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[Topic very similar to several other recent questions, but the central question is I think not a duplicate.]

The meta thread Should these sexually suggestive jokes be kept or deleted? raised the point that the old and very popular question Do good math jokes exists? included some rather sexist jokes, and proposed deleting these. The thread showed that sizeable fractions of the community both supported and opposed deleting the sexist jokes, with probably a majority supporting deletion but no clear consensus.

In the wake of that thread, though, something much more drastic happened: the whole question was deleted. As far as I can see, nothing in the meta discussion about the sexist jokes either gives a substantial argument for deleting the whole question, nor shows significant community support for doing so.

The post-deletion meta thread Catering to professional appearance a bit much? raises the issue in very general terms, but I’d like to ask more specifically: What arguments do people see for or against the deletion of the whole math jokes thread?

Please note that I don’t want to reopen the discussion about the sexist jokes specifically: firstly it’s been discussed at length already, and secondly, deleting the sexist jokes doesn’t necessitate deleting the whole question, so arguments for deleting them are not in general arguments for deleting the rest.

(Full disclosure of my own stance: I strongly support the deletion of the sexist jokes; but I think the deletion of the whole thread is a loss to MO, and I’m baffled that it was done in the absence of much significant support from the community.)

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    $\begingroup$ I “understand” the deletion because who wants to moderate debates about jokes. Unfortunately, it risks coming across as: “If we can’t have misogynist ones, then we won’t have any.” $\endgroup$ – Francois Ziegler Aug 19 at 3:04
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    $\begingroup$ FYI, the answer to why a similar question on Stack Overflow ("what's your favorite programming joke") was deleted just last year may be relevant here. $\endgroup$ – gparyani Aug 19 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ It's worth mentioning that, as pointed out in the other thread, there were already nine votes to delete by ordinary users when a moderator added their own. That the decision by the moderator had unforeseen consequences (one cannot vote to reopen anymore) is unfortunate, but let's not think that this was a tyrannical decision by the moderators: it was, by and large, community driven. $\endgroup$ – Denis Nardin Aug 20 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ @DenisNardin: Yes and no. I certainly agree, I’m sure the mod was acting in good faith and with good intentions. However, since undelete votes can’t be cast before deletion happens (if I understand right), the mod should have been well aware that the 9 close votes showed one side of the debate, and that they were shutting down the other side from being able to vote to undelete. Meanwhile, the voting on all three meta threads suggests that deleting the question is opposed by a large majority of the community. I’m not suggesting it was tyrannical; I am suggesting it was a misjudgement, $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Aug 20 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ so I’m hoping that either they’ll explain the action and persuade us it was a good decision, or else that if the community still seems to oppose the deletion, that they’ll reconsider the action and undelete the question. $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Aug 20 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine Well, they'll probably explain that themselves, but what I gathered from the previous thread they just wanted to vote as a user and they did not realized this prevented people from voting to reopen. That said, to give my opinion on the actual issue, I wouldn't have voted to close the question, but now that 10 people have, I don't see a great loss in closing that question (I was always quite disappointed by how not funny those jokes were. Humor is subjective and all that) and I wouldn't vote to reopen. $\endgroup$ – Denis Nardin Aug 20 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ BTW, Peter, if you think the thread should be undeleted, I think you need to read the comments and look at the vote counts on Darij's meta.MO post. Personally I would like an MO where people could just park the fact that they have massively different ethical and ontological assessments of the world, rather than one where we all discover (shock horror, who could have guessed) that mathematicians are opinionated and don't agree with each other $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 24 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Yemon: I disagree with your opinion about mathematicians being opinionated and disagreeable. I find this statement to be entirely unethical, and in direct contradiction of my ontological assessment of the world! $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 25 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila C.f. youtube.com/watch?v=WboggjN_G-4#t=1m10s :D $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 25 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi: Well, I mean, what have the Romans ever done for us??? ROMANES EUNT DOMUS!!! $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 25 at 23:23
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I feel the deletion is a significant loss to MathOverflow. As one of a few prominent older light-hearted threads, it helped make MO an entertaining and enjoyable place — like the departmental lounge, where you talk maths but also relax a bit. If such questions are lost, it comes to feel more like a research-level equivalent of a TA session or a lecturer’s office hours: useful, but less entertaining and enjoyable, both for new and established users. And the goal of usefulness is not well served if users are less attracted to the site, or less inclined to return, because it’s a less enjoyable place than it was before.

So far I’ve seen two arguments given for the deletion, in Noah Snyder’s answer on the thread about the sexist jokes and the comments thereon. The first argument (given by Noah) is that it’s off-topic by the current site standards. That’s a reasonable point, but it seemed pretty well addressed by having the question closed and locked, and with a clear notice explaining its historical status. In that state, it still gave the positive effects, without detracting from the site’s current policies.

The second argument (given by Yemon Choi in comments, and to some extent echoed in the discussion on Catering to professional appearance a bit much?) is that deleting the whole question “would be a less divisive course of action than selective deletion”. This would be reasonable if true, but the voting in that thread, plus the discussion at Catering to professional appearance a bit much?, seems to show that this was in fact a much less popular and more divisive course.

Indeed, suggesting that selective deletion would have been more divisive is, I think, missing the point of the original complaint, or at least, not trusting the MO community to grasp that point. The issue with the sexist jokes was not that they were jokes, but that they were sexist — and most commenters in the discussion seemed to understand and accept that point, whether or not they supported deleting the jokes in question.

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    $\begingroup$ I think there was less agreement about the deletion of the jokes that you refer to, and that had those jokes been singled out, we would now just be facing posts arguing against "caving to outside pressure" and arguing there's a slippery slope $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 19 at 0:35
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    $\begingroup$ Moreover, I have not seen enough on the original meta question to form an impression of what "the MO community" wants, in either direction. There are an awful lot of frequent contributors to the main site who, understandably, did not feel like sticking their necks out by commenting $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 19 at 0:37
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    $\begingroup$ "like the departmental lounge, where you talk maths but also relax a bit" - I also miss those old days, but they are gone for good given the sheer number and variety of users these days. "Relaxing a bit" also presumes one is relaxing with like-minded company, or company one knows well enough that all parties will cut each other some slack. There's a reason I behave differently in the pub than I do on MathOverflow or indeed in comments I leave elsewhere online $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 19 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi: “I think there was less agreement about the deletion of the jokes that you refer to” — I didn’t mean to suggest at all that there was agreement about the deletion of them; there was plenty of disagreement about whether they should be deleted, and as you say, one of the main arguments against deletion was “slippery slope”. But for all the disagreement, the voting and the comments showed far more support for both “delete the sexist jokes” and “don’t delete anything” than for “delete everything”; and it was a pretty high-participation thread, so if meta threads can ever [cont’d] $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Aug 19 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ …tell us anything about community opinions, then I think this one showed us that fairly clearly. And while I don’t like the slippery-slope argument “the SJW’s are making us delete sexist jokes now, will they make us delete all jokes next?”, I don’t think it’s very effectively addressed by jumping straight to deleting all the jokes immediately. // Re “missing the old days”: I agree things have to change to some extent; but this felt to me like a more drastic change than the situation demanded. But who knows, that’s of course very much a judgement call. $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Aug 19 at 1:17
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    $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi One can hardly expect every regular user (or even a significant fraction of regular users) to comment on any particular meta thread -- if only because the comments would become way, way too long! That's why there's a voting system. And I think the voting shows decisively that far more people supported selectively deleting the most offensive jokes (cf. Noah Snyder's highly-upvoted answer) than deleting the whole question (cf. Noah Snyder's highly-downvoted answer). $\endgroup$ – Tim Campion Aug 26 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi Moreover, I think the idea that MO today is significantly demographically different from five years ago is highly questionable. If I recall from the last time statistics were posted, usage of the site has on the whole been flat for many years now, or even been on a steady but slight decline. Moreover, I disagree with the premise that if a wide variety of mathematicians use the site, then we cannot agree on social norms for behavior as in a departmental lounge at tea and must resort to more formal norms like in a talk. $\endgroup$ – Tim Campion Aug 26 at 2:55
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    $\begingroup$ I don't have an opinion on deletion of the thread, but I admit I am still occasionally laughing at the joke about what you get when you cross a chicken with an elephant. The only problem is I can't share it with anyone I know now that I am retired and do not hang out with mathematicians. If you don't know the answer then I think perhaps the thread deletion has indeed harmed you. $\endgroup$ – roy smith Sep 1 at 23:09

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