The Biblical Hermeneutics community was a big reason I stuck with Stack Exchange. One of the draws was having my Christian ideas about the Old Testament challenged by Jewish scholars who also participated. I learned, for instance, that Jews prefer to call it the Hebrew Scriptures since that doesn't carry Christian theological baggage. Even better, they call this collection of books the Tanakh, which is a Hebrew acronym for its three parts:
- Law (Torah)
- Prophets (Nevi'im)
- Writings (Ketuvim)
There's a lot of history that hasn't been told, but the upshot is the community was in a constant state of tension between theological divisions. It wasn't easy but I believed everyone could live in peace built on mutual respect. To the degree the community functioned, it did so based on the ancient principle of reciprocity:
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God..—Leviticus 19:33–34
Modern people, at least in the cultural West, have lost faith in this concept for numerous and varied reasons. To be fair, observing this saying has been a struggle since the moment it was first uttered. Given the current state of the world, philosophers and moralists seem justified in thinking we must be able to do better. If traditional morality is a sort of evolutionary dead end, perhaps we should start over with different moral values.
Here's how Bari Weiss puts it:
It was 20 years ago that I started writing about this ideology that seemed to contradict everything I had been taught since I was a child. At first the things I encountered like postmodernism and postcolonialism and postnationalism seemed like word play or intellectual games. Little puzzles to see how you could deconstruct just about anything. But what I came to see over time was that it wasn't going to remain an academic sideshow and that it sought nothing less than the deconstruction of our society from within. This ideology seeks to upend the very ideas of right and wrong. It replaces the basic ideas of good and evil with a new rubric the powerless: good and the powerful: bad.
Taken as a rule of thumb, there's some sense to this. How did the powerful get power except by stepping on the heads of the powerless? Barring that, surely the powerless are held back by cultural structures that ought to be torn down. Taken as an intellectual game, there's some promise there. In any case, it's an ethical platform on which we can build. For a good long time I was open to the possibility that new ideology was making genuine progress.
On Friday September 27, 2019, I wrote this email to an executive1 at Stack Overflow:
Normally I wouldn't bother you with something like this, but we are about to forcibly remove a moderator of our Judaism site just before the High Holy Days. The moderator (Monica Cellio) is also a moderator on a number of other Stack Exchange sites. I think it's a very bad look for us as a company. Waiting would reduce potential PR damage.
I'd be happy to bring you up to speed, but I only know a small part of the story. I believe [redacted] know a lot more and would be less biased than I am. (I consider Monica to be a longtime friend.)
I got a response on Sunday saying from the executive saying they couldn't get involved. I wrote back:
Totally fair. I can see how dropping in out of the blue would cause more harm than good.
The decision was made and the moderator has written about her side of the story on Mi Yodeya's meta. (I had to look up several of the words in the title.) What she isn't saying is that issue was whether or not she could avoid using singular "they/them" and the hurt caused other moderators arguing about it. The reason the situation hasn't been explained is that the people who decided to take this action on Friday have not been part of the followup communication. Unfortunately, those of us who have been around don't understand exactly what happened and need to provide evasive answers to avoid overstepping our authority.
We've been told there will be a post mortem. I'm very much hoping this will help us answer questions.
Thanks for getting back to me,
There was a postmortem and it didn't answer as many questions as I'd hoped. My one-sided version might be the best I'll ever get.
Reading these emails, I wonder if anything would have been different if this executive had stepped in after all. Or if I'd sent the email to more people in order to increase the odds someone would act. At the time these emails felt courageous, but re-reading them, I cringe to see the passive voice and the odd obsession with public relations. What if I'd been more bold?
After contemplating the situation for many years, I've come to the conclusion that Monica ran into a wall of injustice veiled in the language of progressivism. Applying Bari Weiss' framing, Monica was powerful within the community so her behavior was suspect by default. The factors I thought were to her favor by the new ideology didn't seem to matter:
- She has vision problems which puts her at a disadvantage in the age of screens.
- She's a woman in technology which means she's in the minority.
- She's Jewish which puts her in a minority that's been discriminated against so often there is a common word for it in English.
The analysis I should have understood was:
- It's possible the people deciding her fate didn't know about her vision. In any case, vision is a problem that can be corrected with technology and money.2
- In the calculus of intersectionality transgender people are more marginalized than straight women.
- What I thought were strong arguments that removing a Jewish moderator on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah was a bad look, turned out to not matter. I can't prove it, but I suspect it's the result of subtle antisemitism that comes from observing that Jews tend to be successful in certain fields. Jew might be a minority, but they aren't under-represented so paradoxically that must mean they are among the powerful.
I'm not an expert on these things and so I operated under the naive assumption that progressive ideology was working toward the goal of treating people as if we were all created equal. But the standard tools of the new morality are ineffective. Instead, the logical conclusion of the new ideology appears to require mistreating people who don't conform to its evolving standards. As C. S. Lewis wrote:
This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) 'ideologies', all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.—C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
Community must be ruled by mutual respect
Last week I relaunched my community consulting businsess. My services include updating community rules and moderation strategy. When I write such rules, they are built on the foundation of respect. So how would my version of community rules handle someone refusing to use preferred pronouns?
Framed as a matter of respect, it's clearly wrong to deliberately use pronouns other than the ones a person requests. But it's also clearly wrong to require other people to say (or believe) something they don't agree with. In those situations the attitude should be "I respect your right to be wrong." That includes wrong beliefs about identity.
Sometimes people can't agree and find themselves in chronic conflict. In that case, the answer is to disengage. That might mean changing the subject or finding a better venue for a conversation. There's no topic that's so important that it must be discussed always and everywhere. People matter more than ideas. And here's the thing: treating others with respect means caring for people as individuals rather than as stand-ins for their identities.
I'm going to be a bit cagey about naming people here. Everyone involved has left the company and there's not a whole lot of good to be done by calling them out. ↩
This, of course, is a simplification. I've had perfect vision all my life and in the last few years I've noticed my vision getting worse—especially when reading. I can work around the problem with low-magnification glasses or making the text on my Kindle larger, but even minor vision problems make the digital life harder. Monica has much more severe vision problems. ↩