Questioning Questions

On Monday I mentioned that one persons’ polite question is another’s attack.  I want to dig into that a bit more.

Here are a few things questions can be:

  • A genuine request for more information.
  • An implicit criticism (“you’re wrong for not doing it this way”)
  • An implicit compliment (“You are so interesting I want to hear you talk more”)
  • An attempt to signal caring or knowledge of a person.
  • An attempt to signal how smart you are.
  • An attempt to stall, derail, or raise the cost of talking about a topic such that the original speaker is unable to make progress on their original point.*
  • Other things I haven’t thought of.

Subcultures vary in how you signal what kind of question yours is, which can lead to really massive culture clash.  Rationalist and EA culture are on the high end of asking questions, and the low end of explicitly signalling respect for the speaker as you ask (because asking is not considered a sign of disrespect), which can lead to problems for people who don’t know that’s what’s happening or don’t realize that this comes with a corresponding freedom to say “This is not fun and I’d like to talk about something else now.”

So one reason people may get mad at you for “just asking questions”, even ones you sincerely meant as requests for information, is that they mistook it for an attack or derail.  The internet really came through for us by labeling this JAQing off.

The second, subtler reason people might get mad at a question is about interpretive labor.  As I explained yesterday, interpretive labor is the work to understand and adjust to another person- anything from the strain to listen to them against high background noise to knowing “come by tomorrow” doesn’t mean anything unless they give a time.  Everyone is doing this any time they are interacting with another human being, but some people do more of it than others.  In general the lower status, more marginalized, or further from a particular group’s default member you are, the more interpretive labor you have to do.

When you ask a question, even a sincerely meant one, you are asking the person to put effort into explaining themselves to you.  That’s interpretive labor (on both your parts, if you’re attempting to learn more about them). Sometimes being asked to invest that labor, and especially being told you’re wrong if you don’t, is really annoying.  It is especially annoying when you are talking about a way being low status/privilege hurts you, and the person demanding you explain is higher status/privilege.

Interpretive labor is one reason people might like to form subgroups from a larger group even when the larger group is absolutely free of racism/sexism/etc.  That is most often women and minorities splitting off from groups made up mostly of men/white people, or where whiteness/maleness is considered the default even though they’re not that much more prevalent.  But male nannies totally deserve a place where they’re not constantly asked “wait, you’re taking care of the kids?” just like business women deserve a place where they’re not constantly being asked how the balance work and kids.

What does this mean for Effective Altruism?  EA has very strong norms in favor of asking questions, and a lot of good comes from it, but that subtly pushes away people who have the least energy for questions.  Energy available for questions is not randomly distributed, so that creates blind spots.  I have some guesses as to how to reduce this, but I don’t think there’s a way to get rid of it while keeping the things that make EA good at what it is.  This is now my reason to donating to certain charities outside of EA.

Possible mitigations:

  • Destigmatize opting out of conversations/arguments.  Especially making it clear to new people they can opt out without stigma.
  • Have meetings on specific issues focus on listening rather than debating.  This is what I would have done with the sexual assault meeting, had it happened.
  • As an individual, consider how much work you’re asking someone to do before asking a question, especially if they already seem emotionally taxed.
  • Push back against JAQing off.  If you figure out how to do this perfectly without collateral damage please tell me because I have no idea.
  • Look for other ways to get information than directly questioning someone who is talking.  The internet is full of things.  You might also ask a friend who can put your question in context, rather than a stranger who knows nothing but that you’re questioning them.
  • On that note: I’m officially volunteering to be your Female Friend That Explains Sexism.  If you have a question but don’t want to make the person who introduced the issue explain it to you, you can ask me.

*For example, this boing boing article is about a science editor calling a black female scientist an “urban whore” for refusing to write for him for free.  The comment thread is 35 pages of “but can you prove that was racist?”, so no one ever got to discuss the massive sexism or entitlement or possible actions to take.  I would not have been noticeably happier with the guy if he’d called her a rural whore, even though that’s less racially coded.