I have a very different take on it than BelovedFool. For them it's an improvement. For me, I'm doubting that holding the views I do, I'm still welcome here.
In lieu of making newcomers welcomed, isn't SE actually overlooking and ignoring sentiments of existing users of site. Shouldn't existing users be felt included?
My short answer to your question is, yes, SE is overlooking and ignoring sentiments of existing users (not necessarily all of them, though), and no, I don't feel very welcome and included right now as an established user.
The long answer is... well... long. Here's a few of the high points.
- The CoC without the interpretation given in the CoC FAQ would be ok.
- The official interpretation of the CoC excludes me instead of appreciating my work.
- The power to coerce should not be granted according to how much emotional harm you state you experience.
- The CoC should not coerce except to forbid bigotism, hatespeech, etc.
- The CoC should foster tolerance instead of mandating specific world views.
No, I don't feel SE's strategy of be more "welcoming and including" is working at all for a large part of the community, but I can't speak for everyone, so I'll just speak for myself.
For the record, I have no problem with the wording of the Code of Conduct itself. If the FAQ hadn't been published, I could have arranged myself with
Prefer gender-neutral language when uncertain
Use stated pronouns (when known). When in doubt, don’t use language that might offend or alienate
These are more specific explanations of what it means to be "kind and friendly" and "inclusive and respectful". I don't see the need, but others do, and I don't see a glaring problem. Left to interpret these statements on my own, I'm convinced I wouldn't have caused any complaints that would have resulted in anything more serious than a warning nod from a moderator, if that.
The issues come with the FAQ that explains how exactly these two fragments must be interpreted. This interpretation is not only very different from the views I hold about how to be kind, friendly, inclusive and respectful, it requires me to act in a cause that isn't mine, and it states that if I don't choose to do so, then my conduct is unbecoming of someone who wants to participate here.
In other words, it tells me that I am no longer welcome here if I stay true to myself.
How I came to feel welcome here
I participate on two sites; more recently Parenting.SE, initially for no other reason that I liked reading about how other people handle parenting issues I'm faced with. But pretty soon I started participating by answering questions. It's a small site, and it doesn't get much traffic or many questions, but still I'm somewhat proud that people seem to value my contributions there, judging from my standings in the reputation ranking.
You have to get used to Parenting.SE. It doesn't work quite the same way as the others I know. Lots of questions get closed for being off topic. People have strong feelings about parenting and you need to be considerate if you want your answer to be heard. So it helped that before I started answering questions, I observed how others did it. Pretty soon I noticed that some things do transfer from other, technical Stack Exchange sites: The important thing is to stay on topic. Even on a non-technical site, it's the question that matters, not the person. (I'm obviously not the only one to feel that's important - see Robert Harvey's take on it.)
I answered questions (not quite 300 of them across all the sites, which is nowhere near Jon Skeet, but hey, I'm just human) in the belief that this is what matters: You come here for answers.
If you do stick around, getting to feel cozy here with the community is a perk. It takes a bit of time because that's the way it works in any human community: You have to learn the ropes, and you mostly have to conform.
Why the interpretation of the new CoC has me doubt my place on the network
I have two separate issues with the official interpretation of the new CoC:
The appreciation issue: SE requires me to change the way I write in a fundamental way and expects me to put in more effort, even though I do this voluntarily, for the benefit of people who come here seeking answers.
The opinionated, authoritarian take on what it means to be friendly, and what causes harm
The appreciation issue
I want to feel appreciated for offering up answers. I take care in writing them. I freely contribute content to a company that uses it to profit, and I don't expect financial compensation in return. But now suddenly that's not good enough any more. Now the same company that has profited from my 300 answers requires me to
put in more effort, and
disregard my own feelings towards language, which is important to me,
- it tells me that if I don't want to do it, I'm actively causing harm. It's telling me that the mostly well-received content I produced isn't what's important; if I fail to see the larger vision, it can't be appreciated (look at what happened to Monica).
I find that highly ironic. It certainly doesn't help in making me feel welcome.
I do see that languages evolve, and do so partly to accommodate people's feelings. I've gone from "negro" to "black person" to "African American". Not a problem; language is designed to have synonyms, and it's common that one grows out of use. I've learned to say "chairperson" instead of "chairman" (etc.) even though that often feels awkward to me and I don't really see the need. But it's important to my wife, with whom I want to continue having good relations, so of course I try to accommodate her. It's not just about new nouns, either (we xerox and google things).
I'm sure that when the LBGTQ+ community has formed a consensus on a few new pronouns such as the xir-set and these few sets get accepted by society (a good measure: are they taught in school? And yes, I think it's fairly obvious that a consensus is needed, both due to the grammatical function of pronouns in a language and due to how lobbying works), then yes, I'll use them, too, because to communicate efficiently, I'll need them. I don't have any specific feelings about whether they're a great help or a ridiculous non-starter; I'll see what happens.
But I see no need to do so now, when these pronouns aren't widely known (certainly not where I live), there's multiple sets of them (and there have been for decades!), their future is far from certain and a majority of people who reads an answer or comment that contains them will simply be confused as to their meaning (read the entertaining SF novel "The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet" if you want to familiarize yourself).
I am not a social reformer. I consider myself liberally inclined and a moderate lefty, but the relevant word is "moderate". Spearheading the use of neopronouns in the English language is not a cause I feel a need to participate in, and I don't want to be forced to do so. You're trampling on my identity if you force me to do that, and I resent the fact that this is considered unimportant in the larger context of "we need to be more welcoming and inclusive", especially since I do have a proven track record of caring about the site and working to produce content for it.
Opinions on what it means to be friendly and what causes harm
The FAQ state that
Using someone’s pronouns is a way of showing respect for them and refusing to do so causes harm.
Grammar concerns do not override a person’s right to self identify.
Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity [...]
I take issue with all three of those statements. These are opinions, not facts, and I do not share them.
No, I don't want to intentionally hurt people. I certainly don't want to misgender them. So if someone with a name who made me believe she identifies as female tells me to please stop referring to them as a 'she' because they don't self-identify as a she, of course I'll respect that.
But I'm simply not going to keep a table of neopronouns taped to my screen in the foreseeable future just because someone on the Internet says that refusing to use (their personal set of) neopronouns in talking to someone causes (them) harm.
Is it enough if someone, or even a group of people, says 'This causes me (emotional) harm' for it to necessitate policy changes? If you tend to answer yes, consider: What's to stop me from claiming that "using neopronouns causes me emotional harm"? What kind of rebuttal can you now use to prove me wrong? How would you play arbiter between people whose various claims clashed? How do you plan to deal with the shouting matches that will appear (we're currently witnessing one) if it's enough for someone to feel harmed or excluded in order to require everyone to defer to this person's emotions?
This way lies madness. I don't doubt that people mean it when they tell me something I told them hurt them. I try to make amends.
But it becomes ridiculous with the statement that we are not allowed to avoid pronouns if someone wants us to use them because "it is a way of refusing to recognize their identity". If I avoid referring to someone with a specific term, am I really refusing to recognize their identity? No, of course not. I recognize they see themselves as a [insert pronoun or noun of choice here]. They told me. They made it clear. I just choose not to use that label for them. A label is not an identity (as every programmer knows). All through my school years, I was called by a nickname not of my own choosing. That didn't mean people were refusing to recognize my identity.
I'm a divorce kid (yes, so I'm lucky; that's the worst thing that happened in my life up to now). People talk about their childhood experiences with their father in my presence. I don't have very many of those. So do I go and require people, not only not to speak of their childhood, but to speak about it in ways that makes them uncomfortable? Do I require them to talk to me, say, about all the times their fathers punished them so I feel better, or to acknowledge, every time they speak about their fathers, that I did not have that, thereby affirming my identity as a person-whose-parents-separated-in-their-childhood? Of course not.
Nobody should get to unilaterally define policy on what constitutes harm, and especially not require me to defer to others in how I relate to them to accommodate their perceived emotions.
On Parenting.SE, you often read something very wise: You can't control someone else's emotions. You can only control your own. (or its close cousin, you're not responsible for someone else's emotions, only for your own). Trying to raise children by making sure you never trigger unwanted emotions in them is a really bad idea that likely is doomed to either fail or produce adults which are incapable of controlling their emotions - how could they, when it was never expected of them?
For the same reason, requiring us to defer to others so as not to cause them emotional harm is either doomed to fail or (worse) will help in victimizing said people ("we need to be careful to not cause them emotional harm" is only a small step from "they're volatile and weak", "they're victims" and finally "we need to speak, decide and act for them because they don't have agency"). I'm not sure what people's take on being a victim is nowadays. I grew up thinking it's undesirable.
Note that I'm not making an extremist statement here. I'm not saying that since we can't control and aren't responsible for someone else's emotions, we don't have to take any care at all and anything goes. But there is a difference between not wanting to be actively misgendered, and wanting to dictate how people should refer to you.
For me, the current interpretation (as specified in the FAQ) of the Code of Conduct can't be salvaged. It needs to lose its authoritarian, if not totalitarian reach, which means first and foremost that it may suggest, but should not mandate except to state, as it does, that bigotry of any kind isn't tolerable, and it should not make blanket statements on what is harmful for any specific group of people, while staying silent about everyone else. It should not make blanket statements about what is harmful at all (IMO the Unfriendly/Friendly examples are a much better way to get the point across).
There is a word, tolerance, that is strangely absent in the Code of Conduct, except to say what isn't tolerated (bigotism). I miss a positive mention to go along with the one negative use of the word (with which I wholeheartedly agree, btw).
I'll tolerate you, even if I don't hold the same values, the same convictions, the same experiences that make you what you are, even if your convictions evoke strong emotions on my part. This requires effort on my part, but in return, you'll tolerate me, too.
I often think that participating on a Stack site is an exercise in tolerance. How do I deal with the question how to cure a daughter's fear of guns? I am not at all on the same page about guns as the poster. I have strong emotions on the subject. I think the world would be a much better place, with lots of people saved from seriously getting hurt, if gun ownership was way more tightly controlled. But I don't vent my opinions on gun control there and then, and even if I owned the platform, I wouldn't decide that what we need is a policy to only talk about gun control in ways I find agreeable, even though I'm absolutely convinced I'm right (incidentally, I came across the same person on another stack, where I respect his knowledge about IT security, and I certainly don't judge his character because of his opinions on guns).
No: What I actually do is answer his question, because that's what he came for, and what I'm staying around for. He in turn hopefully won't hold me in contempt because I don't share his views on guns. We're both better off because he's got an answer that gives him some new ideas, and I'm happy because my answer was appreciated.
I wish the SE people would concentrate less on mandating a specific view of looking at the world, and focus more on fostering tolerance.
One way to do that would be to work on improving the system that deals with quickly removing or improving content flagged as hateful (because racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc). Obviously they've not found a technical solution to improve the system by a large enough margin (see Sara Chipps blog post Iterating on inclusion) to make people feel better, and they don't have or are unwilling to spend money on moderators. That would help to make minorities feel tolerated. So now they're looking at social solutions to fix the problem, but they're a company, so they're not very good at it and think that the way to do it is to legislate how we talk to each other. (That's the nice interpretation. The unkind one would be that they simply don't care very much about keeping established users happy because other business interests take priority and hey, these people are bound to our platform because their communities are here, so they won't leave!).
If existing users have made the site untenable for others..-- But have they? There's no shortage of reddit posts and quora posts from disgruntled first-time users, railing about how Stack Overflow is an elitist club, but how much of that is legitimate griping, and how much of it is just sour grapes because their vague, underspecified question got closed? No matter how you sugar-coat that, it's still going to taste like cough syrup to those folks.