Why I stopped identifying as a rationalist

I’ve told this story to a few people in person, but I wanted to write it out because honestly I just wanted to challenge myself to say something that many people I know may disagree with.

Some background on how I got into rationality and my experience being a rationalist: Michael introduced me to LessWrong and Slate Star Codex when we “met” in October 2014. I became more interested in rationality because I wasn’t happy with myself and was getting more into self improvement around this time (during my freshman year). I attended a CFAR workshop during the summer of 2015 (the summer after freshman year). I became friends with a few rationalists and came to know quite a few others through Facebook, mutual friends, and various other random things (posting on the Princeton class pages looking for other rationalists, attending EAG in 2016).

I don’t want to pretend that I’m a super complicated person or try to construct a narrative that might be more compelling to others -- the one “event” that made me stop identifying as a rationalist was my experience volunteering at a CFAR workshop in March 2017. I hadn’t been really involved in the rationalist community since getting into rationality, but I wanted to become more connected to the community, so one of my goals for my gap year was to volunteer at a CFAR workshop, as a stepping stone into the community.

The general thing I felt that really hurt me during the workshop was how many of the people in the community (mostly the instructors and mentors, maybe some of the participants) seemed to not treat me and others as human beings. I felt that I wasn’t valued or respected in many ways, whereas people who had more obvious things to offer to AI risk/etc. were. I can understand why this is true and why they would treat some people more preferentially, but the fact is that I need a community where I feel valued and respected.

One thing that made me feel really unappreciated was that one of the instructors didn’t know my name after several days, and didn’t provide a reason, apologize, or even make an excuse for not knowing my name. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I felt hurt because I was already feeling debased to an extent as a result of the ops/logistics work I was doing, and it just felt like this person wasn’t even acknowledging let alone appreciating my help. I felt so upset about this that I went to the bathroom and cried after this happened (and after trying to rationalize it to myself for a few moments). I feel like this incident tapped into my insecurities about not being competent. In particular, the fact that I wasn’t perceived as being able to provide skills to further rationalist causes meant to me that I wasn’t even important enough for someone to learn my name. And the fact that I had looked up to this person and it felt like I was just...nothing to them.

Another thing that I remember was some of the mentors (? I think) discussing how to basically win over one of the participants (who they saw as potentially “high value”). Again, it makes sense from their perspective why they would want to do this (which...of course it does), but it just felt inappropriate and honestly just unfair to the other participants. And hearing this helped me put some of my negative experiences from the CFAR workshop I attended (that I initially wrote off because my self confidence was not good) into perspective.

There were probably some other things along these lines that colored my opinion, but these are two that stick out. But I do want to mention that I have some positive memories (and one really positive memory) from the workshop, and I know that not everyone in the rationalist community views people in those kinds of terms, but since volunteering for this workshop, I’ve no longer felt a desire to become a part of the rationalist community.

I think another factor in my mental shift was having just experienced some deep human connections during my time at the Recurse Center (thank you Glen and SJ in particular!) a few months prior, and both strongly preferring that type of interaction and feeling that I could find a community where I could fit in and feel appreciated and respected.


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