Are traditional social movements overlooked in Effective Altruism?

There’s a lot of social movements against marginalization going on in the US today: Black Lives Matter, various feminisms, LGBTQ movements, etc.. I’ve seen some discussions among EAs about the marginal benefit of participating in some of these movements, and I’ve noticed that most of these discussions revolve around societal outputs of participation – what is the marginal societal benefit of participating, are they effective, what could we do to help, is it ‘worth’ my time, etc. – but there’s very little talk about how EAs themselves can benefit from participating.

Overall, I think that there’s something gained through participating in and learning from traditional social movements that cannot be learned elsewhere. In particular, I think it can help with the EA movements’ diversity issues, while simultaneously improving the effectiveness of Effective Altruists themselves. The EA movement consists overwhelmingly of white, educated, males with certain ideological predilections (e.g. utilitarianism). What if the diversity issue is partially caused by a collective tone-deafness to problems that cannot be solved by EA, such as the problems of oppression? Utilitarian ethics and such can tell us that everyone is equal, but systems of oppression are, by definition, complex social systems, and the main tools used by EA are simply inadequate to address oppression, and we’re putting ourselves in a pretty awkward position by ignoring other toolsets and other activists.

So, what do we do? My suggestion is that more EAs participate in and learn from other activists who are specifically fighting against systems of oppression. The difficult part is taking a back seat – try to simply listen and learn, and draw as little attention to yourself as possible. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of EAs are very trigger happy to help and apply their knowledge to problems, but traditional social movements are complex – any ‘simple’ solutions you come up with using the tools you bring to the table (e.g. thinking on the margin, cost analysis, philosophy, etc.) are most likely going to be completely incorrect. You should not participate in order to ‘fix’ the social movement, you should participate to ‘fix’ yourself and your ways of thinking.

If you want simple low-energy entry points, maybe just keep an open mind and mill around on some pop-activists websites, like Everyday Feminism, Laci Green, or Feministing, or whatever. Maybe ask friends in these movements for learning materials. Or maybe read some seminal texts on system of oppression, like by Audre Lourde, Frantz Fanon, Vijay Prashad, Paulo Freire, or newer more accessible texts like by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (also, watch her TED talks!), Roxane Gay, or Ta-Nehisi Coates. At the end of the day, just make an active effort to learn and grow – the benefits may be greater than you’d think.

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