrong for three reasons. First, as explained above, the current conversation isn't just about female victims, though it does focus on male crimes. Second, it's entirely reasonable to have a conversation specifically about the crimes committed by one group. The media has been running non-stop articles about white supremacists, and that is not "a hit job on whites" but an analysis of an important social phenomenon. I don’t feel attacked when people complain about white supremacists; similarly, criticism of male assaulters isn't criticism of all men.

The third reason his examples are bad is that, in both his examples, the group being blamed is a non-dominant group that's been discriminated against for centuries. Contrast this with the group he's comparing to, men. A negative consequence of obsessing about black-on-white crime is a system of mass incarceration that wrecks millions of lives a year. A negative consequence of obsessing about Muslim-on-Christian terrorism was a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. In contrast, a negative consequence of obsessing about assaults committed by powerful men is...I'm not sure what it is, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve hundreds of thousands of dead people. It would've been easy for him to flip his examples around, which would have made them more apt but less persuasive, so this choice seems like sophistry here.

These counter-arguments are obvious, and Scott Alexander is smart and thorough, so the fact that he doesn't rebut or even mention them is worrisome to me. I think when it comes to gender issues and feminism, he has biases, perhaps driven in part by what happened to Scott Aaronson, and I've had this feeling reading his blog before. And of course we all have biases, certainly I do, but I'm not the main source on gender issues for eight gajillion rationalists. (His post has been shared on several men's rights subreddits, so he's a source for other demographics as well.) So my request is -- please don't take Slate Star Codex as a definitive source on gender issues. He's smart and provocative and I read him, but please read people who disagree with him too.