WP:THREATENING2MEN: The English Wikipedia's misogynist infopolitics and the hegemony of the asshole consensus
This op-ed is excerpted from an "open peer-reviewed" article that originally appeared in Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. Academic references and footnotes can be found at that link.
Spring 2014 was a long semester, marked by a campus-wide anti-rape movement that took off at the University of Oregon (UO). In the wake of a high-profile case, administrators callously and robotically rehearsed the "one time is too many" – a catchphrase that through its rhetorical singularity renders campus sexual violence an "isolated issue". Arguments that UO was somehow unique or unusual in its unsafe environment and unethical public-relations approach to public safety became rampant in public forums and the comment sections of online articles.
The idea of writing campus sexual violence into Wikipedia was born of these circumstances, growing out of a conversation with campus activists around the US about universities' efforts to keep campus sexual violence invisible. By increasing the amount of freely available information on the long history of campus sexual violence around the country, we could provide information for people looking to learn about the ways UO was not isolated or unique, but part of a network – and a structure – of gendered violence in US colleges and universities.
I spent some five hours creating the Wikipedia category Schools under investigation for Title IX violations, which included a short introduction and links to all 72 colleges and universities that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced were "under investigation" for Title IX and Clery Act violations. Alongside this category, I devoted the better part of a week to researching and writing up specific circumstances about campus sexual violence into the English Wikipedia's college and university articles, drawing on sources ranging from national newspapers to student publications documenting campus sexual violence on the 72 campuses.
Within 12 hours of finishing, my many hours of labor were completely undone: information about campus sexual violence was removed from college and university pages because it was not "defining" of the institution (WP:UNDUE), was from an "unreliable" source (WP:RELIABLE), because the events were too recent to be understood as historically relevant to institutions (WP:RECENTISM), or because they were written in a "biased" tone (WP:POV). The category I created – an index of schools announced under investigation by the federal Department of Education as part of a precedent-setting move towards transparency – was nominated for deletion (consensus driven) and speedy deletion (administratively executed in cases of defamatory content). Citing the range of editorial reverts on content referencing campus sexual violence, a group of Wikipedians successfully deleted content about campus sexual violence through what I'll refer to as WP:THREATENING2MEN, drawing on what I refer to later as the hegemony of the asshole consensus.
Here, I want to use my experience of writing campus sexual violence into Wikipedia to shine a light on misogynist information politics (infopolitics hereafter) on the so-called "encyclopedia anyone can edit". By misogynist infopolitics, I mean the ways in which "factual information" is defined and consequently produced through struggles concentrated around defining, preserving, and protecting a form of masculinity based on male privilege and misogyny that is always already defined in relation to femininity-as-inferior. On Wikipedia, a misogynist infopolitics dictates that "factual information" pertains to but does not threaten a sense of masculinity situated in a social world beyond the confines of Wikipedia. This sense of masculinity can be enacted and protected by both men and women. Thus, rather than "ontologizing" gender in criticizing Wikipedia's gendered hostilities, or focusing on the positivistic "how many women equals equality" question that defines Wikipedia's "gender gap" civilizing mission, I focus on how misogynist infopolitics define Wikipedians' interactive habits, shaping the social environment in ways that make Wikipedians of many genders and sexualities hostile to information that challenges forms of male privilege understood to be endangered by institutional diversity initiatives.
WikiLawyering, expertise, and domination
Broadly speaking, consensus (defined through a majoritarian politics) and WP:<POLICY> reign supreme in Wikipedia spaces. This notion of consensus has led quantitative scholars to argue that, when dealing with contentious debates, Wikipedians calmly and practically "rule with reason" through Wikipedia's various policies on what constitutes appropriate content for an encyclopedia. Against the grain of this belief in consensus, this essay examines the hostile environment that becomes normalized through seemingly reasonable "Wiki Policies", an environment that has resulted in assertions that Wikipedia must be protected from "a gender war" that introduces "biased ideology" about campus sexual violence into the otherwise "factual information" about US colleges and universities. This ethnography is not without its quantitative supporters: Kriplean and Beschastnikh for instance, have argued that WP:<POLICIES> are most prevalent in sites of heavy ideological conflict, while a joint University of Washington and HP Labs project has examined the hierarchy of policies mobilized in rhetorical "power plays" to remove or advocate for information inclusion. Through an ethnographic approach, however, I am able to go one step further than these quantitative studies to demonstrate how Wikipedians' "power plays," and the scientism mobilized to rationalize them as upholding "truth," are bound up in misogynist defenses of male privilege on Wikipedia.
I'm particularly interested in the ways that "ruling with reason" via WP:<POLICY> facilitates Wikipedians' misogynist attempts to maintain male privilege in the face of various Wikimedia Foundation initiatives to increase Wikipedia's diversity both in terms of content and users. For simplicity's sake, I codify "ruling with reason" as expertise, drawing on a long history of science and technology scholarship. Debates on talk pages and administrator boards, alongside those in edit summaries, are often not about the validity of information itself, but the metapragmatic dimensions of its inclusion as determined by Wikipedians with expertise. In the case of campus sexual violence, facts came under question not through debates about statistics and occurrences of sexual violence, but rather through debates about the value of including this "type" of content on Wikipedia as per WP:<POLICY>. In many instances, I was accused of bringing a "feminist bias" into an "otherwise neutral" or "objective" encyclopedic project—a process I outline below. This bias, according to many Wikipedians, compromised the supposed expertise of Wikipedians, and the value of the encyclopedia, in the eyes of an undefined evaluator with a god's eye perspective.
The expertise of Wikipedians on all things Wikipedia trumped any other form of expertise in knowledge production—such that knowledge about (and research on) campus sexual violence and its effects was never the real subject of debate. Instead, where Wikipedians are unable to compete on the terrain of facts and content expertise, they turn to hermeneutic arguments through a near infinite, always self referencing, system of WP:<POLICY>. To paraphrase Bruno Latour, these lawyeristic maneuvers are the most effective weapons for individuals who do not know very much about facts, as they allow Wikipedia editors to replace expertise about subject matter with expertise about Wikipedia's rules. The image of Wikipedia I describe in my article, through empirical grounding in my work writing campus sexual violence into Wikipedia, is a space where the primary focus is on the mastery of policy as a tool for domination – and not on the production of, or debates about, verifiable facts and actually existing knowledge.
Here, I want to note an important distinction between male privilege and misogyny. Where male privilege might be understood as a form of power granted to individuals based on assertions or assumptions about their gender, misogyny is the use of that power in acts of domination. While my ethnography of scientism and misogynist infopolitics analyzed the normalization of hostility in online "cultures" like Wikipedia, it also explores the boundaries and limitations of male privilege as seen by feminists and their allies. As a cis-gendered white man writing content into Wikipedia to raise awareness about the violent sexual practices of men at American universities, I naively assumed that I could assert my male privilege through "wikilawyering" and wiki-policies to even the playing field of what would be counted as "information". Through social interactions with other Wikipedians invested in the use of misogynist tactics to protect their sense of male privilege, I quickly learned that the translation of male privilege into a weapon against misogyny was (and continues to be) a failed strategy at best, an ineffective one at worst. Nonetheless, the experience of doing so is fruitful for understanding the gendered social environment left otherwise illegible to Wikipedians and outsiders.
Gender and Wikipedia expertise
||Nothing makes Wikipedians more angry than a discussion of gender and feminism on Wikipedia.
As the comments to this revision of my essay may demonstrate, nothing makes Wikipedians more angry than a discussion of gender and feminism on Wikipedia. According to a BBC News report on sexism and the Wikimedia Foundation demographics survey, "The proportion of editors identifying as female hovers between 8% and 15%". Various stakeholders in Wikipedia fear that this gap has resulted in an online encyclopedia skewed toward a masculine bias, which has gradually become the basis (or zero-degree) from which all "legitimate" knowledge must be produced. As Adrianne Wadewitz wrote in 2013: "A lack of diversity amongst editors means that, for example, topics typically associated with femininity are typically underrepresented and often actively deleted." A recent international study of the gender demographics of Wikipedia articles about artists demonstrates this point, with women artists making up only 24% of all artists represented globally (see image at right).
In response to persistent problems around gender, the Foundation has attempted to address what they describe as a gender gap through both research and policy. This included establishing the Gender Gap Task Force, Gendergap-L, a mailing list for women and feminist Wikipedians, and a manifesto for change, each of which was overseen by Sue Gardner, the previous executive director. Her motivation, she wrote in the manifesto, was that Wikipedia needed to "help men understand the obstacles women face [as editors] and help them become better feminists." Filling the gender gap and making Wikipedian men feminists, she argued, would improve the overall quality of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia and a community.
Predictable outrage followed Gardner's statement. Critics argued that Sue Gardner was trying to "force content" into Wikipedia that "has a bias" by virtue of being "politically, not knowledge motivated." They posted statements like "Is Sue Gardner an Idiot" on Wikipedia Review. "Accusing Wikipedia culture of being 'trollish and misogynistic' is nothing less than a way to silence people who challenge mainstream feminism," one anonymous commenter wrote in response to another anonymous post declaring that "sexism = anything that challenges the misandry inherent in feminist discourse." "Closing the gender gap on Wikipedia" gave form to a wider crisis of masculinity taking shape across sites of knowledge production, one predicated on the decline of white male privilege through "diversity initiatives."
Where internet and forum comments respond to Gardner's assertions with emotional forms of outrage, protesting imbalanced forms of political power allotted to women and "political correctness," Wikipedians responded "rationally" through the Byzantine system of Wikipedia policies targeted at the alleged emotionalism and bias of Gardner's "gender war." This maneuver is important: while one commenter suggested that addressing the gender gap on Wikipedia was "politically, not knowledge motivated," the debate that ensued among Wikipedians was also not motivated by knowledge in terms of information. Instead, the debate focused on adherence to Wikipedia's various rules about what counts as knowledge according to those who control the rules' use and circulation. Wikipedians' focus, in other words, was on control via "ruling with reason", not the validity of the information itself.
Expertise and power
Wikipedians' mastery of policy as a responsive tool is what constitutes what I call "Wikipedian expertise", since it marks out a space of specialization for Wikipedians and, importantly, a space that transcends "subject matter" expertise. Expertise, as I use it here, does not diverge from the Oxford English Dictionary definition: "an authority by reason of special skill, training or knowledge." Where I do diverge is in my cultural evaluation of the concept of expertise and its deployment. Anthropologists of science and technology have described how "the enactment of expertise not only determines the value of cultural objects… it also confers value on those who interact with these objects". For Wikipedians, the authority granted by agreement based on Wikipedian expertise is constituted by an aggressive dismissal of expert knowledge as biased using WP:<POLICIES>, and a replacement of expert knowledge with mastery over Wikipedia's various policies for designating "legitimate" information. Wikipedian expertise, in other words, functions in contrast to subject matter expertise in other domains. It is metapragmatic: focused on speech about speech, form rather than content. According to science and technology scholars, once formalized through practices, the political constitution of (Wikipedians') expertise becomes "placeless, without histories or corruptible archives to confound its designs on power" – a particularly gendered form of power, no less.
Wikipedia's automated archiving provides an extensive on-site history that makes Wikipedians' maneuvers for (if not designs on) power highly legible as tactics for the preservation of male privilege. In multiple instances, for example, scientistic logic comes to trump the scientific evaluations of researchers examining the gender gap. "It is important to gather any such evidence," one Wikipedian wrote on the Gender Gap Task Force talkpage. "Because in general we don't know the gender of our fellow editors, it is not clear to me how we can establish a record of the facts." "The big objection to working to end the gender gap," another Wikipedian wrote on the gender gap mailing list, "has been that 'there's no proof it exists/is important/we can change it/etc'" – an objection that occurs in the face of extensive research on and coverage of the gender gap. In response to those citing this scholarship come accusations of WP:NPOV. "The scientists were biased." "The methods are erroneous." "There is no real research on the topic, just feminist bluster."
At the same time as questioning "scientific" findings for their underlying logic, Wikipedians defer to scientistic arguments in their justifications for including offensive content. Here, I borrow the concept of "scientistic" from Pierre Bourdieu to refer to the ways in which the language and rhetoric of science is mobilized in lawyeristic maneuvers to grant epistemic authority to acts of domination. Writing of one instance when some users claimed that the recurring photographs of failed breast augmentation in the mastectomy article were offensive, one Wikipedian argued "That's basic science: experiment and control." Pulling scientistic maneuver and the bias of science together, yet another user argued that "I really don't understand the reluctance evident throughout this project to deal in verifiable facts rather than feminist bluster." The result of these disruptions-of-scientific debate:
||The article on Gender bias on Wikipedia was recently tagged as needing attn. due to non-NPOV. Points of contention appear to be proper wording to neutrally present the National Science Foundation study on gender bias on WP and whether or not to include men's right's organization assertions regarding sexism against men on WP.
Wikipedians argued that research on Wikipedia's gender bias – like those sources that document domestic violence and misogyny in other Wikipedia articles – are themselves "biased" and "invalid" because they don't include information about men. To demonstrate this bias, Wikipedians either engage in shallow methodological critiques or cite a litany of WP:<POLICY>. Notably, they don't add the so-called missing men to these articles. Nor do they engage with falsifiable research that demonstrates all of this is just "feminist bluster". It becomes clear that the intention is not to improve content (e.g. add the missing men or "proper" research), but to prevent the publication of content.
Like Latour's dissenter, who distinguishes himself from the critic by doubting everything that comes into question, Wikipedians call into question the addition of "gendered" – meaning feminized, or anti-masculinizing – information, because they have a stake in the metapragmatic universe affected by the pragmatic effects of such information, regardless of the authoritativeness of the knowledge and/or knowledge producer. Take, for example, the debate around the gender gap itself, reported in major national sources and supported by research funded by agencies like the US National Science Foundation. "Among the men and women with whom I am familiar," a disruptive editor on the Gender Gap Task Force wrote, "there is no gender-related difference with respect to their comfort with markup text. If there was no identified empirical basis for this conclusion, it appears to be a prima facie example of gender bias. (WP:NPOV)" WP:NPOV, here, signifies that the articles lack the proper grounding in a masculine disposition that can go without saying because it is assumed without saying in the public sphere of knowledge production. Hence, "research" on Wikipedia's gender gap is not a valid argument for an article or section existing because WP:NPOV, it is not our (men's) POV and violates our sense of WP:RECENTISM and WP:UNDUE, and WP:CONSENSUS Wikipedia is about consensus and not truth, so please respect WP:BRD. Despite (or perhaps because of) assertions that WP: are politically neutral and exist outside of the sociohistorical interactions, they end up absorbing, translating, and re-circulating epistemic forms of masculine domination on Wikipedia.
While "filling the gender gap" is a problematic approach to rectifying Wikipedia's misogynist infopolitics, as I discuss in the conclusion to this article, it does reveal the ways in which gender elicits widespread fights that no other category of difference – race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, or class – does. For example, within six hours of TMZ's release of the Donald Sterling tapes, in which the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers demanded that his girlfriend "not bring black people to my games," Wikipedians had included information and transcripts from the story – all before network news had a chance to report on the incident. Throughout the transcript of Wikipedia edits during this controversy, there were no debates as to whether the information belonged in the article. As one Wikipedian pre-emptively wrote,
||There is nothing biased, nor is there a violation of WP:NPOV by using the term "controversy" in the section title ... [Another editor] makes a compelling argument for inclusion of the term and his argument is backed by reliable sourcing as well – which is a policy and not an essay.
The rapidity with which Wikipedians wrote Sterling's racism into Wikipedia offers a stark contrast to the response to additions regarding gender violence. Take for example, the Ray Rice domestic violence controversy. Although reliable sources existed regarding Rice's behavior, sections referencing it were repeatedly deleted and a debate ensued on the talk page and history regarding what constituted assault and/or domestic violence. Further debate ensued about the reliability of the surveillance video released of Rice punching his partner: "The video is not clear and it is not discernible whether he is trying to push her away or hitting her," – reasoning that prompted administrators to semi-protect the page from editing in "false accusations." Not once was the authenticity or reliability of the Sterling audio tapes questioned, despite the ease with which audio can be more easily manipulated than video. The articles and talk pages of contentious figures like Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson bear a striking resemblance to this strange lawyerism.
Similarly, the history of the Elliot Rodger article (merged with the 2014 Isla Vista killings) reveals debates over whether he should be included in the category "violence against men" instead of "misogyny," whether the word "misogyny" should be used since he killed more men than women, and if there should even be a section entitled "misogyny" given the "bias" of the term. One editor wrote "it ["misogyny" appearing as a motive] smelled like someone waiting until everyone else has lost interest, and then trying to sneak in a POV change." Prior to that, the section referencing misogyny was anonymously deleted, sources typically accepted as reliable questioned, and an argument about whether misogyny constituted a motive occurred – an argument that was based on Wikipedia's definitions of neutrality, and not on reliable criminology sources detailing what a motive "is." In the interests of so-called "neutrality" and "objectivity," Wikipedians sought to deny Rodger's own assertions of misogynistic intent because they revealed the ways in which something else – male privilege – is at stake on Wikipedia. As with Wikipedia itself, it is by concealing the legible forms of misogyny that male privilege can thrive undeterred and – at least ideologically – undetected.
Campus sexual violence
My work adding information about campus sexual violence was met with similar forms of interaction, where the only substantial replies – substantial in the sense that they are humored by other Wikipedians, or met with more policy citations – are those that contain further policy citations. Otherwise, a Wikipedian adding information opposed by policies is met with "Please follow Wikipedia policies." Alongside these arguments were constant references to scientistic discourses of "objectivity" and "verifiability," often without understandings of these terms outside WP:. Thus, while a scientistic discourse underlies the logical system of Wikipedian policies, it is an actuarial and lawyeristic episteme structured by a history of encyclopedic male privilege that confers expertise on Wikipedians as gatekeepers of legitimate knowledge. In the context of Wikipedia's gender gap, the use of policies to "rule with reason," is in essence a façade for maintaining a misogynist infopolitics fundamentally opposed to information threatening to male privilege both on and beyond Wikipedia – regardless of how well-sourced. In this sense, as I describe in the next section, the whole of WP: used to exclude and censor "gendered" and thus "biased" information is reducible to one: WP:THREATENING2MEN.
||Editing from a neutral point of view (NPOV) means representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without bias, all of the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic… The policy is non-negotiable and all editors and articles must follow it. - WP:NPOV
I now focus on the repetitive claims to neutrality made through the panoply of WP:THREATENING2MEN. Central to these, and indeed a policy that appears to be core in Wikipedians' resistance to "gendered" information in general, is WP:NPOV. The first time I encountered WP:NPOV while writing about campus sexual violence on Wikipedia was in relation to edits in the leads of articles. The lead, or the first paragraph of a Wikipedia article, "should define the topic, establish context ... and summarize the most important points, including any prominent controversies." In response to adding information about campus sexual violence at the University of Chicago, one user wrote on my talk page:
||Per WP:MOS/LEAD, we should not violate Wikipedia:Neutral point of view by giving undue attention to less important controversies in the lead section. In the scope of the University of Chicago's 125-year history, a current sexual assault investigation (not an accusation or a charge, but merely an investigation), which is also being carried out on several other universities, is not so fundamental that it should be discussed in the very first paragraph of the lead.
Following a lengthy debate about the appropriateness of this information for leads, I began adding "controversies" sections as per consensus at WikiProject Universities. These were modeled after the long-standing information at the article for Occidental College, which has been a leader in campus sexual violence activism. Where information about campus sexual violence wasn't necessarily available in the "defining" part of the article, it was prominently displayed in the table of contents for each article. Based on consensus, I also created a category entitled "Schools under investigation for Title IX violations." Within two weeks, a group of Wikipedians nominated the category for deletion. WP:NPOV was central in the discussion that was meant to lead to a consensus – which is actually processed as a majoritarian vote, rather than a form of compromise. This type of consensus becomes a way of shutting out dissenting or different perspectives, rather than creating a "comprehensive" encyclopedia.
From these examples, it appears that WP:NPOV is an amorphous category, in which Wikipedians experience an affront to a poorly defined notion of objectivity. This amorphousness of neutrality and objectivity is not restricted to edits regarding campus sexual violence. As information about current Title IX investigations and previous Title IX/Clery violations at colleges and universities was deleted, Wikipedians protested a violation of a metaphysical neutrality that was not defined by benchmarks, but rather "feelings" that "political" information was not information at all. Because campus sexual violence disproportionately affects women, who are located within institutions traditionally gendered male, and because the experience of campuses as sexually violent social spheres exists outside of the predominantly masculine standpoint epistemology of Wikipedians, to these men, adding information about campus sexual violence "felt like" a front for "inserting politics" into otherwise neutral (not social) spheres of information. To "rule with reason" by feeling – and not by "objective" (i.e., external) benchmarks – seems to be an internal contradiction lost on these Wikipedians.
Perhaps the most demonstrative case of feeling defining neutrality was in regard to the category that I created to organize schools that were under investigation by the Department of Education. Categories function as an indexing tool, showing relationships among discrete articles. In a debate about the "value" of the category, one editor wrote that:
||Speaking as a practicing lawyer, I find this category offensive. If we keep it, I suggest we rename it "Universities that have been accused of Title IX violations, but have yet to be proven culpable of anything." Quite simply, this statement flies in the face of WP:NPOV, the presumption of innocence, and common sense. And from a Wikipedia category guidelines perspective, the category is not a defining characteristic. As usual, the most controversial XfDs always involved editors with an agenda.
The Wikipedian's assumption here is that the creation of the category was not driven by the verifiable, factual nature of the listing of schools under investigation for Title IX violations as a historical precedent, but a deeper feminist conspiracy against some undefined neutrality on Wikipedia and against universities more generally. Throughout the comment, this Wikipedian makes both metapragmatic gestures to forms of expertise – "Speaking as a practicing lawyer, ... It flies in the face of WP:NPOV, the presumption of innocence, and common sense." The Wikipedian further appeals to a situated form of universal knowledge called common sense, which requires no supportive citations. How, for instance, could this Wikipedian speak from a neutral point of view, if, "speaking as a practicing lawyer, I find this category offensive"? And how does one's editing agenda – taken neutrally as things people like to edit, pedantically as an accusation of being "political" – preclude the facticity of information?
The situatedness of knowledge being pointed out here is then turned on its head by another commenter advocating for deletion. "Temporary cat[egory] at best, non-defining [i.e. does not carry an essence of the topic] at worst, subjective because "by whom" is wholly omitted. Category:Foos being investigated for XXX by YYY." In this terse and telegraphic phrase, this user demands that the encyclopedic subject be clearly grounded in its "gendered" social position to prove it is subjective, not objective like the knowledge of the Wikipedian himself.
But, just as my male privilege as a Wikipedian ends at the point in which I endanger male privilege (and become mistaken as a "female" editor), so too does the power of the lawyeristic "relation of ruling" end when it confronts misogyny. Responding to the first "lawyer," another Wikipedian wrote that the editor "is not the only attorney on wikipedia ... Title IX is not a criminal statute, it's a civil rights statute." The initial lawyer's response was to state that other lawyers had advocated for deletion as well, making this Wikipedian's legal appeal moot in the face of consensus. To be a lawyer, then, is to be authoritative in arguing against threats to male privilege and misogyny, yet irrelevant if not biased when threatening male privilege. Such is the nature of what Dorothy Smith has called "relations of ruling", wherein positions that legitimate "the set of categories, the development of methods of filling categories, and of articulation descriptive categories ... to constitute 'what actually happened'" are granted authority only insofar as they "arise in and as part of an operation of the state and professional extensions of state interest." One need only replace "state" with Wikipedia to make sense of the status of the lawyeristic standpoint.
NPOV, recentism, and undue policies
Where WP:NPOV and accusations of "biased" standpoints often appear as an umbrella responses to "bias" – responses based on Wikipedians' metaphysical position that render particular social relationships as objects – they lack a temporal dimension. Thus, these responses are vulnerable to historical arguments and information, such as the long history of campus sexual violence in the United States. Wikipedians therefore attempt to use an "objectified" longue durée to justify the exclusion of campus sexual violence from Wikipedia pages. They do so through two arguments, WP:UNDUE and WP:RECENTISM. To add an important detail from the contemporary moment, that colleges and universities have been "put on notice" fails to take into account the long history of universities (see above quote regarding University of Chicago), and is clearly being asserted because of a minority viewpoint that believes it is important. "This was removed due to WP:RECENTISM and WP:UNDUE. If something comes from the investigation, then perhaps it makes sense to include it," a Wikipedian wrote in an edit summary for The Catholic University of America. Another Wikipedian argued at WikiProject Universities that "This controversy is not major in the scope of these universities' history." In short, the meaning of WP:RECENTISM and WP:UNDUE is supported by a history that Wikipedians write themselves, yet presume to exist as an object outside of their own creation. One Wikipedian sums this up in his explanation of why campus sexual violence did not belong on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill article, writing that:
||As it is, this [campus sexual assault controversy] is a largely unnoteworthy [sic] case as it relates to the university as a whole, which is what this article is about. I'm sure over the 200+ years the university has been open, there have been literally hundreds of controversies far more notable than this one, so I can't see a reason why this [one] case would get its own section in the article.'
Indeed, this future-oriented argument has a name and associated Wikipedia policy: WP:10YEARS. "In ten years will this addition still appear relevant?" the policy reads. As one Wikipedian wrote, nominating the article on the Title IX investigation announcement made by the Office of Civil Rights in 2014 for deletion:
||I do not believe that a list of schools under investigation has "enduring historical significance." True, this is the first time the schools under investigation have been publicly named, but what about all the schools that have been investigated in the past? What about those that will be in the future?
Transformed into a thing without creator, an object of history with no history itself, the exclusion of campus sexual violence from college and university Wikipedia articles itself becomes the reason for its exclusion from Wikipedia articles – regardless of the objective facts about campus sexual violence, or its long history. In instances when such a history is provided, it is deleted for "WP:UNDUE," because it is not recorded for other universities. When articles are provided to create such a history, as was the case in one instance, it was renamed by another Wikipedian, and then a third argued that based on the name it was not an appropriate article. When a Wikipedian claimed that the removal of information about campus sexual violence was disruptive, pointing to the existing article on "Higher Education Institutions Announced in Title IX and Clery Investigation," the Wikipedian erasing the content nominated the article on the investigations for deletion in order to justify future deletions of information about campus sexual violence from university and college pages.
The surface assertion here, of course, is that American colleges and universities do not have a long history of sexual violence because it is not present on Wikipedia pages. One Wikipedian suggests as much on the talk page for the Universities project, arguing that adding information about campus sexual violence creates an imbalance in information. "First, an investigation is just an investigation… I'm sure there have been many investigations over the years, but these would be highlighted just because they're currently in progress." With few exceptions (e.g., Occidental College), none of the Wikipedia pages for colleges and universities included on the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights list of investigations have information regarding campus sexual violence – despite some universities being found in non-compliance on multiple instances. That this information is missing reflects not simply an oversight but a missed sight: the lack of a point of view in which sexual violence is important to the histories of American colleges and universities. This is the very point of view occluded by WP:THREATENING2MEN.
Citing a veritable panoply of WP: is the primary tactic for "wearing down" political opposition to the status quo, and WP:THREATENING2MEN is forged in a battle that goes relatively unseen as men and women alike abandon the collaborative work of writing Wikipedia out of sheer exhaustion. Through wikilawyering, as it is referred to on Wikipedia, facts external to the social sphere in which WP:THREATENING2MEN is crafted are clearly in violation of WP:THREATENING2MEN. For many potential Wikipedians invested in adding "controversial" content about gender – again, for Wikipedians, meaning women – the uneven amount of time spent debating whether or not the New York Times or Department of Education are reliable sources via an obscure, self-referential and seemingly infinite set of policies is hardly worth the work of contributing – in part because there is no real contribution made by these debates, in which consensus is reached through one-sided decisions to erase "biased" information. That consensus process is a crucial piece of the hegemony of the asshole consensus.
The hegemony of the asshole consensus
Hegemony, as Antonio Gramsci describes it in the Prison Notebooks, is a concept that involves a wearing down of the opposition to the point of political resignation.
Where the endless citation of policies constitute the erosive dimension of hegemony, the consensus process promotes and facilitates resignation to the hegemony of the asshole consensus on the part of many users - both those intentially oppositional and those who "go with the flow." Asshole, here, is a theoretical concept and not (simply) a pejorative: assholes, Aaron James argues in his book Assholes: A Theory, are driven by a sense of self-entitlement that is justified by pragmatic reasoning in the face of moral or epistemic debates. In order for the hermeneutic circle that constitutes WP:THREATENING2MEN to remain tightly sealed, and thus the self-entitlement of Wikipedians fully realized, there is a strong need for social forms of enforcement, or what Antonio Gramsci has called relations of force: symbolically violent forms of interaction that seek to demonstrate the necessary and sufficient conditions for public participation in Wikipedia.
The social benefits and/or costs of Wikipedia's reliance on consensus for producing authoritative qua factually accurate information has been widely debated in terms of reliability. What is often missing from this debate, however, are the terms on which and through which consensus is produced. Where the exhausting circularity of WP:THREATENING2MEN chases off a majority of potential Wikipedia editors, my experience of writing campus sexual violence into Wikipedia revealed the extent to which those that remain are anything but free to contribute in ways they see fit – and are often subjected to implicit threats or explicit acts of harassment. Rather than concentrate on the disjunction between ideal consensus and its failed practice, this section examines Wikipedians' practice of consensus making, particularly as it revolves around forms of coercion via anticipation, paranoia, and experiences of harassment that were intended to fortify the masculine subject position that forms the conventional zero-degree of knowledge production on Wikipedia. Yet, the binary between harasser/harassed does not reflect the complex reality of Wikipedia's environment. What makes Wikipedia unique, or what makes Wikipedians a unique type of asshole, to re-summon Aaron James, is their combined ability to force everyone around them to resign to being an asshole too as a strange survival strategy.
In the consensus process, Wikipedians do not vote or jury, but rather engage in a "rational" and "civil" conversation about the value of information based on adherence to Wikipedia's policies. The success or failure of consensus has different results depending on the level of conversation. For deletion, for instance, positive consensus results in the deletion of the content under debate. In the instance of the category of "2014 Announcement of Schools Under Investigation for Mishandling Campus Sexual Violence," consensus was defined through a majoritarian process where people "voted" for removal because of violations of WP:THREATENING2MEN, with one person – me, the creator – "voting" to keep the category. Like other previous contradictions, the fact that consensus was reached by voting was lost on these Wikipedians.
This, then, constitutes the asshole consensus: consensus about the exclusion of information produced out of a collective, metapragmatic investment in WP:THREATENING2MEN, rather than meeting Wikipedia's goal of being the most comprehensive encyclopedia on Earth. Yet the asshole consensus is not totalitarian, nor necessarily a conspiracy, but, rather, a complex hegemonic structure that is produced out of erosion and resignation. On multiple occasions, I received messages of support via email and Wikipedia's messaging service. As one messenger wrote, "This work is really important to me, and I wish I could help. But if I do these guys will flip all of my revisions. I'm sorry." Another discussed how important this information could be. "We should definitely document all of this history and add it. But I can't. I get enough shit for writing about women mathematicians. I won't even weigh in on the debate because of how toxic it is." As Joseph McGlynn and Brian Richardson write about the experiences of whistleblowers at colleges and universities, individuals use forms of moral support in private, exacerbating – if not participating in – the public alienation of dissenting voices.
In some cases, the coercive nature of consent was such that individuals who had previously sent me messages of support then publicly supported the deletion of information. This was most typically the case when individuals expected to weigh in (either because of their status as editors working on college and university pages, or because of the particular place or article being written) at first resisted doing so because of their support for the inclusion of this information. When they did register opposition, they focused on the failure or challenge to Wikipedia policies, and not the content per se, for removing content or voicing support for removal. Their deference, to return to James, disregards the importance of information. Framed both by a moral argument for equal representations of experiences at universities and a moral argument for writing "comprehensive histories" of colleges and universities, these editors defer to pragmatic guidelines that are made to appear external to, and not implicated in, the social relations of force deployed in debates about including information about campus sexual violence.
In short, the hegemony of the asshole consensus has the power to transform everyone into an asshole. But the blame does not lie with every user. I discuss the conflicted motives of some Wikipedians in order to remind us that Wikipedians' motivations are complex webs of practice that are not reducible to a misogynist intention in all cases. Still, we should not discount the impacts of these complex behaviors – however ideological, however resignatory – in producing and maintaining a hostile environment on Wikipedia.
What is to be done?
The rhetoric of the gender gap fails to do the very real and actual cultural work necessary for transforming Wikipedia into an equitable space. Indeed, it may actually do more harm than good: colleges and universities, for example, have approached diversity initiatives, increasing a phenotypical diversity (ontological solution) to counter forms of discrimination (epistemological/cultural issue) that institutions of higher education were in part responsible for producing. The result for American colleges and universities is the very campus sexual violence epidemic I attempted to write into Wikipedia. And, while the consequences for dumping women into the violent space of Wikipedia may not be as dire, there is an ethical dimension to subjecting people historically marginalized by symbolic violence to that very same symbolic violence in order to further the enterprise of "making Wikipedia better." This is a very real challenge that has too often gone un-addressed in feminist organizations' collaborations with WMF.
Fixing Wikipedia, to bring these threads together, will fix the gender gap; throwing women into the gender gap will not fix Wikipedia. Making Wikipedia better requires not simply the addition of women, but the creation of a space of multiple points of view. Doing so will first require a major cultural shift amongst Wikipedians. Given the centrality of WP:THREATENING2MEN – that entirely self-referential system of pragmatic justifications that transforms everyone into an asshole – the best start may be to stop arguing about Wikipedia's policies for inclusivity, or at minimum, reduce the number of policies to a set of concretely defined criteria. In light of the fact that individuals abuse the WP:<POLICY> system as a means of policing and censorship, while ignoring the policies that encourage collaboration, if Wikipedia were to require that debates occur on the terrain of facts, rather than in the adversarial terrains of "law" and "lawyerism," that would go far in confronting the misogyny facilitated by WP:THREATENING2MEN and the hegemony of the asshole consensus.
Transforming policies would also serve as an epistemological rupture, through which Wikipedians would be forced to leave behind the various pretensions and habitus generated through its current toxic culture to reformulate what Wikipedia represents — a space where facts are grounded in multiple points of view rather than censored when they deviate from a single monolithic one. In order to establish healthier habits and traditions, the Wikimedia Foundation would have to actively cultivate a climate of respect. Culture, Raymond Williams would be quick to point out, is derived from cultivation.
To conclude, the broader significance of this article lies in making legible the recursive relationship, the "cultural" collusion, between misogynist technologies of seemingly neutral policies and the silence those policies are used to enforce in sites of knowledge production where men understand/perceive male privilege to be under attack. In this way, the online community of Wikipedia is homologous to many colleges' and universities' bureaucratic responses to campus sexual violence. Arguments for stricter sanctions on and control over rape-supportive subcultures, particularly athletics and Greek life, are met with responses regarding "limitation of resources" and "best interests of students." Faculty members who step out of line are frequently described as "difficult people" who are unable to "understand how the rules work" – an argument often made by discrediting empirical evidence or personal experience through lawyeristic, actuarial arguments about scientific validity, as is done on Wikipedia. These are events that sound all too familiar to those of us who edit articles and create content about gender, race, colonialism, sexuality, poverty, and oppression on Wikipedia. Wikipedia exists as a microcosm – perhaps an amplification – of a cultural moment when campus sexual assault is coming to the fore of societal consciousness in domains traditionally controlled by men. What is needed is an end to WP:THREATENING2MEN and the hegemony of the asshole consensus in all of its institutional manifestations.
- Bryce Peake is an Assistant Professor of Media & Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; his research focuses on media praxis, ethnography, and the history(s) of science and technology.
- The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author alone; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments. Editors wishing to submit their own op-ed should use our opinion desk.
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