The comments on the OP for the following question are disconcerting: Why is Voevodsky's motivic homotopy theory 'the right' approach?

From what I can gather, the OP must have had something like a confederate jack, swastika, or some other such thing. Two different users comment on it, including a comment that some images are unacceptable to use even once. They follow up by saying they will never answer questions asked by the OP.

Such a response is so strong that, to the uninitiated, it could seem ironic. That is, what makes things confusing is that the original image has already been changed.

Should the comments be deleted? Can they be clarified? What is the situation?

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    I saw the original image before the user changed it. It was indeed the Confederate flag. This combined with the user name “Patriot” give a rather unsavoury impression. Certainly this is not enough to impose a ban or anything of the sort on the user; the decision not to answer any of their questions is entirely a personal decision made by Noah Snyder. – Stanley Yao Xiao Nov 21 at 2:22
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    I think one of the Community Managers changed it. After the uproar over the Donald Trump avatar meta.mathoverflow.net/questions/3065/celebrity-usernames, my own conclusion is that any sort of trollishness like this has no place on MO, being, at the very least, disruptive and therefore counter to what this site about, which is to do mathematics. There is no reason we should put up with it. – Todd Trimble Nov 21 at 3:05
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    Moreover, I see nothing unreasonable in Noah's response, which was to let that person know how utterly offensive it is to use an image widely perceived as a hate symbol as an avatar image. I find that reaction neither too "strong", nor seemingly ironic, nor confusing (because the comments make clear what happened). – Todd Trimble Nov 21 at 3:47
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    I can understand some people do not like the flag of the Confederate States of America, and some of the associations they make with it. I also understand trying to temper things so as to keep a mellow and peaceable atmosphere. I do not understand calling the flag "a hate symbol". Without disrespecting the choices of people like Noah Snyder, I think a more moderating tone should be present. In particular, noting that it is a controversial symbol should suffice. Gerhard "Came From A Confederate State" Paseman, 2018.11.20. – Gerhard Paseman Nov 21 at 6:30
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    @GerhardPaseman I know nothing your personal situation, but I've been told by several people they perceive the confederate flag as a hate symbol and, looking at the history, it is really hard to blame them. I understand it is a controversial issue but it does provoke some pretty strong emotional reactions in a lot of people. Whatever value you might put into it, it might be the time to retire this symbol for good. – Denis Nardin Nov 21 at 6:38
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    Indeed, I do not want to get in the way of other people's associations. I read over the comments from the question and found nothing objectionable: the people there are making it clear that they are asserting their beliefs and preferences. When a moderator identifies the Confederate flag as a hate symbol and assumes such Is commonly and universally accepted, I take issue with that. Leaving controversial symbols out of MathOverflow, yes, let's do that. Define a particular group of pixels as a hate symbol and expect me to accept that? Sorry, I think moderators can do better. – Gerhard Paseman Nov 21 at 6:47
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    @GerhardPaseman I side with your point of view. What determines whether a given picture is offensive or even a hate symbol is ultimately a subjective matter. The only qualitative measure is perhaps the density of people perceiving it as such; e.g., the number of people offended by a Confederate flag will be larger than the number of people offended by, say, an Ichthys or a hammer and sickle --- at least in academics. But to base the choice of countermeasure on this percentage is a slippery slope toward segregation of minority opinions. Needless to say I did not remove the image myself. – Patriot Nov 21 at 8:28
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    @GerhardPaseman I come from a Confederate state as well: I was born and bred in what was the capital of the Confederacy, and I am very very familiar with the various ways in which the flag has been deployed in both past and present. The fact that the flag is perceived as a hate symbol by many people is what is most important in this discussion -- that it is upsetting and disruptive to enough people that removal is warranted. And Patriot: if you don't know this, you surely should. (I'll add the fact that the flag continues to be used in racist contexts, conspicuously -- that is undeniable.) – Todd Trimble Nov 21 at 11:58
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    @GarehardPaseman: do you also think Swastikas are acceptable if you grew up in Germany? – Noah Snyder Nov 21 at 13:52
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    @Patriot I am saddened to learn that you did not remove the symbol yourself, and even more by your unapologetic tone. That being said, I am glad that the moderators took action in the way they did. – André Henriques Nov 21 at 14:12
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    I disagree with the idea that the “controversial symbol” label is sufficient. That flag represents the confederacy, a group of states that seceded from the United States because of their desire to uphold the institution of enslavement of black people. Not taking a strong stance on this issue makes mathoverflow seem less than welcoming, to say the least. – Samir Canning Nov 21 at 15:17
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    Whatever one thinks about this or that particular symbol -- the use of political symbols on a site about mathematics is a distraction, and similarly off-topic as a question on mathematics on a press conference of the government. – Stefan Kohl Nov 21 at 21:42
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    I hope that all political statements at MO will be promptly removed by moderators, and also that MO will be welcoming to every mathematician regardless of their political views or actions. In particular, ignoring someone's mathematics for non-mathematical reasons should be discouraged at MO. – Igor Belegradek Nov 22 at 19:10
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    It is somewhat troublesome to hear that "a lot of people perceive it offensive" is an acceptable reason for moderator action. Consider the next steps once this argument is accepted as valid: a vocal minority could easily begin using this argument to effectively regulate what is and isn't acceptable speech. A better reason, following the comments of @IgorBelegradek above, would be that all politics should be discouraged on MO, and the confederate flag is clearly a political symbol. – alex Nov 23 at 18:39
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    "I hope that all political statements at MO will be promptly removed by moderators...." That is, of course, itself a political statement. "we all agreed that MO is not a place for politics, political comments, etc, full stop." That, too, is taking a political position. "all politics should be discouraged on MO...." That was another political statement. – Gerry Myerson Nov 24 at 3:53

For people who are either unfamiliar with US history (either due to growing up in other countries or who had White Supremacist textbooks in school), here are the first two paragraphs of the state of Mississippi's explanation of why they seceded and joined the country which flew this flag:

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

Here's Georgia's first two sentences:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

This flag represents, as it always has, treason in the name of White Supremacy and the defense of slavery and all that was part of the slavery system (the death of millions, children separated from their parents, systemic rape, etc.). It is one of the most purely evil symbols in the history of humanity. Most recently it returned to prominence during the civil rights era when states added it to their flag to show their support of Jim Crow and lynchings and their opposition to equal voting rights and civil rights.

Anyone who flies it or defends it is an enemy of that which is good in society and I will have nothing to do with them, whether they’re a mathematician or not.

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    I think outside the US, the Confederate flag is not that widely known. Many people would rather associate the Flag of the United States with all of the things you say the Confederate flag stands for, plus the deeds of the US Army in all of the wars and other war-like actions around the world it was (and is) involved in. – Stefan Kohl Nov 23 at 21:34
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    @StefanKohl: That's a perfectly fair point. I would say that the US, like most countries, has done a lot of things some good and some evil (in the US's case, more of the latter than the former), and the US flag doesn't specifically honor the most evil parts. I can understand why someone would object to the German flag, but I don't think it's pure evil the way Nazi symbols are. I think the same is true of the US flag, there are valid objections, but it's not a symbol of the worst aspects of the US the way the confederate flag is. – Noah Snyder Nov 23 at 21:44
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    Also there are some people in Europe who know well what the Confederate flag represents: the Neo-Nazis who fly it because Nazi symbols are banned in Germany but the Confederate flag which represents the same principles is legal. – Noah Snyder Nov 23 at 22:11
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    I disagree with your position as stated in this post. While I respect your choice to take it, I do not adopt this position for my own, and will not do so. I also think that making this post on meta is a mistake: it prolongs the controversy and takes it away from the topic of mathematics and managing the forum. This post of yours is better placed elsewhere. You may choose to refuse to interact with me because of my disagreement. That is also your choice. Gerhard "This Signature Is My Choice" Paseman, 2018.11.23. – Gerhard Paseman Nov 24 at 0:33
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    @GerhardPaseman Noah is literally answering the question(clarifying the response to the image and situation). You should be telling the OP that they shouldn't be asking this question on meta.MO, not Noah, if that is how you actually feel(or vote to close the question). If you would like to associate with people who fly the Dixie flag there are plenty of other web sites(and maybe local groups) to go to, and it seems plausible there are even mathematicians there to talk math to. – Paul Plummer Nov 24 at 6:44
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    @Paul, unfortunately, Noah's answer does not come across that way. I appreciate the history lesson, but not the rhetoric in the last two paragraphs. If Noah chooses to voice his beliefs as to why he views certain symbols negatively, I will not challenge that. (I defer challenging whether such rhetoric belongs one meta.) I challenge the idea that because he views the symbol as one of hate, I must view it that way also. That idea was the impetus behind my response to Todd's comment, which seemed too extreme coming from a moderator. Paul, do you not see the divisiveness in this post? – Gerhard Paseman Nov 24 at 7:20
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    @GerhardPaseman Just because you think it is divisive doesn't mean it isn't an answer and Noah told an important part of the history of this symbol which clarifies the reaction. I think you are making something analogous to the "false balance fallacy" in how you view the flag and separately how you are view the reactions of others and its divisiveness. Being a moderator does not mean to be "moderate" in all things. You could sit and say waiving the 1940 German flag is honoring "German" ancestors and those who fell but you are wrong or you are living in a world I don't want to be a part of. – Paul Plummer Nov 24 at 8:14
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    The actual flag in question is not so different, millions where enslaved, and died slaves.... A primary purpose of the Confederacy was to defend the right that states can have slavery legal if they want, and without a doubt the Dixie flag is a symbol of that – Paul Plummer Nov 24 at 8:21
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    Just so we are on the same page Paul, how do I view the Confederate flag? And how desirous am I to associate with those who wish to fly it? And then what further associations do you wish to make about me? Perhaps I should give up and just accept your comments. I will now depart and let you have the last words. – Gerhard Paseman Nov 24 at 8:40
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    I am responding to "I disagree with your position as stated in this post". I read the post as basically saying the flag is a symbol of white supremacy and that he doesn't want to associate with people who fly such a symbol. Perhaps you read something totally different in it and disagreed with that. If you don't want to view that flag as a symbol of hate I am no thought police but I also think such view are misguided. You didn't mention it, but the things that I brought up on the nazi flag are common talking points to defend flying the confederate flag, which you may not agree with – Paul Plummer Nov 24 at 9:07
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    I find little to disagree with in this historical description, but it isn't an answer to the question. The question is not just the title, "Why was there pushback on a user's profile image?," but also, as stated in the body, "Should the comments be deleted? Can they be clarified? What is the situation?" The OP is asking how this was handled, why it was handled that way, and whether that was the right way to handle it. – Ben Crowell Nov 24 at 18:21
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    @GerhardPaseman The argument that you need not view the flag as a symbol of hate would be more convincing if you would supply a reasonable alternative interpretation. Or is this a Humpty Dumpty style "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."-approach to symbols? – Michael Greinecker Nov 26 at 18:04
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    @NoahSnyder Not to get into a huge to-do, but are there any countries you can think of that haven't "done more evil than good"? I agreed with most of what you said until you made that remark... – Harry Gindi Nov 26 at 18:47
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    +1 for the interesting history lesson, but I take issue with the gratuitous insinuation that people unfamiliar with the relevant US history are so "either due to growing up in other countries or who had White Supremacist textbooks in school". There are plenty of people that grew up in the US, not white supremacism, that are just not aware of all the connotations of the Confederate flag. Many of them decent people that can be educated without insinuation or insult. Cont... – Yaakov Baruch Nov 28 at 13:56
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    Besides, I have met openly antisemitic people that I would trust more do do the right thing in different times and places than other I've met with flawlessly unprejudiced opinions. So I personally don't get too hot when people I don't know flaunt hateful symbols, and in any case I prefer they do that than they become skilled at hiding hateful feelings. – Yaakov Baruch Nov 28 at 14:00

There are both content-neutral reasons and non-content-neutral reasons for wanting to delete the confederate flag avatar. Samantha Y's answer seems to focus on the non-content-neutral reasons. I actually agree with her that the confederate flag is offensive (although I would classify the flag, especially pre-1950, more as a symbol of slavery than a symbol of hate). But if there is both a content-neutral reason and a non-content-neutral reason for deleting the avatar, then it seems to me much more sensible to focus on the content-neutral reason.

The content-neutral reason for deleting the avatar would be that SE and MO have an ethic that's all about staying on topic, and politics is off topic for MO. We have lots of mechanisms for getting rid of off-topic material in questions, comments, and answers. It just happens that there is this communication channel, the avatar, which sidesteps all of the most commonly used mechanisms. That doesn't mean that this communication channel should be exempt from the kind of vigorous pruning that would be applied to the other channels.

It would also be extremely silly to let avatars and usernames be a one-way channel for broadcasting off-topic opinions when there is no mechanism for rebutting those opinions -- if someone posts a comment saying that they don't like the confederate flag avatar for reasons x, y, and z, then the comment will be deleted because it's off topic.

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    To put it mildly, I find this use of 'content-neutral' misapplied. ('Non-verbal' might be more appropriate.) I think the real situation is that there is a changing entity called a community, and that many of the behaviours/customs/rules written and unwritten are meant both to keep the community together and to get that community to produce a certain kind of content. This involves social factors as well as historical factors. Avoiding some of the hotspots affecting other fora seems fine to me. Gerhard "Some Kinds Of Fire Unwanted" Paseman, 2018.11.23. – Gerhard Paseman Nov 23 at 20:36
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    @GerhardPaseman: I don't understand the first two sentences of your comment. Could you explain? I wonder if they are based on an overly hasty and inaccurate reading of my answer. I used "content-neutral" as an adjectival phrase referring to "reasons for wanting to delete." It does not refer to user Patriot's use of the confederate flag (which was a form of nonverbal communication). – Ben Crowell Nov 24 at 18:24
  • Ben, I sent you an email regarding this. In brief, 'off-topic' does not seem content neutral to me, while 'age of author' does. It is quite possible I am reading in your post something other than your intent. Gerhard "Feeling A Little Different Today" Paseman, 2018.11.25. – Gerhard Paseman Nov 25 at 19:34
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    I disagree with this answer because avatars do allow for math unrelated expressions and I don't think this is illegitimate. What if a user has photo of themselves wearing a Metallica t-shirt. Would that be illegitimate? A user with a photo of himself wearing a kippah? – Michael Greinecker Nov 26 at 18:09
  • @GerhardPaseman: The distinction is between judging what topic someone's communication is about versus judging what they have to say about the topic. For example, if I post a question in which I begin by asserting that $2+2=5$, then my assertion is on topic for MO, but I would not expect the question to be upvoted. – Ben Crowell Nov 26 at 22:53
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    @MichaelGreinecker: This is about proportionality. MO has disincentives for posting various things in questions, answers, and comments. The disincentives are supposed to be proportionate. I could start a question by saying, "I was throwing a tennis ball for my dog today, and it occurred to me that if the ball was moving in a complex manifold rather than a real one ..." The part about the ball and the dog are slightly off-topic, but they don't have the power to completely throw discussion off track. Ditto if my avatar was a puppy, and my username was "I Luv Puppies!!" – Ben Crowell Nov 26 at 22:59
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    I can see that an avatar is content-neutral with respect to a post, even if the avatar has content. I think I am not in a place now to appreciate your distinction. That's OK. Other people seem to appreciate your distinction. I am also in favor of not seeing controversial avatars on MathOverflow, which is my takeaway from your post. Gerhard "Willing To Wait For Appreciation" Paseman, 2018.11.26. – Gerhard Paseman Nov 27 at 1:09

Answering this for closure: By the comment of Stanley Yao Xiao, the OP in question had a confederate flag as their avatar. A moderator (presumably) changed it, with the understanding that a ban would be too strong a response.

By the comment of Todd Trimble, it is clear there is a precedent for dealing with trollish and politicized behavior on MO. See the meta link in his comment for the details.

As for me, I imagine calling it the confederate 'jack' rather than simply 'flag' made my motives appear questionable. That, combined with the suggestion that Noah Snyder's response was in some way unwarranted, gives the impression that I was sympathetic to the OP and not to common decency.

I was hoping that my initial impression was wrong, but I'm disheartened to see that it was not.

A natural follow-up question is why in the hell someone, especially someone on MO, would make the decision to use that avatar, coupled with that username.

Related: is there a mechanism on MO for a user to add another user to some sort of "personal block list" ? I.e. is there a way, at the system level, to implement an ignore feature, such as how one can add a harasser to a block list on Facebook, thus preventing both users from seeing the other?

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    Regarding your question about ignore feature (in the last paragraph of the current revision of your answer), here is a previous discussion on this meta: Ignoring certain users' postings. – Martin Sleziak Nov 21 at 7:58
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    @Martin Sleziak Thank you! And as far as I can say, this current revision is the last one. – Samantha Y Nov 21 at 8:41

I just don't understand why the moderators would remove the avatar but leave a trail of comments around that allows others to infer what happened, or worse. I think the omission ultimately caused sensible MO members to get irritated (at the very least) with each other, mistakenly so.

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    This is exactly why I made the meta thread! Ah well. (I regret it now!) – Samantha Y Nov 29 at 5:13
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    I think it would be a good thing if some trace were left (automatically) when content is removed from a moderator, in the Stack Exchange network. Not because of distrust in the current moderators, but as a general practice of accountability. Unfortunately, the view of Stack Exchange on this subject is that normal users cannot check the actions of the moderators. – Federico Poloni Nov 29 at 14:49
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    None of the "trail of comments" was left by moderators. The original comments objecting to the avatar were left by non-moderators. The avatar was changed by a SE Community Manager. When the moderators got there they did delete all the "trail of comments" but this thread had already been started. – Noah Snyder Nov 29 at 22:10

I gained the understanding early on that certain symbols like X had a degree of flexibility. They could be different numerical quantities (usually a stand in for a real number, although sometimes a complex or a rational or integral number), or some other object (an indeterminate, or random variable, or abstract space or algebraic entity). As a result, X is loosely associated with the thing it represents. (I am going to be vague and ignore the philosophical question of whether different occurrences of X are distinct or are just the same symbol appearing at different times in a narrative. For this narrative, X behaves as a unique entity as symbol.)

Not all symbols are mathematical in nature. There is a symbol that bothers me. I will call it W. It is a trigger for me. When it is used, I believe the person expressing it is using it for hate and for nothing else. In my view, this symbol is strongly associated with hate.

I believe the (former) avatar of Patriot is a symbol which is a trigger for many. I don't care to trigger other people, so I am for the case of not seeing this symbol anywhere on MathOverflow. However, this avatar is not a trigger for me. If I see it somewhere else, I either ignore it or avoid it. There are other actions I could take, but much of the time I do not see the benefit, and so do not.

I do not want to change the relationship between other people and their triggers. I am willing to do some accommodation for triggered people, especially if it means removing the trigger. I am willing because the hate that pours from them after they are triggered is more than I am willing to bear. Give them space for an emotional release, then move on to the business of the forum.

I think Todd Trimble seriously W up. (I think I did too, but in a more subtle fashion.) Whatever his personal feelings may be, as moderator his response should have been and should be more moderate, accommodating the fact that some people are triggered and some people are not. The assumption that everyone should be triggered and triggered in the same way suggests to me a tone of intolerance and hatred, and I am bothered by it. Some of the subsequent comments and posts show this tone as well. I do not feel safe in making statements on this thread. I do feel this post I make here needs to be made.

How did I W up? By dealing with triggered people in an oppositional fashion. Rather than being acutely aware of the situation and working on mollifying or at least staying silent, I decided to assert that the avatar is not a trigger for everyone, and that this should be acknowledged by the moderator. I tried to be moderate and nonconfrontational, and I failed.

Thanks for reading this far. What should be the takeaway? If we are to continue as a community to espouse certain ideals, we should take care of one another. I am very bothered by the post of Noah Snyder, not because of his assertion of his position, but because of the hate and intolerance I sense in it. I suspect he would not have even made it if I had not made my comment; this idea saddens me. Although I don't want to see hate (and I am not that fond of racism or slavery or White supremacy either) on this forum, I am going to see it from triggered people. If I am more aware, I will defer the fight of "non-triggered people are people too" in favor of having someone care for the triggered person.

I have more to say, but I will end up answering the question. Triggers on MathOverflow are to be avoided, not because certain causes should or should not be espoused, but because one can't do mathematics while triggered. While I am not triggered by the avatar, I support the removal of the avatar, and hope the user approaches this forum with mathematics and a more moderate presence. We should welcome the mathematics that is suitable for this community, and handle in a moderating fashion any mathematics which is not suitable. (Maybe someday we will decide what suitable mathematics looks like and agree upon that.)

In the case triggers do appear, they should be handled differently than was handled here. A small amount of competent moderation should be able to defuse the situation. I hope this is a learning example for others as well as for me. I apologize for my part in the prolongation of the hate. I do not possess the levity for a signature right now.

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    Maybe you just don't know how the term "triggered" is commonly used, but I can oppose the display of a symbol of slavery and white supremacy on MO without having a strong emotional reaction. – Michael Greinecker Nov 28 at 8:12
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    Let us say my favourite number is 88, and I also happen to like fraktur fonts, and the colours red and white. If my profile image was black fraktur 88 on a white circle on a red background, I could conceivably claim it was coincidence that this was a coded reference to Hitler, and people shouldn't get upset because it's just a number. Or perhaps I claim was born in 1988 (I wasn't). This seems standard modus operandi for white supremacists on the internet these days. If one wants to celebrate heritage etc there are ways of doing that aren't insensitive, especially in a medium that lacks nuance. – David Roberts Nov 28 at 22:58
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    I guess I'm trying to say is that if I honestly was clueless about the coded meaning '88' has for a number of people these days, I'd hope someone had a gentle chat with me to check my motive: if it was innocent, then perhaps replacing it with something less fraught with meaning. But if it was a purposeful signal to others of like mind, a kindly reminder that we are trying to avoid political signals here, and focus on the mathematics, would not go astray; continuing to flaunt ideals generally held to be detestable could lead to a kind of professional ostracism. Then proceed from there. – David Roberts Nov 28 at 23:05
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    I don't think it's possible to avoid all "triggers" (it's an unusual word for me but I hope I'm using it correctly). No matter how innocent an image can be, there can be people that claim they are offended by it. – Federico Poloni Nov 29 at 14:57

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