“Gated Communities”

This morning (afternoon over there!) I watched Kate Donovan’s presentation “Recruitment and Retention on Hard Mode” at Effective Altruism Global in Oxford. Her thesis was that diverse movements work better, and she shared many practical techniques to attract and keep people while avoiding common pitfalls that could do the opposite. It was great!

One anecdote she shared that really grabbed me was her reference to “Elevatorgate”. She doesn’t go into needless detail, and I won’t either, but this was an incident within the atheism, skepticism, and secular movements that became an ongoing albatross around their necks.

To be clear, this is not to say that people who are harassed or have problems in a community should be silent. This is not discouragement from speaking out about problems, especially since Donovan’s talk is trying to confront those very issues pre-emptively. It’s meant as a warning that the efficiency of a movement can be hindered, and the message can be continually caveated, by an incident that symbolizes hostility towards certain groups of people.

I skip to that part of her talk in the video below, though I’d encourage readers to watch the whole thing, too, if that’s of interest!

During the day I was pondering about this issue of the damage a community or movement can face when suffering from a controversy. Often these incidents are given the suffix “-gate”, like the original Watergate, GamerGate, DeflateGate, or like in this amusingly comprehensive Wikipedia list. (We have been very “-gate” happy in the past two years.)

That got me thinking about the phrase “gated communities“. Normally this brings to mind upper-middle- or upper-class living with a secure perimeter. But perhaps this phrase could be used to describe the state a movement or community enters when it becomes plagued with controversy.

The effect is similar. A “-gated” community is harder to get into, not because of iron bars, but because of the warning signals an incident or controversy can create. In Elevatorgate, it was about whether women were welcome in the secular/skeptic community. In GamerGate, it was whether the video gaming community could expand beyond its predominantly white male culture and media.

Perhaps this can be a useful term to refer to this phenomenon. It’s helpful to have language to package and describe more complex ideas, and I find this one to be intuitive.

I worry that the phrase could be used to shame or pressure people to not speak out about problems in their communities (for fear of “creating” the state, when in fact they’d more accurately be “reporting”), but the creation of this shortcut wouldn’t create the problem. People who call out problematic or harmful behavior in a community are already shouted down that they’re just causing problems themselves, which is pretty gross.

Sure, there can be a conversation about whether it’s better to try to resolve a problem privately or publicly, maybe avoiding a full-blown “-gate”. But the uninvolved shouldn’t have much to say on whether an incident of sexism or racism is “worthy” of public outrage. In fact, the opposite should happen: if an underrepresented group has something to say, everyone else’s job should be to listen.

The past week has featured lots of discussion on similar topics, like Matthew Facciani’s “Atheism has a sexism problem and we all need to help fix it” and my previous post “Including Social Justice in Skepticism” if you want more to think about!

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