Perspectives on the Insurgency #4: Check your bias at the submit button

This is part #4 in a sequence of exchanges between myself and Jennifer Edeburn, on the appropriateness of complaints against Quora. See:

As with the preceding piece, Jennifer’s contribution has been significantly edited from her initial PM to me, as we’ve both been refining our thinking.

I can see a whole lot of people in my mind’s eye, arcing and and ready to holler at what Jennifer is saying here. Just pause a minute and think, folks. In my judgement, Jennifer’s not wrong in what she’s saying. Verbera sed audi. And don’t Verbera either, for that matter. (Nick Nicholas’ answer to What is your personal pretentious Latin motto?)


Now that I’ve dinged Quora, I’m going to go back to where I think the movement is coming up short. Here, I see two major aspects. The first is what I would refer to as person-bias / lack of discrimination.

When I say person-bias, I refer to the assumption that because the Mods are a (relatively) faceless collective, and the people who are getting edit-blocked are real users who you have some interaction with or experience of their content, that there is an intrinsic bias to have a higher trust level in the users than in the mods.

(Aside, prior to our editing here, Achilleas Vortselas wrote about this as well elsewhere in a post that has been shared to this blog: Moderation is silly because Quora isn’t real – or is it? by Achilleas Vortselas on Posts by Achillea)

I mostly see this in two forms:

  1. Comments like “I can’t believe so and so got edit blocked, I never see them say anything off, it must have been a mistake”
  2. The tendency to believe users who return from their edit-blocks to announce that their BNBR violations were undeserved (I am not referring to cases where the status was changed on appeal).

On believing users: exactly what is it that makes the self-report of a user who may obviously have a conflict of interest in reporting their own guilt appear to be immediately more reliable than the moderators? We do know that Quora makes mistakes sometimes and issues apologies. However, to assume that Quora moderation is mistaken all or most of the time when they have access to the user’s entire interaction on the site including the content of their private messages, their Anonymous postings, and their moderation history—and the average observer does not—is, to me, a bit of a stretch. And yet I rarely see anyone tend to immediately support the idea that the user’s edit-block for BNBR may have been completely deserved.

On comments: I had not been here for a particularly long time when I came across an answer by a former mod to a question about why such-and-such had yielded a BNBR warning. The ex-mod also noted in her answer something like “I also went and had a look at your edit log and I see several other items there that are likely to result in a BNBR warning if they are reported, you may want to go back and look critically at your content and review the BNBR policy found here (with a link)”.

Since then, whenever I come across someone commenting that they cannot understand how such-and-such a user has been edit-blocked, the first thing I do is go and look at the user’s edit log. And I would say that roughly 50% of the time, I am able to see quite well from the content that remains in the log exactly why that user was edit-blocked. So the fact that the commenters do not know is due either to a) they don’t understand the the definitions of “nice” and “respectful” (unlikely) or b) they did not look. And then others see these comments, and you know what? They don’t look either, they assume they can be taken at face value based on a trust relationship with the commenter. And pretty soon everyone is convinced that because nobody knows why so-and-so was edit-blocked, it must mean that the mods are running wild again.

I think a problem with this attitude being increasingly visible is that it is contagious. It may encourage users to think that they are the best judge of their own BNBR reports, and does not encourage them to make an effort to interpret the policy as Quora means it to be interpreted. As an example, recently a Quoran returned from an edit block and wrote an answer in which she detailed some of her BNBR violations. There were two that she admitted were legitimate, but one of the ones that she said was “not a real BNBR violation” was that she wrote “Shame on you.” to the question asker in one of her answers, with enough context of the question for me to see that it was intended literally.

I have to wonder if her willingness to disregard the notification and apply her own standard of BNBR was not nourished by seeing again and again statements on how draconian and inconsistent the moderation is on this site, and how everyone should expect sooner or later to get a BNBR warning that they didn’t deserve.

I’ll also note that this was a user with a pretty clean edit log, so even if someone had taken the effort to go back and check they would not have seen anything, and yet by the admission of her own answer it was obvious that her edit-block was reasonably applied and deserved.

So I would suggest that if the movement is to be a force for good, then they need to ensure that their complaint is credible. They need to be aware of their own intrinsic bias, and they need to police themselves, making sure not to comment in defense of individual users without at least doing the basic homework to make sure nothing is obviously present, and calling out others who do. They need to remember that even if they don’t find anything obvious, that doesn’t mean there was no offense committed, and that a user’s protestation of innocence may actually be ignorance.

My response:

Moderation is not always wrong; it may (may) not even be usually wrong, in applying its rules in a rigorous, rigid fashion. (Whether rigidity is the way to go is a different question.) And for what it’s worth, I also have seen people come back from edit blocks, and say “You know what, I deserved that.”

There’s a few things going on that encourage people to get out their pitchforks

:Social things:

  • Loyalty to friends. (You will see a lot more about this in the next section.)
  • Loyalty to the collective. (Ditto)
  • Mistrust of Moderation (which you have acknowledged): the mods don’t get the benefit of the doubt, because of several public missteps, and exacerbated by lack of transparency.
  • Closely allied with that: Sense of waging skirmishes against an implacable opponent, so you can’t afford to give ground during the campaign.
    • No, feeling at war with your host is not a healthy thing.
    • And I acknowledge my own acute and irrational resentment of those users who say Quora Moderation is just fine, there’s nothing for you to protest. I don’t regard those users (who are often long-time TWs) as my peers. I suspect that they, too, are speaking out of their own peer loyalty.
    • And no, Jennifer, I’ve never felt that about you, because you did not speak to me with self-righteousness or complacency when you criticised me.
  • Common to all of the above: groupthink. Groupthink is not intrinsically a bad thing. There can be no social change without groupthink. But groupthink does lead to bias in how you view the world. (Then again, so does any non-trivial framework of thought.)

Political things:

  • A commonly held view that BNBR is overly rigorous. I will admit, I don’t regard “Shame on you” as out of bounds, although I admit it is close (and that’s a separate discussion worth having). That is a disagreement with the application of the law, rather than the law itself.
  • A possibly less commonly held view that BNBR is not applied consistently, that some users are exempt from its rigours. I don’t particularly feel that (but then, I think the rigour is excessive to begin with, so I welcome the chinks). But I have seen others say it explicitly.
  • A definitely less commonly held view that BNBR is misconceived to begin with. It certainly isn’t the cultural norm online, and it takes a lot of getting used to for people from other online cultures.


  • And, yes, self-interest, all-round combativeness, and cluelessness is in there too.


The responsible thing to do, always, is if I hear of a sanction of someone I’ve never heard of, to check the edit logs before protesting. I do that for Necrologue anyway.

If I have heard of those sanctioned, well, if I know they’ve been acting up, maybe give the devil (er, angel, totally angel) their due. Sanctions have to be on the table, even for your buddies. It’s not the very application of sanctions that have to be called into question, but the consistency and transparency and constructive engagement.

  • I will not sit on my hands, I will fight the good fight. But what I hope I’ve done and hope to keep doing is to pick my battles, to defend those who deserve it most.
  • And where I don’t protest, I will never be gleeful about bans either: that’s what ghouls do, we are all diminished when one of us is exiled.

If I have heard of those sanctioned, and know of no discernable reason why they were banned… maybe there was a good reason. Maybe there wasn’t, maybe the reason was specious. But maybe there was.

The 6 month ban-hammer on Xu Beixi for using externally sourced infographics is a poster child for what looks like moderator caprice. (All the more because the infographics policy has since been silently rescinded.) But if you read the other side of the story (…), where it is claimed that Xu received repeated warnings and engagement which she declined to comply with—the ban makes a little more sense.

This is not to say there shall be no protests of sanctions, and no sadness at sanctions. This is to say protests should seek to be as informed as possible, and sadness should be as wise as possible. Which is not very possible, and some of us have more information than others. But anger is not an end in itself for me.

Will swear words become used so much that they will be normal and not rude eventually?

Deadwood (TV series) is celebrated as being one of the most foulmouthed shows on cable TV.

This was a conscious decision by the scriptwriters, to convey the impression that 1870s foul language would have had on its contemporaries. Because using actual 1870s foul language (which was blasphemous rather than scatological) would have sounded so anodyne to modern ears, it would have been laughable.

Good summary thereof at Deadwood (TV series) – Wikipedia

The use of damn, which Rynnah Lim mention, is one such blasphemous word: it used to be censored in print, the way fuck often still is. Bloody also originates in blasphemy (God’s blood).

The inflation happened within living memory: Eliza Doolitle scandalously said “not bloody likely” in the 1912 premiere of Pygmalion. By the time of My Fair Lady in 1964, the scandalous phrase had to be updated (with some exoticisation of Cockney) to “move your bloomin’ arse”. Fifty more years on, it would have to involve at least one fucking to have the same effect.

Why did Trump just harangue and hang up on the Australian Prime Minister?

Nick Nicholas’ answer to Do Americans agree that the Prime Minister of Australia should have been treated the way he was by President Trump during their first phone call? In retrospect, that was more an answer to this question than that one.

TL;DR: Trump did it, because he’s not remotely interested in being a statesman, or preserving the delicate balances of the American World Order. He’s interested in being an alpha male who delivers to his base. (Or, per Scott Adams, he’s a Master Manipulator and Paradigm Disruptor.) And the point wasn’t haranguing Turnbull; it was being seen by the American voting public to be haranguing Turnbull. Which is why Bannon (presumably) leaked it.

As to the question details:

why would an American president go out of his way to alienate an ally whose soldiers fought and died alongside Americans in every war of the past century—including Vietnam?

ANZUS was founded in “We fought together in the Coral Sea! We were brothers! We would die for each other.” Except (as I wrote in my answer above), the Coral Sea did not motivate the US to deploy a single GI in support of Australia in Malaysia. And conversely, the Coral Sea meant for Australia that it wanted America stuck in the morass of Vietnam, because that made it more obvious that America would defend Australia.

Alliances are about self-interest, not glorious shared history. It was ever thus with Athens. It was ever thus with the US. It should have been ever thus with Australia.

What are the male equivalents of whore, slut, ho, bitch, skank, tramp and hooker?

Manwhore, though that’s derived from whore. And more recently still, fuckboy: What is a fuckboy and where did the term originate?

The common thread in this question is that society traditionally applied double standards to male and female sexuality, so there are no explicitly pejoratives for someone casually promiscuous and male. Contemporary Western society isn’t Traditional Western society, though, and the emergence of fuckboy does point to something.

If I want to work in linguistic typology, which linguists should I read?

My top 3:

  • Joseph Greenberg. The founding father. And very useful to get a sense of the kinda functionalist programme he had in mind.
  • Bernard Comrie.
  • Martin Haspelmath.

Do Americans agree that the Prime Minister of Australia should have been treated the way he was by President Trump during their first phone call?

So, we’re kicking back at the office, 2 PM, and my COO flicks his phone as I’m coding, and says “hey, the Aussie dollar’s up 1 cent!”

And I look at him, and I look at my colleague, and she says, “OK, what’s Trump done now?”

And I pop onto The Age newspaper, and Donald Trump tweets he will study ‘dumb’ refugee deal with Australia

I am going to do something that I don’t particularly want to do. I’m going to channel my inner Scott Adams (Scott Adam’s Blog) and assume that Trump is being a rational agent, and try to work out what’s in it for him.

(And then I’m going to take a shower, because I don’t want to have an inner Scott Adams.)

So. Background:

Our own Australian government has been treating refugees in a very… by now mainstream fashion, involving detainment and abuse, and has done so on a bipartisan basis for the past decade and more. The Australian government has decided to deal with its refugee responsibilities by exporting them to Pacific islands. And now that the Pacific islands are turning against this, it has signed a deal with Obama to export the refugees to America.

So, no honour there from our side.

The phone call involved Australia trying to remind America that “we had a deal”, which we had—with Obama; and Trump saying “screw your deal, and screw you”.

Turnbull our PM is what would have happened to Arnie Vininck, had he actually been elected in The West Wing. He’s been hostage to the right wing of his party, and he has been unable to act as the Great Moderate Hope he did while out of leadership. (The left have been massively disillusioned. But the left weren’t really going to vote for him anyway.) He is, in all too many ways, a pussy cat. So the notion that he provoked Trump somehow brought up many a chuckle in our office at 2 PM.

There’s a strong suspicion that the details of the phone call were leaked by Bannon: Bannon, Spicer, Flynn and Trump: who heard Malcolm Turnbull’s phone call?

So. Let’s go all Scott Adams, folks. Why would Trump do this, apart from reasons of his ego?

Trump needs to send a strong message to his base that he will keep all “bad guys” out. If “bad guys” includes Muslim migrants with green cards (or without green cards), and “bad guys” includes refugees from Syria, then “bad guys” certainly also includes refugees grandfathered in from Syria via Australia.

Trump needs to send a strong message that he is undoing everything Obama ever did, like this deal. He needs to send a strong message that America First, and that all US deals and obligations are back on the table, because America First. And he needs to send a strong message that he is alpha, oh so alpha, and he doesn’t do diplomatic nicey-nice talk.

And he doesn’t send this message by yelling at some random country’s prime minister. Oh no. After all, Turnbull didn’t say a word of this after it happened.

He sends this message by yelling at some random country’s prime minister, having Bannon leak it, and tweeting about Obama’s dumb deal afterwards.

Does this kick America’s most loyal lapdog ally to the curb? You bet. And you know what? I’ve been reading about the clash between Whitlam and Nixon back in the day; and before Whitlam, Australia was lickspittle to the US, and it still got kicked to the curb. Australia was expected to support the US in Nam; the US would not send one GI to support Australia in any entanglements it had in Malaysia. ANZUS was only a one-way obligation. That’s what happens when you’re dealing with the 800 pound gorilla.

Trump has political reasons to rip off the mask. But it always has been a mask. Of course any American administration is ultimately going to be America First. They’re just not as arseholish about it.

So. Should Trump have treated Turnbull thus? By the standards of valuing longstanding alliances, preserving a viable world order, honouring your government’s existing commitments, and you know, statesmanship: no.

By the standards of the world we’ve just alighted on, with Trump running the US (as Scott Adams gushes) like a Silicon Valley disruptor, throwing all the existing rules out the door and bamboozling the world so he can get himself a better deal: well, yeah. Sure. The Hon. Malcolm Bligh Turnbull is just a prime minister of a bunch of kangaroos, who gives a shit.

That… was not fun to write.

Can fascism grow in Greece?

Tolis Malakos of London Metropolitan University wrote a very insightful piece on this in 2013: What does the rise of fascism mean for Greece and for Europe?

Above and beyond that, turning to populist, authoritarian solutions when faith is shaken in bourgeois democratic politics is not an idiosyncrasy of Germans or Italians: it is human nature. Golden Dawn is already running charities for the poor—as long as they are of pure Hellenic blood.

Can fascism grow? It already has. Golden Dawn (political party) – Wikipedia: 0.1% in 1996, 7% in 2012.

Can it prevail, and do away with the current democratic system? That’s a different question. From my very remote perspective, there’s a vacuum of credible alternatives in Greece right now, and Greeks have gotten used to having their backs to the wall for the better part of a decade. It’s not the most likely outcome; but it’s not as inconceivable as it was two decades ago, when Golden Dawn was polling at 0.1%.

Are we done creating great works of literature?

Something more complicated has happened than that. We have left behind a world where there was a well-regulated Canon of literature, and where the masses paid attention to scholars who would identify that Canon. We live now instead in a world where taste have become democratized, and more subject to market forces than to elite judgement. So even though I am told great literature is still being written, most people don’t get to hear of it, because most people aren’t listening to literature specialists.

In the other direction, and strongly correlated to this, high literature, just like high art and high music, has withdrawn from the conventions that helped it make sense to the masses for millennia, in favour of more experimentation, and in the case of the visual arts, philosophising about the nature of art. That’s not intrinsically a bad thing, but it has happened to the extent that it has, because the market forces of popular taste no longer have much sway over it. Admittedly such hermeticism (for want of a better term) is most severe in the visual arts, decreasing in music, and I think least pervasive in literature.

Greatness in art is something we like to think is inherent in the artistic expression. But greatness is just as much, and arguably much more, about the reception of the art, and what sense a mass audience makes of it.

Hermeticism does not prioritise the mass reception of art, and usually seeks to undermine the very notion of great art. So greatness does not come naturally to it. And conversely, without a mass audience for high art, and with a body of scholars and critics who themselves question the very notion of greatness, people or not as invested in identifying greatness in Contemporary Art as they used to be.

Tl;dr: there is still great literature being written. But you have to look very hard now to find someone who’ll tell you what it is.