[Letter] Imperialism in the Rationalist Community

by lsusr3 min read25th Jun 202141 comments

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Dear [REDACTED],

Thank you for your letter about the racism and sexism you face in the rationality community. It was refreshing to read something so spontaneous, unguarded and indiscreet.

Specific language is superior to vague language. I applaud that you did not use the words "racism" and "sexism". That is my own word choice. You were concrete in your grievances, but you sent the details to me in confidence. Alas, it is not my prerogative to publicize your private life here. Instead, I will speak from my own experience.

It frustrates me when people say "I don't see people in terms of race". I empathize with where they're coming from. Talking about race isn't any fun when you belong to the ethnic majority. Racial pride slips easily into prejudice. It is risky even to tell jokes.

In such a situation, I understand the temptation to close your eyes, plug your ears and shout "Lalala". But pretending something doesn't exist doesn't make it go away. The map is not the territory.

The phrase keep your identity small is a good thing to tell yourself when your identity is trivial and superficial. It is a harmful, insensitive thing to tell a discriminated-against minority when you are a member of the majority.

Asian-Americans are overtly discriminated against. A year ago, at a time of social unrest, people took the opportunity to attack businesses in my city's Chinatown. The restaurants' windows are still boarded up. I took extra hours at my job for no pay to free up a coworker's hours so he could lead a nightly patrol.

A single night of broken glass isn't a big deal, historically-speaking. The United States hasn't imprisoned Asian-Americans in concentration camps since 1946. But it is absurd to say race doesn't matter in the United States when there are race quotas keeping Asian-Americans out of universities. Especially when you are in a formal academic context!

One of the great things Less Wrong does is provide refuge for people who grew up in conservative families, especially religious families.

The rationalist community is anti-conservative. Liberalism is a good thing when it motivates progress. Tradition should be thoughtfully questioned, but it should not be unthoughtfully disrespected.

The phrase "We should take what we can from religion and throw out the rest" jumps to my mind. On a utilitarian balance sheet, it looks good. But the cold numbers paper over a callous reality.

The Rationalist Community bears the torch lit by Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon worked for Elizabeth I of England in the first century of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Western power was constructed out of raw materials plundered from traditional communities.

For example, mindfulness meditation has been secularized and is being taught to many students with the religious framework removed. This is a good thing insofar as it produces calmer kids who can focus better.

But when you throw out the traditional framework it's easy to forget that meditative techniques were designed to produce mystical experiences. I experience energy surges and muscle spasms when I meditate. (This is perfectly normal if you're doing it right.) Meditation creates states of mind so powerful people used to think they were in the presence of God. I feel my sanity untangling while I stare into a Lovecraftian abyss. (Once again, this is perfectly normal if you're doing it right.) Secular mindfulness programs often throw out the safeguards protecting practitioners from Yog-Sothoth.

We can make a utilitarian argument for Chesterton's Fence. But we shouldn't have to. Thoughtfulness, courtesy and respect are a priori deontological values.

The rationalist community is very inclusive in some respects. Few communities are more hospitable to aspies, transpeople and mad scientists. At the same time, the rationalist community is overwhelmingly white, Western and AMAB (assigned male at birth). It is matter-of-course for such a homogeneous group to say…uninformed things…about non-white non-Western ciswomen.

Every extreme community is homogeneous in its own way. Breaking out of a bubble you don't know you're in is hard.

Best regards,

Lsusr

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I strongly downvoted this post because I want to discourage this type of post on LW (at least for now), as it's currently impossible to discuss these issues honestly in public (from certain perspectives) without incurring unacceptable levels of political and PR risk, both for individual commenters and LW / the rationality community as a whole. (I strongly upvoted one of your other posts to even out your karma.) I wish the LW team would prioritize thinking about how to enable such discussions to happen more safely on LW, but until that's possible, I'd rather not see LW host discussions where only some perspectives can be represented.

(If you disagree with this, perhaps one compromise could be to post this kind of content on another forum or your personal blog, link to it from LW, and encourage people to only comment on the original post, to put more distance between the two and reduce risks.)

I agree that "it's currently impossible to discuss these issues honestly in public (from certain perspectives) without incurring unacceptable levels of political and PR risk, both for individual commenters and LW / the rationality community as a whole".

Your proposed compromise to post this kind of content on another forum or on my personal blog runs counter to my intuitions. I have claimed in the past that moving an argument from LW to a private blog constitutes an escalation so hostile the mere threat of doing so constitutes adequate grounds for banning a user from LW. On the other hand, my claim occurred in a different context. Different problems require different solutions. [Edit: See comment]

I am not averse to posting sensitive topics on my personal blog instead of LW. In fact, I already do it with content I think be received badly on LW. If I was discussing <sensitive topic> in general then it would absolutely make sense to take it somewhere other than LW. If I'm discussing <sensitive topic> as it pertains to the rationality community then doing so off of LW feels icky, like insulting someone behind their back where they can't respond.

What you propose (linkposting to a blog without posting the text directly on LW and then allowing comments on LW) is…fine I guess? It seems like superficial wallpaper to me. I am totally willing to put up superficial wallpaper if that is the established social norm. Coordination is precious. Wallpaper is cheap.

I don't know how much the LW team prioritizes "thinking about how to enable such discussions to happen more safely on LW" but I do know that building infrastructure to enable sensitive discussions is on their radar. The last time I communicated directly with a member of the LW team we specifically discussed building an infrastructure to discuss technical infohazards. If there was a roadmap like "we have committee working on plan for a system by which we can discuss politically hazards topics and we estimate it will be deployed no later than time " then I think waiting for the deployment of such a system might make sense. Without such a roadmap, waiting for vaporware equals a code of silence.

Pretending problems don't exist is epistemic malpractice. Justice delayed is justice denied. Yet I am unaware of anyone acting in bad faith—or even acting with meanness. This community is full of smart, curious people with good epistemic habits. The problem is just hard.

I have claimed in the past that moving an argument from LW to a private blog constitutes an escalation so hostile the mere threat of doing so constitutes adequate grounds for banning a user from LW

What's the reasoning here?? I usually consider "not on this website" a de-escalation.

You make a good point. I have changed my mind.

My original claim concerned an argumentative user who created a wall of shame for anyone who refused to argue with him. That was my point of reference for moving dialogue offsite. In retrospect, the situations are not analogous.

I wish the LW team would prioritize thinking about how to enable such discussions to happen more safely on LW

One way to do this would be to create a tag for socially risky topics, and make posts marked as such visible only when logged in, to accounts that have existed for more than 't' time with at least 'k' of karma. The original poster would be able to add the tag to their own post, but not remove it unless they themselves meet the minimum 'tk' threshold. Others would be able to add or remove it only if they themselves have those same stats. And comments made under a topic thus marked would by default inherit the same tag and properties. This would make it possible to have such conversations with little risk, with further improvements possible.

This sounds like an extension of how mindkilling topics like politics are (with a few reasonable exceptions like Zvi's series on COVID) already restricted to blogposts. It has the advantage of keeping things controlled without shutting down conversation entirely. It has the disadvantage of adding complexity.

I think your proposal is good enough to be worth considering or possibly iterating upon.

Thank you for courteously considering my overall karma. I have created a dedicated comment for you to upvote so you can balance things out without upvoting an undeserving post or comment.

post this kind of content on another forum or your personal blog

This is still a good idea either way, compromise or no compromise. (Separately, the comment thing also allows for the OP to have comment control as desired.)

This comes across as a salad of harsh accusations with only a smidgen of supporting evidence.

What racism and sexism did "redacted" experience in the rationalist community? What "uniformed things" do we say about "non-white non-Western ciswomen"?

I'm pretty sure most of us here are aware that racism exists. In particular, I personally experienced it and my parents and further ancestors experienced a lot of it. This has little to do with "keep your identity small". The latter is about avoiding having particular maps entangled with your sense of self-worth so that you don't distort your beliefs out of emotional self-preservation. It is not about pretending as if your membership in particular groups has no consequences whatsoever. Personally I have some qualms with "keep your identity small" but this is not it.

Btw what did you mean by "your identity is trivial and superficial"? White people have a "superficial" identity and POC have "deep" identities? It makes no sense to me except invoking the meme that "privileged = bad" and riding its associated affect heuristic. And, we like (some thing about) Francis Bacon, Francis Bacon can be connected to [bad thing] in some roundabout way which doesn't say much given the time and place in which he lived, therefore we are complicit in [bad thing]?? Taint percolates through any number of degrees of separation?

How do we "unthoughtfully disrespect" tradition? The only example given is meditation with which I have little experience. Although, I do think it is strange and to-be-discouraged when people here starting talking about "Buddhism" while referring solely to meditation techniques. Btw I have "mystical" experiences even without meditation, and I don't need tradition for that (nor do I consider having such experiences an important goal).

As a queer person I can attest that tradition has done much to make my life miserable, and when I disrespect it I believe I do so quite thoughtfully. I don't owe courtesy to the Chesterton fence which is the wall of my prison. And, consider that it might be a "harmful, insensitive" thing to tell me otherwise (but also I think that whether something is true is more important than whether it is sensitive.)

By "trivial and superficial" I mean stuff like your favorite programming language, Linux distro, keyboard input and television shows. I did not intend to include European descent.

It is not about pretending as if your membership in particular groups has no consequences whatsoever.

This is the core point I was trying to get across. It sounds like you understand it perfectly.

I don't know about the majority, but I can say for at least a few, when they say "I don't see people in terms of race", they're being literal, not metaphoric. I was like this until my late teen years, when it changed, in a bad way -- which I can detail if there's interest. But the point is, until that moment I really couldn't see race, at all. I evidently noticed people had different skin colors, hair types, and eye shapes, but this didn't register with me as significant in any way, shape or form, concrete or abstract.

And one comment about the AMAB and AFAB acronyms. A study I read years ago showed that about 1 in 20,000 newborns are transgendered. This means that 99.995% of the time the gender assigned at birth is indeed the gender the person will have. Now, the usual, in contexts in which one has a 99.995% likelihood of making a correct guess, is to simply say "x is y". Evidently, for the 0.005% of cases in which the that guess was incorrect, it makes sense to say they were "incorrectly AM/FAB", but outside of these exceptional cases of misassignment, using these expressions gives the impression the assignation is incorrectly made way more often than it in fact is.

I don't know about the majority, but I can say for at least a few, when they say "I don't see people in terms of race", they're being literal, not metaphoric. I was like this until my late teen years, when it changed, in a bad way -- which I can detail if there's interest. But the point is, until that moment I really couldn't see race, at all. I evidently noticed people had different skin colors, hair types, and eye shapes, but this didn't register with me as significant in any way, shape or form, concrete or abstract.

 

I can totally relate to this description and experience. I think the term "not seeing race/being colorblind" is a bit confusing in a literal sense, even if not disingenously used, because it sounds like its literally talking about not noticing the traits when it's often meant about not treating the traits as deep meaningful aspects of human being or having (insert stereotypes, associations, connotations) triggered by observing said traits, if used positively/non-pejoratively. Or if used negatively/pejoratively these days (when talking about "colorblindness" being covertly actually "racist"), it's about denial of having said (insert stereotypes, associations, connotations) triggered by observing said traits, but pretending otherwise. 

When I was young, I too noticed the physical variability of people but did not see the social categories that came bundled with it (I still remember as a kid literally describing people by skin tone or eye color, like "he's darker than me in skin" or "her hair's curlier than his" if asked, but not having learned the social stereotypes as in I would never have associated that curly-haired dark skinned people listen to one type of music that light-skinned, straight-haired ones don't). I also never really connected culture with physical appearance/ancestry in a way that people who care a lot about cultural authenticity/appropriation today do (for instance, my priors were that anyone could speak any language, learn any skill, eat any food etc. so I never picked up why people acted surprised for instance when say a black person spoke with a Scottish accent, or say a white person ate Chinese food more often than his Asian neighbor, until later in my life).

This also changed for me (in my early to mid teens, rather than late teens as you mentioned for your case). I would indeed be interested in your mention of this sort of thing having "changed in a bad way". I also don't recall the exact details, but the "loss of colorblindness/lack of racial consciousness" for me seemed to grow out of being gradually more and more aware and socially conscious about what others around me thought and judged/stereotyped about others. I learned to pick up said stereotypes, perhaps becoming more socially savvy and accultured to normal adult life (I also didn't like that and in hindsight would have liked the, perhaps, naively blissful "unaware of racial stereotypes" phase, but I realize it wouldn't last). 

I suppose that's why people disdain  teaching"colorblindness"... trying to make naivity about social categories extend for as long as possible isn't going to last if these social categories are treated as super significant all around you, better to learn them quickly and counter the ways these social categories impact people negatively (still, I feel some part of me longs for the idealized "not noticing race as significant" phase, and hope that even if "colorblindess" is negative in that solving race-related problems involve noticing social categories and putting super strong emphasis on them, I hope that's instrumental and in some ways, is meant to lead to a world where we do get into a closer-to "colorblind" end state in the previously thought of as positive way, rather than the "fake" colorblindness of not noticing racial problems). 

I would indeed be interested in your mention of this sort of thing having "changed in a bad way".

Well, in my case it came due to robbery. Until my late teens / early adulthood I was robbed four times, which wasn't uncommon in the region of Brazil I lived at the time (crime rates have diminished a lot in the intervening decades). From those, three were by black thieves, blacks being a very discriminated-against group here, even if not as much as in the US. The third time has caused in me what I suppose I could describe as a "micro-PTSD", because from that day my System 1 began making me acutely aware, in a fight-or-flight manner, of the presence of unknown black people around me, something that didn't happen before.

This is extremely annoying, to say the least. No matter how much I want to turn off this trigger, it remains "there", unconsciously activating whenever I'm distracted from actively suppressing it at the System 2 level. That said, over time I've managed to learn to suppress it very quickly, but I always worry on occasion it may be not be quick enough, that the person at whom it triggered will notice that split-second spark of irrational fear in my eyes before I can consciously force it off.

On the not quite bright side, gaining this trigger made me understand how racial biases develop and perpetuate. But I still would have very much preferred to never have gained it to begin with.

Meta: Someone strong downvoted alexgieg's comment. I'm curious why. I read his comment as a costly contribution of hard observational data.

This seems pretty tough because humans easily form associations with negative events, relative to positive events (for instance, refusal to visit a place ever again that they were robbed in, or eat a food that made them terribly sick, even if later on they intellectually realize it was a chance thing). 

I wonder if more positive encounters would help gradually change the bias, also for your own well-being (for example, having experiences where you were helped by, or have friendly relations with people who happen to be black, and overall being further exposed to that variability in all traits good and bad existing across humanity regardless of race).

But then again, not having been through the same situation (and not knowing if I would develop the same response, or if most people in general would, of having feelings of a certain way towards a group because of a given number of negative encounters), I'll refrain from too much theoretical postulating.

I wonder if more positive encounters would help gradually change the bias, also for your own well-being (...)

Ah! I have plenty of extremely positive experiences with black people, from black friends, to coworkers, to acquaintances, to (awesome!) teachers, to college friends. For me, people are all individuals, no exception, and I cannot think in terms of groups or collectivities even if I tried forcing myself to do so. As such, I have always been extremely careful not to allow this irrational trigger to affect anything real, and this is why I described this quirk as "extremely annoying". It'd be an easy but deeply flawed pseudo-solution to keep the problem at bay by distancing myself from situations that trigger it, but I refuse to do that.

If it helps to visualize it, imagine walking around and suddenly noticing a tiger looking at you growling at their signature 18Hz, or a snake rising their head. Your body would react in a split instant, much faster than your conscious mind registers it, by pumping you with adrenaline in order to increase to the max your chances of survival. That, more or less, is what happens, so the most I can do, and this I make myself do all the time, is to forcefully shut the adrenaline pump down once it opens, and carry on as if it hadn't opened up. The mechanism by which it opens, though, that one is beyond my conscious control, and while familiarity reduces its triggering, it unfortunately doesn't fully eliminate it.

Which is why I linked it to PTSD. When a person suffers a trauma and develops PTSD, their brain physically rewires as a defense mechanism. Barring some very experimental psychotropic treatments being currently researched, this physical rewiring cannot be reversed. It can at most be eased, but fully reversed, not yet, no.

The fraction of LW readers who are non-cisgender is much more than 1/20,000. Respondents to the 2020 SSC survey were 94.5% cisgender, 2.5% transgender, 3% other.

Thanks, that's very nice to know!

I'm involved in subcultures with even higher proportion of transgendered people, being relatively fluid myself, so it's always nice to find other contexts in which transgendered individuals have a higher representativeness than they have in the general population.

Which subcultures are these? It's okay if you don't want to answer.

Which subcultures are these?

The furry fandom and the otherkin community here in Brazil.

It's okay if you don't want to answer.

Nah, I'm an open book. I make a point of not keeping secrets unless absolutely necessary. There's no risk in doxing if you yourself provide the doxa beforehand. ;-)

A study I read years ago showed that about 1 in 20,000 newborns are transgendered. 

I'm not sure what it means for a newborn to be transgendered. Transgender in the discourse that exists at the moment is about self-identification and a newborn likely self-identifies as neither male nor female because those are concepts that are learned later. 

Maybe you read about a number for intersex children and confuse that with transgender? In the US roughly 1/300 identify as transgender and in the rationality community maybe 1/30.

This is a sensistive topic where if you join a discussion you shouldn't bent definitions of words but be careful about getting things right.

I'm not sure what it means for a newborn to be transgendered.

Over the last two to three decades many clinical studies have been developed scanning the brains of transgendered individuals. Brain regions have been identified that mark brains as clearly masculine, feminine, or somewhere in between, and transgendered individuals' brains show the properties of the brains typical of the other sex, meaning trans women have structurally female brains in male bodies, and trans men have structurally male brain in female bodies. You can find a fairly comprehensive list of papers on this at the Causes of Transexuality Wikipedia article. Additionally, gender dysphoria is characterized, as I see it, by a clear mismatch between body shape and the homunculus, which further points to transgenderism being a neurological fact.

The 1:20,000 factor comes from the prevalence of gender dysphoria in adults, that is, from this brain/body mismatch. This paper refers to different studies and their ranges, some finding a prevalence as low as 1:100,000, others one as high as 1:10,000:

  • Kenneth J. Zucker & Anne A. Lawrence (2009) Epidemiology of Gender Identity Disorder: Recommendations for the Standards of Care of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, International Journal of Transgenderism, 11:1, 8-18, DOI: 10.1080/15532730902799946

In the US roughly 1/300 identify as transgender and in the rationality community maybe 1/30.

I'm not aware of these numbers, but it wouldn't surprise me if there's a conceptual confusion between being transgender in the strict, biological brain vs. body sense, and being gender non-conformant. In my case, I'm behaviorally gender non-conformant, having a very high number of stereotypically female traits (I've been described by people as "very androgynous", with one saying I was "the most androgynous person" they've ever met), but in terms of my brain-body matching I'm clearly cis male, experiencing no gender dysphoria of any sort. Therefore, I don't consider myself transgendered, although, yes, I can see how there might be a use case in making the word encompass both strict biological transgenderism and gender non-conformance.

I want to acknowledge that this is an interesting subject and that your comment is well-written. You are obviously well-researched in this field. You approach the subject openmindedly while also drawing from personal experience.

but outside of these exceptional cases of misassignment, using these expressions gives the impression the assignation is incorrectly made way more often than it in fact is.

 

I see what you mean, but perhaps to be charitable (if not pedantic), I feel like the term "assigned" doesn't necessarily tell you about accuracy, reliability (or perhaps goodness) of an assignment. For example, if I hear someone say "the policy-maker assigned a high economic value to X" or "the scientist assigned a high probability to the chance of a drought", I wouldn't think absent more info, that it was likely correct or incorrect, just that someone was reporting someone else's judgement. 

"I don't see people in terms of race"

You are the only person on LessWrong who wrote a post using that phrase. 

Google currently gives me: No results found for site:lesswrong.com "I don't see people in terms of race".

I haven't heard any rationalist say it. If you don't like it, I think you should think about why you want to make the phrase part of the discourse by using it in a post. 

It is matter-of-course for such a homogeneous group to say…uninformed things…about non-white non-Western ciswomen.

It's unclear to me why you would make such an accusation without bringing any examples of what uninformed things about non-white non-Western ciswomen are supposedly said on LessWrong.

"The rationalist community" =/= LessWrong. The set of things people might say in casual conversation is very different from the set of things those same people would post publicly on the internet.

Sure, but this is a pretty weak chain of evidence.

The relevant part of the post (as it is currently):

It frustrates me when people say "I don't see people in terms of race". I empathize with where they're coming from. Talking about race isn't any fun when you belong to the ethnic majority. Racial pride slips easily into prejudice. It is risky even to tell jokes.

The "people" saying (or, presumably, writing) the phrase in question aren't obviously even members of "the rationalist community".

"The rationalist community" is itself an extremely nebulous category.

And this post is ostensibly about '(harmful) generalizations of (individual) people based on their group membership', so it seems sad that the post itself seems to be engaging in that same kind of behavior. (And the post title seems even more inflammatory, given that it starts with "imperialism"!)

I spoke both about what I heard in person (and I have hung out with a lot of rationalists in the last 7 years) and online. 

At the same time someone saying "I don't see race" seem to me from a rationality perspective like someone saying "I don't suffer from hindsight bias". The statement is not only problematic because it's racist but also because it ignores the idea's from Kahneman about how human cognition works. 

From a rationalist who actually is racist I would expect much more likely to hear about stereotyp accuracy then hearing "I don't see race". 

It sounds like we are on similar pages. I am unaware of any rationalists engaging in old-school blatant racism[1] (what you call stereotype accuracy). The problem isn't rationalists saying "s suck". It's the premature transhumanist idea that "whether you are an doesn't matter". A world without racism would be nice. But we live in a world with racism. Therefore pretending race doesn't matter exacerbates racial inequity and brings us further away from actually bringing about a transhumanist utopia.

I spoke both about what I heard in person (and I have hung out with a lot of rationalists in the last 7 years) and online.

I haven't run into this particular type of bigotry in my own meatspace rationalist social circle. Meatspace rationalist communities are geographically-distributed. I expect there is a diversity of in the degree of different circles' cultural sensitivity. I hope the letter referred to an exceptionally bad circle[2] and that most of our community is better than this sort of thing.


  1. I'm not saying old-school racism doesn't happen in the rationalist community. Every community large enough has bad eggs. But that is not the topic of my post. ↩︎

  2. Sampling bias predicts that the author of the original letter is more likely to have come from a rationalist circle at the awful end of our distribution. ↩︎

"I don't see race" is a fairly unsophisticated position. Rationalists usually hold positions that are much more sophisticated then that. If you want to make a good critique of the rationalist community it would make a lot more sense to argue against positions that people actually hold. If you are engaging in good faith then it makes sense to make that argument with the minimum amount of words and phrases that are politically charged because that allows the debate to happen more freely. 

It's the premature transhumanist idea that "whether you are an  doesn't matter". 

While that idea does exist out in the world, it seems like one that's 2-3 decades old and far from the rationalist discourse. The whole field of behavioral economics on which the early rationalist community drew heavily rests on humans being not just idealized rational agents. Books like Pinker's The Blank Slate are about human nature mattering and that it's denail is bad. 

It's the premature transhumanist idea that "whether you are an  doesn't matter". A world without racism would be nice. But we live in a world with racism. Therefore pretending race doesn't matter exacerbates racial inequity and brings us further away from actually bringing about a transhumanist utopia.

To be charitable, in many types of human conversation, statements that sound like mere descriptions of people or society ("this is not who we are as a nation", "adults don't act like children", "in life, friends are more important than money") are frequently shorthand for normative ones ("I think our nation shouldn't act that way", "I think adults shouldn't act the way I perceive is childish", "people should value friendship in their lives much beyond mere economic transaction"), to the point where even people with the best of intentions don't realize they're conflating the usages. I think rationalists generally try to avoid this but even so it's still possible to slip up and intend a normative statement when you use a descriptive one.

I would distinguish between someone saying "x doesn't matter" as a sincere belief that  "x shouldn't matter" vs. "x doesn't matter" as a cop-out or denial, even cover-up of situations where x mattering is unsavory to them and they wish to pretend things are hunky-dory.

I feel like the latter tarnished the reputation of the former.

I don't know if this is the best analogy, but thinking on the fly, I can imagine someone saying "your personal happiness is more important than what people think" to justify being a jerk (after all, who cares what others think if I do something to piss them off) or "material things in life are overrated, the best things in life are free" as justification to not help the poor or solve inequality (after all, material things won't make them happier, look the poor can learn to be satisfied living with what they have already have) all the while benefitting from material prosperity itself. That doesn't mean the principles themselves don't have any (or some reasonable) amount of goodness, even if people use them for nasty justifications.

It's unclear to me why you would make such an accusation without bringing any examples of what uninformed things about non-white non-Western ciswomen are supposedly said on LessWrong.

The phrase "I don't see people in terms of race" is such an example. I have not detected racial insensitivity to that degree on Less Wrong. (Whether or not less intensive racial insensitivity exists on Less Wrong is beyond the scope of this discussion.)

Google currently gives me: No results found for site:lesswrong.com "I don't see people in terms of race".

I haven't heard any rationalist say it

This is true. I hope the original letter was written by someone from an exceptionally awful sub-community which is not representative of most of us.

I hope the original letter was written by someone from an exceptionally awful sub-community which is not representative of most of us.

This sounds to me like you are trying to avoid taking responsibility for a letter that you actually sign with your name. It might very well that someone writes you about a community who has nothing to do with the rationalist community and mistakenly labels them as such. 

To the extend that there's actually a problem that should be addressed it would be useful to be specific about which supposed sub-community the problem is about (as that would allow us to fix the problem in the sub-community) and I see no good reason to level the charge at the general rationality community.

It's unclear to me why you would make such an accusation without bringing any examples of what uninformed things about non-white non-Western ciswomen are supposedly said on LessWrong.

 

The phrase "I don't see people in terms of race" is such an example. 

 

I don't have any stats on this, but while I wouldn't be surprised that groups considered the default say this (e.g. white, western males in the west), this seems less asymmetrical in principle in some other situations (e.g. I could see in principle a non-western non-white person being the majority in their majority non-western non-white country saying something similar if they've only lived with people of one so-called "race", under popular definitions, in their life).

When you mentioned "uninformed things about non-white non-Western ciswomen", my imagination ran towards a group of homogenous (white, western male) people who sit around and bring up "hey, I heard group X (of non-white, non-western, ciswomen) have these (insert imagined bizarre rituals and habits), I heard from (source)" "Yeah, I heard that too (from other source)", "My mom told me (insert same stereotype) is true when I was 5" or something.

Then, a newcomer (or two, or three or a bunch) from group X joins in the conversation and say "no, I (or we all) have firsthand knowledge of growing up in X society, and that is totally unlike what you described. There is no bizarre ritual like that, or perhaps it's a garbled description of something real that's exaggerated." Had the newcomers not joined, the old-timers would not have been able to shed their misconception and update their knowledge (in the charitable case that it was a genuine example of misinformation and not malicious hatred of outgroup, though with conflict theory that's always possible still).

This is an excellent critique, thank you for writing and posting this.

Anecdotally, I've noticed a slow but growing shift away from reactionary anti-traditionalism (I don't know what to call that phenomenon other than that) on LessWrong, though I wouldn't say we're in a great place as a community regarding that yet either. The Sequences were thoroughly saturated with anti-traditional often reactionary sentiments, usually directed at Christianity but really no tradition seemed safe from that ire. And for good reason at the time I think, what with New Atheism dominating online discourse then and honestly the niceness + novelty of encountering a large-ish group of people who weren't religious: this community has definitely served as a refuge for those from religious and/or conservative upbringings such as myself.

You are spot on about the dangers of extracting useful techniques, ideas, and so on from foreign-to-the-group traditions and cultures and stripping said traditions and cultural practices from what is extracted: as others have written, this can often lead to bad things that the extracting culture may not know how to even pinpoint or handle. Implicitly, I believe your post says that such extraction is disrespectful, not courteous, and I agree. I appreciate your recommendation awhile back that I read Zen Flesh Zen Bones and Three Pillars of Zen to obtain a deeper understanding of Zen Buddism via more traditional teachings rather than secular teachings...this has been helpful to me instrumentally plus I've enjoyed learning the history and cultural background to that practice, and feel that knowing that background also makes my practising better, richer, fuller, etc.

I feel similarly about keeping one's identity small (and really like this post on the subject), and would ask those who feel that their identity is tiny to really try and notice what they are not noticing about their own identity and lived experiences. This question is purposefully vague and not easy to throw intellect at. Anyway. I at one point tried to keep my identity small, but that was harmful to me because doing so caused me to sometimes forget who I am and what I care about, partially, but mostly because I was constraining myself and in so doing forced myself to be not who I am: I'm a human, a trans woman, a rationalist when I try, a lover, a friend, a fighter, and so much more.

Just as it is good to know what language game you are participating in when speaking of X idea, it is similarly good to know the lineage, baggage, history, tradition, culture, and so on of a technique, practice, move, etc. when crafting the art of rationality and improvement. If some technique works and has been well curated then you can gain benefit from practising it without knowing any of such context, but you can never become a chef, an independent thinker, a rationalist without knowing that context.

For example, mindfulness meditation has been secularized and is being taught to many students with the religious framework removed. This is a good thing insofar as it produces calmer kids who can focus better.

But when you throw out the traditional framework it's easy to forget that meditative techniques were designed to produce mystical experiences. I experience energy surges and muscle spasms when I meditate. (This is perfectly normal if you're doing it right.) Meditation creates states of mind so powerful people used to think they were in the presence of God. I feel my sanity untangling while I stare into a Lovecraftian abyss. (Once again, this is perfectly normal if you're doing it right.) Secular mindfulness programs often throw out the safeguards protecting practitioners from Yog-Sothoth.

The issue is not secularization. It's reducing meditation into what Jon Kabat-Zinn could fit into a standardized 2-month course. 

Danis Bois and the community around him manage to teach secularized meditation quite fine while keeping all the spirtiual depth. 

The phrase keep your identity small is a good thing to tell yourself when your identity is trivial and superficial. It is a harmful, insensitive thing to tell a discriminated-against minority when you are a member of the majority.

 

I think the ideal would be the majority (or the powerful, capable of doing the discriminating) keeps their identity small AND the minority (or the less powerful, the target of the discriminating) keeps their identity small (without said discrimination, there then would be lowered need for defensive identity-forming). Thus, making people super individualistic.

After all in some sense, it's because the majority doesn't keep their identity small but enlarges it to be the normative "norm" that the minority suffers. It's those who don't realize they're not keeping their identity small at all (seeing oneself as default is not humility or keeping one's identity small). If the minority's traits were seen as just as neutral (neither more good or more bad than the majority's) just as the majority's traits were neutral, there wouldn't be a problem with either one's identity being kept small or large.

But absent that, it's riskier for groups targeted based on some identity to keep their identity small I agree. I think a lot of the problem with the whole identity discourse is people fail to distinguish between voluntary vs. involuntary identities (glossing over problems with wording like "self-identify as"). Voluntary identities you can keep large or small based on your own will. Involuntary ones forced upon you force you to be reactive.
 

Especially when you are a formal academic context!

Is this statement complete?

Grammatically, maybe not? I meant that saying "race doesn't matter" is especially absurd thing to say in an academic context when academic institutions have race quotas.

I got your meaning the first time around, but:

1. If someone studied English, they might have more technical knowledge concerning it.

2. I also considered a few more complicated interpretations. Like 'if academics don't talk about a thing, then it doesn't get talked about, ' or 'if you are an academic you are academia'.