# How “civil” should we be?

Our FAQ states:

Civility is required at all times; rudeness will not be tolerated.

Recently I've come across a user flag complaining about a potentially "rude" post. The post in question included a picture from a well-known web-comic which happened to use the "F" word.

To be on the safe side, I've removed the picture (since it only serves to comically illustrate a point, and its removal doesn't detract from the mathematical content of the post) and replaced it by a link to the comic in question. Pending the result of this discussion, the picture can be put back (if the community agrees that such content is not inappropriate), or the link itself can be removed (if the community feels that even the link is inappropriate).

A few points for consideration:

• As much as we like to pretend it, we are not all adults here. SE TOS requires the minimum age of participation to be 13 years old.
• On the other hand, "foul" language is so pervasive in our current culture that one may argue it is pointless to police its use especially when it is not a targeted insult.
• If "posting an image containing the 'F' word" is not crossing the line, what is?
• Is this supposed to be a general discussion or a discussion about the specific-question you've mentioned in your post? – Martin Sleziak Feb 18 '13 at 9:40
• As a side comment: saving an image from a webcomic and uploading it to IMGUR may or may not be legal. For a more liberal-with-copyrights site like XKCD, it is probably preferred that you embed/deeplink the image, instead of uploading a version (to do the latter you need to include proper attribution!) – Willie Wong Feb 18 '13 at 9:40
• @Martin: I intended it to be a general discussion framed by the specific instance. Hence I didn't specifically link to the post in question. But if you have different general/specific responses, feel free to post them both. – Willie Wong Feb 18 '13 at 9:42
• From MetaSO: Are expletives allowed on SE sites? – AakashM Feb 18 '13 at 10:27
• I think the FAQ should contain a complete list of all the words we are not allowed to use. – Michael Greinecker Feb 18 '13 at 12:56
• Any unnecessary unpleasantness can drive away new users. So I guess it depends on how far we want to go to keep any potential newcomers. – GEdgar Feb 18 '13 at 14:50
• @GEdgar While I agree with general sentiment, I would not point to xkcd-type use of expletives as a source of unpleasantness that is apt to drive away users. Meta.MSE has seen its share of unpleasant remarks and deliberately constructed insults in entirely academic language. – user53153 Feb 18 '13 at 15:49
• no one should say the f word it is agaist god. – Fernando Martinez Feb 19 '13 at 22:59
• Possible legal issues aside, I would replace the picture: it was quite apt, and I don’t consider that kind of use of ‘bad’ words uncivil. – Brian M. Scott Feb 20 '13 at 3:06
• If they divide by zero, then let the dogs of hell be unleased upon them, otherwise, be nice. – yiyi Apr 8 '13 at 1:18
• According to this MSO post and its answers, we cannot assume that all users are 13 or over. – robjohn Apr 8 '13 at 3:20
• There is enormous irony in the fact that expletives are almost never seen on MSE, at least I have NEVER seen them, but this question, which is intended to try and solve this "issue" has generated heaps of F-words and related talk unnecessarily. Quite hilarious. – John Marty May 9 '13 at 7:32

Civility is about much more than avoiding certain "bad" words. It is about respecting other users, and the mere presence of crude language doesn't necessarily mean any uncivility. Other sites like English Language & Usage allow such words if they are necessary for the question.

This is a matter of professionalism, and unnecessary swearing is not exactly professional. A webcomic might make for an amusing and often disproportionally popular answer, but they are often not much more than cheap jokes and don't make for very good answers. If the swear words are not necessary for the post, I see no problem in removing them. If they are necessary (e.g. in questions about the programming language Brainfuck on Stack Overflow), mangling the words to F*** or similar doesn't seem useful to me. Either keep them intact if necessary, or remove them if they are not.

• "The mere presence of crude language doesn't necessarily mean any uncivility." That's my usual operating assumption. But considering that a user did flag the post, I want to take measure of whether the community's opinion is more along what your described, or is in fact more prudish. – Willie Wong Feb 18 '13 at 9:46
• Also, for individual words editing them or "bleeping" them may be helpful. But for words embedding in an image the necessary edit requires relatively more work. – Willie Wong Feb 18 '13 at 9:48
• What is the point of "bleeping" out the words? Will any user have any doubt what's hiding behind the asterisks? It's not like censoring images, where the black rectangles do actually destroy information. – user7530 Feb 18 '13 at 17:38
• @user7530: You can always bleep entire ********, so ***** content ** ********** erased... ** *** *** **** ** *******! :-) – Asaf Karagila Feb 18 '13 at 21:28
• @Willie: Bleeping seems to me not just pointless and childish, but actually counter-productive: I think that it draws attention to the word. – Brian M. Scott Feb 20 '13 at 3:12
• @Brian: the comment I assume you are responding to is me arguing a hypothetical, that is "assuming that 'bleeping' is helpful, I still don't want to bleep images because it is a lot of work." – Willie Wong Feb 20 '13 at 8:50
• @Willie: I was responding specifically to ‘“bleeping” them may be helpful’. The burden on the moderators is a separate (and perfectly legitimate) issue. – Brian M. Scott Feb 20 '13 at 8:53

Though I do not do so often in writing, when speaking, I curse often and with great enthusiasm. (I also rarely type ain't, y'all, fixing, or reckon, because doing so feels weird.) I encourage anyone who doesn't think that cursing can be as precise and versatile a form of expression as the rest of the English language to read more modern fiction. I see nothing wrong with cursing in and of itself as long as it is not being used to insult somebody (which shouldn't be condoned in any form 'round these parts). They're just words.

I do not agree that the age policy should have any bearing on cursing policies. $13$-year-olds curse constantly, and those who don't are still around other $13$-year-olds to hear it. If $13$ year olds are allowed on XBOX live they can deal with a running into a curse word here. (Ignoring, for the moment, how astronomically unlikely that such a thing could happen considering how many $13$-year olds ever come to MSE and how often people curse here.)

I know this is supposed to be a professional environment, and that is precisely why we need to allow every form of expression possible. If cursing helps someone better express their idea, they need to be able to use it. Otherwise we are letting our sensibilities (or more accurately, our concern for the sensibilities of some fragile, hypothetical audience) stand in the way of communication and expression. That's unprofessional. "Now you're just fucking with me" is a perfect expression of what it's like to see $e^{\pi\sqrt{-1}}=-1$ for the first time, and the site would be worse off to censor it.

Most importantly, I very much do not agree that curse words should be "bleeped" with asterisks. Everyone knows what is under those asterisks and it is no less offensive. (I'm reminded of Louis C.K.'s "the 'N' word" bit.) If we're going to allow cursing, we have to allow it; if we are going to not allow it, we have to completely not allow it.

• It seems amusing in the entire context of your answer that you would end it by writing the 'N' word. Of course, that may just reflect the title of the bit. :-) (Also, typo: versatile.) – cardinal Feb 24 '13 at 17:37
• @cardinal Haha, well, he's talking about how he's offended by the phrase "the 'N' word" itself... here's the bit if you're curious (NSFW, potentially offensive language, obviously). – Alexander Gruber Feb 24 '13 at 17:58
• Swearing in the presence of strangers can be considered rude and disrespectful in certain circles. You have to use your judgement. It lowers the tone and can reflect badly on the other things that you might say. – user60133 Mar 1 '13 at 1:35

I usually avoid swearing myself (beyond saying "This problem is damn difficult" when I get really frustrated with my general stupidity) because it is a very rare occasion when adding a swear word would clarify the message I'm trying to communicate. However, there are cases when a swear word fits and I see nothing wrong with using it in such cases. As to the children, a 3 year old granddaughter of my colleague once came from her daycare (where she was exposed to English for the first time: they spoke to her in Russian only at home) and was happily singing "Thank you! Fuck you! Thank you! Fuck you!..." apparently trying to figure out which combination sounds better. So, if somebody complains about inappropriate language in a linked xkcd comic, I suggest he or she rereads a few scenes from "Tartuffe". On the other hand, if somebody posts something like "You'd better answer my question instead of giving your useless hints" and spices it with a few swear words (I will leave it to our NYC friends to do the proper insertions), I would support the user ban.

• I think that even without the insertions, such a response merits a warning. – Asaf Karagila Feb 18 '13 at 22:59
• The easiest place to find incivility here is in early comments on questions, and it has nothing to do with so-called bad language. – Brian M. Scott Feb 20 '13 at 3:33

I think this is a very good question, and one that - in slightly different form - I had thought about recently. I had come across a couple of events that I referred on for moderation, while thinking that I would not like to be the moderator having to make a final decision; so I completely understand WW. Here are some thoughts.

(1) The event in question: In my opinion, complaining about the presence of a common swear word in a comic  illustrating a point is unnecessarily prudish, in particular considering that this isn't only a site for  US participants living in a ludicrously PC world (I remember an excellent onion article on "NippleGate a year later"). Of course it depends on the comic, which I have not seen (I hope it wasn't xkcd which certainly is always appropriate by any reasonable standard). This is very different from such language chosen by a user submitting a post, which is never necessary, and probably almost always a reason for me to consider flagging a post for further review. I live in NYC, and drop the F-bomb once every other sentence. But a user wanting to participate in a public discussion on mathematics should only do so if (s)he is mature enough to realize there is a difference between oral conversation, and talking to others online: without the context of gestures, mimics, and such, words on digital paper take on a different dimension. This isn't YouTube, and it shouldn't be.

(2) Age of user: This is a public forum with fairly professional standards. Age shouldn't prevent anyone from posting here, but if you post here, live up to some common standards reasonably expected by a community. At 13, I was wildly immature, but wouldn't have posted in a public discussion my argument peppered with swear words. I read the 13 cut-off as meaning "being old enough to have a mathematically interesting question, and mature enough to ask this question as you would in class to your teacher." In fact, why should a younger math prodigy able to do both not participate - rather than a college kid who vomits a question out in an aggressive, demanding fashion? I assume this has legal reasons to allow for certain standards here, but even PG-13 is a US concept of fairly little meaning in Europe or Asia.

(3) What does civility mean: For me cusswords are much less of a problem than more difficult to pinpoint lack of civility. They are easy to pinpoint and remedy as needed. I have noticed a fair amount of lack of civility in more subtle ways. By way of summarized examples: (a) a user posting an answer that was sarcastically mocking another user who had posted an earnest, civil question (how do you prove it was sarcastic?); (b) users posting with zero punctuation, all lower case, skipping vowels (as, for some, this is a cool way of online communication - I confirmed that with those much younger than me if it isn't obvious enough) writing in incomplete sentences, or those that don't even match their point (this is a big pet peeve of mine: English is my 3rd language and I was terrible at it in middle and high school, and these posts are typically by native speakers (I would never complain about an obviously non-native poster who tries) showing what feels to me as an extreme lack of courtesy and a pitiful sense of having to project a 'cool' online image which strikes me as dismissive. You can take the position that these posters can't do any better, are all non-native speakers, and where is my evidence; but, please: it is obvious); (c) questionable user names - I remember one describing sexual excitement, and one used, per urban dictionary, as a derogative word for "hairy foreigners resembling simians" (but where do you draw the line? MSE shouldn't be a police state either and allow for creative expression). It may be just me, but what I summarize in (3) rubs me the (very) wrong way, because it is more subtle but just as annoying, and completely unnecessary. On the other hand, except for extreme cases, I would not want to be the moderator having to make a call.

• Just a short note about the 13 year old cut off: it is part of StackExchange's general legalese driven in place by United States law and not anything about mathematics per se. – Willie Wong Feb 18 '13 at 16:27
• @WillieWong: thanks for clarifying. As there is PG13, I had assumed it might be a legal issue, which if course I understand is important for any site having professional standards. – gnometorule Feb 18 '13 at 16:31
• It was xkcd.${}{}$ – Michael Greinecker Feb 18 '13 at 17:01
• While complaining about English you forgot to capitalize one of your "I"s, ironically or coincidentally? :-) – Asaf Karagila Feb 18 '13 at 18:27
• Just as a matter of interest, $13$-year-olds don’t just ask questions; we have one who has asked nine and answered $76$, with six acceptances. – Brian M. Scott Feb 20 '13 at 3:36

I believe it should come from two sides. Indeed, this is an all age website, so content inappropriate for minors should of course not be allowed. However, since this is a mathematics website I doubt this is even possible, given perhaps some possible graphs of falus symbols, but I doubt that serves and mathematical purpose.

Also, some people might feel offended by some comments due to the subject whereas others might not. I would strongly oppose deleting such things. Me, for instance would take offense in having a reasonable comment of mine deleted because somebody out there might not like it.

So, I suggest to just trust your own reason on this. Making the comic a link sounds like an excellent compromise given your (Willie) explanation.

All this assumes it is not just an insult or any personal attack, but possible offensive things for some people.

I would like to believe that the moderators are chosen because they are competent and up to the task. Deleting things because the moderator himself does not like it would be crossing a line. In such cases it might be better if another (less attached) moderator checks it.

A lot of words and all I have said: You are the one in charge. Use your power wisely.

• To be on the safe side, you might want to bleep the "Wll*" in your answer. – Rudy the Reindeer Mar 5 '13 at 20:37

Even if I don't answer the whole question, I just want to add that being a thirteen year old, I don't mind a single comic mentioning the f word. Using the word has become very common these days. Remember the guideline:

The prior is true, so I do not personally mind any kind of comic as far as it really answers the question. It is just that answers with nudity or sexual content, even if they answer, should be dealt with. In addition, notice that the censor board does allow the word to be there in the movies, and keeps the movie still rated 12+. Mr. Wong, your step to link the comic was OK — the best that I could think of.

But please avoid using expletives as far as you can. If a post uses expletives, add a kind comment addressing the OP to remove or hide it. That is a very good step from your side.

• You may be 13, but from what I've seen you say on meta, you should run for moderator. – gnometorule Feb 25 '13 at 14:26
• @gnometorule You have flattered me! P.S.: GNOME > anything else > Unity! – Parth Kohli Feb 25 '13 at 14:47

I think the core of the issue is that meanness should not be tolerated. Since this is a scholarly forum, the appearance of cuss words should be rare. However, when I see nastiness in a posting, I am strongly inclined to flag it. I expect this forum to be collegial and to be free from boorishness, bullying and nastiness.

I will keep this short, as I know that Willie and I do not really see this issue the same. I am getting increasingly frustrated with people cheating on university exams, ongoing contests, what have you. My latest answer is an example of this: Proving Logarithm by substitution Now that I have figured it out, I can say that the composers of the question had no ordinary homework in mind, plus they know things I do not. Anyway, as usual I put in a comment along the lines of "Where did you get this question?" At a minimum, I would prefer to write "Where the fuck did you get this question?" which is still a little nicer than "Where did you get this question, asshole?" which is perhaps a bit personal. Well, that's me.

• How do you know the question came from an exam? – user7530 Feb 18 '13 at 21:49
• I don't see what your point is. So you are saying that it is OK to use the F-word when one gets frustrated? – Thomas Feb 18 '13 at 22:46

I was reading the question in question when the edit was made, and came straight here to request that it be restored.

I don't actually disagree with any of your points, but the comic motivated the question really well. IMHO, it made the question better.

Can we paste over the 'F' word with asterisks and stuff?

• "Can we paste over the 'F' word..." That's an interesting proposal. But I would prefer that burden to be on the question poster, and not on the moderator. – Willie Wong Feb 18 '13 at 9:36
• That's perfectly appropriate. – luser droog Feb 18 '13 at 9:41
• Could someone please link to the question? It's hard to comment meaningfully here without proper context. – user7530 Feb 18 '13 at 21:05
• @user7530 Done. Sorry about that. – luser droog Feb 18 '13 at 22:00
• I’d rather replace it with a link than deface it, though my first preference by far is to leave it alone. – Brian M. Scott Feb 20 '13 at 3:15
• I can respect that point of view, though I'd rather have a picture (albeit defaced) than no picture. From the license, we needed the link in any case. – luser droog Feb 20 '13 at 4:35

Just for reference, I was one of those who flagged it.

There are three issues involved here- 1) An expletive does not have the merit of objectivity and it gives no additional information about the problem.

2) Stackexchange is frequented by several younger users, including an 10-year old cousin of mine. I see no place for profanities here if we are to hold on to a small number of younger users.

3)We subjectively set standards of decency for our societies. East Asian societies tend to frown on the use of curses.

A 16 year old person like me is the least likely to raise an eyebrow but I do.

• I fail to see your point. 1) Swearing can express constructive points, such as amazement as was the case there. 2) If your cousin surfs the Internet, this is perhaps one of the subtler and most civil uses of expletives he will see, which one could argue is even pedagogically important. 3) Many societies demand that you address people with more respect if they're older than you. Should we then start an answer with words of reverence and awe if the asker's profile shows his age is greater than ours? 4) Nowhere did you say that it personally offends you. Why not let those who are offended flag? – Alfonso Fernandez Feb 27 '13 at 17:56
• I didn't saw I was offended but I was offended.Secondly, my cousin browses only certain websites which do not really contain such words as above. – user60469 Feb 28 '13 at 4:34
• I meant to use "say". – user60469 Feb 28 '13 at 8:36
• Fair enough. A bit prudish for a 16 year old, but you seem to be engaged in fairly interesting for your age and I wouldn't want to discourage such person in any way. Keep your cousin away from Austria, though :-) – Alfonso Fernandez Feb 28 '13 at 8:55
• It seems the downvotes tell an interesting story.I should stop posting here on meta. – user60469 Feb 28 '13 at 12:24
• The downvotes simply express disagreement with the opinion expressed in the answer. – Tobias Kildetoft Feb 28 '13 at 13:53