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There is a direct motivation for this post (see an addition from some days ago in the colorful language thread, which I just noticed today, in case you want to know) but it is about something that comes up occassionally, so a general question.
My question is how should a situations be handled where somebody quotes (in an uncritical way) something that is, at least by todays standards as I see them, sexist; and the same for similar problematics.
What to me makes this situation a bit tricky is that it is 'only' a quote. So, the person posting it is not really responsible for it.
But then if one quotes uncritically one somehow endorses what is quoted and if it is on MO then one can see this (and in fact I do) as a problem.
So I am not quite sure what to do. Are critical comments sufficient? (They typically appear.) Or should there be something critical in the body of the answer? Or should it go entirely? Or still something else.
Any sexist, racist, or otherwise offensive remarks on MO should be immediately reported to email@example.com. No need to second guess your judgement, it is always better to err on the safe side.
If you prefer not to contact us by name, feel free to use a pseudonymous or anonymous remailer. Or, at the very least, flag for moderator attention.
Thank you for the reply. In this case I now (only) flagged. In more urgent cases I will use the email variant.
So... we are talking about Bloch's review of Étale Cohomology?
I dislike the particular quote for the sexism it demonstrates (towards men far more than towards women: just deconstruct the choice of the word "pursue") and the underlying idea that all boys "should" be pursuing one and the same "gal" (this kind of pushing onto people a particular ideal of beauty is something nauseatingly common in advertising, and I'd prefer not to see this in mathematical reviewing). Still I stand by my claim that the review is very well-written ("must-read" is a bad overstatement, and prone to the same fallacy; sorry for that). As a whole, I think, mathematics would be richer in content (and yes, diversity, to use this word in its un-politicized meaning once again) if more people would write reviews and articles like this, preferring to err on the side of the offensive instead of the boring.
I don't find this any more outrageous than Alain Valette's, or even R.H. Bing's ones (both quoted in the thread in question). And I don't find any of these particularly outrageous. Opinions are not laws; there is a big difference between "not finding something funny" and crying for the internet police.
Darij: Actually, we are talking about, or at least that is what I asked, what is considered as the appropriate course of action in such a situtation. So what would be your suggestion?
But, yes, it was motivated by something specific, the review you mentioned. Which was neither the first nor (I guess/fear) will it be the last, and also it is not the worst, situation of this kind. And, I agree that abstractly it is well-written.
Not sure I really want or should start a case by case discussion. Okay, briefly:
Regarding the other ones you mentioned: Bing I had not noticed this; in principle I do find this problematic, too. A difference is perhaps that what is a problem there is quite unrelated to MO/the math community.
The Jolissaint-Tits thing, I had noticed, to me however it is in a different category; as it is something happening somewhat coincidentally and then it is merely a bit emphasized/pointed out. Some might find it funny, some might find it a bit childish. But in my opinion (perhaps I am wrong) in any case it seems rather harmless.
In particular, a difference is, that there the subject is dictated by the names. One could not have made another joke/play on words. Of course, one could have made none. But there was no deliberate choice of the subject.
As opposed to the other situations where one could have chosen all kinds of other metaphors. And, one could have written a non-boring review with other images.
Now, the aspect of the original review you point out as problematic is also something towards which I am sensitive (and had negatively noticed too), yet this seems relatively harmless. I mean the obvious problem that only 'the boys' do maths is by far not the only or most severe problem: 'The gal' here is dehumanized; it is nothing but a difficult to understand (use?) sexualized object. The entire storyline would work as well if it were some motorcycle or sportscar or whatever stereotypical 'toy for boys' that the boys can't figure out how to use initially.
Of course, I do not want to suggest that there were any bad intentions involved in writing the review. Certainly it was intended as some playful text and is in context also less strong. But if one just puts today these couple of lines on display, it is IMO really problematic.
quid: My course of action would be to do nothing in such a case. As much as machismo in jokes and quotes can do damage to the atmosphere, censorship thereof can do significantly more damage. I remember somebody summarizing the rules of MO as "everything that's okay in a seminar is fair game on MO". I don't know whether this is the mainstream opinion here, but I'd like MO to be more of a lecture hall than a minefield.
And, one could have written a non-boring review with other images.
I think this is like saying that one could have written a book with less mistakes. I am usually eager to point out the slightest flaws, but this doesn't mean I blame the author for not proofreading his texts 7 times! In this case, this isn't even an obvious mistake if you don't have the right mindset.
The gal' here is dehumanized; it is nothing but a difficult to understand (use?) sexualized object.
That's one interpretation. When I read the quote, I initially interpreted it as supposing that the "boys" to have a dehumanizing attitude with respect to the "gal", without actively endorsing this attitude (it just gives a hint what "gal" they should pursue, if they pursue one). Using a metaphor does not imply endorsing its underlying imagery or considering it "normal"/comme-il-faut; it just implies acknowledging the situation at hand has some similarities with that imagery. Usually people get this right in case of war metaphors (and we've got a lot of these in discussions and even in mathematics itself), but in case of sexist metaphors it always causes controversy.
I think the "problematic" part begins when some people are confronted with sexism like this on a regular basis, as in stalking or mobbing (which can use sexism as a weapon of choice). In this case I don't think the unhappy quote was posted to demean anyone, so there is no reason for any disciplinary action imho.
I find the quote quite offensive, and I've commented on Bloch's review in the past. This is one egregious case in a universe of messages that communicate the idea that women do not belong in the exclusive club that is the mathematics community.
I am unable to understand either Alex Bartel's or Darij Grinberg's defense of the quote. One always has plenty of options for choosing effective metaphors, and most of them do not single out a subset of the population with a history of discrimination and exclusion. Bloch consciously chose to use this one over many possible variations (e.g., switching boys with girls, explicit diagrams of automobile parts, etc.), and it seems likely the reason was that he expected people in his intended audience, the exclusive club, would find it appealing.
We can do without the dramatic charges of "censorship" and "internet police". It's not particularly onerous to request that people behave professionally in public.
I think that some 50% of the content of the "colorful language" answers are, let's say, bad examples of "professional behaviour". All in all I don't see much reason for a "professional" code of conduct for mathematicians outside of their job. The nice thing about mathematics is that the merit of a mathematical achievement can be assessed independently of the status and the professionality of the author. We cite articles in Deutsche Mathematik because they are correct (well, some of them; it shouldn't come as a surprise that a significant part of that periodical was bullshit), not because we consider that journal a bastion of professionalism. Mathematicians are not medics or nuclear engineers. Heck, we are not even rocket scientists.
Why I mentioned censorship and internet police? Because quid proposed "Or should it go entirely?".
Let me remark that I find critical comments perfectly fair game and well-deserved. And if the critical comment receives more upvotes than the question, that's legitimate and representative. If the answerer decides to remove his answer for that reason, that's again perfectly okay. But I don't like the proposal that we should delete it, and that's what quid attempted by flagging the question.
Darij: I did not propose anything. I asked a question.
To quote myself.
So I am not quite sure what to do. Are critical comments sufficient? (They typically appear.) Or should there be something critical in the body of the answer? Or should it go entirely? Or still something else.
It seems to me the most one can infer from this is that I consider only critical comments as potentially insufficient.
As the visbility is not quite symmertic in particular in such an overcrowed answer thread. However, what I, personally, would find a good option in this case, is actually the middle one. That is to supplement the quote by some critical commentary (and by critical I do not mean a purely negative comment, but some discussion, like, that this is a in some sense well-written text and certainly qualifies as colorful, yet that for this and this reason it is also problematic).
To my question I then receieved rapidly an answer from François saying among others:
Or, at the very least, flag for moderator attention.
Or, at the very least, flag for moderator attention.
So, then I (of course) followed up on this and flagged (for moderator attention as requested, not offensive or spam).
Thus, neither did I directly propose to delete it, I merely listed deletion of one of several options one could consider, nor did I use any flag that automatically leads to deletion.
Some other points. You say 'All in all I don't see much reason for a "professional" code of conduct for mathematicians outside of their job.' I am not sure what you mean here/how this applies here.
The site is considered at least by some (incidentally also by the seminar-room rule you quote) as a somewhat professional context, and writing a review for BAMS is also more part of the job than leisurely activity.
And, IMO, one should not tell an analog of this review in a seminar room or lecture hall (except under special circumstances).
Daniel: Yes it is metaphorical. But how the metaphor is chosen is precisely the problem.
Let us look at your bible quote, which is also problematic in that regard.
What is happening there is that the relation (humans to G-d) is mapped to, via the metaphor, (woman to man).
So the 'relative value' of a woman compared to a man is that of a human being relative to G-d. Don't you see a problem here?
I strongly object to the deletion by François G. Dorais of the relevant answer from the mentioned thread. Thist kind of censorship is uncalled for. If MO is going to allow a thread like that to remain, it should also leave in relevant examples of PUBLISHED colorful language. Either delete the entire thread on the basis that it is not relevant for MO or live with the reference to Bloch's review.
François, do you also want to edit Mark Twain's books?
The point, Chuck, is that the deleted answer was very definitely on topic for the question. The deletion was censorship, pure and simple.
Bill, I personally did not find the answer that problematic. I deleted it because there is no reason to have such commotion on off-topic matters. <strike>Also, note that you have the power to reverse my action and I encourage you to exercise that right.</strike> (SE2.0 feature) You can force us to work harder to find a way to quiet this commotion.
IMO, removing the answer, which, I repeat, was a relevant one for the question, is basically the same as removing Mark Twain's books from a library. Do you favor that, Michael?
I am NOT opposed to deleting the entire thread as being not relevant. If the question is acceptable, so is the answer, which quoted a published review.
I do not like either the question or the deleted answer, BTW, but I opposed to censorship, which is very, very different from keeping material off MO that is not relevant for MO. I cannot undelete the answer, but I did vote to close the thread, and, if it gets closed, I will vote to delete it.
Here is the thread:
How can I undelete, François? I can vote to undelete questions, but I do not find any tools for deleting or undeleting an answer.
@quid: I shouldn't have quoted your first post, but went with the third one (which I mentioned two lines below anyway): "In this case I now (only) flagged."). In the first post, you are merely bringing up the censorship option as a possibility. Flagging, though, IS a call for censorship. François might be to blame for this as well, but I don't know whether he was aware what post you were talking about; he might have been suspecting something much worse.
I would agree with you that a critical comment in the answer would be a good way to go. It's community wiki, so every of us can do that on his own, and I think of this as fair game if the comment is sufficiently clearly marked as an edit by somebody else than the original answerer.
The site is considered at least by some (incidentally also by the seminar-room rule you quote) as a somewhat professional context
and writing a review for BAMS is also more part of the job than leisurely activity.
I am not defending the publishing of that quote in a review, not even the posting of it on MathOverflow (to say the least it is not representative of the review it is taken from). I just think that censorship (which it still is in my opinion) is much worse.
Daniel's example of Hall's marriage theorem is not exactly comparable, because it is usually formulated in that "fancy" version for n boys and n girls, and there is no objectivization of any of the sexes ("pursue") or provocation of the audience ("private parts") involved (most of the time; once I have seen an instructor prove it using the spreading of a sexual disease...). I tend to avoid this marriage metaphor not for any provocational or sexist content, but because it means telling one and the same joke to the same people (combinatorialists) over and over.
@Michael Greinecker: As for me, I am opposed to the "in case of doubt, delete" trend here, but this trend has for now been restricted mostly to questions that were not sufficiently clearly posed and did not receive good answers, not to opinions. Also I find the tendency of some question askers to delete their questions together with others' answers a scandal, but as long as we cannot change the software we cannot do anything against that here.
The issue, Michael, is not the content of Bloch's review but the censorship of a relevant answer to a question which apparently was deemed acceptable by the MO community. That said, I would not say that Bloch's review had a sexist content but rather a sexual content.
Space is not an issue for MO, but as far as Mein Kampf is concerned, IMO any library that does not have a copy cannot have a reasonable politics section. I cannot imagine a serious library removing Mein Kampf "to make place for something better".
Sorry folks! I just realized that high-rep users deleting/undeleting answers was a SE2.0 addition...
Well, I can undelete it but I would rather not do so until there is a different proposal to resolve this commotion.
I am also not sure why this thread confirms Godwin's law so fast, but here is a compromise. We can make the answer less revealing by replacing the direct quote with a link to the Bloch review and invite the readers to discover it for her/himself. Just like this other answer.
@ François: Add a comment to the answer that you find the passage in Bloch's review offensive and that you think that the editors of the BAMS should not have allowed it to be included in his review.
I can't do that Bill since that's not what I think.
You can say that you know that some MO participants find the passage in Bloch's review offensive and think that the editors of the BAMS should not have allowed it to be included in his review, but, inasmuch as the quote was published in the BAMS and is responsive to the question asked, you allow it to remain.
Afterwards, if you also vote to close the thread, you can, if you want, cast the first vote to delete if you beat me to the punch (since I have moved from the "not opposed to deleting" camp to the "favor deleting" camp due to the distraction from the main purpose of MO the thread has caused).
As a temporary compromise, I undeleted the answer but removed the contentious quote. Everyone interested can still read the quote by looking at the revision hisory. The answer was also locked to prevent tampering until this issue is resolved.
Yes, that is not a permanent solution because the relevant part of Bloch's review is three lines within a long review.
I note that in two days I can vote to delete the thread.
MO topic closed as "no longer relevant"? Now that can hardly be because of this discussion... If not, what makes it "no longer relevant"?
Darij, reasons to close are usually not very relevant. For big-list questions, "no longer relevant" has become the customary reason to close, it's a way of saying "mission accomplished, this list is big enough."
Ah, okay. I'm not sure the mission is accomplished in this case, but then again, this is not the kind of topic that has a mission. It just seemed to me that somebody decided to close the question due to the discussion here, which would really have been the worst possible idea.
It seems to me meanwhile various people suggested that adding a critical comment in the answer could be a good solution.
@Darij: it seems we have the same opinion on what should be done, adding a comment in the answer.
So I am not sure why you insist that I called for censorship, or are you calling for it too?
And that this is about my opinion was clear from the start as I stressed that the problem is that it is quoted in an uncritical way.
I'm surprised that someone considered the answer sexist enough to warrant deletion. In the first post in this thread quid asked "Are critical comments sufficient?" I would say Yes, they are. I think MO comments, especially those with many upvotes, are fairly prominent, so it's unlikely that anyone would read the answer without also reading the comment and learning that some people didn't like the quote in the answer.
@quid: I can stop this discussion if necessary - if you think that we agree, then I am probably just misunderstanding you. It just looked to me very much like you were
and in post #3,
From the beginning on I had nothing against a critical comment in the answer. That's not censorship. Deleting the post is censorship.
NB: We might be having a disagreement about what flagging implies. I believe that flagging a post means requesting the authorities to delete it. If I just want to put a critical comment in a community-wiki post, there is no point for me in flagging it; I'd just make the comment (if I am sure of myself and don't want anyone else's opinion) or open a meta discussion (if I do want others' opinions, what is more reasonable in this context) as a result of which I'd either make the comment or leave the post be but NOT flag it as inappropriate. It might be that your understanding of what flagging is is different. I am not saying tht any of us is wrong here. Flagging on MO is done so infrequently that each of us has a good right to have no idea how it works and what it brings.
What might also have happened is that François' alarmist post (#2) prompted you to flag without thinking. François' alarmism, in turn, probably came from the unclarity what you were referring to (if somebody talks of sexism without getting more concrete, people usually expect something much more sinister than the matter at hand). So it was all in all a big misunderstanding: everybody wanted to play safe, and as a result the thing escalated. If this is so, can we now settle the matter? François could undelete the post, quid could add a critical comment, everybody else could vote up/down and we would stop talking about censorship?
Oh, I see this has already been kind-of done. Perfect.
@darijgrinberg: Deletion should be on the basis that the thread is not relevant for the main purpose of MO. IMO, this is correct and, moreover, the thread even works against the main purpose of MO. It is on the front page in place six if you click on "votes" under "questions". That is why I intend to vote to delete it in two days. We'll see if other 10K participants agree with me.
I think it appropriate that the moderators, who have super powers, are now standing aside.
@Darij (but also more generally): My personal situation related to this thread was like so:
I browsed around on MO (since I actually wanted to work but could not yet quite find the motivation to do so), and in doing so came across the answer in question as the question happened to be on the front page. To which I had spontaneously a quite negative reaction, noticed I was not the first (RR and ESQG comment), but also noticed that the OP of the answer did not really see the problem, and it sort of seems misunderstood ESQG's comment entirely. So I left my comment in addition. It is perhaps also relevant to add that at that time the vote pattern was quite different (if I remember right, before me voting, answer 8/9, RR 1, ESQG 0).
[A problem here is also that if there are so many answers, comments are colapsed completely if they do not yet have any upvote.]
For the moment I left it at that. But then perhaps an hour later thought perhaps this is actually not sufficient. (One would have had a relatively high voted answer and some almost ignored comments; perhaps this is not a good message.) And in fact thought about just adding some commentary to the answer itself. However, then I was also not sure whether this was consider as alright. And in view of the fact that this question comes up occassionaly (though rarely) for me, I thought I will ask about this on meta.
And after some consideration, actually I had a draft for this request which gave more space to the current issue, decided for various reasons to make it rather a general request. Because I think/thought one could legitimately have different opinions on the general course of action.
I spelled out three options that I thought one could consider in principle (and indeed meanwhile for each of them somebody expressed that it would be good), and one 'open one'. One the one hand to structure the discussion, on the other hand, in view of the fact that just with asking what should/could be done, one would run the risk of getting some half-witty comments to the extent one could do this, this, or this...what are you asking about.
Now the first suggestion given was to inform the moderators, which is a good suggestion since in principle it would avoid that specific public attention is drawn to the problem which in some cases can be advantageous.
One informs them, and then they can decide what to do. (So in some sense I would be willing to accept the image of calling/informing the police/an authority; but then this is not something which I consider as particularly negative, at least as long as one is in a context where these authorities are reasonable, which is the case here on MO) In particular, the suggestion was to err on the save side.
In general, flagging for moderator attention means to me what it says, bringing something to the awareness of the moderators. [Flagging as spam or offensive are very different, as they would have an immideate effect if done by a couple of people.] I do this on occassion for reasons that have nothing to do with deletion, in particular I do this (as recently mentioned) to ask for turning something into CW mode. Such a flag is accompanied by a message (max 140 char) I cannot recall what exactly I wrote, but something like that I consider this answer as it is as highly problematic, with an add on that in a different context it might not be so bad.
In particular, I would also like to point out that I said here in my second comment indirectly that I do not consider the matter as urgent. As on the one hand the thing was around for almost a week already, and on the other hand it is not something which I think has a potentially instant emotionally damaging/disturbing effect (as opposed to perhaps say a highly inappropriate picture). (cont)
(cont) However, I stand by opinion that it is highly problematic and indeed in my opinion more so than say some completely obvious sexist insult. Because the matter is a bit subtle it is in the long run more dangerous. IMO this is truly an extreme example for how one must not use gendered metaphors. (That in all likelihood this was done inadvertently, is one thing, but does not change the problematic nature when it is repeated.)
Now my understanding of the further situation is that François is of the opinion that the simplest solution in such a case is to delete it (on the grounds that some find it offensive/problematic while it is actually tangential to the purpose of MO). Which I think is a solid pragmatic/efficient point of view. And also seems generalizable since the situation where some answer is in the scope of MO in the narrow math-research sense and still needs to be sexist, racist,... is a bit hard to imagine.
Yet, I can also follow and have some sympathy for the more puristic line of reasoning of Bill Johnson and you that this is in some sense problematic to delte it, because after all it is an example of published colorful math writing and so it is not clear why it cannot/should not be in this thread, if this thread exist at all.
So, what I learned from this discussion is that some participants have a very strong opinion against deletions.
While relatively strong criticism of problematic content seems to be quite universally accepted.
This is useful information to have for me as it was not clear.
So, what I learned from this discussion is that some participants have a very strong opinion against deletions. While relatively strong criticism of problematic content seems to be quite universally accepted. This is useful information to have for me as it was not clear.
I'm glad to have helped bring the point across. :)
I see the misunderstanding between us clearly now, and also (I think) between you and François, who also seems to have interpreted your flagging as a "please delete this" rather than a "please discuss this" signal.
Also, while I don't share Bill's desire to delete the whole question with all its answers and I don't believe he will get the votes he needs to do that (there are some highlights among the answers), his motion to do so is a valid one, as it does not lead to a chilling effect on marginal opinions, but only signalizes that MO is a place for mathematical Q&A rather than for trivia and jokes.
The angst of gendered metaphors is simply something I cannot understand. Linguistic prophylaxis is one of the most efficient ways I know of to preserve the status quo it is usually purported to change.
I would never write such a review, but the fact is, it was written. It was written by a notable mathematician, it was published in a noted publication, it was quoted in an infinitely on-topic way as an answer to a question which is—of course—rather not on topic on MO but which has become one of those non-on-topic-but-already-classical ones. I find most of this thread incomprehensible!
"MO is a place for mathematical Q&A rather than for trivia and jokes" is certainly my belief, even if I enjoy seeing an occasional humorous comment within a serious mathematical discussion. Threads devoted to humor are, IMO, out of place, and it is more or less inevitable that such threads will contain material that some participants find offensive.
@Darij: thanks. It is most likely true that I was a bit too indirect at first, since I actually wanted to avoid to turn this into a discussion of this specific answer too much. But, then I ought to have known that I'd fail with this anyway ;)
@Mariano: I am not quite sure what you want to say. Do you, or don't you think that this specific metaphor is problematic in the first place? (Leaving aside the question whether it is a problem to repost it here.)
It seems you do. But, then I do not understand why you consider it as incomprehensible that one sees the need to point out this fact to those that do not see this, like OP and, say, it seems Alex Bartel.
@quid: I do not find the metaphor problematic in the least. I do not see in what way that is relevant, though, just I do not see in what way others finding it problematic is relevant. I can quote tons of things I find abominable (Google will find for you my collection of quotations, and you will see tons of abominable things there—along with tons which are quite not abominable, and you get to choose which are which (I have gotten a surprising number of email messages essentially requesting I somehow marked them according to my choosing :/ ...)) and doing so does not mean I endorse any of them.
I wish I could upvote Mariano's penultimate post twenty times.
As a more general comment, not necessarily only related to the present discussion, I am very sure that the often dictatorial enforcement of mostly, let's say, strange rules of political correctness has not prevented a single case of discrimination against anyone. The fact that normal people brought up in a democratic society perceive of such enforcement as censorship should give those demanding it some food for thought.
I was trying to avoid the debate here, both as regards MO policy and as regards how objectionable the quote in question is...
Can I just say that I do not recognize this often dictatorial enforcement of political correctness? I fail to notice the jackboots at my door, the inspectors at my office, etc etc. What people inveigh against as "political correctness" sometimes seems more like an attempt, sometimes clumsy, to avoid language that is coarse towards others and entrenches discrimination or imbalances of power.
[I was going to reel off a list of terms that so-called "political correctness" has forced to the margins of acceptable language in Britain, but then decided it was enough to mention sewers without displaying their contents.]
And I stick by my original comment regarding the quote from Bloch, which mars an otherwise engaging review. The general metaphor seems patronizing but of its time; the closing sentence is just crass.
All that said, I am inclined to agree with Bill Johnson's take on this particular case as regards MO policy.
[no longer relevant]