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I want to start by acknowledging the hurt and exhaustion that the members of the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies have experienced in our community as moderators and users. We have read the Lavender Letter internally and repeatedly discussed how we can support you in the future. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with some of the authors of this letter in a call and in chat, for which I am grateful. They were gracious enough to share specific experiences and struggles to help me understand the letter and how we can better support their needs.

We want to apologize to the LGBTQIA+ community members for the hurt they endured from our inactions or actions in the past. There are numerous members of the LGBTQIA+ community and a network of allies (among which I count myself) at every level of the company, and we all want to better support you going forward. I am sorry that this letter took so long to respond to publicly. We have been working behind the scenes to understand the needs of the LGBTQIA+ community and to be able to get to a place where we can schedule and commit to timeframes for these responses. We have had a lot to work through internally to better support our entire community, but this topic is important to us.

In the Code of Conduct, we state “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.” To clarify, this includes discussion questioning or debating the legitimacy of someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Further, the debate or discussion of whether or not you want to or should use a person’s pronouns is both offensive and alienating.

Based on the letter and subsequent conversations, we are making these commitments to address the concerns raised:

  • All members of the Community Team and selected members of the Public Platform Team have already taken 13 hours of Diversity & Inclusion Training. This training has been coordinated and advised by our own internal diversity & inclusion expert. We’ve also been provided with resources for best practices in using pronouns and to help us better identify microaggressions specifically towards our LGBTQIA+ users.

  • Teachers’ Lounge moderation tools are on the roadmap for the Public Platform team for Q4 of this year. This will allow the room to be moderated like other chat rooms. The second module of Moderator Training will focus on Diversity & Inclusion, and will be launched by the end of the year.

Clarifications on the Code of Conduct and our commitment to enforcing it:

  • We’ve established a new procedure for handling CoC violation reports: If the CM looking at it deems that it’s completely not actionable (meaning it can, without a doubt, be dismissed outright), they must ask a second CM to confirm. If the second believes it should trigger an investigation, one has to happen. In a case where the complaint is against a moderator, this will trigger the Moderator Conduct Review Process - any CM can opt out of the investigation if they feel biased and the remaining CMs are randomly assigned.

  • Where appropriate, we commit to reviewing and revising the Moderator Conduct Review Process to ensure fairness and openness, while addressing much of the feedback we have received about the existing process.

  • Our Privacy Policy prevents us from sharing whether or not action was taken against third parties due to a report. However, we still want to provide the reporter with closure, and are working on automation to let you know when the report is closed. You should receive an acknowledgement once we start work on it, and at the end of the month we’ll send a batch response to reports that were dealt with during that month - letting the reporter know the matter is now closed.

  • We have heard complaints about alleged Code of Conduct violations from 2019 and earlier where the public perception is that a thorough investigation was not carried out, or that the user may not have received a sufficient warning (or other consequence). As we said above, we are unable to comment on the specifics of any case. And while we understand and empathize with the pain involved in these issues, we are not going to reopen old cases at this time. We are optimistic that these types of events will not recur. That said, an investigation into a new Code of Conduct violation will also include an evaluation of any previous issues whether or not the user was officially warned, and these can influence the result of the investigation.

We believe these commitments will better enable our staff to support LGBTQIA+ community members, help our 550+ moderators learn more about how these issues impact their sites and guide them in how to handle effectively situations that may occur. We are taking a strong stance to protect the LGBTQIA+ members of our community and ensure they can participate safely in the network. I hope that the Lavender Letter’s authors will continue to share and collaborate with us in the future to identify more opportunities for improvement. We commit to listening to your concerns and responding appropriately to improve the community experience for LGBTQIA+ members going forward.

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    I'm glad that you finally are in a place where you can make a public announcement about these matters. Not that I am at all invested in the matter here, but I still believe that getting back to these types of long standing pain points helps build trust between SE inc. and the community. – Luuklag Oct 5 at 18:55
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    Further, the debate or discussion of whether or not you want to or should use a person’s pronouns is both offensive and alienating. is a bit weirdly put, it sounds as if when I point out hey, you should probably use that persons preferred pronoun or Of course I want to use their preferred pronoun, I just didn't know it and use they by default I could get punished. Perhaps the advice could be somewhat more specific, especially to make posts by staffers that discuss the point that you should use preferred pronouns not violate it? – Erik A Oct 6 at 12:01
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    @StopharmingMonica My point is, meta is currently full of such discussions surrounding those changes, and if I read this correctly they all violate the CoC and should get removed. Perhaps that's the takeaway here and that should happen, since these aren't the best meta posts. – Erik A Oct 6 at 13:01
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    @ErikA My point is that the CoC and the FAQ were amog the first places where this was discussed in public. My takeaway being that saying that we don't tolerate such discussions is quite a poor way of describing whatever we are expected to behave. – Stop harming Monica Oct 6 at 13:43
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    @ErikA at least I think they all deserve a historical lock. Completely erasing them also doesn't feel right to me. There were some (hopefully genuine) objections and questions, erasing all that feels too much like censorship to me. Should we allow new questions debating this matter? No, not at all as they now are clearly forbidden. – Luuklag Oct 6 at 18:17
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    There's a difference between questioning the wording, and clarifying intent of the COC and trying to undermine it. Bit of a fine line but there's constructive critique and there's dismissal that its a problem at all. Least as a mod, I don't want to sweep current discussions under the carpet, but I'd really love to keep the current topic in the rails. – Journeyman Geek Oct 6 at 18:33
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    @ghostcat as Mith wrote, this post has been in the making for over half a year, and we happened to reach the point where we were ready to post this week. When the one year anniversary was brought to our attention, we pushed up the publication date to Monday. So partial coincidence. – Yaakov Ellis Oct 7 at 11:10
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    This still doesn't address any actual legitimate issues, regarding languages that have no neutral language. So, if I speak in Portuguese (portuguese.stackexchange.com and pt.stackoverflow.com) I am still at risk of being suspended/banned? For speaking a language? – Ismael Miguel Oct 12 at 19:04
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    @IsmaelMiguel CoC FAQ, #6 notes "these specific requirements around pronoun usage apply only to the English language". – Em C Oct 12 at 19:51
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    @IsmaelMiguel No, it's not. See the FAQ "It's fine to make an honest mistake - but once you are directly informed of what someone wants, please act accordingly." – Trilarion Oct 14 at 21:59
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    @BryanKrause: 1. "Have you seen a problem with enforcement...?" <- Do I have to remind you that CoC violation trials are secret? We can't see anything about CoC enforcement. 2. The full sentence may sound gentler, but it still says that accidental misgendering is subject to penalty. 3. You're assuming CoC adjudication will interpret things one way instead of another, but they could perfectly do the opposite. 4. You need to decide whether your arguments are substantive or "It doesn't matter because SE inc can do whatever they want". I would answer this argument if you relinquish the other ones. – einpoklum Oct 19 at 8:18
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    @YaakovEllis You've bolded the words 'good faith' presumably due to their importance - but unfortunately, one person's 'good faith' seems to be another person's 'hate' these days. My recent experience is that there's little shared understanding around here of the concept of 'good faith' any more. – topo Reinstate Monica Oct 19 at 12:33
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    @YaakovEllis: The CoC is explicit about "unfriendly language" being forbidden redardless of whether it was intentional or not. No innuendo. And again, because charges and proceedings are secret, we have no guarantee that this is not how it's applied. – einpoklum Oct 19 at 15:26
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    @einpoklum I strongly suggest you make your own thread and not use this one. You've gotten clarification several times now on the language of the CoC, if you want to change it why don't you make your own thread and separate it from the post here that addresses the Lavender letter? Similarly if you want the policy that moderators avoid commenting in public when messaging or suspending a user, read the past meta discussion on the issue and make your own post arguing for a change. – Bryan Krause Oct 19 at 15:40
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    Has SE even done anything to address the first letter that moderators had written and lots of ppl had signed? Why SE just focussed on the second letter (that mostly referenced a specific section of society?) Democracy happens when you stop creating divisions of "minority", "majority" or "privileged", "underprivileged" publicly and still keep working for everyone inclusively; rest all is enforcement/autocracy! – Karan Desai Oct 20 at 8:54

18 Answers 18

163

As clarified by Catija here:

The statement about discussing is: "Further, the debate or discussion of whether or not you want to or should use a person’s pronouns is both offensive and alienating." - This does not mean that all discussion about pronouns is forbidden. It means that debating with a specific person that their pronouns are "wrong" or telling someone "I won't use your pronouns" is rude and offensive to that person. Someone asking "what does zhir mean?" or asking how to use they as a personal pronoun is fine


The current stance on discussion is problematic

As it currently reads, any and all discussion about pronouns are against the CoC. This means:

If a new, English-as-a-second language, user inquires about exactly what these pronouns mean and why they're required to use them, that's against the CoC (remember, many languages don't have gender-neutral pronouns nor neopronouns, so these subjects are especially difficult to learn)

If I, then, engage in that discussion, and try to educate them, that's against the CoC.

The problem with the tolerance paradox happens if you don't allow discussion or education, and shun anyone not meeting your requirement of tolerance. Then, you isolate this community, and division grows, while if you do allow discussion within the constraints of striving for mutual understanding and accepting that pronouns on this site are required (being focused on understanding the why and how instead of denying the rights of others), you have an opportunity to actually reduce bigotry and increase understanding, instead of just distancing yourself from those that don't understand.

Yes, but you should follow the spirit of the rules, not the letter of it

That's problematic for me as well. I implicitly trust the moderators on the sites I contribute to, and I trust them to not follow these rules when they don't make sense.

However, there's a problem with regard to the company:

  • I lost my trust in the company being able to sensibly handle issues surrounding the CoC in the sudden moderator firing last year
  • The company has made clear that not enforcing the CoC is grounds for dismissal as a moderator
  • We're supposed to trust our moderators not to enforce the letter of the CoC, but the spirit of it?

This results in a very awkward situation, where as a mod you have to use your common sense, but can be dismissed if you don't do it right, and asking for clarification about the CoC was (at least rumored to be) one of the major reasons for that historical dismissal.

If you do just use your common sense, you do leave a paper trail of objectively not enforcing the letter of the CoC, which can be used against you.

But you should trust the company as well

I'm sorry, but no. Regarding this issue, that trust has been broken, and it has not been rebuilt.

Don't you realize these discussions can be hurtful, tiring and alienating?

That's the problem. I do. We're putting members of the LGBTQIA+ community in a very difficult position having to encounter these, and even writing this post I realize it might hurt some.

However, I truly believe we must engage in this discussion to help uninformed people, and create understanding instead of forcing people to take things they don't understand at face value. I believe that if we don't fight this fight, we're pushing the problem into the future. And I believe this lack of mutual discussion and understanding, associated with things like search and social media bubbles, is one of the things that's fundamentally wrong with this time, and leads to many of our current (political) problems.

We do need ground rules for these discussions. There are people that engage in these with the purpose to hurt others, and that should not be tolerated. We can try to put these in writing, or, trust the moderators, as has been said I should do.

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    Folks - uh considering the whole point of this answer was rolling in things that were in an extended comment thread into an answer, following up with an extended comment thread kind of feels like it defeats the purpose – Journeyman Geek Oct 11 at 9:38
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    Why do we need to "help uninformed people"? IMO, harm stems from informed people polishing arguments to make "be mean to LGBT+ people" sound reasonable (e.g. trolls exist, therefore we should misgender people) and exploiting Stack Exchange to function as their anti-LGBT+ platform. It seems like we can simply let uninformed people know if/when they make a blip. – Rebecca J. Stones Oct 12 at 3:38
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    @RebeccaJ.Stones It is what stackexchange does. it pairs uninformed people to well written answers. it pairs well informed people to well defined questions in order to do so. It provides knowledge, learning, teaching and (well defined) ignorance is the source of all of it. – StianY Oct 12 at 12:01
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    @ReinstateMonica: Then write a canonical answer on EL&U and/or ELL, mark everything else as a dupe of that, and you're done. There's no need for discussion in comments, chat, or elsewhere. – Kevin Oct 12 at 22:31
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    Why must we "engage in this discussion to help uninformed people?" Uninformed people can be helped by informing them about the policy and how to follow it, not by repeated discussions that require people to justify their identities or restart the conversation from first principles. – Zach Lipton Oct 13 at 4:29
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    We seem to be in agreement that starting a "discussion" would harm LGBT+ users (e.g. via standard concern-troll or sealioning tactics, if not outright hostility), and we've seen how disruptive (and susceptible to rules lawyering) these discussions can be. With these concrete drawbacks, we need something more tangible than providing unspecific "help" to unspecified "uninformed people". What's the endgame here? – Rebecca J. Stones Oct 13 at 12:43
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    Are you aware of the post What does the Code of Conduct say about pronouns?? There's already a fair amount of documentation on this. – Rebecca J. Stones Oct 13 at 13:08
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    @RebeccaJ.Stones forbidding discussion generates information bubbles, and is taken as a sign of repression in many cultures, which will inevitably lead to resistance from people from these cultures. I'm not for or against it, but I'm sure, that if you forbid them completely, it will not benefit anyone. At least not in the long run. – Błażej Michalik Oct 13 at 14:36
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    @BłażejMichalik: Consider that SE already "forbids" discussion on, say, the value/societal benefit/whatever of people of different ethnic groups, religions, etc. "Culture" can't be used as an excuse to cause harm to others, or perpetuate that harm. – V2Blast Oct 13 at 20:14
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    @BłażejMichalik Some things are just givens here and are not up for discussion. For example, "is it ok to direct racial slurs at other users?" is not something that will ever be a meta-discussion here, I hope. Same with "is it ok to say women can't program?" Simply having that discussion means that members of the community have to justify their continued presence and humanity because it's been put up for debate, and that can happen again and again whenever someone wants to discuss it. – Zach Lipton Oct 13 at 22:20
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    @ZachLipton But that's the point of the CoC: to make sure everyone knows "what is a given". The goal should be bursting the bubbles where these kinds of discussions are a normal. And it does require sacrificing one's comfort. Currently, an interpretation is being put forward, that we cannot discuss gender pronouns - no matter whether its pretense for bigotry or not. As I said: I'm neither for nor against. I'm postulating, that this may be a harmful overcorrection, that will alienate people from some cultures. It will instill fear in them, same kind that creates these issues in the first place. – Błażej Michalik Oct 13 at 23:17
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    @BłażejMichalik Imagine if it worked as you propose. Periodically, whenever someone brought it up, we'd have a big "is it ok to direct racial slurs at other users?" discussion. Can you see how extremely bad it would be for people who are the targets of racial slurs to have to keep coming back and saying things like "hey, I don't think I should be the target of racial abuse here" as others argue the opposite view? Can you see how they would not like a discussion about whether or not their humanity should be respected to be "a normal" thing that happens all the time? – Zach Lipton Oct 14 at 0:21
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    @ZachLipton For one, forbidding that discussion does not improve the grand scheme of things. You're dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. Please accept the simple fact, that in order to pull people out from these mindsets you have to talk with them. Sure, it might be more valuable for SE community to create a safe harbor here, but it will be at the cost of having to deal with the issue elsewhere. Secondly, as I mentioned before, this will be taken as a sign of oppression by some, and it will feed their hostilities. That's why I think, that it might be counter productive. – Błażej Michalik Oct 14 at 0:51
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    @ZachLipton To be clear, I understand your angle. I just don't think that the order of the terms in "value of people not hearing things that hurt them > value of discussing it out with people that say things that hurt" is as obvious as you say that it is. It has been proven false on occasion. It's a complex argument, which if taken as trivial, may lead to more harm than good. – Błażej Michalik Oct 14 at 1:16
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    The statement about discussing is: "Further, the debate or discussion of whether or not you want to or should use a person’s pronouns is both offensive and alienating." - This does not mean that all discussion about pronouns is forbidden. It means that debating with a specific person that their pronouns are "wrong" or telling someone "I won't use your pronouns" is rude and offensive to that person. Someone asking "what does zhir mean?" or asking how to use they as a personal pronoun is fine. – Catija Oct 16 at 19:27
113

Our Privacy Policy prevents us from sharing whether or not action was taken against third parties due to a report. However, we still want to provide the reporter with closure, and are working on automation to let you know when the report is closed. You should receive an acknowledgement once we start work on it, and at the end of the month we’ll send a batch response to reports that were dealt with during that month - letting the reporter know the matter is now closed.

Just a statement that the complaint has been closed would not give me closure.

I understand that you can't give public statements regarding actions taken due to a report and I can even follow that it might not be a good idea to share the actions taken with the reporter of an CoC violation, but I would urge you to see if you can include at least the outcome of the investigation (CoC violation yes or no) in the response back to the reporter.

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    +1. IMO, if the privacy policy prevents you from doing this, the privacy policy should be revised. – Ilmari Karonen Oct 6 at 8:53
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    I agree, especially since actions like suspension are for all to see, this is odd. I expect at least the amount of feedback we get on a flag (e.g. helpful/declined), not a general closed, not knowing if the report has been deemed valid, even if specific actions might be left out. This might be fallout of the defamation suit, since that was also about publicly announcing someone violated the CoC, which was handled very poorly. A helpful/declined (which is about raising the issue) instead of CoC violation yes/no might be sufficient to escape such allegations. – Erik A Oct 6 at 9:49
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    @ErikA, there is also the difference between making the information public or communicating it privately to an involved party (the person making the complaint). I am not asking for stuff to be shared publicly. – Bart van Ingen Schenau Oct 6 at 9:58
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    @Bart I get that, just saying the current approach is odd. If someone gets suspended, he gets the 1-rep-of-shame for all to see (at least, most notice the badge-rep mismatch), a date announced on the profile, and sometimes the reason specified. For all our flags, we get helpful/declined. But for this, nothing can be said because of the privacy policy? That doesn't make sense to me, except if they're trying to avoid another defamation suit (and for defamation, in theory, it doesn't matter if it's shared with just one user or everyone, in practice it does). – Erik A Oct 6 at 10:09
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    @IlmariKaronen In theory, if action was taken, while the actual decision would be private to an extent, its effects - either a suspension or demodding would be obvious. Also, for most part, we've tended to have to treat "tickets" of this sort as fire and forget, so its a small improvement. I'd wonder how bigger social software handles it, I do know twitter support does explicitly say that they rejected harassment tickets but I've not had one work out... – Journeyman Geek Oct 6 at 18:50
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    @JourneymanGeek I've had Twitter harassment tickets handled successfully. They say specifically what action they take against the user. – called2voyage Oct 6 at 19:50
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    It’s worth noting that not making public statements about actions taken is a decision by Stack Overflow. It’s not a legal requirement. Twitter for instance is more than happy to announce when they take action against accounts as a consequence of complaints. — I don’t necessarily think Twitter’s decision is the better one (I haven’t thought this through) but it is a voluntary decision. – Konrad Rudolph Oct 6 at 21:28
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    I think that it's ridiculous that consequences are dealt out in private. This is a public resource, a very public and supposedly inclusive community, so it makes precisely -0.42 sense that the "consequences" for anything would be private. It's kangaroo courts all again. We need consequences to be public precisely so that people can research on their own how the community handles transgressions, to not only see that the transgressions are handled appropriately, but also that the way they are handled meshes with one's views so they can be truly informed about joining/remaining in the community. – Unslander Monica Oct 7 at 15:49
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    @UnslanderMonica Yet that (relative) privacy has been a pretty solid pillar of the moderation approach here since...however long. I think the motivation is largely that the focus is on improving behavior rather than ostracizing people, however well that works. This would be an exception to the normal flow of things. Maybe it makes sense to argue for an exception, but it doesn't make sense to me to argue from some broader principles of this as public resource/community. – Bryan Krause Oct 7 at 15:52
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    At the very least there could be a yearly summary. Something like received X complaints, found Y of them to be accurate, handed out Z suspensions. Something that demonstrates that complaints do not get ignored. A summary that contains no personal data should surely be compatible with any privacy rule. – Trilarion Oct 7 at 19:43
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    @Trilarion i like this idea, we are looking to put together a 2020 Year in Review type of post, on the network, not everything going on in the world ;) and I think this would be a good data set to share. Thanks for the suggestion. – Teresa Dietrich Oct 8 at 2:17
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    @Teresa I do actually worry a tad about that, as it could introduce all kinds of oddities. If the numbers are low, people could use it to dismiss this problem, but the mods most likely handle most cases making interpretation very difficult. Also interpreting rate actioned of these complaints is difficult, a low rate actioned could either be interpreted as the company not caring about these complaints or as a high rate of false complaints. Lots of potential for misinformed outrage there. – Erik A Oct 8 at 9:39
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    @BobsaysreinstateMonica, how would such a meter be useful? For reasons of privacy, such a meter can only show the total number of complaints under investigation and not the number of complaints against the same user you are complaining about. If the meter says there are 100 complaints under investigation, is that 100 complaints against the same user, or 1 complaint each for 100 different users? – Bart van Ingen Schenau Oct 8 at 11:00
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    @ErikA "If the numbers are low, people could use it to dismiss this problem..." Not telling the numbers might not make people more aware of the problem. Without any number they still might dismiss the problem. It might be better to publish the numbers because not publishing could be interpreted as something needs to be hidden. I mostly wanted to use this suggestion to give the reporter some kind of summarily response. Kind of "we cannot tell you what exactly came out of your complaint, but historically we have acted this way in these situations.". – Trilarion Oct 8 at 11:30
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    @TeresaDietrich Shog used to post 'A year in moderation' posts on site metas if you're looking for inspiration. – Mast Oct 18 at 8:40
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Just why

To clarify, this includes discussion questioning or debating the legitimacy of someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Further, the debate or discussion of whether or not you want to or should use a person’s pronouns is both offensive and alienating

How does Stack Overflow expect us to be an open-minded, engaged and thriving community if we're not allowed to have discussions? While I agree that people can be offensive, rude, disrespectful and discourteous, it is blatantly false that discussions about these topics necessarily have to be negative. Sure, codify 'negative attitude' as not allowed, but how is discussing something disrespectful in any way?

And why, just why, does the rest of the community keep putting up with such nonsensical and authoritarian rules? And please don't tell me that having a discussion about whether or not we can discuss those topics is also bannable. Because if it is, honestly ban away, I really don't see the point in caring anymore.

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    I stumbled across myself. But I don't think it is that easy. What if that paragraph read "the debate or discussion of whether or not you want to discriminate against group X"? Basically what you ask for is that you can tell "I dont care about your wish about using other pronouns" over and over and over again. And the people who are in that corner, they have to explain over and over and over again why "the old way" is hurting them. – GhostCat Oct 7 at 11:30
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    I had to deal with this last year and it's rarely positive conversations. It's also true of deleted comments on the main post. Lots of these discussions go around in circles. You would find practically what is asked of you is less onerous than you think. – Journeyman Geek Oct 7 at 11:43
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    @GhostCat it should always be possible to question any rule. If a rule can't be questioned then it has no legitimacy. It is by questioning our moral frameworks that we strengthen and improve them. So yes, I am firmly opposed to discriminating against X but we absolutely must be able to to discuss whether or not to do so. – Bob says reinstate Monica Oct 8 at 10:11
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    @JourneymanGeek Practically it is indeed a lot less onerous, especially as I mostly stopped contributing following the fall out of the new CoC. It is the end of the line if a voluntary contributor needs to sue StackOverflow to protect her reputation. I might come back in a few years if certain conditions are met, but I am not hopeful. – Alex Oct 8 at 20:08
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    @tfrascaroli Here's the thing: if someone uses the N-word, that's harmful, awful, and a dehumanising act of racial violence. If people are busy having ranging discussions of "I think we should be allowed to use the N-word", petitioning to be allowed to use it, and repeatedly insisting it should be fine and allowed, that's still harmful and just as bad. The moment people were told to use trans peoples' pronouns, they shifted right to "Yes, but I don't want to use pronouns" with ranging discussions over the inherent validity of trans people. This was also harmful and just as bad as misgendering. – doppelgreener Oct 11 at 23:07
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    So, no, being an open-minded, engaging, and thriving community does not require anyone to be able to argue that respecting trans peoples' pronouns should be okay, the same way it does not require anyone to be able to argue they should be able to say the N-word. In fact, it needs these things to not be okay, since these are functionally discussions of trying to find justification and permission for intolerance and acts of abuse towards marginalised groups. – doppelgreener Oct 11 at 23:11
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    StackExchange's job is to build communities, not to convince every last person of every last thing. At some point, that involves having rules, and enforcing them: saying "we don't do that here." We don't need to allow people to air their harmful views in order to accomplish any of that. I would love to actually convince everyone on top of all that, but ultimately, free debate doesn't accomplish that either. It just provides a way for a bunch of people saying offensive things to reassure each other that they're not actually being offensive. It's pain with no constructive purpose. – Cascabel Oct 12 at 22:32
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    @Cascabel SE's mission is not particularly to build communities but to help us help ourselves. I'd assume being always open to discussion is a part of that. – tfrascaroli Oct 13 at 13:54
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    @tfrascaroli Sure, that's SE's overall mission. But when it comes to the CoC, the specific goal is to build the communities that enable that. It's providing the foundation, it's not a direct part of answering questions and so on. And in any case, there are a ton of aspects of the CoC that aren't up for the debate. This is not unique. – Cascabel Oct 13 at 17:39
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    @Cascabel I believe you are incorrect in one minor detail. You say "here are a ton of aspects of the CoC that aren't up for the debate", but the thing is we can always discuss all of those aspects. It is not the debate what is forbidden, but the changing. But in this case, it is both, and that's my complaint. – tfrascaroli Oct 13 at 17:42
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    @tfrascaroli Yes, there are also plenty of aspects that we could discuss/debate. But there are plenty that we can't, which we take for granted. If I think I should be allowed to say "user X is a <blatantly offensive racist slur>", and I go to meta to say so, I'm still going to get shut down immediately. The fact that I'm discussing the idea instead of saying it directly doesn't change it; merely suggesting that it'd be okay is itself offensive and racist. We just don't end up seeing this because (1) people know better and (2) when they don't it gets disappeared. – Cascabel Oct 13 at 17:44
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    @Cascabel In such case you are ignoring/breaking the rules while talking about the rules. But you can, and should, talk about the rules without breaking them, in which case there's: a) Compliance with existing rules, b) Free speech. I don't see how those can't be compatible. – tfrascaroli Oct 13 at 17:47
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    The question of whether X is offensive only ever has to be asked once. That question, for this particular thing, has been answered here. We know that refusing to use the correct pronouns for someone is offensive. There's nothing more to discuss. We can talk about details - what does "correct" mean, how do you know, what should you do when you don't know, etc - but the core question is already answered. The only thing that further debate/questioning does is attempt to enable that offensive thing to happen. Advocating in favor of harm is no more welcome than the harm itself. – Cascabel Oct 13 at 20:54
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    @Cascabel Then go ahead and flag any duplicates as duplicate, unless they aren't. Just like you would any other question. I don't see why this particular category of questions is any different from any other question. We already have systems in place for dealing with that, and we've been doing just fine with them. – tfrascaroli Oct 13 at 21:14
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    "We already have systems in place for dealing with that, and we've been doing just fine with them." As stated a few comments ago, those systems include deleting content that advocates for offensive things. The systems literally work because they do more than just closing questions as duplicates. – Cascabel Oct 13 at 21:21
80

Alright, so....

First of all:

Thank you Teresa, Yaakov, Cesar, and everyone else who helped put this response together; it's sincerely appreciated that you were committed to responding to the Letter even though quite a bit of time has passed since it was posted. I'm aware that the company has been going through a lot of changes, especially in regard to how it deals with the community, and it's great seeing that work is being put into fixing outstanding problems related to the community.


Next...

I was part of the discussions that were held between members of the community and staff members about the Letter, and gave feedback on this before it was posted.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts I have on this response and the reception surrounding it.


  • The sincerity of this response

I've seen some responses that are skeptical of whether or not this response is a sincere effort in repairing community relations and righting wrongs or if it's just an optics scheme - posting because it looks good and not because they actually care.

I believe that they're sincerely interested in righting wrongs. I and a couple other community members had a chat with Teresa, Yaakov, and another employee back in April about a response to the Letter, what specifically the problems encountered were that led to the Letter, and how to address those. (This included a lack of moderation in moderator spaces, which overlaps with other issues, such as the religion-based attacks that were floating around the TL for quite a while.) In the time since that video chat, employees have taken diversity training, there have been commitments made for enforcing the CoC equally, and e.g. tools for TL moderation are coming.

Those discussions eventually led to the commitments being made in this response, and helped formulate the response itself.

I was, to be frank, disappointed at the refusal to go back and review old cases (including at least one blatantly bigoted statement by a still-active moderator). Aside from that, however, I can at least confirm that the employees I spoke to are sincerely interested in helping the community and not making things worse.

  • "We can't even discuss the pronoun rule!"

I've seen some complaints about this line:

To clarify, this includes discussion questioning or debating the legitimacy of someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Further, the debate or discussion of whether or not you want to or should use a person’s pronouns is both offensive and alienating.

...specifically, saying that this means that the "pronoun rule" can't even be discussed.

My response to that would be... well, sort of? Saying "I don't want to use your pronouns" or debating whether you should use someone's stated pronouns is offensive and a violation of the Code of Conduct. If you wanted to argue about whether or not you should use someone's stated pronouns, then yes, doing so is now explicitly against the CoC.

Refusing - or arguing in favor of refusing - to correctly refer to someone the way they've stated is the correct way to refer to them is delegitimizing and saying that the way that that person refers to themselves is incorrect or unacceptable. I would classify that as offensive. You do not get to dictate what the correct way to refer to other people is, and attempting to do so is attempting to remove their autonomy. You never need to refer to someone, but if you are doing so you do need to do so correctly.

This does not mean that good-faith questions or requests for clarification are a violation of the CoC. Of course, everything is context-dependent, and these policies aren't being enforced by robots. Like everything else, this comes down to individual situations, judgement calls by moderators, and taking context into account; this doesn't mean that anyone confused or learning about "they/them" for the first time is going to find themselves suspended. A little faith in our mods, please?

The Tolerance paradox is at play here as well.
If you tolerate intolerance, the intolerance will take over the tolerance. (Here's a nice comic.)

In other words... if we tolerate the intolerance - those who think that people's stated pronouns are up for debate - we are making a statement that it is okay to be intolerant. That means that those who actually want to be tolerant will leave, or be silenced, and you will wind up with only the intolerant being heard.

Allowing intolerance is equivalent to endorsing it. In both cases, the intolerance will become the dominant force.

  • Amount of time it took for this response to be posted

Yes, it took a long time for this response to get posted. An entire year, in fact, pretty much on the nose.

This boils down to two separate issues: Stack's problems with the community, and trying to get the response right.

The problem Stack has with the community has been going on for the past year+, and most people here on Meta will be familiar with it; I'll just say that it was only several months after the Letter was posted that community really came back onto the company's radar.

But it was back in March already that Teresa had reached out to discuss the Letter and how to solve the problems that it spoke about. Since then, there's been back-and-forth in a chat channel, discussing how best to solve issues and reviewing copies of a response to make sure it sufficiently addressed the Letter's concern, over the period of months. It took so long because, as Teresa hinted in the response, Stack wanted to figure out what actual commitments to make and detail instead of just sending out a bland response with no real meaning. It took a long time because once responding was back on the map, doing it correctly was the goal.

  • "Why doesn't this response talk about other things? Why the focus on the LGBTQ+ community?"

It's true that there are other outstanding issues, some similar to the concerns laid out in the Lavender Letter. (For instance, religion-based attacks were mentioned, which I called out in my stepping-down-as-mod post as well.)

However, the Lavender Letter was written specifically about the challenges that queer users - and especially moderators - encountered, going back further than just Sep '19. This response is meant to specifically address those issues, not everything all at once. Let's not conflate all the issues. and instead take them one by one.


I will reiterate that I was disappointed in the decision not to review complaints raised about blatant bigotry that were never acted upon; especially when the perpetrators of that blatant bigotry are still diamond moderators on the network. I do not trust that the people capable of blatant bigotry are able to effectively carry out moderating and removing bigotry if it should come up. I do not trust that they are capable of cultivating a safe environment for all, and I believe that Stack is making a mistake in not reviewing those cases.


And since this has come up and inevitably will come up again:
Stack's ham-fisted handling of this in September 2019 led to significant damage to the queer community, opening up LGBTQ+ users to attacks by people claiming to be defending Monica Cellio.
There was non-public context at play in Monica's dismissal.
The way in which she was treated was disgraceful.
There are still people prejudiced against LGBTQ+ users because of a perception that LGBTQ+ users caused Monica to be removed as a moderator. This will not be fully addressed unless Stack is able to resolve the situation with Monica to a satisfactory state.
I encourage Teresa to reach out to Monica and have a discussion.
This is not the place to discuss this further, because Stack cannot (or will not, it comes to the same thing) discuss this in public at all.


Finally, I agree strongly with what @kviiri wrote in TTRPG General Chat:

If it's a year old thing, it'd be so easy to just drop the issue and hope it blows over. Answering to something that would be easy to ignore arguably demonstrates more genuine commitment than answering to something more urgent.

It's highly appreciated that Stack is addressing outstanding community concerns, including the ones that are relatively old, such as this.

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    Y'all are going to take a moment - there's a couple of tangential issues better addressed elsewhere. If y'all have specific issues with SE policy, please bring it up as its own post. – Journeyman Geek Oct 8 at 2:54
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    @Mithical Thank you so much for your partnership on our efforts here. Your honesty, authenticity and investment was highly valued. – Teresa Dietrich Oct 8 at 2:56
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    +1 for "it was unchill of SO to rubbish Monica over asking questions about the pronoun-policy in good faith". If anything, keeping her would've likely prevented harassment of lavender users, especially given all the moderation that left or suspended mod activity after she had to walk the plank. Had they remained, there would be more good folk here to spot and respond to abuses – Seldom 'Where's Monica' Needy Oct 13 at 3:17
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    I'm curious about the contrast between these two statements and what it means for Stack's relationship with the community going forward: "I'll just say that it was only several months after the Letter was posted that community really came back onto the company's radar" and "It took a long time because once responding was back on the map, doing it correctly was the goal." I greatly appreciate the latter, and recognize that time has behaved strangely for many of us in 2020, but I'm curious about October '19-March '20 and am not sure how to interpret that period or what brought on a new outlook. – Zach Lipton Oct 13 at 4:38
  • @ZachLipton - meta.stackexchange.com/q/343802/294691 – Mithical Oct 17 at 16:33
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+150

When this response was posted two weeks ago, I had no intention of replying; like George, I felt it was not my place - I'm not among the signatories of the letter this response is addressed to, nor those affected by it.

But in the days since, I've seen a depressingly familiar pattern emerge: nice-sounding words spark debate and are followed by... Nothing. The group your response is directed at, whose needs you purport to care about and address, are left alone to handle the fallout.

This all happened a year ago...

...But perhaps you don't know that. As the other responses here attest, very few people actually know what happened a year ago, what led up to it, or where the underlying problems lay. Even among those affected, visibility into the totality of the situation was severely limited; you weren't here at all, so expecting you to understand much less be equipped to prevent a repetition may be asking too much.

So let's set the record straight...

Background

In a certain sense, the issues outlined in The Lavender Letter date back many years...

...But in a much more concrete sense, they date back to the summer of 2018, and a handful of events in the private moderator chatroom ("The Teachers' Lounge").

Affected moderators contacted The Stack Exchange Team, and after a considerable delay, received noncommittal responses.

  1. We ask that Stack Exchange, Inc does more to pay attention to the complaints and requests of the LGBTQ+ community and does more to ensure that rules are properly applied such that LGBTQ+ people are treated with the same respect everyone should be treated with.

Further emails were sent, especially as new incidents occurred over the subsequent year; but still, responses were lacking or non-committal.

  1. We ask that the consequences for not respecting members of the community be more explicit, and be consistently carried out. Too many times have transphobic or homophobic comments gone by with no response from the Community Team, leaving LGBTQ+ individuals to explain their own validity again and again and again.

Eventually, a private post was created by a member of the SE Team, promising training and guidance in the near future.

  1. Moderating is hard, and the LGBTQ+ community has been underrepresented in media for long enough that many moderators do not know how to handle some specific situations. Some moderators have requested sensitivity training. This would help those who work so hard on behalf of the Stack Exchange community to receive the support and guidance they need to carry out their duties.

By the start of this timespan, the community manager team at Stack Exchange had been cut to the bone: where once there had been enough people to staff the moderator chatroom constantly, now attendance was intermittent. However, with the hiring of new CMs, staffing had been partially restored and these issues were identified in the moment...

...only for the relevant CM to be instructed by management not to respond, to wait for further instruction.

As months passed and the promised guidance failed to materialize, both moderators and community managers became increasingly frustrated, both groups growing less and less hopeful that any effective response would or could materialize.

A community manager, faced with clearing the backlog of emails, decided to prod management regarding the issue one last time...

...And then all hell broke loose. Unwilling to review over a year's worth of history, management opted to pick a name and make an example, perhaps thinking that a sufficiently "strong" response would suffice to compensate for months of apathy.

It did not.

Solving the wrong problem

To the three requests in The Lavender Letter, you commit to three actions (combined into two bullets; I will separate them):

All members of the Community Team and selected members of the Public Platform Team have already taken 13 hours of Diversity & Inclusion Training.

This is good, insofar as it was promised repeatedly by management over the past two years. The efficacy of such training cannot, of course, be known at this time - but a promise kept late is better than a promise not kept at all.

HOWEVER... The community team already had members who were able to identify these issues two years ago, and indeed they did identify them but were prevented from acting on them. The promise of training was held out as a prerequisite to developing policies and codes - but those were developed and rolled out without it. The net effect of this is that your team may now know what they did wrong in that rollout, but are none the less bound by their past actions anyway.

Teachers’ Lounge moderation tools are on the roadmap for the Public Platform team for Q4 of this year.

This is a good idea, and was requested elsewhere.

The second module of Moderator Training will focus on Diversity & Inclusion, and will be launched by the end of the year.

This was actually asked for in the letter, so kudos.

Crucially: you're committing to one of the three things that was requested in the letter. Ignored is the request for timely and consistent response to complaints. Instead, there's this:

We’ve established a new procedure for handling CoC violation reports: If the CM looking at it deems that it’s completely not actionable (meaning it can, without a doubt, be dismissed outright), they must ask a second CM to confirm. If the second believes it should trigger an investigation, one has to happen.

This... Speaks volumes. CMs didn't bury the complaints last year; your management team did, then flipped out and tried to pin blame on the CMs when nagged to respond. It appears they're still doing the same thing. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and that link was - and apparently remains - right in the middle of your chain. When the folks on the ground ask for help and get, instead, stricter rules... They're eventually going to learn not to bother asking for help... Or offering it.

I'm reminded of a story from the book of Kings, chapter 12:

But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him. He asked them, “What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, ‘Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?”

The young men who had grown up with him replied, “These people have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter.’ Now tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’ ”

Like Rehoboam, you have a great deal of positional power, and advisors who are more than willing to reassure you that such power is enough to accomplish whatever you should wish. Be careful...

Conclusion

Your response here is good; it recognizes many of the problems raised a year ago, and humbly apologizes for not addressing them sooner.

However... This response fails to recognize or address the root causes of those problems, and in failing to do so it risks perpetuating them.

We are optimistic that these types of events will not recur.

A lack of optimism isn't a concern here; if there's one thing SE has in spades, it's optimism. What is needed is a concerted effort toward organizational and cultural change; "this type of event" is already recurring; the only question is, what will y'all do differently this time?

A phrase I heard repeated again and again by management at SE a year ago was, "We're spending too much time on this." I sympathize; I'm sure you're very busy, have many pressing responsibilities, and can hardly justify spending even as much time on this as you already have...

My advice, now as it was then, remains: "don't be penny-wise yet pound-foolish". These are incredibly difficult problems, and they require a team effort - a focused team effort - to handle effectively. Put aside pride in status and position, adopt a willingness to learn from and support one another, and work together for as long as the work remains.

Good luck...

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    I feel like there is so much that is obscured about the timeline of events that the average person is to be forgiven for people confused. Like you, I don't want to keep writing about this, but it hurts the people who least deserve it when the truth is hidden. I'm doing my small part by publishing an answer that I wrote in January of 2019. – Jon Ericson Oct 18 at 22:48
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    "What is needed is a concerted effort toward organizational and cultural change" - I can attest that I see this happening. We have tried in this response to only report on the things that have happened thus far, and to commit publicly to what we can commit to. The change though is happening (and also relevant is that all of the executive stakeholders for Community are different than they were the last time). We don't want to report on concrete changes before they happen, but we do not intend this to be "the final word" - rather, a reopening of the conversation. – Yaakov Ellis Oct 20 at 15:55
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    1. Note that the "diversity and inclusion training" materials are inaccessible to mere mortals. 2. I feel this post complements mine in that I have almost zero knowledge of the actual issues faced by LGBTQIA+ people on SE and you seem to be addressing that. However, after reading your post I stil have no idea what "these issues" that were identified, reported up and not responded to actually are/were. I wonder if there are some concrete examples you could point to. – einpoklum Oct 26 at 20:14
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    1. That is a huge problem, @einpoklum; it effectively creates a large body of knowledge that can only be had by practicing moderators and thus cannot be evaluated during elections or practiced by ordinary members of these sites (who shoulder a huge portion of the actual moderation work). 2. I can't share specific examples without violating the privacy of others; IOW, they're not my stories to tell. For the most part, these are... Very banal issues, nothing you wouldn't expect to encounter on any forum - the only remarkable aspect is what I already mentioned: they didn't get a response. – Shog9 Oct 26 at 21:09
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    @Shog9: 1. Please make this comment on the linked-to-question. 2. Can't you strip personal details enough to share? Or even - make up a similar story, since you see these are banal issues? I'm sorry that I'm pressing you (like I did JourneymanGeek) on this, it's just that I honestly haven't witnessed this myself and I want to get a sense of what so many people have been talking about. – einpoklum Oct 26 at 21:44
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    1. not sure how it's relevant there? 2. Stop me if you've heard this one: a few people are discussing a topic; another person has no interest in the topic, wants to talk about something else but can't get enough traction for their topic, so proceeds to express their annoyance in the most insulting way possible. Never seen that? Well, try this one on: some folks are discussing some subject, and one of them is being a know-it-all, to the point where they're talking over folks with more direct experience. [cont] – Shog9 Oct 26 at 21:53
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    [cont] or maybe this old favorite: someone is wrong on the Internet, and no amount of arguing with them will change their mind, yet you keep arguing all the same, growing increasingly frustrated and exhausted by their seemingly-intentional obtuseness until you've become convinced their wrongness is an elaborate scheme to drive you mad, and a successful one at that! 😏 Common patterns, familiar to moderators everywhere. The subjects are endless and every subject is exceedingly personal to someone, and guaranteed someone else will use that to hurt them given enough time. @einpoklum – Shog9 Oct 26 at 22:00
  • @Shog9: And you're saying that, in such situations, anti-LBGTQ+ insults start being thrown around? As in "Oh yeah? Well then you are just XYZ! Are I bet you even ABC! How do you like them apples?" ... something like that? – einpoklum Oct 26 at 22:34
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    That's happened, @einpoklum - but it doesn't have to be that blatant. Here's a relevant Twitter thread that talks about a different subject that touched off a similar set of problems but was handled in a very different manner. – Shog9 Oct 26 at 22:37
41

Since meta tends to be the place where the chickens come to roost - or at least the drama does, I'd like to make a few observations.

While we have an excellent community management team who've done awesomely well under trying circumstances, the disconnect between the company and the community over the last few years kinda contributed to the issues we've had so far. Occasionally attempts to make things better... haven't, and I personally feel that the somewhat top down approach to trying to fix these issues hasn't always worked. What happens at the ground level, in the interaction between staff and users dealing with these issues is more important than broader policy or even statements of intent, as well meaning as they are.

A lot of the issues we've had should have been handled when they weren't as major as they were, and I feel like there were many lost opportunities, both before and after the incident that resulted in these letters, and hurt feelings, and even hostility hasn't gotten better.

Policies are nice but at the end of the day we need folks to set an example (rather than being made an example of), and as much as frameworks and policies, we need folks in the company with the pull to go: "Hey, folks, knock it off" and be listened to.

So I guess the questions for me is...

How do we do better in watching out for each other and if the people within the company are going to have the time, energy and spoons to actually proactively keep an eye out and assist when we have issues, and working with the mods and keeping in mind community dynamics.

I do realise that the public view of these, and quite a lot of the drama seems focused on TL and the mods but... to an extent, part of the issue was how the company handled events, and chose not to handle the follow up. I'm glad there's movement, and there's been quite a lot of change and churn within the company but - that many of these issues have been allowed to fester over extended periods of time is part of the thing that's made it difficult to handle.

Imagine if someone had reached out to Monica the same week and talked to her... before all the legal ugliness (which seems to have made it impossible to get things moving again). Or if the response to someone being bigoted was: "No we don't do that" immediately.

Every action of this sort needs ownership and an awareness and willingness to follow up these decisions to ensure there's minimal collateral damage.

I do realise we're only human. Lots of us have day jobs, and for those whose day job is shepherding this community - they've been through a lot, and have had to burn their candles at both, hell even 3 ends... but that we even have had to write these open letters, and deal with the fallout of last year's events a year later is a failing. And these events still lack closure, and will likely be a distraction from the important work ahead of us.


This is probably a tangent, but it's probably worth trying to at least roll into my answer, rather than leaving them to languish in comments.

I've always felt that there's multiple approaches to dealing with a community - all of which have their place.

One's by authority - the "force" option. It sometimes has its place

The second is by decree - which I feel is the option that SE has traditionally preferred, and to some extent getting a formal framework to deal with these things. The third is by the use of personal influence - which of course needs a certain level of trust from folks. Even with a top down approach to these things at some point it comes down to most people trusting you do the right thing. I can think of a few ex-employees and a few current employees who have that "skill" but there isn't enough of it.

SE has tried a lot of the formal top down approach, which hasn't always worked that well. Enforcement and policies are things SE has tried and is trying. I'm not saying those won't work or won't matter. Something like the welcome wagon, or many of these initiatives need a certain amount of buy in to work. That both needs trust, and folks seen as being on the ground helping with this.

I'm saying in addition that old school community outreach and goodwill can help steer folks the right way. The problem with both policy and enforcement is they don't preempt problems and change minds. Our goals can't be purely punitive

One of the arguments I hear a lot tends to involve being forced to use language

It's also frankly overblown, and folks use the worst possible interpretation of it as bogeyman. There's some situations where it might work, but the best traditions of SE moderation's always been about the third option.

Authority is the last resort, when appeals to better nature, gentle reminders, and stronger warnings have failed. And frankly the second option also is for those folks who insist on being hit over the head with rulebooks. I'd quite frankly be able to stop people with: "It's not nice" without someone needing me to spell out how exactly it's not.

It's been a long year... I've talked about "assuming good intent" in the past.

Maybe it's also about demonstrating good intent - respecting each other. Be Nice includes respecting each other's identities and using our ability to speak out and let people know something's not OK when we need to - and be listened to.

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    "as much as frameworks and policies, we need folks in the company with the pull to go "Hey, folks, knock it off" and be listened to." I dare to say that we are in much more need of the latter than the former. – Stop harming Monica Oct 7 at 20:11
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    can i ask for clarification on this "we need folks in the company with the pull to go "Hey, folks, knock it off" and be listened to" Who are the folks in the company being asked to knock it off? Completely honest question, not understanding the context here. – Teresa Dietrich Oct 8 at 2:29
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    Certainly - there's three different ways to influence a group. One's by authority - the "force" option. The second is by decree - which I feel is the option that SE has traditionally preferred, and to some extent getting a formal frame work to deal with these things. The third is by the use of personal influence - which of course needs a certain level of trust from folks. Even with a top down approach to these things at some point it comes down to most people trusting you do the right thing. I can think of a few ex-employees and a few current employees who have that "skill" but its not – Journeyman Geek Oct 8 at 2:36
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    really utilised, especially in something like this, which is a "human" problem as much as anything else. SE hasn't been effective IMO cause we generally treat this as something that can be fixed with policy and pronouncements. It isn't IMO So, if people in the company need to be told to knock it off, its up to their peers. I'm talking more about when y'all need to influence people to behave better towards other users. Its not easy but its probably a good long term 'investment' in making this a better place. – Journeyman Geek Oct 8 at 2:41
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    It feels like there's a bit of a false dichotomy here. We very much need both policy and enforcement. Neither one can work without the other. We saw early on, before anything was public, what happens when you try to do enforcement without policy: a bunch of people ignore or argue against any attempted actions, and nothing goes anywhere. Now that we have relatively solid policies, we can move on to enforcement, whether that's "you, knock if off right this instant" or "hey let's talk to some people and guide them a bit". That's something that needs to be done by mods, not just by the company. – Cascabel Oct 8 at 22:19
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    Well - SE has tried a lot of the formal top down approach, which hasn't always worked that well. Enforcement and policies are things SE has tried and is trying. I'm not saying those won't work or won't matter. I'm saying in addition that old school community outreach and goodwill can help steer folks the right way. The problem with both policy and enforcement is they don't preempt problems and change minds. Our goals can't be purely punitive. – Journeyman Geek Oct 8 at 22:45
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    @TeresaDietrich Maybe I'm misunderstanding your comment, but I believe what JourneyMan Geek was saying was that there needs to be a Stack Exchange employee or two with the ability and expectation to step into incidents and basically end them. I don't think JourneyMan Geek was saying that there are SE employees that need to be (for lack of a better word) scolded. – Tieson T. Oct 8 at 23:55
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    Pretty much that that ^ in fewer words than I did. No one ever accused me of being terse.😁 – Journeyman Geek Oct 9 at 4:48
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    I've done a quick clean up of comments, now that I've rolled it in. I've left the direct clarifications for Theresa's question in place since I can't quite work out a "natural" way to include it. – Journeyman Geek Oct 11 at 4:44
  • FYI, the sentence beginning with "One of the arguments I hear..." does not appear to go anywhere. I think you might have made a mistake in editing it. – Kevin Oct 12 at 20:30
  • @Kevin It refers to some user's arguments about "being forced to use a particular set of words or expression", which has been thrown around as "forced language". – yivi Oct 13 at 7:10
  • @yivi: I figured, but the sentence is incomplete as it currently stands. – V2Blast Oct 13 at 20:24
  • Why are people so afraid of that argument? it's nonsense. – user400654 Oct 13 at 21:13
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    On the "approaches to dealing with a community" section, there is a huge gaping hole which was how the exchange actually started out: leading by example. The further that leadership gets from being inside the community, the more working with the community will become dealing with the community. – Travis J Oct 14 at 22:44
  • @TravisJ it's implicit - and I've been talking about this extensively enough I guess I didn't feel I had to reiterate the point directly. – Journeyman Geek Oct 15 at 0:52
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+100

I support the Lavender letter authors and message. I also support the response here by Stack Exchange.

That said...

It's hard to please everyone, and the original wording clearly didn't strike the correct balance. That's fine. Finding a balance is difficult, especially when it comes across as dictating community behavior.

However, waiting a year to address it is problematic. A very large issue here is not the changing of terms or guidance, but of trust. If the community had more trust, then they would trust the company to fix their mistake.

Mistakes are fine, but they must be corrected immediately and without doubling down on their faults. The pitfall that I continuously see from the company is either not immediately correcting, or doubling down when wrong. Look at this post, look at all the censorship. There are deletions all over the place, if you wanted to have a message with no responses, then take it to the blog.

Letting issues like this languish causes problems. Going forward, there needs to be much more attention paid to issues, with immediate responses, when it affects the entire community. It doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs a best effort response. If that fails, acknowledge it, and make adjustments. If the legal department complains, replace them; their track record is horrendous.

The team now running the show here inherited a mountain of trust from the community, and while a lot of it remains, it has been severely diminished. That trust was not built from quarterly statements, or roadmaps. It was built by a group who always responded, and who did so with an air of humility and respect. They were a part of the community, not above it.

I would love to see some humility return to the group of leadership at this company. This post is at least moving in that direction, and it would behoove the rest of the team to take note of it.

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    I've awarded a bounty to this answer, because it gets to the core of almost ALL the problems! The old SE staff was part of the community. Several of them were recruited from the community. They were not afraid to post on Meta, because they were part of Meta. Management needs to be part of the community again. – S.L. Barth - Reinstate Monica Oct 15 at 15:37
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    Please see the answer from Mithical above for some more context on why this took so long. We realize that there is a trust issue (and that it will be with us for quite some time to come), and your advice for community leadership, and honest communication is one that we are striving to work on as well. Thanks for the feedback. – Yaakov Ellis Oct 20 at 16:01
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    @YaakovEllis - I read Mithical's answer, and I get the process was involved. It was a journey for some, and along the way a large portion of the community would have appreciated being involved as well through some form of communication. While there was progress being made, many did not know of it. That simply wouldn't have happened before, because there was such a large amount of interaction with the community that communication was constant. – Travis J Oct 20 at 17:59
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    I could make guesses about where the blockage is within leadership, but will not name those guesses as I don't think it helps anyone. I will say this though, Yaakov, I know you are part of the forward progress at the company and I really wish others were as involved with just touching base with the community. I feel, and sometimes fear, that there are those within the company which simply see the public exchange here as mere advertising for the enterprise and pay to play features. If that is the case, or if that becomes prevalent, it is highly likely that significant contributors leave. – Travis J Oct 20 at 18:01
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    MySpace thought it was invincible as well until Facebook was released. Stack Exchange should not simply think that because they were first to this space they will be the last or the front runner forever. Without the community, there is no Stack Exchange, and there is a lot of animosity and angst in the community right now. Getting involved, showing humility, showing respect... these are desperately needed from more members of the team who are not actively contributing. – Travis J Oct 20 at 18:03
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    Aside: Re: "Stack Exchange should not simply think that because they were first to this space [...]" Stack Exchange was not first to this space. I can vividly remember building a good rep answering travel questions on ExpertCentral in March 2000 - over twenty years ago. That site certainly had contemporary rivals (AllExperts ?) I imagine it had predecessors from the late 1990s too. – Rounin Oct 20 at 23:05
  • @Rounin - That's a fair point to make, with regards to the whole exchange (since ExpertCentral was a wider audience as opposed to if you were to compare it solely to Stack Overflow... which let's be honest is 99% of this business). However, that, and ExpertExchange, and others, were all pay models to get questions answered... somewhat privately. This is a public model based on open exchange of information freely, so I think it is a different space. It is close though, and you do raise a good point. Regardless, I think the attitude I was trying to portrait still stands. – Travis J Oct 20 at 23:40
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    @TravisJ - Your point still stands. It wasn't my intention to distract from that. I just didn't want some of our younger members thinking that the web didn't really exist before 2004-05. ;-) – Rounin Oct 20 at 23:54
31

As a moderator (of two sites) who took a break in response to the events last year, a Lavender user myself who effectively came out to the whole SE community in a Meta post responding to last year's events, and a cosignee of the Lavender letter, I find this statement very positive. I'm not too concerned about the amount of time it took to deliver, though there were times in the interim that I questioned how seriously the issue would be handled. This response pretty well addresses my concerns, particularly your comment under BelovedFool's post:

Thank you for responding with such authenticity and vulnerability, I can’t imagine it was easy. I recognize that it is hard to put your faith back into a company and community that has hurt you. My ask is only that you watch us over the next several months and year. We hope to earn it back from you. I acknowledge that promises and commitments can only go so far, and I hope we still have the chance to prove to you it is a priority for us. Part of the reason for the delay to respond is that I want to ensure they are not empty promises but that we have commitment & processes to ensure change.

Thank you for taking the time to really think on this and take action!

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    Thanks for taking the time to respond, I really appreciate it. – Teresa Dietrich Oct 8 at 2:25
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First, as a member of the Lavender community, I would like to thank you for posting this. I wish you would have publicly acknowledged the hurt you caused us sooner, but as the saying goes: better late than never.

I must say, reading your post (and posting this answer) was very emotional for me. I wasn't expecting it to hurt so much after almost a year. But I am good at burying my feelings instead of dealing with them and I guess that this post made them resurface.

As for the action you have decided to take/taken already, I have to say, I am not expecting anything of them. From experience, I know how hard it is to make a space safe for LGBT+ people (and for other oppressed communities) and, in trying to make a place safe, a lot of people make empty promises and symbolic yet mostly useless gestures.

You have lost my faith a year ago and I have since stopped believing that you will be able to do what you promise. I deeply hope that I am wrong. That you are not just empty words and shiny sparkles. So I will sit here and wait and see, hoping for the best but not expecting anything at all.

It has been almost a year and I believe that a lot of people here are still deeply hurt. I know I still am. But I hope and believe that, today, a little of this hurt will go away.

Thank you again for acknowledging your wrongdoing and for committing to do better in the future. Though, I do hope that next time you will be quicker in your acknowledgment.

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    I have lost my faith also a year ago, without being personally hurt. Thanks for posting this, I know it's not easy. – Shadow 10 Years Wizard Oct 6 at 6:45
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    Thank you for responding with such authenticity and vulnerability, I can’t imagine it was easy. I recognize that it is hard to put your faith back into a company and community that has hurt you. My ask is only that you watch us over the next several months and year. We hope to earn it back from you. I acknowledge that promises and commitments can only go so far, and I hope we still have the chance to prove to you it is a priority for us. Part of the reason for the delay to respond is that I want to ensure they are not empty promises but that we have commitment & processes to ensure change. – Teresa Dietrich Oct 6 at 19:03
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    @TeresaDietrich Thank you for your comment. I do intend to stay around for the foreseeable future and thus you will have time to regain my faith. I must say, Mithical answer and insight into what happened "behind the scene" do give me hope (and a better perspective as well). And the way this question is currently being moderated is a nice first proof that things have indeed improved (things were nothing like that a year ago and I don't think circumstance only are to be blamed for that). So thank you for your work, I truly appreciate it. – BelovedFool Oct 6 at 19:32
22

Legislating Morality Has Never Worked

I read through the Lavender Letter and found myself frustrated. I'm frustrated, not because I believe there are people who do not deserve courtesy, respect, and civility, but because a minority among minorities is seeking to legislate the cure to their problems.

No, I am not being disrespectful. I'm being practical. The Lavender Letter suggests that Stack Exchange, Inc. has the responsibility to use police powers to enforce behavior on a service that permits anonymity and welcomes peoples from all national boundaries, all religious practices, all political ideologies, and all levels of education.

It calls to mind the U.S. Constitution's 18th Amendment (the prohibition against alcohol) and it's 21st Amendment (the repeal of the 18th Amendment). Therein are the permanent legal records of how futile it is to legislate morality. Indeed, legislating morality often has the habit of actually creating a worse situation than it would have had it simply been left alone. (Every law prohibiting homosexuality proves that point as they encouraged greater violence in an effort to remove a then-undesired morality — greater violence than would have existed had the law not existed.)

Am I advocating that the continued mistreatment of the LGBT community simply be ignored as an irreparable problem? Certainly not. I am pointing out that there's a difference between protecting rights and forcing morality. I believe I speak for the majority of Stack Exchange users when I say that we want to protect the rights of every user. But what the Lavender Letter is proposing is to increasingly (en)force morality. And the inevitable conclusion to every effort to force morality is to increase dissatisfaction. At best, talented people ranging from those who choose to hate to those who simply make mistakes will go elsewhere to find answers to questions.1 At worst, it will lead to greater verbal violence.

The purpose of the Code of Conduct should be to guide and educate — not to punish and control. It's becoming dangerously close to the latter. I wonder if, compared to the whole of all users, the issues driving these changes are limited — because the problem does not appear systemic to me. I therefore hope that everyone (both the members of the LGBT community and those who are not) remembers that sincere change takes time — and when you try to force change, the consequences are often worse than we would otherwise have.2


1I recall a Twitter post where a Stack Exchange officer's response to users leaving was, "Bye!" But that's just another form of discrimination. And it's just as evil and should be just as unwanted.

2Inevitably, someone will ask why I posted this. It is because the way things are going I will eventually be slapped for rushing through a comment and forgetting to look at @user12345's profile to discover whether or not they've published a preferred pronoun and failed to use it. I've already had a post edited where the word "manned" (as in "manned spacecraft") was changed to "crewed." My post was discussing space craft in the 1960's, when the term was most popularly used, and even today "manned spacecraft" is overwhelmingly more commonly used than "crewed spacecraft". I have no doubt that the edit was made due to changes in the Code of Conduct and the discussions that brought those changes to pass. It is as nit-picky to complain about the edit as it was, itself, and yet it's an example of an unintended consequence that underscores my concerns. I'm not perfect. I'm not trying to hurt anybody. But the effort required to keep everyone else from feeling hurt is beginning to hurt.

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    Doesn't having a Code of Conduct in of itself "legislate morality"? Or any such standard for acceptable behavior? – Mithical Oct 18 at 23:09
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    Just to clarify: it sounds like the edit ("manned" => "crewed") felt like a rebuke of the word choice? It seems to me that this doesn't have to be a rebuke, but in the current state of the network it's a lot harder to assume good intentions. – Jon Ericson Oct 18 at 23:53
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    Regarding the "manned spacecraft" types of edits, I think that the era appropriate for such phrasing has passed, as it was a common saying in 1960's, and it is 2020's out there today, at the time of posting. There are many archaic phrases which there is no point to clinging to in any language, in my opinion. If saying something bothers someone (many people, in fact, not just one exceptional person) much more than it would bother me, I would adopt a different way of saying it, as a courtesy. Legislating such etiquette seems excessive, but I don't think that's what the letters were going for. – user1306322 Oct 18 at 23:55
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    @YuvalFilmus this is not a simple topic, and we are all trying to learn how to navigate it to solve multifaceted social, political, interpersonal and psychological problems. It takes a bunch of really smart and experienced people in many of these areas to come up with a way to make everyone happy, or at least make fewest people unhappy. No wonder we're still in this situation, really. I just hope that among the mix of professionals and enthusiasts, we can have enough deep discussions to figure out some good solutions. So we should keep talking until things are better. – user1306322 Oct 19 at 0:00
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    @user1306322 Please note the Google Ngrams chart. History (or should I use "ourstory") doesn't rationalize your statement. And to be frank, a small group of people is making a lot of noise. That doesn't make them wrong, I'm merely stating the perspective. Were you to take a general poll asking if using the phrase (e.g.) "manned spacecraft" were inappropriate, the vast majority would wonder why you were wasting their time with the question. If we're looking for the solution that brings the greatest happiness, the lack of change always achieves that best. (*continued*) – JBH Oct 19 at 0:20
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    With the track record of how little change SE/SO sites implement in response to a vast collection of request for improvement (see all meta sites and outstanding reasonable feature requests vs completed ones), it is only natural that when hoping to hit the moon you should aim for the stars above, so to speak. Regarding "the lack of change always achieves the best", I can think of oh so many examples where that is not true, and I'm sure you can too. There used to be a time before the English language existed. There will be a time when it will be forgotten forever, too. – user1306322 Oct 19 at 0:28
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    If you are being bullied at school, you would do something about it to make the situation better, wouldn't you? If your house is on fire, you put the fire out. These letters are an appeal to the authority, and ultimately it is not us who decide what will happen to the rules of engagement on this platform, so the way the company takes is is not fully under our control. But we can build a new house in a place where people don't bully us, if we so wish, in this internet metaphor for sites and communities. – user1306322 Oct 19 at 0:33
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    Some of my point is, it is a very common occurrence where you stop talking to some people because you find them not worth your time or effort to speak to because of the many petty things they decide to be stubborn about for no good reason. And "a school where I was bullied" is a very common experience among adults. School principals and administrators didn't care, and teachers couldn't do anything because there were powerless and tired. This site can be one of those bad schools, or it can turn around and improve. Because there are always better schools to transfer to. The move is theirs. – user1306322 Oct 19 at 0:40
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    @user1306322 Perhaps you've missed my point. There's a lot that can be done to make an individual happy, but the status quo exists because the majority are happy with the moment. It's the single biggest reason why so much effort must go into change. Among other things, I'm a marketer. I know from considerable experience that the lack of change always makes the most people happy. I comprehend the appeal to authority, but suggesting the majority to sit back and ignore that same authority so that a minority can achieve their greatest happiness is hypocritical. – JBH Oct 19 at 1:50
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    @user1306322 Please bear in mind - I'm not suggesting that there shouldn't be improvement, I am suggesting that using a hammer to solve a problem that requires a screw driver only brings greater sorrow. There have already been a great many negative consequences to what SE has done to assist the LGBT community only by way of education - and now that community wants greater enforcement, more explicit law. You may believe this will bring about a greater good. Perhaps it will in time. But the price paid will be very high. I'm merely pointing that out. – JBH Oct 19 at 1:52
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    @Nathan Lavender letter bullet points #1 and #2. – JBH Oct 19 at 18:23
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    While I can't say that no one signing the letter was asking for brutal punishments... I didn't read it that way and highly doubt most of the signatories intended it that way, @JBH - indeed, other portions of the letter itself denounce SE's preference for that approach. In the context in which the letter was written, those first two bullets reflected months of being ignored and asked simply for their concerns to be given equal standing; I think that is reasonable. – Shog9 Oct 19 at 21:00
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    I would classify any punishment that exceeds what is necessary to be "brutal", JBH. A brute seeks to cause harm; a brute revels in the pain of others; a brute puts vengeance above correction. A harsh word that stops conflict may feel like punishment, but serves a greater purpose; a pillory that increases conflict is just brutalism. The letter laments that complaints were not responded to; for those signing, this was all that they could perceive, a lasting silence. – Shog9 Oct 19 at 21:20
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    @JBH Should we sort everyone by the duration of their experienced discrimination or injustice and make sure those with the shortest time on the list wait their turn until everyone ahead of them in line is made whole? – Bryan Krause Oct 19 at 21:54
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    @BryanKrause My wife would be delighted to answer that question for you - assuming my oldest sister doesn't push her out of the way to answer first. Of course you're correct that injustice is always unacceptable, but I was irritated to see so short a time being used to rationalize what I consider to be worrisome requests. Forced behavior is just another form of discrimination. – JBH Oct 19 at 23:00
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+100

Before addressing the post itself, I'd like to briefly sketch a process US culture seems to be undergoing in recent years - which is quite strange to behold from the outside and relevant to your post.

On the one hand - the US suffers from extreme violence by law enforcement (over a thousand of civilians killed every year), and a massive punitive bent of state and federal-state institutions against individuals (0.7% or so of the population in prison, and a quarter of the world's prisoners for under 4.5% of the world's people). This is true in general, but disproportionately so for poorer and nonwhite people. The situation has even led to mass demonstrations and borderline riots in recent years.

But on the other hand - in elite, professional and academic circles, one observes a tendency not against the excesses of authority, but rather of an appeal to authority and action by centralized power - supposedly to address such issues: A semi-official mandatory curriculum of reeducation in "diversity and inclusivity", and strict immediate punishment for those perceived as having supposedly exceeded the bounds of accepted discussion. This occurs either through secretive in absentia trial-like procedures, or simply via empowering officials to mete termination or expulsion punishment, with impunity.

In a nutshell, and to oversimplify: A fundamental failure in society at large is being adopted, in a sublimated form, as a supposedly positive reform in sections of society which do not suffer the brunt of that larger social failure.


Now, about the post itself.

tl;dr: You are continuing to hijack the (valid) issue of intolerance against LGBTQIA+ people, to justify a highly repressive and authoritarian mode of managing the Stack Exchange network.

We have heard complaints about alleged Code of Conduct violations from 2019 and earlier where the public perception is that a thorough investigation was not carried out, or that the user may not have received a sufficient warning (or other consequence).

Actually, it seems you have not heard our complaints:

  1. Even your sentence here does not acknowledge SE Inc. acted inappropriately, suggesting that it is a "perception".
  2. We did not complain merely about the lack of investigation or warnings. A large part of (active) users, myself included, complained about the Code of Conduct itself and the way SE inc. manages the network. There are many different complaints about the CoC, but perhaps the foremost is how unfair its procedural tenets are - secretive procedure, inability to defend one's self, ease of abuse, lack of built-in accountability, etc.
  3. We are still awaiting a retraction of the charges against Monica Cellio, and an answer to @user514686's question.

As we said above, we are unable to comment on the specifics of any case.

Then, indeed, you have not listened, nor heard, our complaints at all. Transparency - the opposite of secrecy/privacy - regarding the specifics of cases of people being accused of misconduct and punished, is of fundamental necessity. Your values here are upside down.

Our Privacy Policy prevents us from sharing whether or not action was taken against third parties due to a report.

  1. I actually doubt that is the case. Can you point out what in the privacy policy prevents this?
  2. This is similar to saying that a government's commitment to citizens' privacy prevents it from saying whether someone disappeared because they have been charged, convicted and sentenced to prison or for other reasons.

Not only must the plaintiff be informed - the public must be informed. If you can punish due to a complaint, you must disclose the full details of the procedure; if you can't try us publicly, you should not have the prerogative to punish us.

And while we understand and empathize with the pain involved in these issues,

Ms. Dietrich, that is a vacuous statement. That is, it doesn't translate to actions which relieve the pain, on the one hand - raising doubts about that empathy - but we can obviously not refute it on the other hand.

I'd much rather you said "I don't care about those assholes who complain" and made some meaningful changes to the CoC to ameliorate the situation, rather than expressed sympathy with no positive action.

We are optimistic that these types of events will not recur.

You've just explained to us how they do recur. In fact, it is all but impossible for this situation not to recur while (the procedural aspects of) your Code of Conduct is in place.

We believe these commitments will better enable our staff to support LGBTQIA+ community members ... We are taking a strong stance to protect the LGBTQIA+ members of our community and ensure they can participate safely in the network.

I respectfully disagree. Your actions and stances have very little, if anything, to do with protecting LGBTQIA+ Stack Exchange users. In fact, you are associating your mistreatment of users and your highly-problematic policies with these users, essentially pointing the finger at them as a scapegoat: "Don't blame us. It's the LGBTQIA people who are the cause of all this, our hands our tied, and what we're doing has to happen on account of them", is the subtext of your post, and previous posts by Sarah Chipps (a deleted post - requires 10K reputation) and by David Fullerton.

That makes SE Inc.'s continued conduct and rhetoric more of a disservice to LGBTQIA+ users, in my opinion.


PS:

and to help us better identify microaggressions

Perhaps you should focus on identifying macro-aggressions, and stop your commitment to engaging in those.

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    I doubt SE reps thought they were making baseless claims when they posted the things they did before the lawsuit, but setting that aside.. shall we do away with privacy? Or what do they disclose if, say, a user responds to a mod message with threats, or violates terms in a private chatroom? Do you demand to know the methods by which sock puppets were found, too? (If you're serious, you should probably just make this its own meta proposal so it can be fully fleshed out.) – Em C Oct 16 at 21:05
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    Can we please not wait until after solving all other social justice problems in the US to begin treating Trans folks with respect? xkcd.com/2368 comes to mind. – Bryan Krause Oct 16 at 22:06
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    One potential solution to transparency would be to let the accused be the sole determiner of how public the investigation and action are. SO could offer them the choice of a secret procedure or a published procedure with the censoring of any identifiable information from any accuser. I believe this would offer maximum protection: the accuser remains secret, SE can be held accountable, and the accused has the opportunity to keep it all private if they prefer. You could also make the policy that the accused can choose to reveal the proceedings at any point during the process (even afterwards). – jpmc26 Oct 16 at 22:07
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    Small nitpick here: the note on the privacy policy appears to pertain to the plaintiff, not the accused. That said, there's no plausible reason why anything prevents that either; while I tend to think it's unhealthy to share too many salacious details in these cases, "we've reviewed your report and taken the necessary action to mitigate the problem" would be both possible, and, healthy: excessive secrecy leads to vigilantism. The privacy policy is a red herring here. – Shog9 Oct 16 at 22:16
  • @EmC: I believe you're conflating "valid" with "based". The claims were made without being based - without pointing to a fact-establishing basis, or to the case file of a legitimate procedure which had reached that conclusion. – einpoklum Oct 16 at 23:21
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    @BryanKrause: My reply is not about the treatment of transexual people/users. In fact, I'm arguing that Ms. Dietrich's post isn't really about that either, it mostly uses that issue as dressing. – einpoklum Oct 16 at 23:24
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    @jpmc26: "let the accused be the sole determiner" <- That is an acceptable compromise (which I mentioned in the second comment in this thread). It's not ideal, since the public (= the users) have a legitimate interest in this information being public. However, "the censoring of any identifiable information from any accuser" is more problematic. A big part of what makes the CoC so easy to abuse is the ability to accuse anonymously and not have to be accountable for false, or bad-faith, accusations. – einpoklum Oct 16 at 23:31
  • @Shog9: I realize that Ms. Dietrich was referring from sharing this information with the plaintiff, but that's just because she is assuming that, at most, they would share this information with just the plaintiff. SE must make the information public. But I'll clarify. – einpoklum Oct 16 at 23:38
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    @einpoklum I think I'm less concerned about bad faith accusations on the part of users than SO itself at this point. It's much, much more important that SO itself demonstrates that it is acting fairly (which we all know it's not right now). Having a good team at SO that we can trust would mitigate them, too. If bad faith accusations start to become a problem, I believe that having the records public would be enough for us to recognize it was happening regularly and address it or at least publicize that it's happening (which is all we could do with a public record of an investigation, anyway). – jpmc26 Oct 16 at 23:44
  • @jpmc26: I didn't say the accuser has to be an SE user... it could be SE itself, or an SE employee :-( I want transparency in lieu of trust, and also as a trust-maintaining measure when trust does exist. – einpoklum Oct 16 at 23:47
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    @einpoklum It's a post specifically written in response to a letter to SE about hurt suffered by transgender and the broader LGBTQ+ community that was either tolerated or not sufficiently responded to by SE. It reiterates CoC changes aimed at confronting those issues and other steps taken to educate and support. It's certainly reasonable to find fault or shortcomings, but it seems you'd like to hijack it for another purpose. You might not intend it as such, but to me your answer appears to be part of the dismissal of Trans issues that is specifically complained about in the Lavender Letter. – Bryan Krause Oct 16 at 23:55
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    @BryanKrause: I don't see it that way. You don't reply to a letter a year after the fact. I find the phrasing of this post as a reply to the Lavender letter to be more of a rhetorical device. And the specific points I referred to in the post are specifically not about LBGTQIA+ issues, in my opinion. – einpoklum Oct 17 at 18:48
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    for the we - its worth pointing out there were two open letters, which addressed different things. The question addresses one of them directly and not the other. It is inaccurate to say with either letter that the complaint was first and foremost about the COC, when not all the community agreed or disagreed with it - but a significant number of folks were concerned by events related to it. – Journeyman Geek Oct 18 at 20:40
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    @JourneymanGeek: I wasn't talking about the second open letter in particular. But you're right, I'm projecting from my own priorities. Will edit. – einpoklum Oct 18 at 20:54
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    Well - we all have our priorities, and its pretty important, in the spirit of SE that we stay on point and topic. There are and will be plenty of opportunities to address those priorities, some of which we get to create ourselves – Journeyman Geek Oct 18 at 21:42
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You've missed the time to speak and you've missed the time to act. Now you come and state that something is simply offensive and alienating, while you had a year to realize the actual things that are offensive and alienating. You still make the same mistakes: decisions behind closed doors, stating something without proving it, resolving to threats and dictate instead of compassion and understanding, and abandoning your original concept of "assume good intent".

There's been enough of decisions made by your team, enough decisions that have caused harm. Let us have discussions, let us have facts, let us have proofs and reach a consensus.

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    The thing is, that consensus in issues like this can lead to tyranny of the masses. It's well known and understood that people who are trans, non-binary, etc do suffer ill effects and harm when their pronouns are not used and respected. There's no arguments to be had here. But Trans people are in the minority, so their concerns can rarely reach consensus unless they're amplified by people who accept the hurt they face on a daily basis and wish to do something to alleviate it or at least refuse to be a platform that turns a blind eye to that hurt. – Catija Oct 8 at 20:46
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    @Catija You confuse lack of information with willfull ignorance and disrespect, implying the majority is by default plainly dismissive to these issues and act harmfully to the minority unless being told to behave. I don't like that implication. You can't derive lack of general empathy and respect from the fact the majority of people here have never met a transgender person or at least have never faced their issues, and then simply cross out that majority from the decision-making process because they "could never understand the reasons". – IllidanS4 supports Monica Oct 8 at 20:59
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    @Catija Not sure how to phrase this (especially since we are not supposed to use comments for this) but: thank you for your comment, it means a lot to me to read this <3 (and it also explains things very neetly, IMO) – BelovedFool Oct 8 at 21:02
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    That's not at all the case that I'm making. I am, myself, not a member of the Trans community and yet am 100% behind advocating for them. I'm still learning what I can do to be supportive and being active in listening to others. I completely understand that many people around the world don't understand what being Trans is, and, even if they do, the idea of being non-binary (a subset of Trans) is even more difficult to grasp. What we're doing here is making a statement that we will support Trans members of our network so that they aren't left to fend for themselves. – Catija Oct 8 at 21:34
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    But our statements are true. For Trans people, using incorrect pronouns is offensive and alienating. Heck, even as a female, being called "he" or "sir" is something that at least bothers me a lot - because many people assume I'm male and I generally correct people and when I do, no one bats an eye and some even apologise. But we're not talking about language here, we're talking about people. Descriptive or prescriptive language usage ignores the people receiving it. While language learning may not have encompassed these concepts, we hope that learners will be open to new concepts. – Catija Oct 8 at 21:43
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    I've spent hours - years - of my time working with English learners on our English Language Learners site so I'm not blind to the difficulties of people who are trying to follow the rules for English. These rules, particularly around pronouns are currently in flux and, the honest truth is some people who use pronouns other than he, she, or they will have one of the more common pronouns as an alternative... for example, someone who uses zhir may be OK with being referred to as they. But that doesn't mean that saying something like "zhir is fake, pick something else" will be accepted here - it is rude. – Catija Oct 8 at 21:47
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    We, as CMs, and the moderators on our sites are not absolutist people. We understand that there are many people who are learning these things - we, ourselves are learning them and adapting - but we have great people around us to help. Some of my coworkers are Trans, as are some of the moderators who I've come to know in my time as a mod and as a CM and I've really appreciated them helping me broaden my understanding of what being Trans is like and how to be supportive and accepting of Trans people. It's OK to struggle. We're asking people to be open to learning and treating others kindly. – Catija Oct 8 at 21:52
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    @Rounin There are people who are adamantly unwilling to use "they" as a singular pronoun (both generically and as someone's personal pronoun), yes. – Catija Oct 11 at 20:42
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    @Catija What about people (like me) who find it out offensive to be referred to with singular they? Do I have any means to opt out of it? And if the answer is yes, will mods or anybody else actually ever care for that? People (like me and a lot of other people) are very scared of all that pronoun stuff because it looks like rules that are very hard to follow correctly and very easy to screw up, and I saw no effort from SE to calm down things for people who are confused or afraid of this. – Victor Stafusa Oct 12 at 6:30
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    @VictorStafusa "Use stated pronouns when known". So, if I know your pronouns, I won't use singular they to refer to you. If I refer to you with "they" and you are unhappy with that, you just have to correct me. If, after that, I keep referring to you with they, then I will likely be banned (the same way I would if I refused to use "they" for someone whose pronouns are "they/them") – BelovedFool Oct 12 at 9:38
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    @Catija a consensus would hardly be a tyranny of the masses. A consensus requires minorities to be a consensus. I like the idea of a consensus because it condenses the rules down to the minimum acceptable by all parts. We automatically get the least cumbersome list if consensus is the basis. – StianY Oct 12 at 11:58
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    @VictorStafusa By your logic, use of the pronoun 'you' becomes offensive as it also does not indicate a gender. This seems an untenable position to maintain. – ColeValleyGirl Oct 13 at 6:31
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    @IllidanS4supportsMonica it's not that simple. "He" has long historic usage in referring to an unspecified single person. "They" is now being used similarly but some object to it. Now, you can say that "they" is inherently a better term, and that you'll simply avoid it on a case-by-case basis if/when someone objects. But I (and most people) simply use "he" or "she" as we guess most appropriate—we're right more than 90% of the time—and SWITCH for individuals who object. The crux of it is that if language matters that much to you, it's not reasonable to claim it doesn't matter to someone else. – Wildcard Oct 13 at 23:02
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    @BlackThorn I'm unaware of that. I can think of one person who proposed that as a solution but the idea was quickly dropped after it was explained why that wasn't acceptable, either. – Catija Oct 14 at 21:57
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    @Rounin I think you'd be surprised. Generally older folk use it in this way, its how we were taught. Young people apparently are taught otherwise. You must be hanging out with one of these groups and not the other! "One" is probably a better single replacement than they, which doesn't always work so should only be stylistic and not a grammatical rule. – gbjbaanb Oct 19 at 12:10
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+100

We are a platform of free and open exchange of information.

That is the core idea of Stack Overflow.

We should all be able to agree that this goal can only be achieved through respect while talking and listening to each other.

And yet, this post about respecting people is received so negatively by the community, that it is struggling hard to even maintain a positive overall score at all.

Respect cannot be enforced by rules.

Respect is the result of negotiations; the result of an agreement and understanding. Such an agreement or understanding cannot be reached, if all dissenting opinions are declared unspeakable.

I would like to see an initiative, that has majority support, that actually listens to and respects all sides. That finds a compromise where all sides feel their voice was heard, their concerns taken into consideration and their feelings being respected.

But this is not it.

Formalized rules and moderator powers only give you command over code and the ability to silence people. Your goal should be widespread support, not forced compliance through gritted teeth.

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    Re: "Respect cannot be enforced by rules." Exactly. Generosity (including generosity of spirit) can't be compelled. The moment generosity is compelled it ceases to be generosity. SO would do really well to spend a few hours reading 20th century political history to see what doesn't work. Surely teaching (albeit sympathetically, not in a hectoring, judgemental way),nudging and incentivising has got to be a better approach? – Rounin Oct 20 at 10:45
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    @Mithical I think the notion that one side holds the absolute truth in this is something many people are upset about. I cannot grasp LGBT feelings or religious feelings for example because I experienced neither of them. I will not tell anybody they are feeling it "wrong", I only expect that they don't impose their rules upon me. If one group where to claim they were the only one's that are correct in their feelings and the other group is to shut up and comply, then that does not seem to be very respectful to me. – nvoigt Oct 20 at 11:49
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    Re: "I only expect that they don't impose their rules upon me." We see a parallel of this in the recent tragedy in France in which a (non-Muslim) teacher was attacked and murdered by an Islamist for showing satirical cartoons of Muhammad in class. The Islamist was working on the basis that no-one is allowed to make or show images of The Prophet. But the Islamist is wrong. It is Muslims who are not allowed to make or show images of The Prophet. That rule does not apply to non-Muslims. [1/2] – Rounin Oct 20 at 13:11
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    N.B. That doesn't preclude non-Muslims from following the rule nevertheless out of respect and there's nothing to suggest the teacher normally wouldn't. In this case he was making a point about free speech - and tragically paid for it with his life. As did the Islamist who then had his life taken by the police in an extra-judicial assassination. Two lives lost: a pretty dismal outcome. It would be nice if we could learn to accommodate each other's differences. [2/2] – Rounin Oct 20 at 13:12
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    @Mithical This answer is appealing to the concept of inalienable rights or equal treatment. That isn't the same thing as moderation or balance. – jpmc26 Oct 28 at 22:30
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Thank you for these statements, these commitments, and the work it took to produce them. I know that the needs of minority community members are not always immediately obvious, and so we have to look more closely and to educate ourselves in order to be able to serve everyone -- and you describe exactly these sorts of efforts. That does a great deal to demonstrate a willingness to do the difficult but necessary work here.

Naturally, it's the follow-through and the subsequent actions that will translate this into real change. But this is a clear step along the path that might help make these communities welcoming enough for me to be comfortable.

I hope in particular to see the moderator community supporting this work. Not only is that a community that matters to me as a moderator, but it's also the group of people who are in the best position to help spread change across the network.

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9

I really like the extra diversity training and the provision of resources for best practices, the moderation tools for the teachers lounge and the two level check system for complaints. I think that this training and these resources should be made public as far as possible for all users to benefit.

Judging by the score composition there seems to be a rift in the community though and I attribute it mainly to the "no discussion about it"-policy. What surprises me most is the need for it without many such discussions. In 2020, I regularly check on meta, and do not remember anything related.

However, the biggest problem for me is missing quantitative knowledge. How much of a problem is it currently? It could be very low, high or immensely high. Compared to last year, the measures taken then could have had a big impact, a small impact or no impact at all. The time evolution could have been positive, neutral or negative. It could become worse by the day or it could be effectively not an issue anymore. Do we need to be much more strict than now or are we on a good way - there is nothing really publicly available to gauge that.

Without really knowing what's going on and without seeing anything (may be me though), I'm a bit lost and can only take notice of what is done and what is not.

After some days of discussion here the composition of the score has further trended towards an equal number of up and downvotes. Maybe the increased moderation activity also plays a role here. It certainly feels a bit reminiscent of moderation in October 2019. Not sure if there is a better way, but it feels like if only the wording of the "no discussion about it" thing and the moderation approach would have been a bit less strict, maybe the announcement would have been considerably better received.

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    Is it even possible to quantify the hurt people are experiencing when something like this wouldn't be implemented? – Luuklag Oct 12 at 8:57
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    @talex I was thinking about something like this. One would need to be cautious with interpreting absolute numbers (because the size of the underlying demographics might not be known) but the relative development of numbers year over year might be interesting. A stable downward trend would be the goal. As an alternative you could just ask people about it and take the reported numbers as lower limit. But it may be that not only I have no idea of the quantitative dimension of the problem. Maybe the company has no good idea too. I thought at least it would have. – Trilarion Oct 12 at 10:07
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    If they don't have way to measure it how will they know it works? I prefer to assume they know what they doing. – talex Oct 12 at 10:12
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    Sadly the only benefits of diversity training I have ever seen, has been exclusive to those making money preparing the courses. – StianY Oct 15 at 13:19
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    @talex you cannot quantify how many trans or non-binary people don't participate at all because of the hostile environment demonstrated by last year's events. – Silenced Temporarily Oct 15 at 14:27
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    @SilencedTemporarily I can't either. But if we don't have measurable criteria how do we know if we going in wrong direction? – talex Oct 15 at 17:34
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    @SilencedTemporarily You're right. But incomplete knowledge should not be used to argue against gathering knowledge at all. The idea would be that we do all that is within our control now. If we can reduce the number of incidents, and we have to be able to count them first for that, then there isn't really a reason to not participate. And that's all we can do anyway. – Trilarion Oct 15 at 19:58
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    not only with the downvotes (I downvoted for that exact wording) but when answers and comments are constantly seen being deleted it prevents people from answering. For instance, I had a few issues to raise (clarification wise) but after watching answers and comments disappearing felt better of it - because the message was becoming crystal clear due to the actions taken no matter what the wording is – LinkBerest Oct 16 at 0:08
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    @LinkBerest My answer was deleted by "Community." I suspect much of what you saw is heckler's veto using the automatic deletion from the "spam"/"abusive" flag system. This allows SO to deny responsibility while still getting the censorship the staff wants. – jpmc26 Oct 30 at 2:03
  • @jpmc26 12 out of 29 (=~40%) answers are deleted. – Trilarion Oct 31 at 19:39
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    @jpmc26 it was indeed deleted. It was also well written, to-the-point and relevant. It was upvoted. – StianY Nov 2 at 22:38
2

I'm slightly relieved to finally see a response to that letter after so long. It's always good to remember there are real humans, same as you, on the other side of the display. Keep being human, and we may yet see this community flourish again, led by the good leaders who haven't lost their touch.

But actions always speak louder than words, so consider trying this next - in your next Stack Overflow survey, omit any and all questions related to age, gender, sex, religion, ethnicity and all that, and share your findings with us - how well such a survey is received, if it clarifies or muddies any statistics, and if it's worth the surveyee time and stress spent filling out vs not having to.

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    I don't get it, why remove all questions related to age, gender, etc...? Don't you think it's important to know that, for example, people who identify as women post fewer answers than people who identify as men? Knowing that this difference is here might indicate an issue and you can't solve an issue if you don't know that they are here in the first place. – BelovedFool Oct 6 at 19:43
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    I mean... i'd agree with that assessment... if there was any evidence that the data was actually being used for that purpose... if we knew how they were targeting users for surveys, if we ever were able to see any of the results, or how they interpreted the results... but no, we never get any of that. I can only assume the worst as that's what their actions seem to indicate. – user400654 Oct 6 at 19:48
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    for a discussion about pros and cons of such an experiment please refer to this post on MSO – user1306322 Oct 6 at 20:29
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    @BelovedFool Note that multiple users, under the linked MSO thread, have indicated that they'll purposefully enter wrong information in these, so while these questions may be useful, in the current climate a percentage of these answers may be wrong. And if you can't get a reliable answer, there's no real purpose in asking the question (besides "not letting them win", of course). Since the minorities are small, the noise of only a small percentage of users answering wrong is problematic. This whole situation is very unfortunate. – Erik A Oct 6 at 21:44
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    @ErikA Of course, falsified answers to surveys are an intrinsic problem to survey methodology, but I seriously question whether the presence of a few troublemakers who try to skew things is worth entirely ignoring the issue that some groups of people have a different experience here than others. – Bryan Krause Oct 6 at 23:58
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    @Bryan Normally I'd agree with you, but these troublemakers will likely answer within small groups that constitute a very small fraction of the surveys, (e.g. the non-binary/genderqueer/gender non-conforming group), and since these groups are so small, they might make up a serious portion of it, which would invalidate investigations into specific problems for these small groups. Comparing male/female will still work, though, but SE had a special interest in these small groups. – Erik A Oct 7 at 7:26
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    @ErikA I am one of the supposed 'troublemakers'. I have reasonable and ethical objections to all such questions: on SO, it's nobody else's business what my coat colour is and, worse, it is essentially unverifiable anyway. If I say I am chocolate or black, how could anyone tell that I am golden? Such 'data', collected by internet web forms, if fundamentally flawed and I regard the entire exercise as pointless. Barking mad, actually:) – Martin James Oct 8 at 5:12
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    @MartinJames Agree wholeheartedly. It is perfectly reasonable to question the ethics and practicalities of collecting gender/sexuality/ethnicity data in surveys. I never answer ethnicity questions accurately because a) my mother was adopted so I don't really know and b) my wider family are from an ethnic group that has historically suffered from being labelled as such. I never answer sexuality questions because it's none of anyone's f*&%ing business. Does that make me a troublemaker too? – Bob says reinstate Monica Oct 8 at 9:54
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    IIRC, it was pointed out last year that it can even be illegal to ask for such data. – S.L. Barth - Reinstate Monica Oct 8 at 11:13
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    @BelovedFool I don't think this will sway anyone's opinion or be interesting to many, but personally I have very little faith that all of a sudden the business people in the company who have gone against the better judgement of their most trusted peers in the past couple years, will suddenly start using such sensitive data for good, and would succeed in it without any side effects. By removing this data altogether, the risk is that much lower. And even out of this context, I don't trust any for-profit company to use it for anything other than profit-driven data mining and marketing purposes. – user1306322 Oct 8 at 20:28
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    The SO survey is being primarily targeted at users of Stack Overflow who don't deal with personal issues, unlike Workplace, Parenting, Academia, Religion SE sites which deal with people more directly. I think it would make at least some sense to have these questions for SE users, but I don't think they have a place in a SO-oriented survey. But there is no SE survey, and somehow I don't think the company is interested in any findings about its users. – user1306322 Oct 8 at 20:32
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    Admitting that maybe this is not the best time to emphasize on gathering this kind of data from a site where it has no reason to be gathered, given past mistakes in making good use cases for it, would be seen as a mature and responsible decision, and a sound step forward. – user1306322 Oct 8 at 20:38
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    Well, I am sorry, but I don't believe they will. Not currently, not after the last two years of controversies. I have lost that trust in the company. And many companies have done better in that time with less money, and either way I don't think monetizing on a topic full of friction is a reasonable business decision (let alone how it looks on the PR side). – user1306322 Oct 8 at 20:42
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    @BelovedFool: What matters isn't whether user engagement actually helps SE's bottom line, but whether SE's current management believes that it does. Until recently, their viewpoint seems to have been that user engagement and retention don't really matter, since new users will just keep coming in to SO from Google and that's what generates the bulk of their ad revenue. There's been some signals over the course of this year that this attitude may be changing bit, but IMO it's too early to tell for sure. – Ilmari Karonen Oct 9 at 20:16
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    @BelovedFool No, I don't have any interest in the comparative rates between questions and answers across gender lines. The only thing I would expect that particular data point to do is to confirm the biases of the few sexists who actually perceive women as inferior. Just looking at the disparity tells you nothing about its causes in the first place, and much of the difference is likely traceable to trends in personality differences (particularly those affecting assertiveness) in the second. You won't find problems or solutions in the disparities alone, so looking at them is a waste of time. – jpmc26 Oct 16 at 22:33
2

I know this has been done to death already, but there's one aspect I haven't seen covered.

In the Code of Conduct, we state “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.” To clarify, this includes discussion questioning or debating the legitimacy of someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Further, the debate or discussion of whether or not you want to or should use a person’s pronouns is both offensive and alienating.

I wonder if this will have a serious unintended consequence. Denying that outlet will likely lead to the targeted group (those that object to pronouns) simply becoming passive aggressive.

The simplest way to do that is for them to simply ignore anything said by anyone that requests specific pronouns. Or possibly worse: to find ways to refer to content without referring to the person. I.e. effectively refusing to acknowledge that this section of humanity even exists.

I suspect this kind of thing would be very hard to moderate - it's hard to judge intent and patterns of behavior mean little since many people write like that anyway with zero intent.

I struggle to imagine that this outcome (no acknowledgment) would feel "less bad" than having the pronouns that were selected to represent your identity questioned. But I have no lived experience.

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    As opposed to actively aggressive... Which happens a lot – Journeyman Geek Oct 11 at 1:20
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    Allowing them to not use stated pronouns is actively permitting denial that this section of humanity exists. – Nij Oct 11 at 6:41
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    @Nij But of course that is allowed because answering questions and replying to comments is not mandatory. – Stop harming Monica Oct 11 at 12:06
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    I hope you do not want to punish people for being silent. The Code of Conduct says: "When in doubt, don't use language that might offend or alienate." So "not using language" is fine. Actually, letting people disengage is the way to de-escalate things. – wimi Oct 12 at 8:57
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    See the CoC FAQ, heading "I find it really distressing to use pronouns in a way I think is wrong. Is there really no alternative?". Yes, it would be hard to moderate, and speaking for myself I'd rely on the targeted user raising a flag with enough details to actually act on such a case (and almost certainly consulting with fellow mods / CMs). – Em C Oct 12 at 15:16
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  • @JourneymanGeek: How much is a lot? That is, are there some kind of statistics regarding the prevalence of anti-LGBTQ+ comments on different network sites? – einpoklum Oct 16 at 23:52
  • @squashed: I believe this has already happened. Also, somewhat relevant: this meta question of mine about what to do when questions go into pronoun territory (albeit, admittedly, with a rather extreme example). – einpoklum Oct 17 at 0:01
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    Statistics, no. I just sometimes end up dealing with it here. I do believe some folks run bots that keep track of such things, The point being is the people who're passive agressive to get around rules don't have such things stopping them without said rules, so its a terrible argument – Journeyman Geek Oct 17 at 0:02
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    @JourneymanGeek: But does it really happen a lot, even in your anecdotal experience? Let me be more specific: On network websites whose scope does not include gender politics - such as SO, SU, SF, Math, AskUbuntu, Arqade, English, CS, etc. - and which you participate in, how many such cases do you personally witness, per year (or other unit of time)? I'm asking because I have literally not once yet seen someone disparaged for their sexual tendency or gender identity. I'm sure this happens to _some_extent, but it feels so vague and abstract without some concrete examples, or numbers. – einpoklum Oct 18 at 21:10
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    Happening once is bad. Potentially losing "core" users is bad too. I've had a few over the years as a SU mod, though the response went from polite-yelling at the fellow, to this comedian who tried to full-out gaslight me and followed/harassed a user over off-site chat a bunch of regulars used. Meta of course, gets heated sometimes, and tbh, as someone following this post, I would be shocked if you hadn't noticed at least a few cases of that here, hopefully deleted. – Journeyman Geek Oct 18 at 21:46
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    @EmC: 1. I wasn't cherry-picking, I was giving examples, not a definitive list. 2. My examples include the "big three" (SO, SU, SF; although frankly I'm not sure SF and SU are the 2nd and 3rd largest these days). – einpoklum Oct 19 at 17:50
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    @EmC: I'm not rejecting those examples, I'm assuming that on such sites, discussions and arguments will tend to involve gender and sexual orientation and thus disparagement is also more likely to involve them. I wanted to ask JoureymanGeek whether this happens a lot even on sites where there is no obvious reason to bring up somebody's gender; and I wanted to contrast that with my anecdotal experience, which for the most part is not on such sites. – einpoklum Oct 19 at 18:19
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    // , "simply ignore anything said by anyone that requests specific pronouns." Yes, I can see that being, pragmatically for someone who's looking to stay out of all this, an attractive approach. – Nathan Oct 19 at 18:30
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    @EmC: Point taken, but if this whole discussion is about a handful of trolls each year on a bunch of sites (individual sites or cross-site), then that's one thing; but if it's there are wider expressions of "anti-LBGTQ+" sentiments, then that's another thing. And if it's people assuming the incorrect pronoun in answers or comments and this deteriorating into some kind of verbal fight, that's a third thing. – einpoklum Oct 19 at 19:03
0

In the Code of Conduct, we state “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.” To clarify, this includes discussion questioning or debating the legitimacy of someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Further, the debate or discussion of whether or not you want to or should use a person’s pronouns is both offensive and alienating.

It would be unfortunate if this was correctly interpreted to mean that any disagreement is to be considered depraved a priori.

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