On April 10, 2019, a user posted a response to a Meta question discussing how SO might take action in response to the gender disparity in the programming industry. The post essentially objected to the premise of the question, and it was heavily downvoted.
A few hostile comments were posted on the answer, and Tim Post deleted the whole answer.
The author reposted the answer, with an additional note accusing the moderator of improper behavior for the deletion. This duplicate answer was (rightly) deleted, and Tim left this comment explaining why the first one was deleted:
All links in this section will be visible only to 10k users on Stack Overflow, since the posts are deleted.
Not the Problem
I want to be clear about what I see as a problem here. So first, these are some things that are not problems, in my opinion:
- Heavy downvoting. This is fine. Especially on a Meta post, the community is free to express their disagreement or disapproval of an opinion through voting.
- Deleting the second answer. Deleting a duplicate answer after it has already been deleted is fine. This is standard procedure at SO.
- Temporary suspension. I am giving whoever suspended this user the benefit of the doubt and assuming the suspension was for posting duplicate answers or for some other reason, not for posting the first answer.
The problem is this: deleting an answer explicitly for the ideas it contains, and not for the manner in which those ideas were presented.
Why the Post Didn't Qualify for Deletion
I have ruled out other reasons for deletion. This is my analysis demonstrating this.
What does the post contain?
I need to provide some background about the post itself to demonstrate the other points here.
To begin, the post's poor grammar and word choice in the post suggests that the author's first language is not English. The less than stellar formulation of argument, lack of supporting evidence, and lack of... subtly or finesse also suggests that they may not be familiar with debating these sorts of issues.
I gather that their main claims were:
- SO should not take any action to address the disparity.
- Women's feelings of isolation in the industry are typically not due to how women are treated by men.
- The industry is not fundamentally set up in a way that discourages women from participating (even though some sexist incidents do occur).
- The disparity is due primarily to innate sex differences that lead women to prefer other fields or to be (on average) less suited for the work.
- It's more important for SO to focus on sharing high quality programming advice.
- It's more important to focus on fair treatment than on narrowing the disparity.
- Some women are capable of being excellent developers (Ada Lovelace is mentioned as a famous example from the field.), but most are not interested.
I'd like to emphasize that this particular question is the wrong place to debate these claims. However, noting the content of the post is necessary for arguments I will present shortly.
I'm paraphrasing significantly, but that is because (as I said) the original language was poor. This is my interpretation, and while it is a fairly charitable one, I believe it is essentially the correct one. Furthermore, charitable readings of posts are encouraged by our Code of Conduct and Expected Behavior policies.
The answer was on topic for the question
Even though the answer did not give ways to encourage women to enter the programming field, the answer is a frame challenge. Answers are always free to challenge the underlying assumptions of a question.
Code of Conduct and Expected Behavior
The claims made by this post are, essentially, saying that there are underlying, practical realities stemming from our biology that influence the programming industry's disparities. Many users strongly disagree with this claim (which is fine), and some may even be personally offended by the suggestion. However, claiming that our biology influences our society does not, by itself, violate the Code of Conduct:
- Claiming that biological influences drive the structure of our society is not insulting or belittling. These are not claims that any group is superior or inferior, merely different.
- There is no name calling or personal attack. There is no attack on a group, either, as again, there's no claim of superiority or inferiority.
- Claiming that biology influences society is not bigotry, either. Bigotry is disdain toward and rejection of someone. The idea that this represents some kind of disdain or rejection towards women is betrayed by the author's repeated emphasis that some women are very capable developers and expressing the desire to see more women in the field.
- There is clearly no harassment in this answer. The author is responding to the question.
Nor does it violate the Expected Behavior:
- Despite the problems with the author's presentation of their ideas, it is abundantly clear that they attempted to write them in a way that was as unlikely to offend anyone as possible. There is no disparaging of women, either explicit or implied, and attempting to explain their position (via the answer) is an expression of patience in the form of trying to educate. (This post does not do a good job of educating anyway, but again, that is not a violation that warrants deletion.)
- The post is the author's honest opinion. They are attempting to provide a "better answer." That it did not succeed very well does not mean it violates the policy.
- Signature and self-promotion are irrelevant here.
Whether the claims are true or false, merely stating them does not fundamentally constitute any kind of rudeness. Arriving at the truth of a matter requires stating controversial opinions at times. When the author demonstrates that they are attempting not to offend others, we should be inclined to assume good faith. We can then perform edits and offer suggestions, but there's nothing here justifying deletion.
Tim Post explicitly gave the ideas as the reason
Tim Post's comment explicitly tells us that the reason for deletion is for the ideas it contains and not wishing for them to be presented on SO.
What about the OP's behavior in comments on the posts?
From what I can see, there are three statements in the comments that may be policy violations:
The first is a comment that notes "I just wanted to show that in these times when woman rights are excessively protected...":
In the spirit of CoC's requirement for patience, I interpreted this to be a language issue; as I said, the post's language suggests that English is not the author's native tongue. In context (of that comment and some others), I think this is trying to say that policy that attacks the disparity without regard to whether there are valid, practical reasons behind it are harmful, but it's possible I'm projecting some of my own opinions into that.
If my understanding is correct, though, this would not be a CoC violation.
Second is a self-deprecating sarcastic reply:
Probably because my mother made a logical fallacy when gave birth to me.
This might be a CoC violation for being snarky, but it's an extremely minor one that doesn't attack anyone.
The other examples are on the deleted repost. One is a snarky remark about the deletion indicating that women are promoted by SO, and the other is asserting that SO's deletion is like "a dictatorship."
I wouldn't have a problem removing these remarks, as the last two are arguably CoC violations and comments are transitory anyway. But for the post itself, I don't see how they matter. In the worst case, comments might warrant a comment wipe and a temporary lock on the post. I don't know of any instance in which they would justify a full deletion of the post itself.
But the post is really bad
As I said, the post has some fairly major problems. However, those problems aren't a justification for deletion anyway under normal policy standards; they warranted downvoting. More importantly, none of these were cited as the reason for deletion.
This Treatment is Unwelcoming
The author experienced several Code of Conduct violations
A moderator called the author "narrow minded" for expressing these ideas. This is clearly dismissive and belittling language, rather than an attempt to engage in discussion.
Another user asserted that their claims are "borderline fascist", again clearly insulting language.
These kinds of responses are clearly neither welcoming nor patient, but none of this was addressed by Tim or anyone else.
Deleting an answer on ideological basis violates the Code of Conduct
Oxford dictionary defines bigotry as:
Intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.
Deleting a post because it contradicts the dominant beliefs of SO's employees is clearly an example of intolerance of someone holding different opinions. Ideological prejudice is the worst kind of prejudice. It not only fosters a sense of disdain; it immunizes the prejudiced person against new ideas themselves.
Actively shutting down opposing opinions because you don't like them is anathema to making others feel welcome. It's also in direct opposition to diversity of ideas. Furthermore, no consideration for the author's obvious English difficulty was given, and no requests or suggestions to improve were made. This is not how the Code of Conduct instructs us to treat users who are unfamiliar with SO's norms.
I feel unwelcome
I'm a political conservative, and so my opinions will often conflict with the dominant worldview of SO's staff. I've been walking on egg-shells any time I express a political opinion ever since the "Time to Take a Stand" event. Even though this post is not great, seeing this reason given for deletion of the post makes me even more uncomfortable on SO. When on topic and I feel I can actually add something to the discussion, I try to make excellent content expressing my views, but I don't know when SO might decide my view isn't something SO wants to allow their platform to be presented for. I have constantly felt pressured to leave for years now.
When I first saw the deleted post, I was concerned. I wondered if it was deleted for ideological reasons; I've been expecting it to happen sooner or later since the Code of Conduct release, as I've read about it happening in other communities following the same. I was thinking of posting a question asking about why it was deleted, and then I saw Tim's comment. At first, I was angry, but when I started writing this, I actually got nervous. What if this post itself gets deleted because I repeat some of the post's claims? What if I get suspended over it? I don't know how SO is going to respond to me airing this. The CoC was supposed to be designed to shield people from feeling like that, not used to instill it in people for having different beliefs and wanting to present them for on-topic consideration.
Aren't you making a mountain out of a mole hill?
I don't know, but if it's still a mole hill, I think it's better to have this discussion now before it becomes a mountain. I don't want to see this expanded.
What Do I Hope to Accomplish with This Post?
First and foremost, sunlight. Awareness is important. Major issues like this should be discussed in the open.
Secondly, I want to prevent it from happening again. I hope discussing this event in the open will help dissuade it.
Third, I hope the original post will be undeleted. A comment wipe might be appropriate.
Beyond that, I hope to convince anyone reading to be a little more open minded to ideas they would normally be inclined to malign. Ideas like this are not the enemy. If they're wrong, they can be defeated with the truth if allowed to compete openly. The biggest enemy is tribalism, which is worsened by this kind of ideological filtering.
Isn't Tim Right, Though?
Yes, SO has a legal right to control their platform. However:
- Their policies don't forbid expressing controversial ideas. On the contrary, they have a history of promoting them and encouraging users to discuss them.
- SO brought the social debate to their platform, not users. They have become increasingly active on issues of disparities, and they have brought those discussions to Meta.
- SO is an open forum where its community can discuss topics of SO's choice. Since SO has chosen to bring the diversity debate here, it is unethical to use their power to suppress the diverse ideas its community's members hold.
- SO has a long history of promoting civil disagreement. This example is in stark contrast to that.
The real test of your beliefs is not how you treat people you like and agree with. The real test of your beliefs is in how you respond to people who oppose you. In the past year, you have drastically increased your efforts and demands for courtesy from the users to other users. You have the opportunity to demonstrate your faith in welcomingness. I sincerely hope you'll take it.
It has been asserted that this post is a duplicate of Should we update the "Theory of moderation" blog post?, but it doesn't seem to address content based deletions at all. It is just a discussion about numeric quantity of moderation and whether phrasing in an old blog post should be updated as a result. It does not address the issue at hand at all.
should moderators delete bad answers? was also mentioned, but its answers appear to indicate that content quality or correctness should not be a consideration, which is the opposite of what happened here. So it doesn't appear to contain an answer, either.
Points in comments
If the answer had instead said "blacks rarely have the aptitude for programming", would you be ok with that? I can't see deleted posts on SO, but if it were merely a frame challenge arguing that biology isn't relevant, I expect it would have stayed. Saying that women's feelings of being marginalized aren't because of biology, and then using biology to placate or dismiss, is where I see the problem.
There are lots of things I find objectionable said on Stack Overflow. I try to respond to them on the merits of their point when I can, rather than demand they must not be uttered in any form on this platform. How you feel about something is less important than obtaining an accurate understanding.
"Some women are capable of being excellent developers (Ada Lovelace is mentioned as a famous example from the field.), but most are not interested." This statement alone is so wrong and hurtful it stings. Please don't believe it could be grounds for a meaningsful discussion. It's exactly the thing I as a woman in software development have to fight against again and again. Some women are capable means that most aren't.
Any idea can be "grounds for meaningful discussion," especially controversial or unpleasant ideas. The way they turn into meaningful discussions is someone responds with meaningful discussion. Presenting counterarguments is one way to do so. Meaningful discussion doesn't happen when a party decides not to participate in it, not when a particular claim is made. If you assert that someone else's claims "cannot be grounds for meaningful discussion," that is because you are choosing not to engage in it. While there is nothing wrong with choosing not to engage in it for your personal reasons in any given situation, there is something very wrong with asserting that your choice not to do so implies that the idea is not worth discussing at all.