# Censorship of swear words on mathSE

(This issue has been discussed before, specifically here. A different kind of censorship has been discussed here.)

There are two reasons I am bringing this up again. Firstly, the previous discussion on this issue did not seem conclusive. In particular, the top answer from Mad Scientist states that this is "a matter of professionalism" and that "if the swear words are not necessary for the post, I see no problem in removing them." Conversely, the second-to-top answer (which I agree with much more) states that "I know this is supposed to be a professional environment, and that is precisely why we need to allow every form of expression possible."

Secondly, a moderator has recently edited this post to remove a swear word. Perhaps this was a response to a flag. Instead of rolling back and starting a potential edit war, I am bringing it up here to solicit the broader community opinion.

With regards to this specific post, I am of the strong opinion that the swear word should not have been replaced, because the way it was used was effective and clear. The replacement--"horrible open access journals"--simply doesn't get the point across. I think this censorship should be reversed.

More generally, I disagree with removing swear words merely because they aren't necessary, and think they should only be removed if they take away from a post. I believe it is unprofessional and pointless to censor any form of effective communication. I feel we should tolerate swearing to the extent that it is used well, and I see no need to favor the small percentage of us who are offended by it.

What do others think?

• I have no opinion at the moment, but let me ask you these two questions: (1) would you say "shitty" in class to your students? (2) would you have published "shitty" in a journal/book? (Also, (3) would you prefer "excremental" instead of "horrible"?) – Asaf Karagila May 1 '14 at 7:22
• My preference woould be "execrable". I get enough swear words at home, I don't need them at work, too. – Gerry Myerson May 1 '14 at 7:23
• This specific example is not really up to the level where I would have changed the post. But there are better ways to formulate the same idea, one common term for those journals is "predatory open-access". – user9733 May 1 '14 at 7:46
• "I see no need to favor the small percentage of us who are offended by it" is just a small step from tyranny of the masses -- and that's you making the assumption that indeed only a small percentage of us are offended by curse words. // To get back on topic: moderators typically don't go out of their way looking to censor people. But we do take complaints of offensive posts (raised via the flag system) pretty seriously. – Willie Wong May 1 '14 at 7:55
• @Willie: Tyranny of the masses explains why particles without mass move at the speed of light -- they don't want to be caught by the particles that have a mass, who knows what would happen to them then! – Asaf Karagila May 1 '14 at 8:08
• @WillieWong OK, hence why I'm bringing it up on meta. But just "I'm offended by X" is not good enough reason to censor it. What if I decide I am offended by all uses of the pronouns he/she? Is it then tyranny of the masses if the community does not censor all gendered pronouns? – 6005 May 1 '14 at 8:16
• Obviously the handling of flags involve making a judgment call; there's a reason that we are community elected moderators and not just a bunch of robots. And no, I refuse to engage with your strawman. – Willie Wong May 1 '14 at 8:25
• @Goos I just want to figure out where you draw the line here with offensive words. When to censor and when to not censor. For example, are racial slurs in your swing set of things that should not be censored here? If you have a line where you would actually arbitrarily censor, is it based on your notion of popular disdain, or something else? I am not trying to pick on you here, I just want to know if you have a conscious censorship line word wise. Should any words be arbitrarily censored in your opinion? – J. W. Perry May 1 '14 at 8:28
• @J.W.Perry Of course certain words should be censored. The morality behind it is hopelessly subjective, so I think we should rely primarily on community consensus. For me personally the line is between words that are explicitly offensive against a certain group of people and words that are just vulgar. I.e., "shitty" isn't a slur against anyone or anything in particular. – 6005 May 1 '14 at 8:31
• I still think "shitty" does a much better job of describing said journals than "predatory", but ultimately it's not a huge matter. "Horrible" really stood out as being poor word choice in comparison to the original. – 6005 May 1 '14 at 8:39
• @Goos: You are right that "shitty" itself is not a slur against anyone or anything in particular. However, it is used as a slur against the particular journal (in this case for the applied math journal), which might well consist of an actual editorial board with actual people in it. Of course, I have to agree that this applied math journal isn't (obviously) credible. To sum it up, I think there is a difference between calling a journal "shitty" and calling my broken vacuum cleaner "shitty". – Prism May 1 '14 at 9:01
• (Not an answer to whether "shitty" is a problem or not.) Actually, both "shitty" and "horrible" leave me dissatisfied, when I read them, because neither is very informative. On the contrary, "predatory" tells me-the-reader exactly why the author thinks that these journals are "shitty"/"horrible". It provides me with a technically sound description of the phenomenon and it leaves me free of my feelings. Additionally, "predatory" refers to a growing body of knowledge about this type of publications. – Did May 1 '14 at 13:42
• @Did "Shitty" conveys a sense of extremely poor quality that "predatory" fails to express, and that few other words could express. But other than that I agree with you; "shitty" is much more expressive, but the other words are probably more informative. – 6005 May 1 '14 at 16:07
• @Goos: No, "shitty" conveys a sense that the author is driven to vulgarity, and wishes to pass the offense onto the reader. While offensive language allegedly has value in having shock value, even in your example it isn't really used in an effective way. – user14972 May 1 '14 at 18:52
• Before we start equating swearing in speech with swearing in writing, it might be a good time to recall that the two modes are objectively different. Speech, being transitory in nature and only affecting the listeners, has different rules. (Omitting the obvious discussion about recorded speech because it isn't relevant here. ) I've had swearing teachers before too, but I know for a fact they wouldn't write them for others to read. I guess the internet is blurring the two modes a bit, but really it seems like a better policy to treat text as text. – rschwieb May 2 '14 at 2:46

Answering just to provide some of my thoughts (as the ♦-mod in question):

1. The answer was flagged. I don't go out of my way (and I don't think anyone goes out of their way) to find the odd swear word on the site. They're easy enough to find, however, for anyone who wants to.

2. I did feel that the original word choice was unnecessary and was used as a slur against a particular group. Furthermore, I felt that the underlying idea could be expressed in a manner much less likely the elicit future flags. At the same time...

3. ... in hindsight I do agree that "horrible" was a... err... horrible choice. There are much better adjectives out there to express one's low opinion (e.g., wretched, contemptible, atrocious, abhorrent). At least some of which likely have an even more negative connotation that the original word.

4. As everyone likely knows, users are in general free to edit/suggest edits to posts. Were someone to edit the answer again it is fairly unlikely that I would ever know about it (until it is flagged, and even then only if I'm around to handle it). Heck, I haven't even checked that the answer hasn't already been altered, and am unlikely to revisit it any time soon. (Of course, the existence of this thread makes it much more likely that for a period of time users will be paying greater attention to that particular answer.)

• This is fair. It seems people generally disagree with me here, which is fine, and which is why I brought it up. To be honest I am somewhat baffled Alexander Gruber got so many upvotes on the other thread if people disagree with me so much in this one. Maybe people just don't like me. – 6005 May 1 '14 at 16:27
• @Goos: I believe the short answer is that meta, unlike $\mathsf{ZFC}$, is inconsistent. – user642796 May 1 '14 at 16:30
• @Goos Maybe it's just that people disagree with this particular word choice, rather than the general issue. Personally, I'd have gone with "shoddy," because the journals seem slapped together without any standards and crumble when faced with any decent criticism. – Alexander Gruber May 1 '14 at 17:05

In my little narrow minded world I can't comprehend why someone would suggest that we should allow swear words (or "bad" words in general). But then I am reminded that the world actually is bigger than the one I live in. I realize that my view of right and wrong doesn't necessarily overlap with other peoples views. I often find myself thinking that the Stack Exchange system is American and as such should follow American standards on everything. But, again, thinking about it I realize that this is a site for everyone in the world.

Because of this I believe that we need to be as respectful of each others cultures. We have to acknowledge that some people find swearing offensive. So why not be respectful?

My opinion is that swearing is never needed. If you have to resort to that type of language it must be because (in my opinion) because you can't find any other way of saying it. So I would suggest that when you feel the urge to call a journal "shitty" maybe stop and think if you could find a more clever way to articulate that.

I appreciate that the word was removed because it was flagged. When a comment is flagged it is because someone found it offensive. Again, in your culture that might not make much sense, but maybe we can agree that while we don't understand we constantly strive to make as many people welcome as possible.

About the discussion in the other meta-thread you write that you agree much more with other answer. You don't say that you agree completely with the other answer, but it does state that:

...we need to allow every form of expression possible.

I am wondering what the author means by possible. Hopefully he doesn't mean that every form of expression that is physically possibly should be allowed. We would hopefully not allow expressing the same views as NAMBLA on this site (even if we do believe that we can make a mathematical point more forceful by doing so). So not every form of expression should be allowed. The author of the answer makes the argument that we should allow a greater form of expression because it helps people express their ideas (about mathematics) and that limiting ways of expression (communication) is unprofessional. I would disagree with this. Professionalism isn't about allowing all forms of expression. When I teach in the classroom I have to behave professionally. That means that I have to limit myself. I might feel like expressing that a student is unintelligent or a lazyass because they failed a test, but I refrain from doing that because I want to behave professionally.

The key question is: What should be allowed?

We could start by reading https://math.stackexchange.com/help/behavior about what behavior is allowed by the Stack Exchange. It clearly says:

Please note that expletives are not allowed. If you use expletives on this site, you may be issued a warning or a suspension.

Granted, using expletives is not the same as swearing, but it still sets a tone. It points out that the Stack Exchange network isn't built on the idea that "anything goes". We, for example, close questions that are off-topic. If you are familiar with CB radios, it is a commonly known problem in the US that the channels are filled with all kinds of profanity. Here you have a system where you can say what ever you want under relative anonymity, but it also has its consequences.

Unless we resort to arguing from a specific religious point of view, I don't know that we can appeal to any object morals that can guide us in answering the above key question. So what do we do? Maybe we simply let the community decide. If a comment is flagged and it is "commonly known" that the comment could cause someone to be offended, and if removing the comment (or the "bad" word) doesn't radically change the content, why not remove it?

Last: I am not saying that you are saying this, but I can sometimes "feel" that discussions can turn into a question about rights. What are my rights as a user on this site? I have a right to express myself. You should limit my right to be who I am. Maybe it is better to humbly focus on how we can treat each other with respect. And that might mean that you have to give up some of your "rights" to express yourself.

• This also is fair. I personally disagree that "shitty" or other swear words are less "clever" than the alternative. They seem to me to express a certain personality more than anything. The example of "Now you're just fucking with me" in the other post is something I would really enjoy reading on mathSE, but of course if others are legitimately very offended by that (in the same way that I would be offended by, say, racism) then I'm willing to give up my "rights". – 6005 May 1 '14 at 16:40
• I am from Scotland, a place where swearing is just a form of punctuation. I don't think that banning swearing is disrespectful to my profanity-rich culture. – user1729 May 2 '14 at 8:41
• @user1729: I am glad that it is not disrespectful to your culture. – Thomas May 2 '14 at 11:44
• @user1729 That must make for some very interesting keyboard keys in Scotland :) I wonder if any of these punctuations are ever arranged like an ellipsis... – rschwieb May 7 '14 at 13:28