10/23: Update with recent developments added to the end of the post.
11/6: I have been banned from Wikipedia for the contents of this post. More information here.
We’ll start with the good news. After a second move discussion, Wikipedia has decided to move the article on Chelsea Manning back to her actual name instead of misgendering and misnaming her. This brings us to the bad news, which is essentially everything else, and in particular everything surrounding the arbitration committee case. This case has led to the declaration that calling out transphobia on Wikipedia is unacceptable, that trans activists are disqualified from working on articles involving trans subjects, and that it’s more acceptable for people employed by the US military to covertly edit the Chelsea Manning article than it is for trans advocates to do so openly.
To recap, immediately after Chelsea Manning publicly came out and and announced her new name, Wikipedia updated and retitled its article on her. This set off a wave of controversy, resulting in the article being moved back to where it misnamed Manning and being locked there for thirty days. Those thirty days have now passed, and a second discussion over the topic resulted in overwhelming consensus to move the article back to its correct title.
A consequence of this, however, was that a request was filed with the arbitration committee – an elected body allowed to pass broad sanctions to settle disputes on Wikipedia, including banning editors. That process has also now concluded, and has concluded disastrously.
In order to understand the arbitration commitee’s decision, it is important to understand the culture of Wikipedia. In its determination to avoid creating any top-down editorial structure, Wikipedia has instead repeatedly embraced a system of rules designed to eliminate thought from the decision making process as much as possible. Hence the policy that all information must be sourced to reliable secondary sources, with little concern for the biases that this demand introduces (what sources get published is, after all, heavily impacted by degree to which publication can prove profitable, a wholly distinct concept from what is accurate or important) or to the number of fields like the humanities in which secondary sources are not dispassionate attempts to synthesize materials but attempts to advance partisan and novel takes on existing material.
The fantasy has always been that with the right set of rules the encyclopedia would write itself, with optimal versions of articles just coming to exist naturally as a consequence of the self-evident rules about citation and secondary sources. The reality has always been that instead of actually thinking critically about content decisions people just think critically about how to manipulate and play with the rules.
Since this is, most days of the week, a geek blog, I assume the analogy to tabletop role-playing games and the type of player known as a rules lawyer will make sense. If not, allow a brief digression. A rules lawyer is a type of player whose pleasure comes not from any accomplishment within the game, but instead from the manipulation and contortion of the rules. For them the point of the game is pedantic obsession with rules and finding ways to game the system. And for people of this mindset, Wikipedia is a godsend.
Certainly this is the mindset that applied to the original naming discussion. On one side you had the observation that misnaming trans people is tremendously hurtful and that it hurts people well beyond the specific person being misnamed. On the other you had some petty transphobes who quickly learned to back up their argument by citing a minor policy that dictates that articles should use the most common name for their subject. This is literally what the debate looked like. One side pointed out that misnaming Chelsea Manning amounted to the sixth largest website in the world taking action that delegitimized transgender identities, and that this was profoundly harmful. The other side said “yeah, but there’s a rule that says articles should be at the most common name.” And the latter side won, at least initially. (Eventually the fact that every mainstream news organization that doesn’t have an overt partisan agenda, and several of those that do had, in fact, gone over to Chelsea Manning won the day. But not until Wikipedia spent thirty days to the right of The Daily Mail.)
Which brings us to the arbitration committee, who looked at both sides of this debate and made the unequivocal decision that, in a debate between people trying to think seriously about the ethical considerations involved in being one of the largest websites in the world and a bunch of techno-libertarians playing WikiRules, the real problem was all the uppity trans activists. David Gerard, an administrator who locked the page at Chelsea Manning temporarily on the grounds that the alternative was a serious violation of Wikipedia’s policy on articles about living people, was sanctioned on the supposed basis that he did not adequately explain his reasoning, and that he was “overly involved.” This latter claim, based seemingly on no evidence beyond that David knows some trans people and doesn’t hate them, was used to forbid him from using his administrative powers on transgender articles at all.
This idea – that knowing trans people or being in favor of trans rights is an excessive level of personal involvement that ought preclude editing in that area – is all the more appalling given that the arbitration committee did not make any observations regarding Cla68, a user who advocated for punishing Morwen, the user who initially moved the article, for seeking publicity for her actions and for having a conflict of interest. The fact that Morwen and David Gerard know each other socially was, in Cla68’s eyes, evidence of a vast conspiracy to use Wikipedia as a platform for advocacy. The fact that David Gerard is further supportive of Chelsea Manning’s legal battle and has publicly supported the idea that she be pardoned was further cited as evidence of his excessive personal involvement in this case.
This is all extraordinary given that Cla68 is in real life an employee of the US Military working. This is a fact he has studiously attempted to hide, all the while accusing others of being unduly involved in the Chelsea Manning case. To be clear, then, the standard of involvement that the arbitration committee used to sanction people is that being openly supportive of trans rights and of Chelsea Manning’s status as a whistleblower constitutes undue involvement, while trying to hide the fact that you’re employed by her jailer is perfectly fine.
Beyond that, findings were issued declaring that people arguing that misnaming and misgendering were transphobic were behaving unacceptably. One such editor received an indefinite topic ban from editing or discussing trans-related subjects on Wikipedia. Another (me, actually) came within one vote of a similar ban.
For anyone playing along at home, then, here’s a quick guide to what can and can’t be said on Wikipedia with regards to transgender topics. First off, the things that are allowed. To be clear, these are all things that the arbitration committee specifically looked at and voted by a majority to declare were acceptable and not worthy of sanction. So, it’s OK to say that a trans woman “is a woman only in his own (sick) head.” It’s fine to compare being trans to declaring that you’re an animal of some sort. It’s perfectly acceptable to refer to a trans woman coming out of the closet as “a one-day circus freak show.” Similarly, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that “Manning can say that he wants to be a girl all he wants, but the fact remains that he’s not.”
This is not to say that the arbitration committee drew no lines. It turns out that talking about a trans person’s genitals, and particularly saying things like “only when his testicles are ripped out of his scrotum will I call Manning a ‘she’” is unacceptable. Likewise, while saying that “This guy is ‘Bradley Manning,” a man and a male, both sex and gender. Period. Putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t make a heifer become Marilyn Monroe y’know,” was initially deemed acceptable, the user who said it was eventually sanctioned for admitting that he was just trolling to make a point. But these are isolated instances of sanction amidst a much larger sea of sickening transphobia.
Meanwhile, the following statements were cited as evidence of problematic “battleground mentalities,” some of which require indefinite bans from talking about transgender topics on Wikipedia. Lest anyone think I’m cherry picking the acceptable bits of comments and leaving out the bad ones, I’ve included links to the full comments (some of which, again, are my own).
“It’s hard to see any other explanation for someone insisting on calling an individual who self-identifies as female by using their former name with which they no longer identifies, than virulent hatred of transgendered people.” (link)
“All arguments for using “Bradley Manning” are transphobic for the simple reason that they are arguments for an inherently transphobic act, which is to publicly misname a trans person on the sixth largest website in the world.” (link)
“We don’t move articles because some people hate transgendered people, it’s that simple.” (link)
“I hope you never have to experience anything as awful as what you have done in denying Chelsea Manning her basic self-identity on one of the largest websites in the world. I have never before seen Wikipedia used in such an actively hurtful and harmful way as what you have just done.” (link)
“It is libel, gross sexual harrassment, a BLP violation, a violation of MOS:IDENTITY, a violation of human decency, and obvously motivated by transphobic hate, to refer to someone who self-identifies as a woman, by insisting on using their former name with which they no longer identifies.” (link)
“I want to be perfectly clear here. Referring to a transgender person by their birth name is hate speech. This close embraced hate speech. This is not an issue of consensus. This is an issue of Wikipedia actively embracing hate speech. It is shameful and horrifying in exactly the same way that a decision to refer to racial minorities with derogatory slurs would be.” (link)
The message here is clear. Bigotry and transphobia? Possibly annoying, but really nothing to worry about. Calling out bigotry, however? That’s a major disruption that needs to be stopped. The real problem with the discussion wasn’t all the people declaring that transgender people are mentally ill and denying them their basic identity. It was that anyone got at all upset about it.
The underlying policy that justifies this is usually abbreviated as WP:BATTLE, and is a subsection of a page titled “What Wikipedia is not.” The policy states that “Wikipedia is not a place to hold grudges, import personal conflicts, carry on ideological battles, or nurture prejudice, hatred, or fear.” How, exactly, attempts to actively combat prejudice, hatred, and fear are thus in violation of this policy is one of many things one might reasonably want to ask the arbitration committee.
But even uglier than the blinkered reading of this policy is the idea that it is a key policy at all. In the end the policy, particularly as applied in this case, is little more than an attempt to codify the idea that Wikipedia is somehow immune to consequences. It’s the same logic that leads to the suggestion that there’s not any moral issue with misgendering trans people on Wikipedia. It is, in many ways, a techno-libertarian fantasy. It pretends that Wikipedia somehow exists in a truly neutral space where it can simply, as the mantra goes, report what reliable sources say in an unbiased way.
Which is tosh. It’s the sixth largest website in the world. nobody is under any illusions that it’s not a standard reference tool for journalists. Wikipedia has tremendous power in the world. The idea that it can be reactive and outside of any real world conflicts is little more than a fig leaf to cover overt sociopathy.
This is not, obviously, to suggest that Wikipedia must therefore uncritically open the floodgates to advocacy. The idea that the options are either some fantasy in which Wikipedia can completely ignore the political and ethical implications of its own existence or some uncontrollable mess in which people advocating political positions derail all efforts to write an encyclopedia is needlessly reductive. Indeed, this simple black and white worldview is another charade hiding the destructive truth: Wikipedia does not and cannot exist in a magic bubble in which politics and ethics have no basis.
This is the real content of the arbitration committee’s decision, and, indeed, of the argument for misnaming Chelsea Manning: that the game of WikiRules is more important than ethical considerations, and, more to the point, that the game of WikiRules needs to be carefully insulated from any ethical challenge. Certainly this is the argument that inherently lies behind any suggestion that the “common names” rule under which the misnaming of Chelsea Manning was justified ought trump the myriad of real ethical and political concerns involved in publicly embracing the misnaming of trans people. What matters isn’t the consequences – it’s the rules themselves.
The chilling effects of this go far beyond trans issues. The ruling in effect guts the entire Biographies of Living Persons policy, which provided a crucial bulwark against this sort of thinking by demanding that “the possibility of harm to living subjects must always be considered when exercising editorial judgment” – one of the few statements in Wikipedia policy to suggest that ethical considerations do in some cases need to trump rules-lawyering.
Enforcement of this policy has always relied upon erring on the side of caution, and on giving administrators a wide berth to take action first and discuss later. But by sanctioning David Gerard, who locked the article in its correct title so as to prevent the material harm that misnaming trans people causes, while not even bothering to mention the administrators who, contrary to policy, reverted him the arbitration committee has obliterated all sense that administrators who act in good faith to remove harmful content might have any protection. This does massive and permanent damage to the prospect of Wikipedia acting with any sense of responsibility, as opposed to according to the designs of its rules lawyers.
But all of this has a particularly bitter ring to it for the trans community. It is, after all, another instance of the most innocent seeming and yet destructive trick in the transphobic arsenal – the manufactured debate about time and place. The trans community sat through years of this at the hands of the larger GLBT community, as trans issues served mainly as the first thing that would be offered as a concession in any political negotiation. Trans issues were actively treated as the thing to deal with after marriage equality. But there’s a larger trick involved. Trans issues aren’t appropriate for federal non-discrimination laws because they’d imperil passage of laws to protect sexual orientation. They aren’t appropriate for Wikipedia, because they have to win victories elsewhere first. The process of telling trans people that their concerns were inappropriate for a given venue goes back as far as 1969, when Jim Fouratt cut trans people out of the formation of the Gay Liberation Front immediately after the Stonewall riots.
It is only in light of this that Wikipedia’s obvious hatred of activists can be understood. The word “privilege” is instructive here, because it highlights the most important aspect of it, which is that it is an unchallenged, socially accepted form of power. Privilege works because of its invisibility. And as a result, nothing tips the privileged into bilious rage quite like having their privilege questioned or called out.
Often, of course, the harmful effects of this are coupled with talk about how this isn’t some slight against trans people. It’s just the rules, as those arguing for transphobia kept saying during the naming debate. Or you get the behavior of the Wikimedia Foundation itself. People like Sue Gardner, the Executive Director, and Jimbo Wales, the founder of Wikipedia are quick to wring their hands over how badly the Chelsea Manning issue was handled. And yet hand-wringing is all they’re seemingly prepared to do.
Wales, who has the power to overturn arbitration committee decisions, could have cut all of this off by making clear to the arbitration committee what he would or would not accept. He did not, nor has he made any move to overturn the ruling. The Foundation in general could declare that the English language Wikipedia has gone against its policies and enforce change. To date, it hasn’t. Perhaps most tellingly, whenever the Wikimedia Foundation attempts a fundraiser, it points to the success and reach of the project, most of which is the English language Wikipedia. And yet for all its supposed sympathy, it refuses to take responsibility for the egregious behavior of that project. At this point, it is difficult to imagine why any trans activist or ally would support the Foundation, nor, indeed, any organization that counts trans-inclusiveness as one of its principles. The sad fact is that supporting the Wikimedia Foundation, as it stands, means supporting an environment in which transphobia is consciously and deliberately allowed, but where support of trans inclusiveness and calling out bigotry is forbidden.
Because this is the situation Wikipedia has given us. Vehemently and hatefully denouncing the validity of trans identities? OK so long as you don’t reference their genitals. Arguing passionately in favor of misnaming Chelsea Manning while covering up the fact that you work for her jailer? Not even worth mentioning. But knowing trans people? Means you’re too involved to take administrative actions regarding trans people. Being willing to call out transphobia and hate speech for what they are? Means you can’t even edit on trans topics.
Because that is how these people work. It’s not that they hate trans people consciously or actively. They just hate the thought that they might have to change some aspect of their lives, however trivial, for them. That’s what systemic transphobia really is. It’s not the hatred or fear of actual trans people. It’s just thinking that avoiding using the sixth largest website in the world as a platform for rejecting their basic identities is less important than the ability to use that website to play a petty little game of rules manipulation. It’s not that trans people are subhuman animals or anything. They’re just less important than getting to treat the world as a glorified Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook.
UPDATE 10/23: So, I woke up to find this in my e-mail box:
Please contact the Arbitration Committee to explain why you have posted personal, non-public information about another contributor on your personal blog. This blog post has direct ramifications on the project, and may put you in gross violation of the project’s norms and policies.
For the Arbitration Committee,
This would presumably be a reference to my revealing above that the user Cla68, who spent the arbitration case complaining that being trans or knowing trans people was excessive involvement, is in fact employed by the US Military. And that the arbitration committee took no action over this, apparently deeming being employed by Chelsea Manning’s jailers a less significant conflict of interest than knowing trans people.
The reason why I did this should be straightforward and obvious: it’s in the public interest to know that employees of the US Military are attempting to covertly influence the tone and direction of Wikipedia’s coverage of Chelsea Manning. I am not attempting to assert some sort of conspiracy – I’m sure that Cla68 was acting on his own initiative, and that it’s merely that his values align with those of his employer. However this does not change the fact that he is employed by the institution currently imprisoning Chelsea Manning and denying her medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria, and that he is hypocritically trying to influence Wikipedia’s coverage of this from behind a pseudonym while decrying other people for their conflicts of interest.
I am, of course, thoroughly unsurprised to discover that the esteemed and venerable arbitration committee considers this a “gross violation of the project’s norms and policies.”
But I would dispute, politely, that this information is non-public. I was tipped off to it by two separate individuals, both of whom included numerous links, and would not have posted it if it was not possible to independently verify the information. It was, largely because Cla68 has outed himself.
Cla68 has posted about his employer several times in the past, including mentioning on two separate occasions his work at the Pentagon and at his current place of employment, making the issue of his employer straightforward. He’s also made numerous contributions to talk pages while logged out, then changed the signature to his name. These IP addresses further confirm his employer, as they resolve to the US DoD network.
As for his name, he certainly seemed willing enough to reveal it in this edit, in which he was willing to take responsibility for a quote he’d offered the media (used in stories like this one). Here’s a Register story in which he gave a different quote, and where the Register linked directly to his userpage. Here he is giving quotes to the Register again. (That he’s been giving quotes to the media while accusing Morwen of publicity hunting for talking to the media about the Chelsea Manning article is, of course, a further amusing detail.)
It’s only recently, presumably because he realizes that he’s behaved atrociously and is desperate to not get publicly ensnared in his hypocrisy, that he has become in the least bit concerned with having his real name publicly revealed. Unfortunately, this mostly consists of making furtive glances at a recently closed barn door in the hopes that nobody notices that there are no longer any horses in it.
So to recap, Cla68, an employee of the US Military, has been covertly trying to influence Wikipedia’s coverage of Chelsea Manning while accusing others of a conflict of interest. And, obviously, doing a rather rubbish job of it, since it’s trivial to trace his conflicts of interest.
One final observation: the subject of all of this is Chelsea Manning, who is famous (and in prison) for leaking documents that revealed the sordid details of what the US Military was actually up to. Now the arbitration committee seems to be considering sanction for publicly revealing information about the sordid details of what a member of that same organization has been doing on Wikipedia to further smear Chelsea Manning.
And they say irony is dead.