January 31, 2015
MarkBernstein.org
 
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Pratfall

Wikipedia’s GamerGate decision places fresh sanctions on “all pages related to, (a) GamerGate, (b) any gender-related dispute or controversy, (c) people associated with (a) or (b), all broadly construed.”

There is a technical term for extending the policy sanctions to gender-related controversies and their people, and that term is “nutty.”

Why “nutty,” exactly?

Finding the precisely correct characterization is difficult. “Ridiculous” would be apt, because it certainly does invite ridicule. (Hi, Ridicule! Sit down and have a drink!) Still, “ridiculous” errors should be pure fun and this one is likely to cause some people a lot of work.

“Zany” applies too, for this is an error that’s bound to keep on generating incident and error for months if not for years. But zaniness is really an organic quality; like divine grace or Chico Marx. It’s a gift: you just have it. You can’t achieve zaniness through good works, and ArbCom sure did work to achieve this.

Putting The Gender in GamerGate

When you reflect on matters, GamerGate is only a gender-related dispute or controversy if you think there exists a dispute or controversy over whether women should be computer scientists and software developers. There was a day when this was in dispute, but that day is not today. Parliament passed the Married Womens’ Property Act in 1882. Vassar was founded in 1861, Swarthmore in 1864, Somerville College in 1878. There is no controversy or dispute, any more than there is controversy about the emancipation of the Jews (US: 1789, UK: 1858) or dispute about slavery (US 1865; UK: 1833).

This dispute is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker.

I suppose that threatening to shoot a feminist critic for her opinions about games could be construed to be gender-related, but that’s not the frame I’d reach for first, nor should you.Why not place sanctions on all pages related to computer science, broadly construed, since that’s the point – keeping women out of software development? Or – I know! – how about all pages related to good and evil, since GamerGate says it’s entirely about ethics!

OK, you say, “everyone is bound to be involved in some way with good and evil; it’s only human.” But everyone has been bound to be involved in some way with gender since

The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.

How Did It Happen?

I think it may be my fault.

In Infamous, I needed an adjective to characterize the people whom Arbcom proposed to sanction. Yes, they were opponents of GamerGate, but that’s not enough: everyone is (or ought to be) opposed to threatening to rape people whose games you don’t think you’d like, or planning to inflict brain injuries on a programmer if she dares to attend a conference. I needed a word for everyone who believes that women should pursue a career in computing if they feel like it. I chose “feminist” – a very weak flavor of feminism, admittedly, but one Elizabeth Blackwell might recognize. I am not acquainted with anyone who describes themselves as feminist who would not subscribe to the proposition.

But lots of people read Infamous, and that line got picked up in newspapers and ArbCom found itself spending the weekend writing an opaque press statement which might have muddled the waters further had the press noticed it. I suppose infamy was on their minds, and the bit about Feminism stuck in their heads.

So: sorry if it was my fault. If you all did this on your own, sorry anyway.

What Can We Expect Now?

For a time in the late 18th and 19th centuries, autodidacts – self-taught working-class scholars – made an important contribution to intellectual life. These autodidacts had a complicated relationship with mainstream scholars: on one hand, the best of them simply knew more about their specialty than anyone else, anywhere. On the other hand, some of them didn’t really know anything outside their specialty – how it related to other fields, how to present their arguments effectively, how not to lose perspective, or which fork to use at dinner. The phenomenon mostly died out as public education and scholarships became more common, though one can still see traces in the letters column of the TLS from time to time.

Wikipedia is replete with passionate editors of this stripe, with people who hold intransigent opinions over the proper transliteration of the names of minor Power Rangers or a special passion for My Little Pony.

An attachment à la Plato for a bashful young potato

Or a not too French French bean.

And every one will say, as you walk your flowery way,

If he’s content with a vegetable love that would certainly not suit me,

Why, what a most particularly pure young man that pure young man must be!

On any Wikipedia page where two or more are gathered, there’s bound to be a fight; how many brawls are now going to wind up at Arbitration Enforcement because someone finds some sort of a connection to a gender-related dispute?

And, as harried Wikipedia officials are already asking, what exactly is gender-related? Is Dame Wendy Hall’s page covered by sanctions because she’s a leading advocate for women in computing? How about Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who (I believe) shares her views on this subject, but happens not to be a woman? How about Elizabeth Warren? Margaret Cho? How about Anne Haraway, who wrote a memorable essay on the history of the way naturalists have seen and written about gorilla sexuality? There’s already an arbitration case, much reviled, on whether the epithet “cunt” can be reconciled with Wikipedia rules on civility. (Ruling as I understand it: it’s not good but it’s not beyond the pale. I wonder about calling someone a schmuck? I suggest you not try that at home.)

Is “Cultural Marxism” Gender-Related?

The GamerGate crowd has also brigaded a page about “Cultural Marxism,” which is either (a) a term thrown around by right-wing talk radio hosts to mean “mean bad brownish people imposing their will on our pure American culture,” or (b) a conspiracy theory, advocated by some real right-wing crazies, that a team of Jewish professors at Columbia University worked for decades to undermine America by corrupting the media and entertainment industries. GamerGate thinks this is all very unfair, probably because some of them listen to a lot of right-wing talk radio shows and consider those hosts profound thinkers and very nice fellows too.

A few weeks ago, Jimmy Wales made an off-hand and ill-advised comment about the deletion of GamerGate’s beloved Wikipedia page about “Cultural Marxism,” and relit the fire under a kettle that continues to simmer fretfully. This seems to have been another case where Wales, liking a fellow and thinking him sensible, expressed a little support without looking into the subject properly or at all. A lot, in other words, like:

I (and Wikipedia) neither support nor oppose Quinn. Wikipedia is not a battleground.

As David Millard pointed out the other day, when you’re discussing a matter with the armies of Mordor, it’s a battleground whenever they tell you it’s a battleground.

What Went Wrong?

My guess is that the people who drafted the preliminary decision didn’t know a lot about GamerGate and didn’t think they needed to know a lot: their job is enforcing rules. They didn’t want people to cheat by switching the fight to closely-related pages, so they wanted things to apply broadly.

And since Arbcom apparently didn’t know anything about gender-related disputes or controversies, either, that formula may have seemed a perfectly good generalization. Of course, the absence of women in Arbcom didn’t help with this, and nobody seems to have thought to ask, say, an expert whether this would be wise. In the wake of this decision, you’re going to have admins who chiefly know Japanese Comics or Croatian Politics trying to break up fistfights as the combatants fling Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucalt.

Judges need to understand the situation. You can’t know what’s going on by looking only at diffs, especially when the armies of Mordor have a boiler-room operation setting up dummy accounts to harvest juicy quotes culled from millions of words of bitterly-contested argument. You need to see the details, sure, but you need to see everything.

What Should Arbcom Do About This?

Nothing now.

Still on the agenda: show some thought for the merciless hounding of editors (some now, thanks to Arbcom, former editors) who are being mercilessly hounded by braying packs of zealots — packs who doubtless learned their skills as schoolyard cyberbullies and who certainly seem to know their job.

Even more important, Arbcom has yet to take some care for the victims against whom Wikipedia continues to be weaponized.

Next, urgently, Wikipedia needs to find and formulate rules that will cease to provide easy victories to the armies of Mordor. Having been handed the heads of the “Five Horsemen” they targeted, the armies have already announced the seven additional editors they want Arbcom to rid them of. This weblog has seen a lot of readers lately, and generated a lot of correspondence; not one correspondent has found even a hint of a way the current structure can resist the attack described in Careless.

After Arbcom has done all that work, then, they can fix the mess that “gender-related disputes” is going to generate. Until then: have fun, guys – and I use the term “guys” advisedly.