In the beginning
8 years, 1 month, and 6 days ago –at something between 2 and 3am– in the first few hours of this site being launched I signed up from a mobile phone browser¹ and was assigned account #30. I still remember being annoyed that the beta release went live while I was on a multi-day international bus trek making it difficult for me to keep up with the early and the meta discussions about how things would take shape.
I still remember my excitement about the possibilities this site represented. Shortly after things got rolling –and while whether a Q&A site on religion was going to fly on a secular platform was still an open question– I wrote an adamant defense of why I thought it was okay to use the secular Stack Exchange platform for the purposes of a question and answer site about Christianity. Brothers, we are not Christians‼ was pretty well received, and the rules of engagement it outlined were specifically affirmed by at least 4 members of SE's Community Manager team². It later became a faq post for this site. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, it also inspired several copy-cat posts on other new sites as they started up.
Among other things I made this statement:
[...] as long as SE doesn't try to dictate or censor our respective beliefs [...] and nobody tries to ascribe their personal views to a larger corpus of people than are willing to sign off on them, then there is a place in my life for participating here.
Fast forward a lot of years
Unfortunately this basic background premise no longer holds. SE has announced and begun enforcing a new Code of Conduct which both censors and dictates beliefs. The modified rules are not yet posted publicly anywhere, but they have already started enforcing a hard-line interpretation of them with moderators and have reiterated emphatically that they will not be changed.
Given that the foundational premises of my rooting for this site in the first place have changed, I have come to the conclusion that I am no longer able to contribute as a moderator. Yesterday morning I announced my intention to resign. Seeing as how its up to SE to actually take away my diamond I guess this is effective whenever they feel like accepting it³, but I can already state I will not be able to sign the new CoC if –as they have adamantly insisted will be the case– it includes a requirement for pro-actively taking action in affirmation of something I fundamentally disagree with.
What's the big deal?
Stack Exchange sites across the board depend on substantial amounts of time from volunteer moderators to keep everything running smoothly. All the communication recently from SE tells me that they no longer consider moderators to have as much agency as they used to with regard to their own communities. That will be a problem for this site, and I don't feel like I'm being offered the tools to keep things run smoothly any more. The Stack Exchange volunteer moderator team(s) of today are not like they were when I joined. The entire network has become a place where individuals do not retain their own agency.
Mind you this isn't what they say, but it is what they enforce. What they say in public in posts like this one protest to the contrary:
Give people as much agency as you can.
...but what has happened over the past week(s) in "private" is quite the opposite. Instead of being a place for diversity in action, the company itself has made it clear that they take specific sides of political and ideological debates and that there is no room on their teams for people who will not champion the same moral values they hold.
In light of all the things we went through just to open this site much less make it work, the touch-stone issue is almost comical. Pronouns. No seriously, pronouns.*
* Edit: Several folks have noted this sounded to them as if I was poking fun at what is an important issue to many. Because it has been cited all over the net now I can hardly take it back, but please allow me to clarify that my intent was not to make light of what other people consider important or even their struggles, it was meant as light-hearted way of pointing out the grammatical and epistemological weight imbalance between "I pronounce you anathema" and "I can't bring myself to use plural forms to talk about single entities."
Personally I have yet to face the specific issue; nobody, to my knowledge, has taken offense at the pronouns I used for them. But the "law" laid down quite suddenly and directly to moderators by several staff members was that henceforth we all had to do whatever was requested of us by other parties. It used to be that the ground rules were limited to a "be nice" policy⁴ and how that was enforced varied a bit by site. Even though I often disagree with the world at large on what is considered nice and constructive, I can usually figure out how to live within a system of boundaries. You can do X or Y but not Z. Given the framework of a secular platform that hosted a diversity of viewpoints those were rules I could play by.
What changed is this: now it isn't enough just to avoid being rude to people you disagree with, the new policy forces us to positively affirm the other parties' position. Even disengaging was specifically ruled out as an allowable solution since that would be discrimination and potentially "hurtful". That avoidance of potentially compromising scenarios is not allowed has been directly affirmed by staff members several times.
If person A comes along and demands that I refer to them by their "preferred pronoun" (even if it is a mismatch for their genetic sex or the grammar of the language being spoken) and I refuse, that's considered an insult. Now, SE staff's enforced interpretation is that if I deliberately avoid pronouns altogether, whether by carefully avoiding sentences that even need pronouns at all or by sticking to proper names or by disengaging from the individual — those are all being considered insults too if the other party says they are insulted.
The issue of gender pronouns hasn't been a serious issue (yet) in moderating this site, but it does have a direct corollary.
It took a lot of growing pains to figure out, but we eventually settled on a way to deal with Q&A on the difficult topic of religion in which many parties think the other side of an issue are heretics. This site
has had room for questions scoped to Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Monastics, Oneness Pentecostals, Word of Faith, Reformed Presbyterians, etc. etc. etc. Many of these groups believe many or most of the others to be heretics. One of the reasons we've made this site work and all sides have been able to participate (some with less friction than others) is because we allowed people to continue holding their own views and even articulating those views — and space was given for the other side to hold and articulate their views too.
In fact as far as it concerns defining the scope of this site, we went so far as to allow any established viewpoint to self identify as 'Christian'. At the end of the day when we all stand before the judgment seat it will be apparent that not all groups were really Christian at all, but for the purposes of this site we've allowed any established group that self identifies as such to qualify as being on topic. What we have not done is forced other people to agree with or use other group's preferred terminology. I have not demanded this sites' LDS members to call me a true Christian or themselves heretics. In fact they are free to explain why they think my views are heretical as long as they do so under questions about their own views.
The new CoC will remove that level of agency from all moderators and users on the network. This interpretation of it is already being enforced on moderators right now. How it may be enforced on end users is a lot hardener to imagine, but I cannot in good conscience stick around to even try.
For the record, I personally don't usually have a problem using peoples' preferred pronouns online. I don't go around trying to figure out if the way individuals are representing themselves online is consistent with my beliefs about the nature of the universe. For reasons a lot broader than gender I am fully aware most of the time of the time it is not. Unfortunately the new CoC (as interpreted by staff) specifically enshrines the rare and awkward scenario where those issues in particular are brought up and the other party demands affirmation of their specific world-view, and the staff interpretation makes no accommodation for agreeing to disagree or politely disengaging.
In other words, the new unforgivable social sin is not actively affirming a belief with which you disagree.
This dogmatic demand has been repeated over and over in the moderator's chat room with no quarter given for compromise. Conform or leave. I have decided that the only thing I can do in good conscience is withdraw my visible support as a moderator and speak out in protest.
Martin Niemöller, himself a Lutheran pastor, once penned these famous words:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me —
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Ironically in this whole mess, they should have come for me first, not last. I wasn't around at the critical moment to stick my neck out first, but I would have expected get the first chop.
I'm not implying that SE has gone so far as to be equivalent with the Third Reich here, but looking at broader trends than just these sites there is a progression in ideology and enforcement that should be noted with extreme care. SE sites have never been free speech zones, and they are well within their rights to host or not host whatever content they wish on their platform. I joined and supported this site knowing full-well I disagreed with its CEO and other management on fundamental values. I knew the platform had its limits, but within those limits I thought it had its uses too. And it did. The reason I am withdrawing my support now is that I am being asked not just to limit the scope of my voice on somebody else's platform but to lend my own voice in support of their cause. They have chosen to use their platform to take a side in an ideological and political debate. It is their right to do so of course, I just don't have to support them in it.
Keep in mind that although there is a wave of resignations lately, not all parties resigning are doing so for exactly the reasons I am. Some are doing so for similar world view reasons but from different moral and cultural backgrounds. All of us have different (if interrelated) issues. None, as far as I know, are for just one reason and we don't weight all facets of the issue the same. For example I resonate a lot with Gilles' resignation as well as Robert Harvey's which focus how differences are approached in general. Some such as Snow's and Jane S's are more focused on solidarity and the way volunteers are treated. But like all of them my resignation has several facets.
- I will not be able to strictly abide by the new CoC myself in all circumstances, much less enforce it on others.
- I don't think the new policies will make this site a better (or even a good) place. It was already hard to come up with a scope and ground rules that worked for us. Now the tools we had are being stripped away. Given a restart today under the current rules and corporate (lack of) cooperation I do not think we could have gotten this site of the ground, and I don't believe it will continue to work well long term unless they make some serious changes. They are telling us that won't be happening and I don't want to go down with the ship.
- The way SE has handled other volunteers has been reprehensible, and they've done nothing but buckle down behind their bad moves. I cannot volunteer my time (and ironically, my personal identity) in support of a company that treats its volunteers and community this way.
I've put in blood, sweat, and tears to help make this site succeed in spite of limitations of the platform. Combined with much effort from many other contributors that worked to make something useful here. But it only worked while each site and its moderators were granted enough agency to figure out how that needed to work. That agency has been stripped away from us. I feel like if I stay hiding behind my moderator diamond I'll be like a captain staying with hands on the tiller of a boat whose rudder has been unlinked. The wheel I'm holding doesn't do anything any more and I know it. So why pretend this is going to be anything but a shipwreck eventually?
This has actually been brewing for a long time⁵, but the touch-stone issue for me this weekend was a moderator on another religion side being unceremoniously booted. Monica was (and is) an adamantly courteous individual and did an upstanding job for the sites she worked on. Here is her announcement for context, and her personal blog for a taste of how she deals with people. Ironically in the specific the issue at hand called out (using people's preferred pronouns) she is on record as being much more accommodating than I would be.
Even more ironically, I personally have a long history of being at odds with Monica. We have disagreed –often adamantly– about many things because we hold ideologically irreconcilable religious views and those views fundamentally shape what we feel is required of us to do. We've debated each-other until we (or at least I) was blue in the face and our exchanges came to an impasse more than once. Yet even when she vehemently disagreed with my entire world-view she was still respectful to me (and others involved) as individuals. She is meticulously principled and when push came to shove would not do what I thought would have been for the best, yet in all that I came away without a single complaint over the way she treated me as a human being.
As such I find her of all people being sacked (particularly in such an unceremonious manner) from sites where she was well respected over an issue I am far more guilty of than her to be something I cannot stand by and watch.
Community management issues at SE didn't just come out of nowhere, even the specifics of the recent melt down has its own strange history. Not all of what bothers other people is relevant for this site or me personally,⁶ but community management stuff and moderator interaction issues have been brewing for a couple years and the heat has been turned up since January. During much of that time I have had other concerns in life (getting married being one of them) and I've tried to stay out of the problem bits. I've tried to keep my head down and just do my job for the local community, for the site where I was an elected or appointed moderator.
This past Sunday I became convicted that I could no longer in good conscience pretend I could keep doing what I signed up to do. Reading in moderator chats the levels of intransigence from from other network mods towards anybody that disagreed with whatever the most in-vogue political correctness is showed me pretty clearly that I wasn't welcome any more, and the CM team dogmatically buckled down on enforcing a CoC that includes pro-active steps, and saying anybody that doesn't agree can find the door.
As a moderator doing the dirty work of keeping this site clean there are plenty of people who have wanted a piece of me. I've been lambasted in public and private. I've received death threats just for doing janitorial work around the site. For years I could take all of that in stride because it seemed that SE had our backs. I no longer feel that is true, and I no longer feel safe being a moderator here.
Furthermore I cannot in good conscience support where this is going. SE has decided on a corporate image that includes actively catering to a specific ideology at the exclusion of others. The talk of inclusivety is just rhetoric, not practice now. To be only slightly melodramatic, offending somebodies personal sensibilities by use of grammatically correct pronouns can get you fired, but getting on the receiving end of death threats because of your religious views gets you shown the door. That's slightly dramatized because SE has taken personal threats seriously in the past, but the new threat is internal. Now I can't be, say, or do what I think is right if that thing will offend somebody else's sensibilities. It doesn't matter any more whether I intend offense, and just keeping my head low and not going places where I know there might be trouble is no longer an acceptable way out.
The new "tolerance" is tolerant of everything except ideological disagreement. It is forced conformity. Especially in the context of Christianity, I've always believed we needed the space to hold to our convictions and express them, yet not impose them on others. Now, just holding my views is considered harmful (as measured by somebody who disagrees with me) and given the force of law.
Unfortunately in the dumpster fire that's been raging for days/weeks/months in moderator-only spaces, there have been plenty of insults of both sides. This includes some people ridiculing LGBT+ positions in ways that were not "nice". I am not saying that is okay! Even in the face of disagreement there are respectful ways to say something and disrespectful ways. I'm not stake out a right to be disrespectful. I've seen violations of the old code of conduct's "be nice" –both directed at individuals and viewpoints– that were reprehensible. Monica, who was sacked, was not one of those parties. The SE staff has done nothing but pour gasoline into the fire. I can't fix this. SE has given no indication that they even think it is a problem they want to try to fix and every indication⁷ they think their approach is the fix.
Please note in all of this that I've tried not to name names or blame specific individuals. Somewhere in upper management there is a circus on fire but I don't know where it is. I've seen several employees belligerently taking the same unhelpful approach, but I am unaware if this play book is their own impetus or if there is something higher up going on and they're just forced to play cards from a specific deck. I'm not angry at anyone in particular. That being said, the way they handled other cases of people wearing similar shoes to mine convinces me that it is not safe to hang around and try to wait for the fire to burn down.
Will I stop using SE sites entirely?
No, I don't plan to. I'm not boycotting the existence of network entirely and am not refusing to interact with people with whom I disagree. I will probably turn up from time to time — particularly on the technical sites looking for answers to programming issues. What I am doing is withdrawing my active endorsement of SE as a platform, especially for humanities related topics, in response to the fact that they have come out in active antagonism of me, my beliefs, and the very world view of many people most active in contributing to this site.
Will I reconsider?
I don't expect to change my mind unless there is a substantial amount of evidence that something significant has changed. If they want this network to be a place where people with differences of identity and belief are allowed to disagree and co-exist and codify that, then I might consider being a part of that. I don't see that happening soon, the train wreck in progress still has a lot of momentum.
To the old-guard CM Team members who were instrumental in helping this site get started and having our backs through all the rough spots, thank you! I know or guess some of you might have your own current frustrations and/or have your hands tied, and unlike you my job isn't on the line here. I'm not blaming any of you.
To my fellow CS.E and other religion site moderators, it has been an honor to serve with you.
To the rest of this site and its users, I hope you'll know to laugh if I let Bilbo Baggins speak for me this time ;-)
I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve. — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
¹ Mobile phone browsers were not so good in those days!
² Robert edited to add emphasis, Shog9 cited it, and my recollection was that two others affirmed it behind the scenes in the mod chat.
³ In the mean time I will of course do nothing to harm this site nor violate the moderator agreement I am currently bound by.
⁴ This was open no much interpretation, but one way as a moderator that I enforced that on users of this site was by boiling it down to "if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all." We also made sure the Q&A stayed focused on topics, not individuals.
⁵ See for example what they avoided doing in 2011, they did in 2015.
⁶ For example the content license debate is pretty much a non-issue on this site.
⁷ For example by reiterating their interpretation of the proposed CoC to the news.