You can never be universally inclusive

by Kaj_Sotalakajsotala.fi3 min read14th Oct 20179 comments

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A discussion about the article “We Don’t Do That Here” (h/t siderea) raised the question about the tension between having inclusive social norms on the one hand, and restricting some behaviors on the other hand.

At least, that was the way the discussion was initially framed. The thing is, inclusivity is a bit of a bad term, since you can never really be universally inclusive. Accepting some behaviors is going to attract people who like engaging in those behaviors while repelling people who don’t like those behaviors; and vice versa for disallowing them.

Of course, you can still create spaces that are more inclusive than others, in being comfortable to a broader spectrum of people. But the way you do that, is by disallowing behaviors that would, if allowed, repel more people that the act of disallowing them does.

If you use your social power to shut up people who would otherwise be loudly racist and homophobic and who then leave because they don’t want to be in a place where those kinds of behaviors aren’t allowed, then that would fit the common definition of “inclusive space” pretty well.

That said, the “excluding racists and homophobes” thing may make it sound like you’re only excluding “bad” people, which isn’t the case either. Every set of rules (including having no rules in the first place) is going to repel some completely decent people.

Like, maybe you decide to try to make a space more inclusive by having a rule like “no discussing religion or politics”. This may make the space more inclusive towards people of all kinds of religions and political backgrounds, since there is less of a risk of anyone feeling unwelcome when everyone else turns out to disagree with their beliefs.

But at the same time, you are making the space less inclusive towards people who are perfectly reasonable and respectful people, but who would like to discuss religion or politics. As well as to people who aren’t so good at self-regulation and will feel uncomfortable about having to keep a constant eye on themselves to avoid saying the wrong things.

And maybe these people would feel more comfortable at a different event with different rules, which was more inclusive towards them. Which is fine. Competing access needs:

Competing access needs is the idea that some people, in order to be able to participate in a community, need one thing, and other people need a conflicting thing, and instead of figuring out which need is ‘real’ we have to acknowledge that we can’t accommodate all valid needs. I originally encountered it in disability community conversations: for example, one person might need a space where they can verbally stim, and another person might need a space where there’s never multiple people talking at once. Both of these are valid, but you can’t accommodate them both in the same space.

I wrote a while ago that I think this concept extends to a lot of activist/social justice community challenges and a lot of the difficulty of designing good messages. For example, body positivity: some people need to hear “love your body! no matter who you are you are soooo sexy” and some people really hate being told that they’re ‘sexy’. Or some gay people might need a space where it’s against the rules to ask “well, what if it actually is morally wrong to be gay?” but other gay people (like me of a few years ago) might need a space where they can ask that so there can be a serious discussion and they can become convinced that they’re okay.

Every set of rules is going to be bad for someone, so a better question than “how to make this space inclusive” is “who do we want to make this space inclusive towards”. You’re always going to exclude some people who aren’t jerks or bad people, but would just prefer a different set of rules. And you just have to accept that.

See also: The Unit of Caring on Safe Spaces and Competing Access Needs.

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The follow-up question I have to that is, does saying "We don't do that here," work to attract those sorts of people? I read the linked essay, and I realized that "We don't do that here," is very similar to a semantic stop sign, and that a valid response is to ask, "Well, why not?"

The linked essay picks some easy examples - racism, homophobia, off-color jokes - where most people know that such behavior isn't appropriate in all contexts. And in those cases, I agree, simply saying "We don't do that here," is an appropriate response that ends the conversation without further argumentation.

But in the case of, say, discussing religion, or social justice, would it work as well? I'm inclined to say no. Simply saying, "We don't do that here," and then repeating variants of that phrase will lead to the question, "Well, why don't you do that here?" At that point you're back to having the debate on who gets to set the rules of the venue, and whether you've interpreted those rules correctly.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that eventually you're going to have to have the debate on legitimacy. Saying, "We don't do that here," is a sidestep that works some of the time, but eventually someone will ask, "Who's 'we' and why do you get to speak for them?"

Simply saying, "We don't do that here," and then repeating variants of that phrase will lead to the question, "Well, why don't you do that here?"

That question is easily answered: "We just don't. Take it or leave it."

In no way are the existing members of a group obligated to justify their group's internal practices to a newcomer (or prospective newcomer). They may decide to justify themselves, of course, should they wish to; but "that's just the way it is" is a perfectly legitimate answer. Someone who doesn't like it, may decide not to join. That's not a bug, it's a feature.

Certainly no debate is required.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that eventually you're going to have to have the debate on legitimacy. Saying, "We don't do that here," is a sidestep that works some of the time, but eventually someone will ask, "Who's 'we' and why do you get to speak for them?"

You're equivocating, I think; or perhaps missing a distinction.

If a newcomer (or prospective newcomer) is told "we don't do that here", they don't get to ask questions like "well why not" or "who's 'we'"; they either accept that such things aren't done in that place, or they're out.

If an existing member asks such questions, that's different; but the "we don't do that here" trick was never meant to deal with such cases. It's for dealing with the entry of new people who are not yet familiar with (and thus have not yet had a chance to consent to) the group's norms, not for resolving debates between members about what the group norms should be.

You seem to be obliquely referencing ideological Turing tests as a discriminator (no criticizing norms until you can pass the local ITT), so I thought I'd put this comment here to link anyone who's curious.

That's… actually not what I was referencing, no. That connection didn't occur to me when I wrote my comment, and I don't even think I endorse your interpretation on reflection.

Interesting. I still claim that's what emerges from the last two paragraphs of your comment, regardless of your disagreement, so maybe there's some clarification you can offer me? The "that's different" that you're gesturing at between the newcomer and the existing member seems to me to be that the existing member is now familiar enough with the norms to actually be able to question them intelligently.

My only other hypothesis is that it's something about having contributed enough to be net positive, which newcomers rarely have, but that seems orthogonal to truth about which norms are good (and thus just a heuristic rather than an epistemically defensible stance).

My only other hypothesis is that it's something about having contributed enough to be net positive, which newcomers rarely have, but that seems orthogonal to truth about which norms are good (and thus just a heuristic rather than an epistemically defensible stance).

It may or may not be (I don't take any position on this, for now) orthogonal to the truth about which norms are good, but it sure is not orthogonal to someone's right to question which norms are good! ("Right", here, encompassing "expectation that their questions will be taken seriously, and responded to, instead of being ignored or rebuffed".)

The "that's different" that you're gesturing at between the newcomer and the existing member seems to me to be that the existing member is now familiar enough with the norms to actually be able to question them intelligently.

Not at all! Not at all, and indeed this really has nothing whatever to do with the critical issue, which is simply whether someone is or is not a member of the group.

What determines membership, you ask? Why, nothing more than the group's acceptance.

Now, it's entirely possible (and certainly commonplace) that a group's criteria for accepting someone as a member includes things like "how well does this person understand our norms", and "how much has this person contributed to our purpose and efforts", and other things along such lines. But those are criteria for acceptance; they do not constitute acceptance. These criteria are rarely sufficient, and they need not even be necessary.

Ultimately, the disconnect is this: both of your interpretations involve standards that a prospective member may meet merely through their own efforts. Under such a view, there are Rules, there are Criteria, and once you've followed the rules and met the criteria—which, again, depend only on what you do—you are automatically In. And once you're In, you can say "well, as an X, I now put to all you other Xes the question of how we, Xes, should do things; and perhaps we should do things differently…"

And I am saying: no, the key element is whether the group has decided that yes, you are one of us. That judgment is the heart of the matter. Once the group has judged that you should be accepted, once they have decided that you are now In—well, now you have been granted the right to question the norms. Until then, your challenge to the prevailing norms imposes no obligation on the group's members to answer it.

Related to this, of course, are notions such as provisional membership ("you're In—temporarily; by your actions henceforth we will judge you, and decide, at the close of the appointed period, whether you're to be In permanently"), seniority/veteranhood ("the longer someone has been one of us, and/or the more they have contributed to our purpose, the more weight their word carries"), honorary membership ("you're not one of us, and perhaps you have no wish to be or never can be, and that is fine; nonetheless we judge that you understand us well enough, or you have done enough for us, or both, that we take your comments on our norms, and your challenges to us, as seriously as we would the comments and challenges of a member"), etc.

+1 for responding to a request for more models with really thorough and clear models. Thanks.

Addendum to my comment:

When you make human (collective) judgment the essential criterion for group membership (or for anything else), the result is that the objective-criteria-in-practice can be much more complicated than they could be otherwise (complicated as in "difficult to compactly specify beforehand", and also as in "difficult to precisely/losslessly characterize afterward").

Now, we are all familiar with the myriad ways in which this fact may be used for evil, or can have unfortunate results even with the best of intentions; and much has been written about this. But it is rather less frequently acknowledged that this dynamic may also be used for good; which is unfortunate, because it seems to me that this is a tool which no community-builder's toolbox ought to be without.

To relate this back to the parent comment, consider a criterion of group membership roughly along these lines:

"One should not be made a member who, if admitted, is likely to question, and attempt to change, the group's norms."

Now, this is (at least in principle) entirely orthogonal to whether someone understands a group's norms, whether someone has contributed to the group, etc. Someone may meet those criteria, and yet fail to meet this one. One can imagine many similar criteria!

Note that this criterion, and many others like it, have this quality: that speaking them aloud, creating public knowledge of them, can result in loss of status for the group. The group is therefore better off if this criterion is not publicized; this is superior both to the case where the criterion is present and known publicly, and to the case where it's absent. But having hidden membership criteria in addition to publicly known ones is also deleterious (for various reasons, most of them obvious); and so the best case seems to be the one where all criteria are hidden. But being publicly known to have specified-but-secret membership criteria is also dangerous for status (and other) reasons, so the solution (discovered independently, with some regularity, by innumerable groups in human history) is to hide all objective membership criteria behind the veil of subjective collective judgment. (And this, too, has its problems; no one one said community-building would be easy…)

I think it is good to discuss everything, but it is bad to discuss everything all the time. So the proper exchange could go like this: "We don't do that here." "Can you explain to me why? Because I think it is actually a bad rule to have." "Sure, we can schedule a debate on this topic the next Thursday. However, until then, we don't do that here."

And of course we are not debating the same topic every Thursday. The openness to debate everything should not be easily abused by a person who insists on doing X, and will not stop starting new meta debates about the utility of X, until their opponents get tired. At some point people need to be able to accept a clear "No". Maybe not forever, but at least for a few months -- especially when the meta debate about the utility of X is actually a thinly disguised debate about X (for example when one uses political arguments to explain why "politics is a mindkiller" is actually a bad rule for a rationalist website because it benefits the evil outgroup).