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I was under the impression that I know what "unilateral" means, but earlier today I received some criticism for misunderstanding the meaning of the word. Not only that, when clarified, I became even more confused.

Some relevant quotes.

uni·lat·er·al adjective \ˌyü-ni-ˈla-tə-rəl, -ˈla-trəl\
: involving only one group or country

a : done or undertaken by one person or party
b : of, relating to, or affecting one side of a subject : one-sided
c : constituting or relating to a contract or engagement by which an express obligation to do or forbear is imposed on only one party

(Merriam-Webster)

I was specifically referred to the second definition which appears here:

unilateral [yoo-nuh-lat-er-uh l] adjective

  1. relating to, occurring on, or involving one side only: unilateral development; a unilateral approach.
  2. undertaken or done by or on behalf of one side, party, or faction only; not mutual: a unilateral decision; unilateral disarmament.
  3. having only one side or surface; without a reverse side or inside, as a Möbius strip.
  4. Law.
    • pertaining to a contract that can be formed only when the party to whom an offer is made renders the performance for which the offeror bargains.
    • pertaining to a contract in which obligation rests on only one party, as a binding promise to make a gift.

(Dictionary.com)

What seems to be odd is that every closure/deletion which is not part of a closure/deletion cycle is by definition unilateral. There was one faction that decided to delete, there were no opposing votes. Unilateral action.

So the natural thing, I guessed, was to conclude that a "unilateral moderator action" is an action taken by a moderator without pre-existing community support (namely, the moderator was the first to vote without previous open/close cycles etc.) which makes this an action not only one-sided, but also separates the "sides" of the moderators and the users from one another.

If any action taken by a moderator is "unilateral", however, then we should stop using this word. It carries negative meanings and puts the moderators in an uncomfortable place just for exercising their powers. If any vote by a moderator is unilateral, why not say "a binding vote" or "a moderator vote" instead? If unilateral only means the action of a moderator when done single-handedly without any discussion or pre-existing support, then please try to adhere to this usage.

Some uses of the word "unilateral" on meta:

  1. Unilateral closure by moderator
  2. The unilateral removal of comments by Jeff Atwood
  3. Should we allow moderators to unilaterally close questions?
  4. Deletion votes retroactively become unilateral when a user becomes a moderator
  5. Requests for Reopen & Undeletion Votes, etc. (including the discussion in the comments that incited this very post)
  6. Questions from Dr. Terry Allen

And probably many other uses can be found through additional search.

Question.

Can we make an agreed decision on what does a "unilateral" vote mean?

Surely on a mathematical site we can all agree to a terminology which doesn't coincide with English, but it seemed that I wasn't the only one confused by this usage of the word "unilateral" which is being thrown more and more these days on the meta site. However, I would prefer that the term will be less confusing (since meta is not composed of mathematical arguments, it's less likely that the reader is aware to specialized meanings of a word).


Side remark: this is not the first time lingual requests have been made. Retire localized meta.MSE acronyms including PSQ and its variants requested that we minimize the use of PSQ and other localize acronyms, so the discussion will allow more people to read them without too much effort. This thread is along the same lines.

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    $\begingroup$ Purged the entire comment thread in response to flags. Unilaterally, I'm afraid. Many of the exchanges were devolving towards nastiness even though superficially written in a polite manner. Many a constructive comment became collateral damage, because I could not decide on an impartial cutting point. I probably missed quite a bit of the subtext, but it seems to me that sources of the misunderstandings were adequately identified. A more experienced moderator might have had more subtle tools at his disposal. I reached for the 16lb fine-tuning sledgehammer. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Dec 29 '14 at 8:49
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You ask,

If any vote by a moderator is unilateral, why not say "a binding vote" or "a moderator vote" instead?

The examples you cite are:

  • "Unilateral closure"
  • "The unilateral removal of comments"
  • "to unilaterally close questions"
  • "Deletion votes retroactively become unilateral"

Only one of these refers to the vote as being unilateral as you do. That's the last one, and I think it's clear that it what it means is "deletion votes retroactively make the question impossible for the community to undelete".

So, these uses of "unilateral" do not refer to the ability of a person to vote without consulting others. They refer to the fact that certain people in certain contexts (including but not limited to moderators) have the power to effect change by doing something that Stack Exchange calls a "vote", but which of course isn't really a vote in the usual English sense of forming a multilateral consensus via ballot. In fact that so-called vote is a unilateral action to close (or remove a comment in one example).

That is to say, you are confused by the usage because you're focusing only on whether the vote is unilateral or not. The significant matter is whether the closure of the question is unilateral or not. The fact that that someone else agrees with an action, but has no practical effect on the procedure used to take the action, generally doesn't make it a multilateral action.

When five people collectively close a question by each individually voting to close it, that closure is a multilateral action by those five people (at least, as you point out in comments, to the extent that they act individually rather than as a faction block-voting). This is the contrast that people are trying to draw when they describe a given moderator action as "unilateral".

Personally I think you're correct that if two people have voted in agreement with the moderator already, then the negative connotations of unilateral action don't wholly apply. However, if a moderator does something that procedurally would close the question regardless of whether those votes were already there or not, then that remains a unilateral closure. This distinguishes a moderator's closure from the fifth vote of five.

Naturally, if you'd like folks to be more polite in drawing this distinction, by avoiding accusing moderators of whatever negative connotations are associated with unilateral action, then that'd be a request you could make. But you'd have to do so un-confused by what it is they actually mean.

Unilateral does not, as far as I know, literally mean that the other side was ignored, merely that the other side had no part in the action. Of course one assumes that people generally won't take account of opposite opinions if they don't have to, hence the strong implication that a "unilateral action" was taken over the objections of others, but that's an insinuation of the word, not a necessary condition for using it.

As for whether non-native speakers of English will typically be confused in the same way that you are (and therefore the choice of word was difficult or obscure), I can't say. I doubt that native speakers will always agree to the meaning either. But the difference it's used to highlight seems very real and quite simple to me, and as a native English speaker it does not seem to me at all that describing it this way is a jargon use of the word "unilateral". It is an action that can be taken by a single person, as distinct from an action that requires five people to be in agreement. Hence, unilateral. If readers think that it's bad for moderators to be able to take unilateral action, then maybe they should think a bit harder about what moderators are actually for, but I don't think they've been deceived just by the word "unilateral"!

Can we make an agreed decision on what does a "unilateral" vote mean?

In my opinion, the overwhelming probability is that we can't. It's a reasonably common English word, and don't see how it could be possible for the site to reach consensus that every time someone uses it on the Mathematics meta that they should (a) be referred to some question on which its special meaning "was definitively settled", and then (b) restate their point to avoid using this special taboo word. A meta post can neither legislate nor enforce the use of ordinary English, even though it's unfortunate that the usage confused you.

If you want to come up with a jargon term describing unilateral actions taken through Stack Exchange, that might be possible. We'd be giving a name to a phenomenon and hoping it's taken up, which is way more achievable than shutting down the natural variety of usage of an English word.

If that jargon term included the word "unilateral", and was widely taken up, then I'm pretty sure there's a linguistic phenomenon whereby the word "unilateral" would cease to be used quite so much in other situations where it might be ambiguous with the jargon word. Thus for example, computer programmers tend not to use the word "class" in its mathematical meaning, when talking about programming, since it has such a strong jargon meaning. But you can't stamp it out entirely this way.

Addendum: it strikes me that a lot of the dispute is about what the word "unilateral" can mean, that is to say where the limits are of its reasonable meaning, or how it should be defined. I've seen rather less dispute or confusion what people were actually talking about in the instances where they are the person who initially introduced it to a given thread, as opposed to while already arguing about its proper use. As such, and please do take account of this when up/downvoting this answer for agreement/disagreement: the whole argument is silly. Which is not to say it can't have a sensible resolution, eventually, or that the dispute itself cannot have serious consequences...

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    $\begingroup$ Steve, I appreciate the answer (which I have yet to read in full, and I will now), but I should point out that at no point I was talking about the ability to do something, but rather exercising that ability. Not only that, I do not refer to "unilateral" as "binding". I refer to it as a single-action, as opposed to a community mandated action by votes of several members. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 28 '14 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ Also, since all actions on the site are "single sided" in the sense that there are not "canceling votes", any closure, reopening, deleting or undeleting will all be single sided. At least in the context that "unilateral" may apply to a faction (e.g. the PSQ-deleting faction actions are "unilateral" by that broad definition). Which is the source of the confusion. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 28 '14 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila: it's true that Stack Exchange doesn't record "please don't close this" votes, but I don't think five people who each come along in turn and cast a close vote can therefore be considered to be a single faction acting unilaterally. If there was a cabal of the same five people, in communication with each other to let each other know about question they don't like and jointly close them, sure, you'd describe that as a faction acting unilaterally. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Dec 28 '14 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ One need only to look on the front page of the meta to see that this is an actual thing. And there are factions which delete, undelete, close and reopen all sort of questions. There's no need to communicate externally, as some Illuminati shadow council. You just vote to close, and it gets added to the list of standing close votes; you vote to undelete and it gets to the list of standing undeletion votes. That's all the communication needed in this case. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 28 '14 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila: Yes, there are cases where factions do close questions, and to the extent that those five people can be considered a faction with a shared agenda, executing that agenda, then that faction can be said to be acting unilaterally. In my view, you stretch the definitions of both "unilateral" and "faction" beyond the normal, to describe all closures that way. Basically you're saying that in every vote, an insta-faction forms consisting of everyone who agrees on that issue. That's not normal usage and it's not what the people meant whose choice of words you disputed in that thread. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Dec 28 '14 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ ... but if you're concerned that the negative connotations of unilateral action apply just as much to five random people who decide to go around closing a particular kind of question, as they do to moderator closures, then I totally agree. The close/reopen system in Stack Exchange does not find a stable consensus, except that by default the faction of "people who've forgotten about the question or don't care so much, and don't go back to check what happened to it" consents to whatever state the question was most recently changed to. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Dec 28 '14 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ Steve, I'm not saying that this is a correct use, or a reasonable way of using "unilateral". I'm saying that it seems to me that this is how it was used recently by two native speakers. And as the comments to my question indicate, I wasn't the only one confused by this usage. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 28 '14 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila: Well it doesn't matter to me whether the speakers are native to English or not. If they're saying that every close on Stack Exchange is a unilateral action by a faction consisting of the five people who voted to close, then I think they're misusing the term (or perhaps they're taking a rhetorical point further than I see it really fitting). But of course there's a fine line between "common usage" and "common misusage" of a word! $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Dec 28 '14 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ By the way, regarding your addendum. I agree that the argument is silly. But (1) I was scolded twice for my failure to grasp the intricacies of the English language by a certain user. This seemed like a reasonable enough excuse to find out what exactly is meant by the word "unilateral" in the context of this meta; (2) There is a constant lack of willingness for discussion, and it seems to me that abusing the vagueness of natural language is one of the cause (I'm not innocent of this either), and in this case it seemed that the word "unilateral" was showing too much recently, and [...] $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 28 '14 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ [...] I felt that it was time to disambiguate it, since it seems that I had one meaning in my mind, and it turned out to be different in the minds of others. Since we cannot "mind-meld" yet (nor we are Vulcans, so it's unlikely we'll be able to in the near future), it's perhaps good to bring out to the open the fact that there is a lot of users on the site - and meta - which are not native English speakers and may understand certain words in different ways than intended, for better or for worse. And I chose this word "to lead the discussion" since I was interested in it particularly. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 28 '14 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ @dustin: For the love of god, the first thing I did was to post you a definition from a dictionary when this all things started, stop saying that I should check a dictionary. I have done that before I even opened my mouth. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 29 '14 at 5:19
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    $\begingroup$ @dustin: The part I quoted is the dictionary definition that Google gave me when I wrote the word unilateral into the search bar. For me, that is a good a dictionary as any. Okay, maybe not as good as OED but I didn't have a paywall set up for accessing OED. The fact that I prefaced the quote with "I believe" was not so sign that I made up a definition. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 29 '14 at 5:34
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    $\begingroup$ @dustin: I fail to see the difference between the one quoted from Google and the first one in Merriam-Webster. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 29 '14 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ @dustin: And I would still have quoted the first definition, and you would still reply in a condescending manner and have sent me to a dictionary. Huzzah, what a different universe that would have been! $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 29 '14 at 5:44
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila if you go to my post, in the comments, I informed people to read definition two. I don't just look at the first definition. I read them all and refer to the one that best articulates the situation. If you want to read the top definition, you will never learn anything. English is a complex language where one word can have many different meanings or even a few similar meanings with minor twists. Would you ever state a math definition that has a implies b implies c implies a by just saying definition a only? That would be a horrible way teach if so. $\endgroup$ – dustin Dec 29 '14 at 15:43
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Can we make an agreed decision on what does a "unilateral" vote mean?

I think the comments made it clear that we can't. Therefore, I propose to recognize that the meaning of "unilateral" on this meta is subjective, as the highly upvoted comment by user7530 said:

I'm pretty sure it just means "something a moderator did that made me unhappy"

Any person using this word should be asked to clarify what they mean by it, whenever the word is used.

This will not be a hardship, because there are few users who actually use this word with any regularity. I looked it up on Data Explorer.

  • In comments: Bill Dubuque $16$, Asaf Karagila $8$, Willie Wong $8$, Hurkyl $5$, the rest $<5$.
  • In posts: Willie Wong $6$, Qiaochu Yuan $5$, Carl Mummert $3$, the rest $<3$.

And this query looks up the actual comments containing the word, for any particular user (enter their userId).

Or just look up all of them: SEDE shows $121$ comments, of them $96$ predating the recent intense exchange between a few users.

My impression is that new users, who grok SE platform better than old-timersn, don't really need this adjective. The matter is simple: moderators have moderator powers, which work in certain ways. If one's sentence about moderators needs an adjective for better flow, one can use "preternatural" or "enchanted" or pick something from the list of Elven words.

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    $\begingroup$ The comment data include comments from the past two days, I suppose. So it is a bit misleading, since the word has been spouted a lot over the course of a few discussions here. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 29 '14 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ Also, could you add the number of times the word has been used to the statistics? $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 29 '14 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I updated the queries so that they consider only the posts and comments predating the present discussion. Unfortunately, I don't know of a way to count multiple occurrences of the word; the numbers represent the counts of posts/comments in which the word appears. $\endgroup$ – user147263 Dec 29 '14 at 6:22
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting list, the first one. Can I get a list of these comments of mine? I suspect they are all quite recent. In any case, the number I suggested to add was the overall number of comments or answers including the word. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 29 '14 at 6:25
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    $\begingroup$ There you go $\endgroup$ – user147263 Dec 29 '14 at 6:29
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I count five recent ones from the discussion that made me start this thread. So I wasn't using it as aggressively as it seems. :-) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 29 '14 at 6:32
  • $\begingroup$ I like the sound of a moderator's Ndengina vote. $\endgroup$ – user98602 Dec 29 '14 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the interesting data, it is also interesting to read some of these old exchanges. trying hard to resist the urge to post some relevant quotes $\endgroup$ – quid Dec 29 '14 at 15:44

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