216

The announcement of the Code of Conduct changes is sitting now, three days after being posted, on a score of -916 (with 1180 downvotes). I can't remember a change announcement being received so negatively (this post isn't really an announcement). Other announcements like We're testing advertisements across the network and the older A New Code License: The MIT, this time with Attribution Required have scores in the same order of magnitude right now as I'm writing it, but I fear this is far from the end. The last major Code of Conduct changes were published as a blog but the announcements (1, 2) were positively received, even though there was/is a lot of critique on the Welcome Wagon.

What are the (main) reasons that the current changes are received so negatively? And how could/should Stack Exchange improve to make sure such major changes are received better in the future? As a professional trainer of mine likes to proclaim "People can and want to change, but they don't want to be changed." Or, does it even matter that the current sentiment is the way it is, as long as the company is (feeling that it is) doing the Right Thing™? Desperate times call for desperate measures, and those are often unpopular.

I'll try to outline some of the possible reasons (and improvements) in answers, but I hope other users will write something about other reasons I'm not familiar enough with (e.g. compelled speech, or punishing the company for the way they treated Monica). Note: I'm not trying to take a stance here (though it's obviously hard to be 100% objective in this case); as always on Meta, a neutral tone is preferred.

  • 5
    Comment threads are heavily pruned right now, cf. chat.meta.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/7964399 – Glorfindel Oct 11 at 21:18
  • 40
    They're received negatively because they're poorly written, poorly executed, poorly founded and they don't reflect the majority's interests. It's really simple. It would have been easier to pass a CoC change that mandated everyone sing Merry Christmas on the 25th of December. – insidesin Oct 14 at 23:38

45 Answers 45

311

Going forward, we will be working with the community to overhaul how we gather input and feedback from our moderators and members of the community to make sure that your voices are heard and involved in the process, not just informed after decisions have been made.

Source

This came 3 days before the users were "informed after decisions had been made" of the new CoC. And apparently it was a big fat lie. Not an oversight or an omission. A calculated lie.

People don't like being lied to I guess.

  • 7
    They did gather feedback from moderators on this CoC before publishing it. – Rand al'Thor Oct 11 at 8:44
  • 62
    @Randal'Thor If I say "I will do X and Y" when I know I will not do Y, that's what I call a lie. The fact that I did X is nice, but meaningless. – nvoigt Oct 11 at 8:46
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    @Randal'Thor - I'm curious how the moderators were contacted and how the feedback was gathered. – J.R. means 'Just Reinstate' Oct 11 at 8:47
  • 123
    @Randal'Thor I can't call this "feedback". We (mods), actually, couldn't change anything, basically. – Suvitruf says Reinstate Monica Oct 11 at 8:49
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    @J.R. in moderator's chat. So, even not all mods have participated in that discussion. – Suvitruf says Reinstate Monica Oct 11 at 8:50
  • 136
    And gathering input from a group of people where you have recently executed someone for "giving feedback wrongly" is not actually "real feedback". – nvoigt Oct 11 at 8:50
  • 64
    I am a moderator who rarely enters the TL. To say that "they did gather feedback from moderators," then, is a bit of a stretch. More like, "they did gather feedback from a small subset of moderators." (Whether this feedback was ignored or incorporated into the final product is another issue I'd be interested to learn more about.) – J.R. means 'Just Reinstate' Oct 11 at 8:54
  • 11
    Well there's barely any moderators left to get feedback from, so no wonder... – Lundin Oct 11 at 9:07
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    Moderators were included in the CoC amendments, although only the subset who are active in the TL and Moderator Team site. No outreach was done to the wider moderation team. We had no oversight of the FAQ section before that was released. – Snow Oct 11 at 9:45
  • 6
    @J.R. They put several revisions in both the TL and our Teams Q and A; they put together a google doc of both the CoC change and the blog post and let us suggest edits and make comments. They gave us a lot of chances to make our comments known and we did. I even submitted a complete rewrite of the blog post and it was shipped around (and ultimately not used). Whether they used it or not, they definitely at least allowed us to submit changes. – George Stocker Oct 11 at 9:48
  • 10
    This quote is absolutely deceiving, and I feel strongly about that fact. If you read the entire post the following is stated near the end: "On Monday, October 7, we’ll be sharing a second draft of an update to our Code of Conduct with all moderators for feedback On Thursday, October 10, the update to the Code of Conduct will be announced publicly" No need to guess what is expected here. They share(d) the new CoC for feedback with moderators, and then announced it. Just like they stated. No lies here. – Luuklag Oct 11 at 9:50
  • 5
    @Randal'Thor it says from our moderators and members of the community - which members? The moderator chat is accessible only to diamonds and other members didn't have the opportunity to express their suggestions, did they? – Christine H. Richards Oct 11 at 10:00
  • 5
    @ChristineH.Richards Well, technically moderators are also members of the community. But I have no interest in playing defence lawyer for SE; I was just sharing a fact which seemed pertinent. The points made above seem valid and I'm not disagreeing with them. – Rand al'Thor Oct 11 at 10:19
  • 17
    — Company: "Any feedback on the proposal?" — Mod A: "Well, thank you for the work, just one question..." — Company, ❋disintegrating Mod A❋: "Any other feedback?" — Mods: "Hu?! What have you done?" — Company: "And now it's live. Let's go on Twitter now." — Users: "Has Doomsday Clock been ticking?" – Cœur Oct 12 at 16:23
  • 37
    They "gathered feedback from moderators" after making it unmistakably clear to those moderators that not agreeing with the changes is a firing offense ... – Henning Makholm Oct 12 at 23:59
236

Monica was a well-known, well-liked, and well-respected moderator across the Stack Exchange. Her moderation status was suddenly stripped away because of an alleged protracted spat about pronouns in a chat room.

Perhaps her remarks in that chat room eventually got to the point where there needed to be some kind of intervention and discipline, perhaps not. Opinions are divided and details are scant. However, one of the foundations of the Stack Exchange has been Jeff Atwood's Penalty Box analogy:

If we think you are reachable, and the behavior is one that we feel can change, we will try to warn you via email first when there are behavior problems — so that we can address them before they become deeper problems.

Depending on the severity of the problem behavior — and at the complete discretion of the moderator — your account will be placed in timed suspension for anywhere from 1 to 365 days.

At the end of this timed suspension period, your reputation will be recalculated, and your account will resume as normal. We don’t hold grudges. The point of all this is to address the behavior. If the behavior improves, you are welcome back.

Many of us are appalled at the way Monica's situation was handled – or mishandled – from the outset. You don't just step in and overturn four SE moderator elections in one fell swoop because of a heated argument in a chat room. There is a process for removing moderators; it was ignored.

The answer to your question, "What could have been done to prevent such a negative reception?" is simple: The company could have let cooler heads prevail. They could have pressed on and continued to polish their CoC clarifications, but, before releasing them, they could have first righted the rash wrong and made Monica a moderator again.

When I first caught wind of this whole brouhaha, I thought for sure within a week an apology would come and Monica would be reinstated on all the sites where she moderates. Naively I thought, "Level heads always prevail on the Stack Exchange." Instead, the community was coldly informed, "We are not going to re-litigate the past. We are moving forward. We are working on how we can do better next time."

I think that many of the downvotes this week may have been upvotes had the CMs simply admitted that they bungled this – and not just because of the timing around a Jewish holiday. Instead, they gleefully pressed forward and ask us to embrace a new era of inclusiveness as if this were something worth celebrating, all while one many of the longstanding community members wondered what in the hell just happened.

In short, they drew their line in the sand, and their own obstinance doomed the reception of their new clarifications. Had Apology 2.0 come with a reinstatement, much of the turmoil could have been quelled, and the community may have been more open and receptive to the new changes and clarifications. Instead, it feels like it is being shoved down our throat.

  • For the record, there was also a short email conversation (as well a argument in Chat to which at least one other mod objected.) – Richard Oct 11 at 9:40
  • 12
    Oh, well done. This post should be forwarded to all the staff. – Mari-Lou A Oct 11 at 9:59
  • 6
    For the record, Monica was a moderator on at least six sites: Beer Wine & Spirits, Meta, Mi Yodeya, The Workplace, Worldbuilding, and Writing. – Alex Oct 11 at 12:10
  • @Alex - Thank you for the correction. Ordinarily, I would have just gone to her profile and counted, but, sadly, it’s hard for me to count what is no longer there. – J.R. means 'Just Reinstate' Oct 11 at 12:53
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    I find it strange that anyone would be surprised that changes to a Code of Conduct that relies heavily on people trusting that it will be applied fairly and reasonably received an overwhelmingly negative response when it was released right on the heels of the company very clearly demonstrating that it can’t be trusted to be fair and reasonable. – ColleenV Oct 11 at 14:05
  • 2
    SE clearly is gambling on all this to blow away in a fairly short time. And they may be right, unfortunately. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Oct 11 at 21:17
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    @ab2 - Ironic timing. You left your comment just as I was composing this one. Great minds think alike? – J.R. means 'Just Reinstate' Oct 11 at 21:33
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    At this point, Monica's handling is merely a sub-issue. Even apologizing for her firing and reinstating her would not do it for me, and it shouldn't for the rest of the community either. They had their chances, and those ships already sailed eons ago. They need to directly and explicitly apologize for (or refute) all of their apparent lies, and back it up with &strong* substance. Why? Because at this point, the one and only thing we need to know is that we're not dealing with liars. Otherwise, anything else they say or do is seen as just another lie meant to contain damage. – Mehrdad Oct 11 at 23:19
  • @J.R.  The Wayback Machine is your friend. Unfortunately, the most recent snapshot of her Stack Exchange profile page is 3½ years old. But it does have more recent copies of her profiles on Meta Stack Exchange and Beer, Wine & Spirits. – Scott Oct 12 at 7:51
  • J.R., please do: s/was/is/ about Monica... – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 8:33
  • 3
    @einpoklum - The subject of my opening sentence is moderator. I realize Monica is still a well-liked and well-respected member, but, until she is reinstated, I think was is the correct verb. – J.R. means 'Just Reinstate' Oct 13 at 9:54
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    I was an elected moderator on Mi Yodeya, Workplace, and Worldbuilding, a pro-tem moderator on Writing and Beer, Wine, & Spirits, and appointed on Meta. – Monica Cellio Oct 13 at 18:55
  • 2
    @MonicaC - Okay; elected on three; respected on all six. :-) Thanks for the clarification. – J.R. means 'Just Reinstate' Oct 14 at 12:00
207

One of the possible reasons could be that users feel Stack Exchange is not setting the right priorities. For many people (including me), the community not being inclusive (enough) is not something we encounter frequently (or at all). This is especially true for the technology-oriented Stack Exchange sites, which make up the majority of the sites and traffic in the network. I've been a moderator on Ask Different for two years and inclusiveness hasn't come up a single time (as far as I can recall; my memory might fail me or I might have been on vacation).

I've read the transcripts in the Teachers' Lounge where the alleged violations of the Code of Conduct by Monica took place (I was probably even online during some of them), I needed to read them again before I could identify where it was supposed to happen and I had to read them another time in order to really empathize with the users involved (both Monica and the users who were offended). Now, I'm bad at empathizing, but I suspect many other users here feel the same way: they just don't see the problem and don't understand why the company is making such a big deal out of it.

What they do see is a company which

  • shows highly inappropriate advertisements and seems to be unable/unwilling to do something about it
  • unilaterally changes the license without having the right to do so
  • generally seems to struggle with its presence on Meta Stack Exchange and Meta Stack Overflow (I'm not up-to-date with the current status on MSO, but here is an example)

There are probably a lot of other recent examples, all of which affect the majority users much more and much more often than the inclusiveness/gender-neutrality problem. They might feel that it's OK for Stack Exchange to be one of the champions for gender neutrality, but not right now. My feeling is that these changes would have been received a lot better if they had happened one or two years ago, maybe during the Welcome Wagon. If that's the case, it would have been better if Stack Exchange had addressed the other problems in an adequate manner, before releasing these Code of Conduct changes.

183

Another reason the CoC changes have been received so negatively is the antagonistic and hostile behavior by Stack Exchange employees towards the community. I think it's important to point out Pëkka's comment before it gets blindly deleted:

73 It's reassuring to know the site's director of public Q&A has a nuanced, completely straw-man-free view on the debate. i.stack.imgur.com/VLqFB.jpg – Pëkka 6 hours ago

This is a tweet which was retweeted by our favorite Stack Overflow Director of Public Q&A, Sara Chipps♦:

Reading comments on a blog post about a CoC:

If you're against CoCs and to protest you're leaving the community because the CoC has become more inclusive...

  1. You identified yourself as part of the problem

  2. You removed your problematic self from the community

... thank you?

That's unprofessional and not very welcoming of an SE employee.

  • 46
    That is amazing. Recommend everybody capture this link, because lots of comments and answers are quickly disappearing. What bad faith this shows. – Ask About Monica Oct 11 at 17:17
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    I find it disingenuous, cynical and offensive that SE is trying to spin criticism of the new CoC as opposition to LGBT rights and gender-neutral language. – Your Uncle Bob Oct 11 at 21:27
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    +1. The quoted comment throws gasoline on a blazing fire. Is this what SE wants its employees to do? – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Oct 11 at 21:33
  • 27
    Wow. This is the second time I thought things couldn't get any worse. I'm sorry for not believing in you, StackOverflow. I stand corrected. – Mehrdad Oct 11 at 23:31
  • 70
    This is actually hilarious. Talk about being stuck in a bubble. Any reasonable company would have taken disciplinary action against Sara Chipps after the absolute raging fire she had a very large contribution to, but apparently SE is only concerned about pushing their agenda at this point. She also tweeted "One of my person KPIs is people blocked on Twitter and this week has me way ahead for Q4.". Yes, Sara, don't let anyone tell you you're wrong. – user622505 Oct 12 at 1:53
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    @user622505. I'm afraid she's actually representative of SE corporate culture right now. I'm afraid her colleagues or superiors are actually proud of her job. That would be a really bad sign for SE's future. – Eric Duminil Oct 12 at 11:22
  • 22
    What's worse is a person in their position engaging in this kind of thing on Twitter, rather than with the community. Complete lack of respect and total ignorance of social interaction. For all the lip-service given "respect" and "welcoming", no indication of understanding what those terms actually mean. – Cindy Meister Oct 12 at 14:00
  • 3
    @EricDuminil as the old adage goes, get woke, go broke. – user622505 Oct 12 at 14:02
  • 25
    Ironic that it doesn't seem to be understood by SE that when you lose people over a CoC, by definition that CoC isn't "more inclusive". – user1725145 Oct 12 at 18:04
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    Funny, I’m on the edge of leaving SE because the CoC seems to make SO staff think they are being inclusive when they are not actually doing much to help with inclusivity. The notion that the CoC is some kind of magic bullet for the problems around here is ludicrous, chilling, and most of all, telling. – Todd Wilcox Oct 13 at 10:08
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    "[SO staff] are not actually doing much to help with inclusivity" - quite the opposite, I'd say. SO claims they believed the CoC would build a more welcoming and inclusive community, but anyone who was tempted to actually believe that now needs only to look around them to see just how delusional that is - the opposite is true. There's really no further point arguing the merits of the CoC itself, because the debate is basically over - the actual evidence is in, now, and it's too overwhelming to be reasonably disputed. – Crowman Oct 13 at 18:44
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    The tragedy of all this is that SO was, and continues to be, populated almost exclusively by good, reasonable people who have no intention of hurting anyone, and who generally go well out of their way to try to nurture a welcoming and respectful environment for everybody. It's exactly this type of goodwill, and this type of person, that SO - and Sara Chipps in particular - seem inexplicably determined to squander and hound out. It's difficult to conceive how this could have been handled any worse. – Crowman Oct 13 at 18:59
173

A baseball bat is a fine thing, until it's used to rob a liquor store.

The new CoC is a fine thing, until it's used as a tool to shut down discussion and bully and denigrate those who try to engage in that discussion.

How could/should Stack Exchange improve to make sure such major changes are received better in the future?

I think by being the inclusive community that it claims it wants to be, rather than drawing rigid lines and saying - "look, if you're on that side of the line, you're Bad People".

  • 48
    This. The assumption of bad faith has seemed pervasive throughout this whole episode. It's explicit in the FAQ answer to Q11: Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity – user205515 Oct 11 at 8:37
  • 100
    To me it feels like we're being dragged into largely-American "culture wars". In much of the world, there isn't the same level of toxic, polarised conflict over whether people who are different to the majority should have basic rights and respect. I just want to politely and respectfully answer people's questions, without some US staff analysing my language to make assumptions about which "side" I'm on. – user56reinstatemonica8 Oct 11 at 9:47
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    I can understand how, in the context of current American politics, one American in an office might see another using, say, "they" to refer to someone who, two days ago, used "he", and think "You're one of those people who rejects people's identities and probably also supports taking away rights such as being able to serve in the military!". But it doesn't make sense to roll that assumption out over an international site, where most users are basically anonymous, and where many users are non-native English speakers. – user56reinstatemonica8 Oct 11 at 10:00
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    @user568458 agree totally. From where I'm sitting there has been the completely unnecessary creation of forced 'battle lines'. – topo Reinstate Monica Oct 11 at 10:09
  • 12
    Absolutely -- and on top of that, there's the complete lack of any other more nuanced tool. Help pages, cultural mediation, an informative ad campaign... In Italy we even have a word for this attitude: "Americanata". – Sklivvz Oct 11 at 10:58
  • 2
    "until it's used as a tool to shut down discussion and bully and denigrate those who try to engage in that discussion" you are assuming it will be used to "bully and denigrate". Only assuming. – Raedwald Oct 11 at 11:21
  • @Raedwald Honestly, I'm just giving my impression of things that have actually been said and done that I've become aware of over the past 24 hours. – topo Reinstate Monica Oct 11 at 11:23
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    @Raedwald Bullying has already been done by SE. See that catalyst of this downward spiral: Stack Overflow Inc., sinat chinam, and the goat for Azazel – user369450 Oct 11 at 15:12
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    I think that most people are fine with being asked to try to use more gender-inclusive language. But when a moderator whom many people respect as a reasonable person gets fired, people see this as a zero-tolerance policy backed by a nuclear bomb. In those circumstances, of course people are going to ask a lot of questions about exactly where the line-that-must-not-be-crossed is, by inventing a lot of farfetched hypothetical scenarios. Any statements by the staff to assure us that we'll be fine if we just write normally are going to be viewed skeptically. – 200_success Oct 12 at 4:07
  • The thing is, even the original CoC was created in a town with lots of liquor stores and no baseball stadium close-by. If you know what I mean. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 8:35
  • 1
    @einpoklum No, I really don't know what you mean? – user56reinstatemonica8 Oct 13 at 10:34
  • 7
    The CoC legitimizes unilateral sudden-death sanctions against users - on moderators' initiatives or based on denunciations - with absolutely no process for users to challenge or appeal claims/sanctions against them. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 11:23
147

Here's the thing: we can all get behind the intent of the change of the CoC. If it had been something along the lines of

Be nice
Treat other users' gender, nationality, religion, etc. with respect.

It would have been applauded.

Because we're good people who want to be nice and welcoming and polite to other people. If what we wanted were to be trolling schmucks, we'd already have been suspended.

If it appears that a group of otherwise nice people are struggling with being polite about gender issues, for whatever reason, we could have a page entitled

How to be more polite - issues of gender

Since we're good people who like being good people, we'd have gone to the effort of looking it over, and learning to be more polite.

But the CoC doesn't assume we're good people. It assumes we are all potential offenders who need to be held in check. It says "here's the rules, and here's the drastic punishment if you break them." Only, the issue is something quite a few of us have never really encountered before in more than the most superficial way, so we don't even understand very well what it's all about. The rules aren't very clear. The only thing that's clear is the threat. And punctuating that threat - Monica Cellio, a respected and valued moderator, punished without measure for allegedly violating the as of yet unpublished when she was punished CoC.

Faced with rules that we do not understand and are not allowed to dispute, and with the threat of very serious repercussions if we break those unclear rules, we are afraid, and angry at having been made to feel afraid, angry at being treated like potential criminals when we've done nothing to merit it.

  • 47
    Yes, this. SE presumes bad intent and wields heavy weapons. This is not the respectful culture of "be nice". (I'm out of votes for today and hope I remember to come back after Shabbat. Feel free to remind me.) – Monica Cellio Oct 11 at 21:01
  • How to handle when there's different understandings of what respect is? – Tiago supports GoFundMonica Oct 11 at 21:12
  • 3
    @TiagoMartinsPeres The short answer is: by not blaming the other person. Long answer is: notes.srid.ca/conflicts – Reinstate Monica Oct 11 at 21:29
  • Interesting read @SridharRatnakumar. Liked in particular «Which means that the palliative remedy of civility, while exacerbating the problem at times, is not the exemplary solution that many people claim it to be.» Still didn't really answer my question, isn't that simple... My two cents , feelings change regularly, often we find ourselves having two opposing feelings or not even be able to understand them. How to not be a puppet of feelings? Make a promise. – Tiago supports GoFundMonica Oct 11 at 21:59
  • 2
    Be careful about the expression potential criminals a post that had the line “Don't criminalize things that most users think are normal behaviour or that could be done out of cluelessness” was edited and changed by a CM. It appears figurative expressions will also be purged, especially if they are used to cast the company in an evil light. – Mari-Lou A Oct 12 at 6:38
  • 2
    @TiagoMartinsPeres The accusation of being disrespectful can arise from two things, as far as I can see: a) the accused intended to be disrespectful, or b) the accuser felt offended by what the accused (innocuously) said. – Reinstate Monica Oct 12 at 15:12
  • Understandable @Sridhar Ratnakumar. Might want to look in more detail the term "said" in b), and what lead in a) intended transmits the idea something was done (what was that?). – Tiago supports GoFundMonica Oct 12 at 15:44
  • 1
    We cannot all get behind the intent of the changes in the CoC, nor can we get behind the CoC in general. Also, it is not clear what the actual intent is; many (including myself) believe that the gendered pronouns issue is just being used as a red herring. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 8:38
  • Depending on how it is phrased a CoC can be used to abuse others, as this Stackoverflow incident demonstrates plentifully. Here's another instance: twitter.com/carnivivre/status/1181380319469019138 – Reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 15:59
  • @einpoklum fair enough. We can get behind inclusiveness towards everyone, regardless of gender. We hope this was the intent here. We also hope same inclusiveness will also apply to different religions, ethnicities etc. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Oct 14 at 12:39
  • 4
    I was doing software development in SF area in the 80s. I've worked with people who don't fit US mainstream's binary gender definitions for longer than most people have been alive. My daughters grew up with all types of gender identities as the norm. Yet I find the CoC, and how SE staff have responded to criticism, especially Sara Chipps, to be utterly, unambiguously offensive. This is not inclusiveness. This is bullshit. If SO weren't extremely valuable, this would be the last straw. If someone is offended by they as an alternative to he, as a universal pronoun- their issue, not mine. – ToolmakerSteve Oct 18 at 19:57
  • 3
    ... no, you don't get to force your desired language (pronoun) on the culture around you. You can request it. But don't be offended when people do what they do. Compromise. Be patient. Change of this type takes time. – ToolmakerSteve Oct 18 at 19:58
118

I'll just share my personal view:

I do my best to be respectful of everyone, I was already uneasy thinking I may be offending someone by a wrong wording.
Now I'm afraid I could be suspended for it on top of that. (That's probably not rational, but that's the case)

This new CoC with its FAQ just frighten me, I don't feel safe answering anything anymore as I don't feel fluent enough in English to spot all cases.

  • 60
    It's not just you, many native speakers are also bewildered, confused and wary. – Mari-Lou A Oct 11 at 10:55
  • 7
    "Now I'm afraid I could be suspended": I guess you are afraid of that because you think this is a complicated minefield, where one honest simple mistake can get you sanctioned. That is not the case, and is actually clearly stated as such in the CoC and the FAQ. "Use stated pronouns (when known)." is easy to abide by. I guess you however believe it is a complicated minefield because there are people who don't want to do that who have raised strawman objections to make it seem complicated. – Raedwald Oct 11 at 11:12
  • 13
    @Raedwald my problem is not on this point, not being allowed to disengage (hence why I answer this comment) is a problem, I don't see how getting out of an argument if leaving the talk can be flagged as refusing to acknowledge someone identity and I'm very unsure if that won't be declined due to how Monica was fired for that – Tensibai Oct 11 at 11:25
  • 4
    "not being allowed to disengage": nothing written in any SE post says this. Some people being disingenuous suggest it. Again, focus on what the CoC says: ""Use stated pronouns (when known)." – Raedwald Oct 11 at 11:31
  • 1
    Indeed, I probably inferred that badly reading around, pretty sure I've read that could be considered against the code of conduct somewhere but I won't search it. Anyway I see enough possibility that could turn wrong to turn me off. Not arguing if it's a rational feeling or not, that just how I feel with all those rules and the actions taken – Tensibai Oct 11 at 11:43
  • 44
    @Raedwald I think what you’re missing is that the CoC is vague that people have to trust that it will be enforced fairly. Monica’s treatment and the tone-deaf response to the backlash has left many of us feeling uncertain about that. That problem isn’t solved by repeatedly stating one particular interpretation of the CoC. We already know that processes aren’t followed when you’re on the “wrong” side. It’s been clearly demonstrated. – ColleenV Oct 11 at 14:20
  • 5
    I would upvote a hundred times if I could, for "I don't feel safe answering". – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Oct 11 at 19:11
  • 4
    @Raedwald, "Use stated pronouns (when known)." is only "easy to abide by" when your level of English is good enough that you don't need to think about it. I know plenty of people who will use he and her to refer to the same person. – Peter Taylor Oct 12 at 8:17
  • 2
    @Tensibai, you are not alone. I am a native English speaker and I won't take the risk either. If I give my time for free, it's simply not worthwhile to take any risks of being involved in a mess like Monica was. – user1725145 Oct 12 at 18:07
  • @Raedwald: The point is, that procedurally, the CoC is like a mine field. There's no due process on anything. It's sudden-death justice. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 8:37
90

The underlying issue is that Stack Overflow appears to want rules that proactively give transgender people dignity. The problem there is that no laws or rules can actually do that.

In college I took a class in golf. The semi-pro guy who taught the class described something he called the "fuzzy doughnut". In golf, the goal is to hit the ball into the hole. This means that, subsequently, every golfer must walk up to the hole, stand next to it, and reach into the hole, and extract their ball. As such, the ground around the hole naturally gets depressed. Golf courses periodically have to move the holes on the green for this reason.

Rules cannot give you dignity. If they could, we would never have another problem with sexism, racism, etc. Rules can absolutely deny you dignity, however. If you get dragged out of your house in handcuffs, or frog marched out in front of the community, your dignity has been lowered. That was the ultimate goal of Jim Crow laws. Even if you didn't care about racism, the state mandated you lower the dignity of a racial group, lest you find your own dignity lowered by them instead.

The flash point over LGBT rights has been that people want to help this group by proactively demanding dignity for them, and so they make rules. The problem is that rules can only take dignity away from others. As such, you get a "fuzzy doughnut" of dignity, whereby rules meant to raise the status of one group really lower the status of everyone else (George Will's term for it was sore winners).

We're in uncharted territory here, but the net result of many of these rules is uncertainty, which then breeds fear and lashing out. Canada, for instance, has actual laws against hate speech, including misgendering (emphasis mine).

And while Canada's laws may have been written in such a way that appears limited, that doesn't mean enforcement is. Prosecutors and judges will be the ones deciding what it means to "incite hatred," and that introduces ambiguity and disagreement. That's a good reason as well to oppose such laws. That it's not possible to easily determine whether opinions in transgender bathroom panic debates would violate this law (or whether a prosecutor or judge might decide it does) is exactly what creates the "chilling" environment that attempts to shut down speech that ought to be protected. Back in 2010, Ann Coulter was warned even before coming to speak at the University of Ottawa that she needed to watch what she said because she could be prosecuted there for hate speech. The letter prompted outrage from Glenn Greenwald back when he was still at Salon, and he warned, "Who would ever want to empower officious technocrats to issue warnings along the lines of: be forewarned: if you express certain political views, you may be committing a crime; guide and restrict yourself accordingly?"

We're not talking laws here (I am still of the opinion that SO pays for this platform and can show you the door for any reason they see fit). Still, the net effect of these new rules has been rampant confusion over the rules, not to mention the backlash against the SO LGBT community.

Which brings us to the Monica debacle.

The rules, as laid out by SO, are vague, and appear to be so intentionally ("We can't define misgendering, but we'll know it when we see it"). There's been some attempt at clarification, but, as others have noted, the new Code of Conduct also no longer assumes good intent first. Normally, I'd be skeptical if someone suggested that SO was just going to bring the hammer down on people for no apparent reason, but then SO fired one of the top "legal beagles" in the community. Worse is that not only was the firing doubled down on, it also doubled down on not bothering to explain the reasoning (apparently not even to Monica herself).

In other words, the new Code of Conduct appears to be a fuzzy doughnut. The net effect here will be some people open disengaging with any user self identifying as trans, lest they face punishment for any incidental slights. It's impossible to allay those fears as long as Monica's punishment remains unexplained.

And how could/should Stack Exchange improve to make sure such major changes are received better in the future?

Let's take a step back for a second. You're a new SO employee tasked with dealing with complaints that trans people aren't being treated well on the network. If that were my job, I would

  1. Open a featured Meta.SE post about how the Transgender members feel (that has happened anyways). Let them air their grievances (minus the Festivus Pole). Listen to what they are saying and try to get at the root issues if possible
  2. Open another dialogue about how the community thinks those problems could be dealt with
  3. Propose draft language to the broader community for input
  4. Enact policy and have moderators enforce it

Contrast this with

  1. Announce to mods a Code of Conduct change. In a private room. On a Friday afternoon
  2. Disagree in private and fire a moderator of multiple sites known for being a stickler for the rules. Said moderator complains loudly they have no idea why they were fired
  3. Have multiple moderators resign or stop moderating without any official response for 5 days
  4. Apologize, but openly double down on the firing for violating the Code of Conduct. Don't explain anything about what in the Code of Conduct was violated
  5. Apologize for real this time and promise to make nice with the fired moderator
  6. Roll out new Code of Conduct before any resolution of moderator firing firestorm
  • 23
    #7. Fail to make nice with the fired moderator. – fixer1234 Oct 11 at 18:52
  • 1
    I disagree that any of this stuff has to do with transgender people at all. I think that's being used to trigger conflict. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 8:39
  • 2
    @einpoklum I think that's too cynical. I doubt SO deliberately wants to have a conflict over this. What makes more sense (especially in light of Sara Chipps' comments you noted, and the lack of any backpedaling) is that they see this as a righteous crusade for transgender rights. – Machavity Oct 13 at 13:02
  • 4
    @Machavity: I disagree that that this is what makes more sense, because we have no evidence that transgendered users have been mistreated in any significant numbers, particularly w.r.t. pronouns, recently, in a way would motivate a CoC revision. Additionally, if it had been such a crusade, it is likely the crusaders would have shown some regard to how their actions are poisoning the atmosphere for the exact same people they are supposedly championing. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 13:25
  • ... just to clarify: Many users are mis-directing their consternation and frustration with SE Inc. heavy-handed actions towards LGBTQ+ people or those of them who use custom pronouns, as though its the custom-pronoun users who are pushing SE Inc. to do what they do, or who got Monica Cellio ousted, or even who demanded that extreme action be taken. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 21:46
  • I don't think your step 1 airing of grievances approach is in line with the recommendations of gender and oppression experts. You're not supposed to ask that people come and do a bunch of free work for you explaining how not to cause them problems; you're supposed to do your own research in already-published sources. – interfect Oct 23 at 0:17
59

For me, this CoC has a few issues. First, it is focusing on one specific problem. At this point, it's focused so much on one problem that it's excluding all the other ones. Quick, can you tell me what is explicitly called out as bigotry in the Code of Conduct?

Did you come up with some? There are four.

We don’t tolerate any language likely to offend or alienate people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion — and those are just a few examples.

Yet, for those four being called out, everything in the past month has been focused on gender. What about the other three or the others that are implied by "just a few examples"?


Second, is the massive amount of hypocrisy coming from Stack Exchange. This is my biggest complaint about Stack Exchange, and it isn't something that has happened in the last four weeks. It's been festering for a couple years.

As a moderator, I am bound by the moderator agreement.

ii. I acknowledge that I may have access to potentially personally-identifying information about Stack Overflow users and that in connection with such access

a. I will use such information solely in accordance with the then-current Privacy Policy of Stack Overflow,

b. I will not disclose this information to anyone,

c. I will not store or copy this information and

d. I will only use such information in connection with performance as a Stack Overflow moderator for the benefit of Stack Overflow.

Specifically, section II.b. "I will not disclose this [personal] information to anyone". Along with that is the common practice of not talking about actions taken against user accounts in public, unless they bring up the information in public. Even then, err on the side of "less is more". I, and every other moderator, are to be quiet and respect the community. Yet, Stack Exchange couldn't do this themselves. This entire month long controversy started because of a public (in a mod chatroom) firing and escalated from there. It escalated to posts around the network that, at the very least, cast people in unflattering light. It ended with speaking to the press about a single, specific user.

Stack Exchange shared less information publicly when Ross Ulbricht was arrested. They have shared less information when other moderators were removed for other reasons. Yet, this time, they spoke with the press.


Finally, there is another portion of the Code of Conduct that I don't think Stack Exchange is holding up.

Be clear and constructive when giving feedback, and be open when receiving it.

I haven't seen a lot of that from Stack Exchange in the past...well, few years, but let's focus on the last month. We've been dropped edicts in the Teacher's Lounge and then left to argue between ourselves with no follow up. We've been given the chance to provide feedback on this Code of Conduct, yet that now seems like it was a pointless exercise. To me, it looks like Stack Exchange already had their minds made up about a series of actions before they even asked for feedback. Stack Exchange hasn't been clear in their feedback on this entire incident. We've gotten apologies, copy and pasted good byes, and the cold shoulder. We're being given edicts that conflict with how the site has been run. All of this is being done and it really feels like feedback being provided is at best ignored.


In summary, my issues with the new Code of Conduct are:

  • Narrowly focusing on one specific problem to the exclusion of others that the CoC itself calls out
  • A huge lack of trust on my part toward Stack Exchange. There is so much bad faith communication around this entire update that it's hard for me to separate the good changes from the drama that has occurred. I also can't shake the feeling that Stack Exchange is trying to get rid of community members.
  • Communication. Like almost every "incident" in the last few years, communication is lacking.

I've been re-evaluating my positions on Stack Exchange over the past month and I'm finding it increasingly difficult to ignore that lack of trust. I'm trying to get past it. But, as I wake up each morning and check my sites, I find that I'm withdrawing more and more from the Teacher's Lounge and other network wide discussions with Stack Exchange. I trust my moderator team mates, but it's been harder and harder to read comments from Stack Exchange employees and assume good faith. The Code of Conduct changes are included with that.

That feeling sucks. I hate it.

  • 15
    Well said, and thank you for highlighting "Be clear and constructive when giving feedback, and be open when receiving it." – Monica Cellio Oct 11 at 16:26
  • 1
    I wouldn't read too much into the examples of bigotry that are listed. In the US, gender identity rights are a few decades behind homosexual rights and racial equality rights. All of those come a couple of centuries after freedom of religion. It's just the progression of social justice. – 200_success Oct 12 at 4:25
59

Honestly, I downvoted the announcement and had a negative reaction to it because I couldn't (and still can't) see how it's remotely relevant to the vast majority of the network. It doesn't make any sense for a site that prides itself on having no noise and being straight to the point to begin worrying about individual user's personal problems.

Why is gender identity, of all the possible problems, the hill we're dying on? I don't see why instead of just rewording or adding selective emphasis in the current CoC, gender issues are being singled out and made into this huge important thing. In the 5 1/2 years that I've been on the network nearly daily, I have first hand experience of one instance of issues with gender pronouns. I referred to the OP of a question as "he", and they replied with "did you just assume my gender?". That's it. To support the CoC change, is there any hard evidence that this is the most pressing issue we currently face?

What I do see frequently however are new users being insulted due to differences in their expectations and the rules of the network. That's a broad issue that affects a large demographic, and I think it's a more important issue to address at this moment.

I also wasn't a fan of the assertion

Using someone’s pronouns is a way of showing respect for them and refusing to do so causes harm.

Emphasis mine.

I don't see how refusing to use someone's preferred pronoun causes them harm. I find that to be a gross exaggeration and it makes it seem like you're reaching to try and justify the new CoC. It may cause them slight mental discomfort until they move on and inevitably forget about the interaction, but should we really be shaping our core policies around not causing niche groups any short-lived discomfort?


Three days later, I decided to revisit my answer and soften my language since stating absolutes isn't productive. I believe what I believe, although I understand that others may have varying views due to experience.

  • 8
    I might forget and move on from one person ignoring or refusing to acknowledge me once, but I have had a fairly comfortable life that has reinforced my sense of self confidence. If people did, or had done, it to me on a daily basis I would expect that it would eventually damage my mental health - i.e. cause me lasting harm. In effect 'death by a thousand cuts', if you will. – Isaac Oct 11 at 13:23
  • 2
    And if SE makes it their job to manage protecting its users from potential "harm", they should so for all users (as individuals), not just one niche group. – dfhwze Oct 14 at 4:33
  • This is where I'm at. I don't understand why a business-only, no-nonsense library of knowledge is wading into social issue at all. If people are being unkind to other people, remove the unkind people after warnings and discussion are not effective. The end. We're here for answers, any content that strays into the territory this CoC change addresses was already useless noise under the premise of the site. – Chris Oct 15 at 2:22
  • @Chris That’s the point: if you want to remove unkind people you need rules that help define what kinds of things are unkind. Otherwise, it’s just up to the random whims of mods. And this whole situation had made it abundantly clear that people have very different ideas of what is and is not unkind. But this has all been hashed out a hundred times, and I’m not sure anyone left here cares to listen to anyone else anymore – divibisan Oct 15 at 2:36
  • If you can see deleted posts on SO Can we have some consistency in moderation? Why was my custom comment flag declined? you can get some taste of the future that awaits us. It will be a nightmare. – Her Majesty Queen of ARC Oct 15 at 8:41
  • @divibisan This will not remove unkind people, this has potential to ran over absolutely anyone. Also, pronouns are just one of things that people are sensitive about, we cannot possibly cater for everyones feelings all the time. And no matter how careful you are, someone will still get offended over nothing. – Her Majesty Queen of ARC Oct 15 at 8:43
  • 1
    How: 1) The harm may be afflicted due to a feeling of rejection by 'the society' who is using mostly binary labels 'he' and 'she' that do not apply to all of us. This happens repeatedly and makes people with a non-binary gender feel lonely. Not being accepted (feeling unaccepted) as part of a group can have devastating effects on one's wellbeing. 2) The harm may be inflicted during social contacts where the other parties do not accept (are not enough willing to adjust) the use of a different pronoun. --- I agree it's difficult. The how is clear, but the proportionality of measures is not. – Sextus Empiricus Oct 16 at 0:26
58

I guess, people think that:

  1. Wrong priorities.
  2. New CoC forces people to do something. Probable, if the message about pronouns was in the form of request instead of demand, it would be received much better.
  3. The story with Monica still unclear.
  • 21
    The request vs demand issue is what defines mutual respect. – dfhwze Oct 11 at 8:24
  • ③ is a direct result of ②. ① just served to raise the background level of concern before this broke. The real issue here is ②. If you want to write an ordered list my suggestion would be to make that #1. – Caleb Oct 11 at 9:05
  • 5
    The real issue is lack of nuance and respect. – Sklivvz Oct 11 at 11:03
  • 1
    The story with Monica still unclear. This. If they will do this to someone like Monica for asking questions about a potential, future CoC, then I'm not liking my chances if I accidentally miss something. – SecretAgentMan Oct 11 at 14:01
57

There is much more traffic on Meta Stack Exchange (about 3 times the usual) since September 28th (the day after Monica was fired):

enter image description here

More traffic means more votes. For the Hot Network Questions, that means the vote distribution is skewed in the positive direction, because almost all users can upvote but not downvote due to the association bonus. However, on Meta Stack Exchange only 100 reputation is required to downvote. By the way, this is on purpose.

Of course, being , the announcement of the Code of Conduct changes would have been visible for everybody in the network (and rightfully so). However, and this was very surprising to me, the previous iteration of the Code of Conduct didn't cause a spike in the Meta Stack Exchange traffic, despite being featured twice (the first draft was featured as well).

One could argue that the current situation is actually for the better: now the company really sees how their user base thinks about the new changes.

  • 13
    "now the company really sees how their user base thinks about the new changes" The question is whether they will draw conclusions from this. – Suvitruf says Reinstate Monica Oct 11 at 8:28
  • 5
    I think the traffic is a symptom, not a cause. This doesn't explain why this is such a big deal to people, only shows that it is. Yes, many moderator resignations were related to how this got rolled out, mishandling Monica's case, etc. Yet at the same time speaking for myself and at least a few other moderators, no matter how gracefully this had been introduced it would still have been a big deal (and we would still have had to resign) because it represents a change in kind, not just of degree. I think that's what the stats reflect. This isn't just another tweak. – Caleb Oct 11 at 8:55
  • I wonder how the traffic correlates to the news articles on the register... – Journeyman Geek Oct 11 at 8:57
  • 14
    @JourneymanGeek I'm pretty sure there aren't 1500+ visitors coming in from The Register with enough rep to downvote on meta. – Caleb Oct 11 at 9:07
  • 7
    Traffic on Mi Yodeya Meta, where Monica wrote her original post, went up almost a hundred-fold. – Alex Oct 11 at 12:27
52

I'll sum it up, hopefully expand the answer at later point in time.

  1. Monica.
  2. Forcing people to go against what they believe in if they want to use SO/SE.
44

It's easy:

As to the why:

  1. Completely mismanaging Monica.

  2. Letting people come to the conclusion that you (SE) are actually lying about the how and why of the demodding, therefore throwing away lots and lots of goodwill and trust.

  3. Forcing people who freely contribute time and content into abiding by what is a minority (see below) opinion in respect to language use if they want to continue to contribute.

Point 3 would be much, much less of a problem if people hadn't developed trust issues due to point 2.

None of this is necessary in order to make sure the mods have the tools to deal with people being unkind or actually hurtful (and it's also far from sufficient). SE's continued refusal to see this is counterproductive.

So, how to begin fixing it:

  • Reinstate Monica.

  • Revert to the previous CoC while coming up with improvements that the community can stand behind.

Note that both of these are actions.


Edit:

I was asked to provide a source for my use of the term "minority opinion" in regards to pronoun choice in language use. With that term, I was especially referring to Q9 and Q11 of the official CoC pronoun FAQ. For me, the more disturbing one is Q11, but on hearing "minority opinion", I guess people think of Q9, and for Q9 I was actually surprised to learn opinions are almost evenly divided, at least according to PEW Research Center publication 1 and PEW Research Center publication 2 (the basis for the first one). OTOH, the same sources also make it clear that there are a lot of people which are at least somewhat uncomfortable about using these pronouns. Anyway: I don't want to uphold my initial word choice, especially since the main issue of point 3 holds without it, too. 

  • 4
    Minorities are as important as the majority. Tech has issues with lack of diversity, and we can't fix that unless we address issues of inclusivity. – Ave Oct 11 at 11:10
  • 20
    @Ave. I'm of a very divided mind about that. I have huge issues with your first sentence as a general statement. YES, it's paramount that we protect minorities and give them a voice. But NO, minorities should NOT get the same say in making policy decisions that affect all of us. In a democracy, it's one vote per person, not one vote per group. I do agree with the need to address issues to affect change, but I think that forcing people who contribute written answers voluntarily to write in a way they're uncomfortable with is not a smart way to do this, especially in light of my point 2 (trust). – Pascal says Talk to Monica Oct 11 at 12:41
  • 12
    @Ave You can't fix inclusivity by considering the needs of one group, while ignoring the needs of other groups. Certain religious groups will have faith objections against using preferred pronouns, and the only option the CoC provides them is to disengage from conversations, rather than allow them to avoid using preferred pronouns alltogether. – Alex Oct 11 at 15:42
  • 5
    @Jaco You can be reprimanded for disengaging. The only truly safe option for those who object is to not use the site. – Reinstate Monica Oct 12 at 1:20
  • 4
    The cited poll is irrelevant to the question of whether it's a minority opinion, because it only polled US residents and they're an unrepresentative and very small minority. – Peter Taylor Oct 12 at 7:08
  • @PeterTaylor: That may be, but then again, why ignore data that casts doubt on something I originally wrote? I'm interested in truth, not being right. I didn't find stats for my own country (European here), but if you do find better data, please share the link. – Pascal says Talk to Monica Oct 12 at 7:13
  • 5
    The boot should be on the other foot: it's a minority opinion because the majority of people can't understand the question - it fails to fit their strongest languages' frameworks and/or cultures and/or worldviews. So it should be those who claim it isn't a minority view who have to supply evidence. – Peter Taylor Oct 12 at 7:45
43

Let's be more inclusive!


But shall we please not make the code of conduct paternalizing towards the users of StackExchange and dictate in a very rigid, detailed way and intrusive manner what words/language people have to use and how we can be nice to each other.

Language has to evolve. You should not (can not) demand from others that they are going to use some particular word, or at least it would be equally respectful to allow others their preferred way of speaking English.

  • You can demand that another should not follow gender stereotypes and should instead be gender-neutral.
  • But you cannot demand what exact words/language another person has to use in order to do this.

Of course, it is respectful when people match each other's language and follow up on other people's desires and respect that some particular use of words may be offensive. But such behaviour needs to develop naturally and can/should not be placed into rules.

The use of a pronoun (referring to a person by a general word) is not like the use of a person's name (referring to a person by a very specific label that has been given to the person or has been chosen by the person).

It is obvious that some people may be afflicted when certain pronouns are used to refer to them because these pronouns classify people (like gender) and that might be a misclassification (this pain should be acknowledged and respect would mean that one will try to avoid inflicting it). However, unlike with a personal name, with a pronoun requiring/demanding others to use a particular pronoun (as if it is a personal name) is not respectful towards those people.

Let other people please make up for themselves what words they prefer to use or not.

Just like:

  • I cannot demand that others always use my name with the adjective 'smart' or 'pretty' (as in, my preferred personal name is 'smart pretty Martijn') or whatever I feel like is my personality.*
  • I cannot demand that others use specific verbs (as in when speaking about me then I would prefer that you say I am 'running' instead of 'walking'),

Just like that

  • I can neither demand from others that they always use a specific 'pronoun' instead of the pronoun that they prefer to use to refer to others. Pronouns are common terms in language, and each person has their own individual way to speak and use language. Desiring that others use a particular term is interfering with others personal habits, language, ways of expression.

*Actually when I present myself to a non-Dutch speaking person, then I use "my name is 'Martijn' but you can call me 'Martin'", thus giving the other the freedom because the pronunciation of my name is not so easy.

Now, the above-stated does not mean that there is something wrong with telling another person that one would prefer a certain pronoun. This is completely natural and does not interfere with the other person who can note the preferences and try to follow it. But the other is free to use it in a way that they feel is most suitable for them. Now, and this is the worst thing about the CoC, the creation of a rule that the use of preferred pronouns is obligatory, is changing the way how preferred pronouns are being used and how people need to respond when you state your preferred pronouns. If somebody desires the use of a particular preferred pronoun, then before the CoC they could politely ask this without intruding into the personal freedom of the other, but now with the new CoC stating ones preferred pronoun on StackExchange, becomes an act of enforcing how others have to talk. I imagine that for some people this is not at all desired and it may be working against inclusiveness because these people might feel less free to state their preferred pronoun.


Written by StackExchangeStrike

  • 7
    I love this point of view. This is exactly how it should work. The application of force makes the CoC currently so extremely dangerous. – Christine H. Richards Oct 11 at 16:58
42

Respect is a two way street. You cannot demand it, you cannot force it. If you do, then you are the one not showing respect.

Be nice would be sufficient for any CoC.

Current CoC goes beyond that and tries to enforce how people write and how should they think. On one side it looks completely innocuous and leaves room to express yourself freely as you would normally do, but then clarifications of certain parts show that you MUST write in specific way or you will be punished.

I have been around for a long time and I have managed not to offend anyone pronoun wise. If I did, they never told me. I am sure I can manage to be respectful in the future, too. But, I get distracted, tired... doing my best may not be enough... I even mix up my kids names all the time.

That also should not pose serious problem, after all intent is what matters and I am sure I don't intend to offend anyone. But in light of recent events when company has shown utmost disrespect and disregard to elected moderator, how can I expect to be treated fairly.

I cannot. I no longer trust the company.

And most of all, I am not going to surrender my freedom of speech. If I allow that, what will be next?

41

Downvotes represent disagreement (on Meta, for most questions). The downvotes on that Code of Conduct change indicate that a large number of people think that those Code of Conduct changes should not be implemented.

If Stack Exchange wants a major change to be received well, the simple answer is to run it by the community before committing to it. If a proposed change is received poorly, then you don't have a problem; simply don't do the thing that was received poorly. (And, presumably, come up with a different proposal, or ask an open-ended question if you're at a loss.)

  • 14
    My guess is that they didn't want feedback for this CoC because they knew it would be negative. Unlike previous CoCs, I can't find a draft post from SE staff about pronoun-CoC. It was like "we decided this, you will obey or get banned". – Fermi paradox Oct 11 at 16:02
36

What are the (main) reasons that the current changes are received so negatively?

I'm guessing that this is multi-faceted.

  • We had a moderator elevated to literally the highest level of trust (one step shy of being an actual employee at one point) fired over what was reported as a current violation of the CoC.
  • We get an initial apology which isn't received very well.
  • We get a better written apology which may have soothed some anger but still raised a few valid points about the timeline.
  • The network is, by definition, dual purpose; there are the technical network sites and the non-technical network sites, and this is an issue which tends to come up more often on the non-technical sites than it does the technical sites. Yet, technical sites are forced to accept the status quo as prescribed by the CMs.

And how could/should Stack Exchange improve to make sure such major changes are received better in the future?

A message like this isn't going to be received any better in the future.

...and I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it to be, either.

The intention behind it is good. It's something I can get behind in general. Don't call someone what they don't want to be called.

The delivery and execution, though, is pretty awful. In my view, it has the power to ignore the complete other half of the network.

In the course of my answering questions on Stack Overflow, my compiler or interpreter doesn't care what preferred pronoun is used by the OP, so it makes little sense to me as to why it has to be kept around on a technical site. But, it has to be. It's like no one solicited feedback from technical site moderators, or none of them thought enough to ask about this.

36

What happened?

In my opinion, the situation is fairly clear. There's been a cold war brooding between the community and SE's community team for a while. Especially among moderators and other more-involved users, there's been little satisfaction with the activities of Stack Exchange, Inc. Its community team is the interface point where these tensions concentrate.

The cold war recently heated up due to a series of incidents. Forced arbitration was enforced for dubious reasons. The relicensing wasn't dubious but outright illegal. In both cases, SE's community team utterly failed. This cocked the gun.

The trigger was pulled with the CoC. With all the important work that the community team should have been doing, this is what they did?! But even this was not what turned the cold war hot. The confirmation of open hostilities on the community was the firing of Monica. The community solidified, and we saw the wave of moderator resignations. And Monica's firing was followed by even more hostile actions - outright and repeated threats of widespread bans, removing critical comments, lies about apologies.

What can be done to change this?

A community team that is in a state of war with the community is useless. Sorry. It is a hard decision to be made by SE's leadership, but the current community team cannot remain. Naming names is probably not useful; there is nothing to be gained by trying to determine exactly which members of the team are most responsible.

It's similar to a sports team. When the communications between the team and the coach breaks down, the coach gets to find a new job. You can't fire the athletes. SE Inc can't fire its community, its customers.

  • There is one long standing member of the community team I truely respect, they have locked one of my answer and deleted comments I think they should not have, but have shown a understanding of my views. The other members of the community team have all seem to have decided that one small group of people can forced another group of people to say things they believe to be incorrect. – Ian Ringrose Oct 12 at 17:35
  • 9
    This is a good answer overall, but remember, if you aren't paying for the product, you aren't a customer, you are the product. SE doesn't give 2 *&!s about you, the user, since their customers are advertisers and Twitter people (the former pay them money, the latter shower them with heart affirming virtuous praise that can't be bought with mere money). The fact that they stole your hard earned work (or to be more nuanced, fraudulently duped you into submitting it WITHOUT clearly stating that you can't erase it AND that its benefits will be abused) doesn't bother them. – DVK Oct 13 at 17:40
30

Users feel increasingly insecure.

CoC changes are, when all things pondered, a tiny change in natural speech most users would accomodate without even thinking, but the general context of which all of this happened (advertisement, Monica case, and other things that I won't recall) let to think the rules could be enforced in an unreasonable manner.

Users feel insecure about being trolled and/or banned for writing as they normally speak.

Nothing could be done by SE inc in a climate where they aren't trusted to be of good faith. Reinstauring trust was a primary requirement.

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Put bluntly it is more stick than carrot and is typical of the zeitgeist - dog pile until people rage quit. And frankly, it makes me sick to the stomach.

What happened to educating people? Mutual empathy? Treating people like human beings? What happened to celebrating differences?

I've been lucky enough to work with all sorts of people and different people are hugely enriching to your world view.

So please, consider people who aren't quite on the same page yet rather than proselytizing from the moral high ground. Judge not lest ye be judged.

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To be precise it is the FAQ linked to the CoC that assumed a certain dissidence and resistance among Stack Exchange's supporters and members. And they weren't wrong.

The unprecedented firing of Monica Cellio backfired tremendously.

It just messed up things in a tremendous and spectacular manner. Furthermore, despite the second public apology, Cellio was still not reinstated. Therefore, the FAQ with its extensive amendment–a total of 14 Questions–guaranteed users' opposition.

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    These apologies are worse than no statements at all because the deeds do not match the words; so the apologies are hypocritical and reflect negatively on the company, independent of whether they were meant sincerely or not. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Oct 12 at 15:44
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    The only person fired should be Sara Chipps. Sara, you are welcome to silence me, for having that opinion. – Ramhound Oct 13 at 1:04
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I downvoted against the CoC because it says

We don’t tolerate any language likely to offend or alienate people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion

Now we know that from various court cases in England and USA that this is not possible and much more effort has been put into resolving these than Stack Exchange can do. Yes there are some cases where religious views clash with gender views and they are not reconcilable.

Thus the CoC is logically impossible to be implemented by referring to the rules. So that implies that Stack Exchange employees will have to make decisions on which offended person to back or penalize. Now the FAQ appears reasonable but then we get to the comments by SE staff in replies. See this answer

If a user states their preferred pronouns in the course of asking a technical question - where personal identity doesn't generally apply - would removing that language then constitute a violation of the CoC?

@Catija a Community Manager for the Stack Exchange Network comments

Please don't remove these. We don't have an official way to notate this for the time being, so if someone opts to put this in their post, please leave it there. Many users won't be aware of these changes, so we need to assume good intentions and roll back and possibly comment to let them know. If it turns into a rollback war, please draw the attention of the mods. –

My view is summed up in the comment by @fredsbend

"Oh, hey, I'm 22 years old, non-binary (they/them, please) and my dog is so cute. Anyway, I've got this professor that's assigned this homework and I need help. He's not a very good professor. I'm trying to learn the coding, but it's hard, so I hope you can all help me out. Here it goes. What's the answer to this question? Thanks for your help." @Catija So, we can delete virtually all of the non-bold part from the question, but not the pronoun part?

So the question will then only apply to this who use they as a pronoun (a bit more obvious if the user asked for xir or other unusual pronoun), On a Java question it needs to apply to all users not just a subset.

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    I don't understand your last point. Are you saying that if a question includes a stated pronoun, that somehow makes the question only applicable to people who use that pronoun? I posted a question on Aviation.SE that started with: "This past Saturday, I started training in a Schweizer 2-33A glider." Does that mean my question is only applicable to other people who started training in a Schweizer 2-33A on a Saturday? – Tanner Swett Oct 11 at 12:32
  • @TannerSwett What does that add to the question - the question will be how does the Schweizer 2-33A do X. The framing is irrelevant and should be edited out. – user151019 Oct 11 at 12:46
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    Well, here's the full question for what it's worth: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/54300 I think the opening sentence is useful because it explains how the question is a practical, answerable question based on an actual problem I faced. The framing invites answers that are valuable and useful but don't literally answer the core question, such as "if you move the spoiler handle up, that gives you a lot more legroom." It also tells answerers my level of experience. – Tanner Swett Oct 11 at 12:57
  • It could be cut down as the answer is not dependant on being on a Saturday or done recently. The experience level might be useful but this in many ways is just a form of showing what research you have done. The basic thing I think is that the question and answer are not really meant for the asker but for future readers that have a similar problem so limiting the scope limits the audience. – user151019 Oct 11 at 13:04
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    @TannerSwett I would not edit the question as it stands but if there were other things that needed correcting I might well remove what I consider extraneous non relevant things. The issue is that the SE staff seem to say we cannot remove irrelevant things – user151019 Oct 11 at 13:14
  • But his dog is so cute! How can you be so exclusive and unwelcoming by deleting his cute dog? – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 13 at 8:43
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I believe the core issue is that the new change moves dangerously close, if not crossing the line, in to forced speech and certainly moves away to the assumption of positive intent. This entire platform is based on concepts similar to the open source movement which place tremendous importance on the value of freedom of both self and information.

By making rules overly prescriptive, it assumes bad intent from a community of contributors who contribute out of extremely good intent, which is a slap in the face. Further, compelling speech is a direct affront that many within the open source/free information community would find an explicit contradiction of values held dear by the community.

Finally, what this really signals is that the management of Stack Overflow are moving out of touch with the community. It has gone from a technical management that understand the values that drive the community forward through mutual respect and freedom and are instead driving towards something else entirely that I'm not even really sure how to describe, but it is at odds with core principles (freedom) of the type of person that makes an active Stack Exchange member.

For a rule to be effective and accepted in a community for which freedom is a core value, the rule really needs to be as minimally prescriptive as possible while still accomplishing its goal. Many believe this new CoC is far off the mark on that. The problem is not directly the goal, the problem is how they got there.

In addition to all of that, it's probably actually harmful to the group it's trying to protect, so it's also likely highly ineffective at accomplishing it's goal while also flying in the face of core tenets of the community.

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Reasons and meta-reasons:

  1. No public atmosphere expecting CoC changes as an avenue for resolving something right now.
  2. Changes initiated by SE Inc in parallel with unconscionable behavior, not yet resolved.
  3. Over-hyping of the LBGTQ+ welcoming-and-acceptance issue
  4. No trust in SE Inc as honest enforcers, and can't even rely on moderators to soften the blow considering what we've seen.
  5. Existing CoC already draconic and unwelcome - less of that, not more, would be better.
  6. People expect resolution of the Cellio + other moderators resignation issue before implementation of new policy.
23

Here's the CoC I want:

We here at SE are a diverse bunch, with strong ideas and we want to make sure this is a safe place for everyone. This is going to require us all to be tolerant and compassionate toward those who have ideas differing from our own. To do this we have some rules:

  1. Assume no offence was intended and be tolerant when people say offensive things without malice.
  2. Be gracious toward others and treat them respectfully even if you disagree with them.
  3. Don't deliberately try and provoke or offend each other, because we're going to delete it and no one will be impressed.
  4. Value those who are different to you, as they are the ones you will learn the most from.
  5. We're going to critique and modify your stuff, we do this because were passionate about making things that will be useful to lots of people. Don't take it personally, instead help us make it even better.

I'd like this with some fun comics amongst it.

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    SE is not a social network, you shouldn't try to get to know anyone imo because that generally generates a lot of noise not related to the Q&A (except perhaps in chat). – Erik Reinstate MonicA Oct 11 at 10:45
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    @eric_a fair call you are totally right, but you get my point – Not loved Not their people Oct 11 at 10:49
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    @ErikA "SE is not a social network" You have some good (basic) point here. I'd recommend to add: "Don't take critiques about your posted content personal, but concentrate about improving the content," – πάντα ῥεῖ Oct 11 at 10:49
  • @πάνταῥεῖ that capture the sentiment as colloquially as possible? – Not loved Not their people Oct 11 at 11:01
  • @LukeMcGregor Yeah, at least adding that point was a good idea. – πάντα ῥεῖ Oct 11 at 11:03
  • This does not answer the question "why are the code of conduct changes received so negatively". – Raedwald Oct 11 at 11:03
  • totally agree, its one of the common offences – Not loved Not their people Oct 11 at 11:03
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    @Raedwald this is what I was answering: What are the (main) reasons that the current changes are received so negatively? And how could/should Stack Exchange improve to make sure such major changes are received better in the future – Not loved Not their people Oct 11 at 11:05
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    @Raedwald - I think this answers the question well. The gist of the answer is, "Because we would have preferred a lighter, more flexible CoC instead of one that seems so agenda-driven." – J.R. means 'Just Reinstate' Oct 11 at 11:06
  • @Raedwald There's also the question "what can / could have been done to change that?", thus at least it's answering the question partially. – πάντα ῥεῖ Oct 11 at 11:06
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    I guess overall what im trying to say is I want a CoC that's going to do a couple of things, put people at ease. Set them on the right footing for conflict, and tell them we expect respect. I remember way back this was how it was, and I think it fostered a much healthier community. – Not loved Not their people Oct 11 at 11:08
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    I think lighthearted is really important too, you don't want a heavy handed CoC that turns common sense into a list of taboos – Not loved Not their people Oct 11 at 11:10
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    This doesn't even mention bigotry, but does manage to state that "other ideas" / "offensive things" should be tolerated multiple times. It's pretty clear that such a CoC would open the doors for antisemitic, racist, sexist, trans- and homophobic commentary if it is just phrased nicely enough / not "deliberate". At non-technical sites we already have enough problems handling the bigotry without a CoC that explicitly says that it should be tolerated. – tim Oct 11 at 13:02
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    @Tim If we are going to get on we all need to accept that sometimes that's going to mean letting it go when what we believe conflicts with what someone else does. What we need to avoid is people deliberately trying to hurt each other or do damage to people who are different. We cannot prevent people getting offended in a diverse community (and we shouldn't try). Preventing offence is synonymous with reducing diversity. – Not loved Not their people Oct 11 at 13:20
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    @LukeMcGregor That's not my experience. I've seen plenty of disparaging comments about eg Jews or black people at eg politics.SE, and even with the CoC as-is, handling of them has at times been less than ideal. If we reduce the CoC to not being "unpleasant to each other", it gives us even less power to have negative comments about groups of people removed (because it can be countered with 'it's not mean to a specific user and according to the CoC you should just tolerate my ideas/values'). – tim Oct 11 at 13:51
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What are the (main) reasons that the current changes are received so negatively? And how could/should Stack Exchange improve to make sure such major changes are received better in the future?

Frankly, I think this is the largest part of the problem. Just as with the official responses to the controversy surrounding Monica's dismissal and public shaming, the community is angry that it's apparently not even crossing the minds of the Stack Exchange management and staff to consider that it's what they did that's the problem - they're concerned only with the reaction to it, and with how they could have better managed that reaction.

It comes across like a convicted bank robber saying at their sentencing:

Your honor, I'm really surprised that I robbed a bank and was caught and imprisoned. I don't remember a previous action of mine being received so negatively. How can I improve to make sure I can rob banks without getting caught in the future?

The negative reaction shows that the majority of people reacting don't like the changes, and that's the issue that concerns them. They consider the changes divisive and conducive to creating a toxic and hostile environment - changes that are likely to exacerbate the problem SE claims it's trying to solve and which are likely to harm and endanger precisely the group it's claiming to be particularly trying to protect.

Instead of taking a position which encourages tolerance and which facilitates a diverse group of people to peacefully co-exist and work together despite their differences, SE deliberately chose to elevate and privilege one subsection of the community and to belittle and punish the other, in the face of numerous, serious objections. Regardless of the merits on either side of the pronouns argument, this will catastrophically fail as an attempt to achieve a diverse and healthy community, as countless examples throughout history show, and as many of the reactions on the part of those supporting the changes - including some members of SE staff - are showing as we speak.

Or, does it even matter that the current sentiment is the way it is, as long as the company is (feeling that it is) doing the Right Thing™?

There are few things in the world with the capacity to cause as much harm as people with power blindly persisting in "doing (what they feel to be) the Right Thing" while blithely ignoring the damage that's causing. That's a road that never leads to a good place.

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I'd like to point out how impractical this policy might seem. Some points I agree with; some I don't. I attempt to merely present each point.

"if you don’t know someone’s pronouns, use gender-neutral language rather than making an assumption."

Currently, "they" and "them" are acceptable in the singular form. Fairly recently, that wasn't the case. It also wasn't too long ago that "he" was accepted as gender-neutral. This is similar to Spanish, where you always use the masculine form of a plural to refer to a group of mixed genders. It may seem like SE is attempting to dictate which strains of English speech are allowed on this site - which might seem like an odd use of resources.

"Whether and how you identify your pronouns is up to you. If you choose to do so, add it to the “About Me” section of your user profile."

Before users use pronouns (including neutral "they/them") they must possibly check the profile of the person they are talking to (or the little pop-up blurb, if the user being addressed has one).

"Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity and is a violation of the Code of Conduct."

Determining intent on this policy is going to be very, very difficult.

"Do I have to use pronouns I’m unfamiliar or uncomfortable with (e.g., neopronouns like xe, zir, ne... )? Yes, if those are stated by the individual."

Who determines what a legitimate pronoun is? Where do we distinguish between trolls and people acting in good faith?

Some other issues people might have:

"Grammar concerns do not override a person’s right to self identify."

A lot of writers aren't going to like that.

"Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity and is a violation of the Code of Conduct."

Some people just avoid pronouns across the board so that they don't need to check which pronouns to use. Is this the same situation as avoiding a specific person's pronoun?


Some presentation issues:

No one in the community had much of a say on the wording of the policy.

Most language restrictions on this site are what I call passive restrictions: Don't say this; don't say that. This one comes across as (one of the first) active restrictions: Do say this. People might chafe at that.

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    "Who determines what a legitimate pronoun is? " - as a corollary, if I follow somebody's bad-faith pronoun choice not recognizing it was chosen in bad faith, will I be seen as acting in bad faith myself and dealt with accordingly? – John Dvorak Oct 13 at 8:09
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The core problem underlying everything appears to be that Sack Exchange, Inc (SE) has squandered a lot of social capital in a fairly short amount of time. A lot of these issues are mentioned in the question. However, in the scheme of things, it's quite possible that a lot of network users were not aware of this since they don't frequent Meta.

Against this backdrop of neutral/poor options of SE, they very poorly handled the dismissal of Monica Cellio. If you are familiar with social network analysis, Monica is clearly in a leadership position with a lot of people aware of them. Now consider the following. As was pointed out in a response to another question,

I think that is the fundamental divide that SE does not seem to understand and why their whole "welcoming" move is met by so much resistance and frustration.

On one hand, we have the technical sites. Those are there to answer User1248346's programming problem. Background is not required nor requested. Whether that user is a man or woman, in the Swiss alps or at an Indonesian beach, married or single, we will never know. Because it does not matter. In fact, sharing that information would be weird. Their compiler will always work the same. Put in the correct code, you get the correct result.

Effectively, this means that a lot of users that weren't aware of problems on the network, now suddenly see a popular moderator getting fired before Shabbat and Rosh Hashana. That generally doesn't look very good. Since it took a bit of time before it was revealed the whole situation was due to a conversation about pronouns in a private SE chatroom. One way of viewing that is SE handling a sensitive topic by stumbling right into another sensitive topic (i.e., dismissal before Shabbat and Rosh Hashana). Accordingly, SE is now needing to manage the situation since network users are going to be looking very critically at them. Clearly that did not go well for a multitude of reasons.

Rolling out the Code of Conduct (CoC) changes went poorly in part because it was done at time when SE is/was being viewed very critically by Meta regulars as well as other interested network users. A critical analysis of the answers made to the post shows a good amount of dog-whistling being done, but there are a fair number of real questions being broached as well. For example, should profiles have a field for pronouns, how should non-native English speakers be managed, how should moderators decide when "enough is enough" for elevating action against users, and so forth.

The worst part is, a lot of this could have been predicted well in advance by SE. If you recall "Donglegate" from 2013, a lot of things played out very similarly and the developer community was equality up in arms about things. This strongly implies that SE doesn't have leadership that is capable of managing these situations.

In terms of what can be done in the future: the CoC changes could have had a delayed public roll-out. While this goes against the desire to fix things now! it does allow everyone to settle down a bit before the changes. Likewise, the nature of the responses to the CoC, and dismissal of Monica, strongly implies that SE really hasn't thought through the problem space. The moderators should have had a private space to discuss the changes and play Devil's advocate to prepare for the reaction from the community. FAQs and scripts could have been drawn up for moderators before release, profile changes could have gone live the same day (or even in advance!), and so forth.

In short, a lot could have been done and the responses could even have been predicted. SE failed to act as a thoughtful leader at a time when it was necessary for them to do so.

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    Just to shed a little light on things: in the last few days moderators did have a bit of a heads-up and some opportunities to bang against wording, as you suggest in your penultimate paragraph. It wasn't a lot of lead time, it was announced and hosted in ways that made it pretty unlikely that a majority of mods would even know about it, and the fact of it met some predictable "oh, now they're drawing up secret words behind closed doors and not letting the regular users see..." objections... but it did happen. Perhaps it's a green shoot. – nitsua60 Oct 11 at 16:05
  • @nitsua60 it happened with the CoC but not the FAQ (basically they asked for it and then completely disregarded it by writing the FAQ) – LinkBerest Oct 11 at 22:28
  • Why is it important to refer to Monica as “them”? To me it reads dogmatic and jarring. – Yuval Filmus Oct 12 at 6:24
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The problem is trust. Intentionally insulting someone by means of pronouns is bad. Few people disagree with that, and it has been forbidden by the original CoC from the beginning.

If people assumed that that's all the CoC is about, there wouldn't be a problem. The problem is that users assume bad faith on the part of those who enforce the CoC, and are afraid the CoC will be abused as an excuse by SE staff to ban them at will, with no realistic chance of appeal, and smear to their reputation on top.

They believe this might happen to them because they believe the same thing recently happened to a very reputable, level headed, and respected member of the community. In the absence of trust, users are looking for a bulletproof CoC that cannot be abused against them.

Stack Exchange has gone to great lengths to reinforce both of the aforementioned beliefs, to a point that some feel can no longer be adequately explained with incompetence.

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