I find the reaction to this question quite unreasonable. The responses were overwhelmingly negative and focused on trying to prove that OP is wrong in assessing whether a given situation was possibly sexist or not. The reaction was similar to what happened to an older, very similar question. That one was much better received, and the meta post about it also indicated questioning the premises in the question was not the right way to go.

(Quite ironically ff524 was the first to question the premises in a comment, while she was the "victim" of a similar treatment 2 years ago.)

In the case of the first question, edits to the question to remove possible ambiguity were even less favorably received. I don't really understand why. I think one should stick with answering the question, possibly pointing out a potential false positive, and not just questioning the premises.

To that extent, how should we deal with these types of questions/situations in the future?

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    I've been trying to think of a more delicate way to put this for awhile and failing, so here it is: Almost every time this community has a question on sexism, I end up thinking ever so slightly less of it than I did before. – Fomite Nov 29 '16 at 10:32
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    @Fomite: For whatever it’s worth, most of the problematic comments and answers come from users attracted to the question via the hot network questions and not directly from our own community. – Wrzlprmft Nov 29 '16 at 10:48
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    Too bad I cannot downvote, so instead I'll explain: The original question before edits was almost off topic in my opinion. Besides, it really made no sense to answer it without challenging it. OP assumed sexist behavior because her capability was compared to other teachers' which happened to be male. As the question was written, it seems that she was the only one to notice that pattern, meaning she was probably looking for it. If the premise is not to be questioned, it shouldn't even be mentioned. This is where the edits ended anyway. – Tomáš Zato - Reinstate Monica Nov 29 '16 at 15:17
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    Quite ironically ff524 was the first to question the premises in a comment, while she was the "victim" of a similar treatment 2 years ago. I think you misrepresent that situation. A few years ago I posted a question in which I did not include a subjective example, and declined to specify one when asked. I believed then, as I do now, in not putting something in the question to begin with if the OP really doesn't want people to comment on it or address it in their answers. – ff524 Nov 29 '16 at 16:20
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    When dealing with sexism/racism you either need a long history of events to show behavior injections or a very specific event that conveys the issue. To pin "sexist" to someone on a very vague event belittles the idea of sexism and is a reason people don't take more defined examples, seriously. I would hope that the women reading my answer were not offended, because sexism exists and it is a big deal. But to make it a big deal you have to be able to differentiate between what is right and wrong. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 16:45
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    And uh, sure, honestly, let's belittle the hell out of the idea of sexism. Specifically the idea that sexist events are prefaced with "not to be sexist, but..." or that an A/B test is run where the person suspected of sexism exhibits different behavior to different genders. Or that the only sexist events worth discussing are provable, or that any allegation of sexism should be well-evidenced and withstand trial by jury. Or that burden of proof is on the victim of a sexist remark or action. Can we please provide quality answers to sexism-related questions that do not meet this idea of sexism? – user18072 Nov 29 '16 at 16:59
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    @djechlin - how you can get a microagression out of the OP's original question is EXACTLY why we have sexism/racism. If you are going to go so far as accept the worst possible intent than how do you think the person on the other side of the fence will react? And that is how the circle is started. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 17:13
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    @blankip dude, it's really not why we have sexism or racism. As to your second sentence, see my actual answer on the question. What I recommend is far from retaliation. I explicitly encourage the OP to not escalate the anger between her and the student in my answer so there should be no circle. – user18072 Nov 29 '16 at 17:15
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    @djechlin I'm not personally sold on the idea of "microaggressions" and from what I can tell this is not an accepted concept in general either. – March Ho Nov 29 '16 at 19:24
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    @MarchHo thanks for following up with it, but I would just point out that a concept isn't accepted until it has criticism. It's worth noting the criticism is largely focused on problematizing the concept and disputing recommended course of actions -- not denying the existence of behaviors that might be considered microaggressions in the first place. So great! Can academia.SE reach this level of awareness? Can we discuss a microaggression and criticize it as such instead of cast all sexist situations straight to the most classic kind possible? – user18072 Nov 29 '16 at 19:47
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    @TomášZato she was probably looking for it Sorry, but you don't know that. You couldn't possibly give a valid judgment about the inappropriateness of the student's behavior either, nor could any other stranger on that website. That's why the only useful answers are the ones that assume OP knows the difference between a random rant and something suspiciously aimed towards women. – Cape Code Nov 29 '16 at 20:24
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    As I said before, if the premise of the question sounds ridiculous but must not be questioned, it's best to rephrase the question to remove that premise. Also, if OP can judge prejudice from e-mail she received from a student, I can judge prejudice from a post she posted on stack exchange. Especially given what I could read in the edit history of the post. – Tomáš Zato - Reinstate Monica Nov 29 '16 at 20:38
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    @CapeCode - She said herself that there was no evidence that it was aimed at her because she was a woman, she even offered alternative reasons. Sexism is a big deal. When we have djechlin and similar posters talking about microagressions and other things that are just clearly opinion it denigrates sexism. That is why some in the population don't take acts of "sexism" seriously, because they don't know if it is a real act or just a baseless opinion. There are some people that have commented that I would never trust them with calling out sexism, which is sad. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 21:21
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    -1: The answers in these threads are very reasonable and of good academic common sense. – Dilaton Nov 29 '16 at 22:45
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    @blankip My comment again, without the ambiguity: You write above "how you can get a microagression out of the OP's original question is EXACTLY why we have sexism/racism". A few false positives in identifying sexism is certainly not "the reason why we have sexism". I'm sure you know that millennia of government and clergy-backed organized oppression is a much more plausible culprit. That sentence makes me question your ability to tell what's sexist and what's not. – Cape Code Dec 1 '16 at 21:07

14 Answers 14


Should we ignore the premise?

Let us consider the following, exaggerated, cases:

In the first, a question is posted, reading

If someone's life is in imminent danger due to a threat of a third person, am I justified in using lethal force agains that third person?

and in the second case, the text posted is

Today, I overheard someone saying they wish my friend didn't come back to teach next semester. The person saying this looked as if full of anger. I feel like this person is going to assassinate my colleague any moment, and I think I need to take drastic steps to prevent my colleague from harm.

In a general setting, if someone's life is in imminent danger due to a threat of a third person, am I justified in using lethal force agains that third person?

The first question is already an extremely complicated one, and even though it is commonly discussed in law classes in a general setting, no one answer could provide a complete and unambiguous solution. This is why courts of law are needed.

Now, in the second case, one might argue that the question is exactly the same, since the first paragraph is entirely irrelevant to the question for being introduced with the words "in a general setting". Clearly, though, the person asking the question did not think the story in the first paragraph was irrelevant, even if claimed otherwise, since if it really were, there would have been no point in including the background story. Providing background to complicated problems, especially problems involving people, is a useful thing to do, because it allowes answers that are better suited for the situation which is actually at hand. It also allows people to point out that the question asked may not be "the right one to ask", given the background. The question has not been asked "in a vacuum", but in the context of a real-life situation.

Also, since people are involved, one has to acknowledge that the answers given may have very real consequences to one or more parties. Pretending to not know about the real situation at hand is naive at best, in my view.

So, if you, the reader, are convinced that the background should be ignored, since what is asked for is a general answer, would you think it right to ignore the fact that the situation at hand in no way warrants use of lethal force, and answer in the second case with "Yes, if someone's life is in imminent danger due to a threat of a third person, one is justified in using lethal force"? Provided one knew this was the case in the applicable jurisdiction, of course.

What should we do about that particular question and its answers?

If we ignore for the moment the question whether answering just the generic question is doing the asker any service, one may argue that there is now a disconnect between the edited question and the answers. I would agree, but propose that the solution is not to delete/edit the answers, but rather to roll back the edits to the question. If someone is indeed interested in an answer to the generic question so much, another question can be posted, without destroying the valid answers that have been given so far.

After all, if I edited this meta question to be about the best sushi in town, you wouldn't delete the answers given here and demand discussion of sushi, would you?

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    I just do not understand why this was downvoted. It exactly describes what happened. – Tomáš Zato - Reinstate Monica Nov 29 '16 at 20:49
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    @TomášZato I didn't downvote but comparing initiating a possibly unnecessary discussion about gender bias with the unwarranted use of lethal force seem completely off to me. – Cape Code Nov 30 '16 at 11:06
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    @CapeCode: Thanks for the feedback. While I get that my scenario is wildly exaggerated (hence the first sentence in my post), the point that I was trying to make was that, depending on the answers to the original question, there might well have been very serious consequences for both the OP and the accused student, regardless of whether the accusation is found to be backed up by evidence or not at all. Ignoring the premise would, I argue, increase the chances of undesirable outcome. Either way, I think blankip's analogy of circuit breakers is better than mine anyway. – RQM Nov 30 '16 at 11:22
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    Also, I did not intend to equate the discussion about gender bias with use of lethal force. The discussion about gender bias is completely fine. My comparison was intended to provoke thought about whether it is always acceptable or desirable to ignore the premise, and where the reader might draw the line in his own judgement. – RQM Nov 30 '16 at 11:26
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    Instead of leaving out background altogether, the OP could ask a followup question that says "this happened (links to current question)". "If it turns out that future interactions with this student reveal solid evidence of sexism, what should I do?". So it's a way to acknowledge that there's insufficient evidence and little cause for worry about sexism at the moment, while still asking what they're wondering. – Peter Cordes Nov 30 '16 at 13:19
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    it reminds me of an xy problem. based on a flawed/incomplete understanding of the problem, the question asker asks the wrong question and tries to solve the wrong problem. when given adequate information, the answerers can see that the wrong problem is being addressed, and hopefully can address the real problem. similarly, sometimes the "wrong problem" was still nevertheless interesting, and warrants an extra question by itself. but usually the point of the first question is to solve the OP's specific problem. – Dave Cousineau Dec 1 '16 at 9:07
  • @PeterCordes - You could post such a question yourself.... – aparente001 Dec 9 '16 at 2:39
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    @RQM - "Depending on the answers to the original question, there might well have been very serious consequences for both the OP and the accused student" - How so? No real names were posted; if OP brings the concern to the attention of the Title IX Coordinator, the coordinator would evaluate the concern, decide whether to investigate, etc. No one would be assumed to have done anything wrong. – aparente001 Dec 9 '16 at 2:41
  • @RQM, what analogy about circuit breakers? I don't see that in blankip's answer to this meta question or the linked question. Sounds interesting, though. – Wildcard Dec 11 '16 at 20:34

For future similar questions, in my opinion we should put the question on hold immediately (with reason "unclear what you are asking"), so that it can be edited and improved by the OP without receiving inappropriate answers. Sometimes putting it on hold only means putting it on hold, not closing it, and this is one of those cases.

(As noted by @djechlin, it is a good idea to state explicitly in the comments that it is only a temporary closure while we wait for an edit, not to discourage the OP.)

The alternative is doing some major edits on the question ourselves without waiting for OP: this is appropriate in some cases, but it is a more dangerous practice to suggest in general, because there is always the risk of turning the question into something completely different than what the OP was trying to ask.

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    +1, as you said we really do mean on hold, fully with the expectation the OP will circle back, so it may be worth emphasizing the nature of this in comment. – user18072 Nov 29 '16 at 15:25
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    I agree. The question was not a good question in the beginning. In a perfect world, people should point that out to the OP and not answer until the question has been improved. The question has now been improved, but there are answers to the original version. I think it would lead to a better result to remove this answers which don't fit the improved question as it is now, but of course this is also not that easy because people who spent time answering probably won't like their answer to be removed. So preventing answers until a question is improved would be the best IMO. – Josef says Reinstate Monica Nov 29 '16 at 15:58
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    What was wrong with the question in the beginning? The OP asked a very specific, broadly-applicable question after providing their personal context, which is what the help center says to do. – Jeff Nov 29 '16 at 21:22
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    @JeffL. What was wrong is that the context given did not really match the broadly-applicable question. This is a case of "unclear what you are asking" in my view. – Federico Poloni Nov 29 '16 at 22:49
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    @JeffL. I agree that the question was unclear like Federico says. If a question describes a situation and then asks a general rule which doesn't really fit, It's actually two different questions wrongly merged and many people will note this and post a answer noting this. Like if I would ask "Yesterday I saw a strange person I don't know standing near my car! What should I do if I see someone breaking into my car? Go out handling it myself or calling the police?" Some people will answer the first sentence, some the second question and many will note they don't match. So bad question! – Josef says Reinstate Monica Nov 30 '16 at 10:18
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    @Josef This use of "unclear" feels like that line from the Princess Bride to me. "You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means." The OP asked "If you witness a student engaging in a sexist behavior, would you call him/her out? How would you do this without making the student feel intimidated?" which almost can't get more clear. We should be perfectly able to answer the question while also addressing issues with the underlying context, which is exactly what a lot of the answers did. – Jeff Nov 30 '16 at 15:01
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    @JeffL. No that is not what OP asked. If this would be the entire question, nothing would be unclear. The exact problem is, that OP had, before asking that, described a situation which doesn't exactly fit this question asked afterwards! Ignore my comment up until this sentence, I 100% agree with you! – Josef says Reinstate Monica Nov 30 '16 at 15:08
  • @Josef I'm not saying there weren't potential issues with the context that were perfectly valid to address in answers. I'm saying this doesn't fit the definition of the word "unclear". You can have issues with the context and still fully acknowledge that what she was asking is perfectly clear. – Jeff Nov 30 '16 at 15:13
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    @JeffL. I wrote "I 100% agree with you!" How should I be more clear? You see, you cannot just take the last sentence and ignore the rest. Even though OP wrote "If you witness a student engaging in a sexist behavior, would you call him/her out?" which asks in general, she also described this situation before. This implicitly also asks about this situation! There is no way to add information to a question but then say "but ignore that". If it should really be ignored, it shouldn't be there in the first place! But because it was there and contradicting the question afterwards, it was unclear – Josef says Reinstate Monica Nov 30 '16 at 15:32
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    in my opinion we should put the question on hold immediately, so that it can be edited and improved by the OP without receiving further inappropriate answers. -- Wait, what? Why? What was it about the original question that deserved closure? How do inappropriate answers have any bearing on the efficacy of a question, unless the question is purely subjective or opinionated? – user8762 Nov 30 '16 at 15:38
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    @JeffL Do you normally grade homework and exam papers? If so, you should be familiar with the fact that adding a sentence can make a student's answer a lot less clear, if that sentence creates doubts that the student did not understand at all what he/she wrote in the rest of the answer. – Federico Poloni Nov 30 '16 at 19:14
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    @FedericoPoloni: That's not a valid close reason. It never was. If you want to find a valid close reason that will stick, like "Too Broad" or "Unclear what you are asking," then close on that basis. But you can't close as "might attract bad answers." – user8762 Nov 30 '16 at 19:41
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    @RobertHarvey The close reason is "unclear what you are asking". It's written right up there in my first comment. Question is unclear => we put it on hold => it doesn't attract bad answers before it's edited. That's a consequence, not a cause. The cause is the question being unclear. – Federico Poloni Nov 30 '16 at 19:54
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    The original question patently wasn't unclear. Judging by the responses, no one had a single issue understanding what she was asking. They just disagreed that the context she gave was an example of her question, and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem arose when people chose to only address the context, often angrily, and not the question. There were valid issues, but clarity wasn't one of them. – Jeff Dec 1 '16 at 1:50
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    @JeffL. We are back at the main issue: you think that unambiguous question + disputable, misleading premise = clear question; I think that it equals unclear question. I think it's very similar to an XY problem. Judging by the votes and the discussion in this thread, I am not alone. But I am afraid there is no way to agree on that; it is personal judgment in the end. And, as long as the "close" button is present on my interface, I will vote for it whenever I think a question is unclear. – Federico Poloni Dec 1 '16 at 8:17

It would be a mistake to reason from this to some sort of general rule about answer scope or challenging premises, because that's not the real issue here.

It is widely accepted at Stack Exchange that we should be free to try to solve the underlying problem rather than answer the question as asked. Sometimes this leads to disagreements or disputes, and occasionally the premise of a question may be challenged inappropriately. But overall, I think this is a very good principle that increases the quality of the Q&A resource. It would be a mistake to abandon or weaken this principle in hopes of addressing a perceived problem in a single question or small group of questions.

Anyway, I don't think the challenges to the premise are really the problem. The simple fact is that this question was about a politically charged issue, and unfortunately that will divide people and bring out the worst in almost any forum. This site is no exception. There is no easy solution to this. In fact, not everyone will even agree about what the problem is, or that there is one.

I think the best options available right now are:

  • Remove content based on being "not nice" where appropriate. In this case, the top answer challenges the premise, but is quite reasonable in tone. There are a lot of other answers that are much more antagonistic, while not really adding anything substantive. I see nothing wrong with deleting some of those answers.
  • Edit questions to make them less controversial, and focus on a clearer answerable question, when possible. This was done here, to be about a hypothetical, unambiguous situation. It didn't really work to reduce the controversy, though, perhaps partly because of the combative way the OP responded to criticism in the edits and comments.

p.s. I find the criticism here of everyone who challenged the question's premise to go a bit far. The original question really did present a situation where reasonable people could disagree whether it was sexism. The OP's rationale for believing the student was sexist was given, so those challenging her were not simply speculating. And it's not clear to me that all of those challenging the OP had bad intentions. Keep in mind that an accusation of sexism could have harmful consequences both for the OP and the student.

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    Your last sentence hit the nail on the head. That was the reason for my answer. It wasn't to berate the OP, it was to make sure the OP didn't get herself into a very bad situation - calling out someone on sexism without enough proof. Where I disagree with you is that rational people would view the behavior described as sexist by the student. It could be, yes. But deciding it was based on the facts would be projecting subconscious bias towards men being sexist, making assumptions. Which is sexism. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 16:36
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    @blankip while you may have had good intentions, your answer makes many gratuitous attacks on the OP. I don't find it helpful. – user24098 Nov 29 '16 at 16:47
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    What attacks are you talking about? – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 16:49
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    @blankip: 1) accusing the OP of sexism 2) saying "You tried the student in the court of your head and he was found guilty" 3) claiming the OP is out of step with the thinking of >95% of people 4) stating she has "low awareness". None of these are necessary for making your core point, they decrease the likelihood that someone who disagrees with you will actually listen to your answer, and you also presume to know what is in the OP's mind beyond the evidence in the question (ironically). – user24098 Nov 29 '16 at 16:55
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    So anyone answering a question that calls out the OP is attacking them? They came to the site with the information. No one forced them to. Did you even read all of the edits? I am sorry but you are conveying low awareness here too. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 17:05
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    I thought the purpose of SE was to answer questions to the best of one's ability, not to call out OPs. And if calling out an OP was warranted, the method is/was to flag the question. If this is not the case, this is starting to feel like highschool all over again. – NZKshatriya Nov 29 '16 at 17:31
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    @NZKshatriya: I guess the main point of discussion is whether "answer[ing] questions to the best of one's ability" is more about sticking to exact wording of the question, or more about answering a question taking into account all of the information available. Similarly, it may be about whether the question was really only the few verbatim words asking about the general case, or whether the question was indeed that question interpreted in the context provided. – RQM Nov 29 '16 at 18:06
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    @RQM I see your point. I posted my answer before OP made heavy edits, but what I understood the question to be was simply "should I call out" a sexist student. In my view the background information was moot, as, at least in my view, it is school administrations task to decide if discipline is needed, if student handbook/honor code violations have occurred. Therefore submitting an answer was quite simple. I did not see a need to address whether or not OP was sexist, or if sexism was in fact at play. Those were not part of the posed question. – NZKshatriya Nov 29 '16 at 18:12
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    +1 for the first sentence. The general rule is: A true answer can and often should question the premise. Most of my SE time is spend on Unix & Linux, where the questions are never politically charged, and almost never even slightly subjective. The premise must be questioned, often. When you start from a false premise the question is usually simply unanswerable; this is true in any discussion. – Wildcard Nov 30 '16 at 9:31
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    More generally: The introduction of an arbitrary into a problem or solution invites the further introduction of arbitraries into problems and solutions. (This is from a philosophic study of Logic, as cited in this blog post under the heading "Logic 15.") – Wildcard Nov 30 '16 at 9:33

@RQM's answer (and my guess as well) in a nutshell: people were questioning the premise because they were worried that if they were to answer the question literally, their answer would be misapplied to a situation that doesn't fit it. I find this a reasonable worry given the original post, and would probably have done the same.

Lots of answers on various StackExchange sites question the premise of the question (e.g., a student posts their homework, but the question makes it clear that the student doesn't understand the underlying definitions). This happens particularly often when the question is ambiguous and muddles up different issues. What we've seen here is a case of muddling up, although the political forcefield surrounding the issue has expectedly poisoned the discussion (though, compared to what we've been hearing just a few weeks ago, this was an exceptionally constructive debate).

  • Thank you for the clear and succinct summary of what I was trying to say in probably more words than necessary. :) – RQM Nov 30 '16 at 9:57
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    +1 That is a useful answer. I still think the second most up-voted answer goes way beyond a reasonable worry of misapplied recommendations. – Cape Code Nov 30 '16 at 11:10
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    @CapeCode: nice to see us agreeing :) I am not sure what I think of blankip's answer: On the nose, it's probably too harsh, but in the context it might not be, as the original poster kept fanning the flames by editing and commenting (I still think the rudest statements in that thread come from the OP, and there is a fair deal of bias in them as well). Who came first, the rudeness in the answer or the rudeness in the comments? I don't know, and I don't have the time to dig. Ultimately, the fact that blankip has relevant personal experience makes his post worth keeping in my opinion. – darij grinberg Nov 30 '16 at 19:26
  • @darijgrinberg - "blankip has relevant personal experience"? Where was this mentioned or described? (Maybe it's something that was subsequently removed?) – aparente001 Dec 9 '16 at 3:06
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    @aparente001: paragraphs 4 and 5 of his post. – darij grinberg Dec 9 '16 at 15:00
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    @darijgrinberg - Thank you very much. I was looking on this Meta page (wrong place to look!). For anyone else trying to follow this, the post being referenced was an answer to the original question (academia.stackexchange.com/a/80593/32436). Question: when you wrote, "I am not sure what I think of blankip's answer," were you talking about his answer here on Meta, or on the original question? – aparente001 Dec 9 '16 at 16:36
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    On the original question. I was referring to the answer linked by CapeCode. – darij grinberg Dec 9 '16 at 17:33

You should challenge the premise because that is what intelligent people do.

The OP gave background to a situation. She had nothing more to add when questioned about this background. So to those answering the question we took the background as complete and fact.

The question "how to deal with sexism?" is not a question, or at least one appropriate for this site. You would need to have an example of sexism in the workplace to be able to relate it to the standards of this site. There are hundreds of ways to deal with this at a school, each different depending on the circumstances.

The OP never delivered though. She had a chance to convey to the readers why she thought there was sexism - (maybe there is and she doesn't explain things well). So to answer the question correctly you would have to state your opinion about the OP's situation. And my opinion was there was no sexism described and the OP's behavior seemed sexist.

The OP still had a chance to add information or dispute anything. Instead she started editing and taking away the facts of this case. But even without the facts in the last edit, we still know what they are so we answer the question as complete as we can.

To the contrary of others I think the question originally was valid. It was a microcosm of a teacher/student relationship and where things can go wrong. Now the question is so vague it is unanswerable. The question's edits should be rolled back. This is like someone asking on math stack - what is 2x6? and then editing it to say- what is 2x ? We know the answer is 12, editing the question doesn't help us unknow what was there.


Really simply the issue was this:

OP: "So something sexist happened. I'd like to ask a question about dealing with sexism in general..."
Everyone: "That really wasn't a sexist thing that happened." [lots of answers]
OP: "Actually I don't want your opinion on whether it was sexist, I was hoping we could just look past. So given that..."
Everyone: "that wasn't sexist, you sexist idiot." (Peruse the answers if you think I am exaggerating.)

The tone really did lower here. And lower, and lower, and lower. Disagreement with the OP's stance toward the situation became justification for really denigrating tone.

This is somewhat of a hole in what the philosophy of requiring context can provide. Sometimes you just don't want to have to justify the situation in the first place, especially on a sensitive topic such as sexism, and you just want to get to the advice of anyone who is willing to see the situation your way.

But this is addressed pretty thoroughly in another question on meta:

I think that examples in potentially subjective questions encourage people to pass judgment on the examples.

As a proposal, create a tag, with description something like

This tag is for situations where discussing the specific situation or example would invite unconstructive criticism of the example itself. Questions should generally include descriptions of specific situations, but there are exceptions where details would invite excess speculation or criticism. When using this tag, question askers are encouraged to use their judgment for what details to omit and question viewers should take care to honor this judgment.

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    "that wasn't sexist, you sexist idiot." This needs to be put on a shirt, or a coffee mug. But more seriously. This issue, while serious, is in need of all parties involved to step away for a while, so as to emotionally calm down. – NZKshatriya Nov 29 '16 at 17:35
  • Clearly list the premise as a premise, then clearly label the question as the question. State clearly what you are looking for in an answer, and what you are not looking for. If you are not looking for comments of a certain nature, state that fact, that way they can be clearly flagged as not constructive based upon what is listed as being requested/not requested. – NZKshatriya Nov 29 '16 at 17:38
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    I don't agree that "there are no tools to do that currently". I think the tool to do this is to avoid giving a subjective example in the first place, if you don't want people to pass judgment on the example situation. Of course, we can't blame users for not realizing the distracting effect that an example or anecdote (that was meant to be background) can have - we should have better guidance for those asking questions on what not to include. – ff524 Nov 29 '16 at 18:02
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    Again Home Improvement example - How do I increase the breaker size so my breaker doesn't flip when I overload it? (Answer should be - don't do that dumbass or your house will burn down and explain why) So given your logic this OP could say, look past houses burning down, and just tell people how to do it. And then your logic again, everyone should just answer how to switch out a breaker for one of a bigger size without telling OP they are a dumbass and dangerous? Get real. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 21:11
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    This isn't what happened though. The original post very clearly said she wasn't asking about her specific situation, then asked a broadly-applicable question. – Jeff Nov 29 '16 at 21:23
  • Ah, that wasn't the way I read your simplified exchange at the top of the post, since the OP was clear in the first place. – Jeff Nov 29 '16 at 21:31
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    @djechlin - I have stated over and over again that I do not know for sure whether the OP or the student or anyone involved is sexist or displayed sexist behavior. I only know what was written by the OP. The OP gave a clear list of events that happened. She had a chance to expand and when she did, she made it worse, then took away the facts... That is all I can go on. Even if she wants to open another question and not include the facts we can assume sexism but we need to still know to what extent which determines behavior. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 21:33
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    @djechlin - I don't think she was lying. I don't think anyone does. I think she assumes that people are sexist when they might not be. From her statements she is assuming worst case scenario from the student without really anything substantial to back it up. And she is assuming these things because he is a male. There is a word for that I think... – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 21:37
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    I see. I don't think a subjective-example tag would be helpful, but I can't really elaborate on my reasons in the space of a comment. If you post the proposal as a new meta question ("Should we have a subjective-example tag?") I will answer and explain in detail why I think "no". (And maybe other answers would convince me otherwise.) – ff524 Nov 30 '16 at 0:09
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    Shouldn't subjective-example be a close reason? – blankip Nov 30 '16 at 5:54
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    As a general note, this question made the "hot questions" sidebar, which could have contributed to the sharp decrease in tone – apnorton Nov 30 '16 at 16:45
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    @djechlin > yeah, the bottom line is the community is not mature That is not what I've said, it actually goes against what I've said. Across stackexchange sites, situation where actual question does not quite follow from premises is nothing rare, and usually addressing premises leads to simpler solutions that sometimes don't raise original question at all, or don't impose some ridiculous constraints. That's why I mentioned X-Y problem. If premises are provided, they should not be ignored. If they are to be ignored, they should not be privided. What do you find so "immature" about that? – Daerdemandt Nov 30 '16 at 17:33
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    @djechlin I'll make it simpler for you: you are now free to have a discussion without addressing your opponents age, gender, occupation, race, salary, or size of their academia.stackexchange karma shlong. That way, you only have to pay attention to content of their posts. As for broadness, bringing sexism here is indeed making the whole thing unwieldingly broad. I don't see anything practical resulting from that. I saw a practical proposal about a new tag and addressed that. Also please don't remove your posts, that looks silly. – Daerdemandt Nov 30 '16 at 19:47
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    @apnorton I think one of the healthiest things this community could ever have is a way to opt itself out of the "hot questions" sidebar. – Fomite Dec 5 '16 at 23:15
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I think the answers to the original question were appropriate to the specific situation presented: it would be a bad idea to assume sexism was the reason for the student's actions.

Now the OP has a different question: what to do when there is sexism.

The best way to ask that is as a separate question, not an edit of the old question. A new question could be phrased something like:

I've had some interactions with a student (link to rev1 of old question) that I'm worried are signs of or due to sexism. If future interactions with this student provide clear evidence of sexism, what should I do?

I can't yet confirm or rule out sexism, but I'd like to be prepared in the unfortunate case that my suspicions are confirmed.


As originally written, the question was:

So I am not necessarily soliciting an answer specific to my situation, but in a more general setting. If you witness a student engaging in a sexist behavior, would you call him/her out? How would you do this without making the student feel intimidated?

If this were the original question and no other context was presented, it would be difficult to answer because it is so open-ended in the "more general setting". What is "sexist behavior"? How was it "witnessed" (did others see it)? Did the student make direct remarks? What is physical? The context in which this occurred would be very important for moving forward. Depending on the severity of the remark and the context, different actions might be appropriate. Sexist behavior of any kind should not be tolerated but there is still a (debatable) scale, perhaps:

implied sexism > direct verbal sexism > institutional sexism > physical sexism.

Each of these cases should be treated differently. So when the question is asked without context, I would have asked context to be presented. Without the context, the answer may not be applicable to the real life situation.

In this case the background was originally given. The background of the question suggested to me that, on the scale above, it was implied sexism and even then, perhaps not even true based on the details given. Therefore, it seemed necessary to (politely) inquire into the nature of the context or question the premise of the question in more detail.

While the post itself was well-meaning, there were a few comments in the background that made me question the premise. First, the question author states:

It feels sexist to me (I am female).

This suggests that the remark might have been sexist but the author is not sure. However, the next few comments:

I feel that I would be bullying the student if I were calling him out on his sexist remarks

(which, he is probably not aware of)

even the young people can have sexist views, and that this will probably happen again in the future

If you witness a student engaging in a sexist behavior

All of these suggest the post author has already made up their mind which does not seem like the best conclusion given the story. We weren't there, of course, so all we can go off of is what is written in the background. It seems reasonable to me to question the premise because it suggests the author has gone from "there may have been sexist remarks" to "there were sexist remarks". We should never discourage individuals from reporting sexism but we should also not encourage false accusations of sexism. False accusations are not professional. In an attempt to ensure that the author receives the best possible outcome to the situation, questioning their underlying assumptions is valid to me. This situation would be far more straightfoward if the student directly stated a sexist comment.

I do not approve of attacking the post author or aggressively trying to change their mind. But I see nothing wrong with politely engaging in a discussion to clarify the context. Additionally, the post author referred to the all posters as "collectively dyslexic" and was also aggressive with their comments and edits (some of which were later removed) which inflammed the situation further.

In conclusion: The premise is being challenged because if the premise is incorrect, it may not be necessary to take action at all.


What is happening with that question about handling a potentially sexist behavior?

Briefly: People don’t read or are incapable of sticking to the actual question. It’s a problem that we see an all sorts of question. Sometimes it’s not even a problem, because the asker clearly needs something else than what they asked for – but this does not apply here.

Quite ironically @ff524 was the first to question the premises in a comment, while she was the "victim" of a similar treatment 2 years ago.

In this case, addressing a problem with the premises in the comments is exactly the right way to go in my opinion. It does not address the actual question (hence it should not be an answer), but it points out potentially relevant information to the asker. Whether this information is actually relevant is something the asker has to decide¹, but we cannot just leave such a problem unmentioned.

However, given that the asker is now obviously aware of this potential problem and has entirely removed the respective parts from the question, all comments pertaining to this should be removed.

I think one should stick with answering the question, why not while pointing out a potential false positive, and not just question the premises.

For answers to this question, I agree. Every answer that does nothing but addressing issues with the premise should be deleted for failing to address the question. Note that this is not deleting an answer because it is bad or incorrect; it’s deleting an answer because it does not even attempt to answer the question at hand – it may be an answer to another question, but then almost everything is.

I wish to state that this is not a chameleon question – the question was clearly stating that it was not about this specific situation:

So I am not necessarily soliciting an answer specific to my situation, but in a more general setting.

Thus, everybody posting an answer addressing the premises was entering the risk of having their answer deleted anyway.

¹ after all, it could just be that the asker forgot to report a detail relevant to her allegations (but not to her question) as her report was intended to be “without disclosing too much of it”.

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    You cannot answer a question about sexism, racism, agism without context. Everything is about a situation. There is no way to simply answer a question - What should I do about sexism? – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 16:11
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    @blankip For more on that, see Providing explicit examples in potentially subjective cases – ff524 Nov 29 '16 at 16:23
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    @blankip: You need some context, but you do not need all of the context (which nobody can provide anyway). If you did, such questions would be useless for future visitors and too localised for this platform. On the other hand, “How do I react to sexist remarks in an e-mail by a student” is already sufficiently specific to be answerable. – Wrzlprmft Nov 29 '16 at 20:01
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    Completely disagree. So if I emailed a female teacher (I am male) and say, "Can you have a male professor grade my papers? I don't think any of the females on campus are smart enough to understand my thoughts." that is the same thing as saying, "I can help carry the tables outside for class. Would you like me to ask a couple of other guys to carry them too?" You aren't serious right? Context is everything. She gave us the facts how she knew them and we answered, that's a question. Someone else might have a similar question with different context. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 21:27
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    @blankip: Context is sometimes relevant to judge whether something is sexism, but that’s not the question here. The question in question is about how to address it and this is largely independent of the details, except perhaps the general severity of the sexism. – Wrzlprmft Nov 29 '16 at 21:36
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    @Wrzlprmft - The example I gave has two things that could be construed as sexist. No one would be wrong in saying there was a hint of sexism at least with both. And you are saying that your answer would be the same for each? Let's take this to the next step... The OP in my example is talking about moving tables outside and says that on a "sexist severity scale" it is a 8 out of 10. Wow pretty severe right. Someone might tell her to take the student to judicial review or to advisors or to dean of school. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 21:41
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    This would still be about judging the sexism itself, which is not the point here. This is something that has to be done by the asker or people directly involved anyway and its their responsibility to do this properly. We should and must rely on the premises being correct (otherwise we cannot answer any question). All we can do is post a comment if we spot a potential flaw. – Wrzlprmft Nov 29 '16 at 21:49
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    @Wrzlprmft - That isn't how the site works. When something is unclear we ask for more information until you can answer. You don't just assume the OP is right about vague accusations and details. She could have made something up and we would have to go along with it - but she didn't. I would like you to give an answer for my example that is the same for each case since you will trust me as an OP that someone emailed me and was very sexist. I am actually giving you more information than you think the OP should give here. – blankip Nov 29 '16 at 21:54
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    @blankip: When something is unclear we ask for more information until you can answer. – Sure, but this question can be answered without details on the precise nature of the sexism. — You don't just assume the OP is right about vague accusations and details. – It doesn’t matter whether the OP is right, as long as she is not accusing a specific person. But for the purposes of answering, we assume the premises given by the OP. We do not have to give the correct answer for the real-life situation the OP is facing; we only have to give the correct answer for the premises given to us. – Wrzlprmft Nov 29 '16 at 22:04
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    @Wrzlprmft But assume someone asks a question what to do about a sexist mail. You say, go to the dean! Sexism is unacceptable. This person then shows up at the deans office with a mail stating "Hello ProfX, I was wondering if you need help to bring back the tables after the event tomorrow. I could ask a few guys and we carry them back." That might not end too well... – Josef says Reinstate Monica Nov 30 '16 at 10:42
  • @Josef: But assume someone asks a question what to do about a sexist mail. […] That might not end too well... – In this case, it’s the asker’s fault for not correctly assessing the premises of the question. If the asker elaborated on the content of the e-mail, we can and should leave one comment warning them that they may have assessed the situation wrongly. Still, this is the asker’s responsibility, not ours. We do not get to see the actual e-mail (or at least we shouldn’t) and cannot know all the context, and it might as well just be that the asker forgot to mention some detail. – Wrzlprmft Nov 30 '16 at 11:14
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    @Wrzlprmft: What I don't understand is why some here, including you, suggest that it is a problem if more than one answer touches on the validity of the premise. If I answer a question, I might do differently than someone else or reach different conclusions, and still we both have to address the premise because it is an important element in our reasoning. I can imagine questions where there are 20 answers, each different, and each challenging the premise in the same way, because it is crucial to their argument. The asker still should not interpret this as a personal attack, because it isn't. – RQM Nov 30 '16 at 12:33
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    @RQM: The OP stated (from the very beginning) that their depiction of the premises was “without disclosing too much of it” and that that they want to ask about “a more general setting”. (Also some of the answers attacking the premises were clearly overdoing it.) – Wrzlprmft Nov 30 '16 at 12:41
  • @Wrzlprmft You can't imagine a full book on the subject of, "What to do about written sexist remarks"? I can't imagine answering it without one. – jpmc26 Dec 9 '16 at 1:33
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    @blankip - "There is no way to simply answer a question - What should I do about sexism?" -- There is a simple answer to that question, on campus in the U.S.: Take your concern to the Title IX Coordinator. – aparente001 Dec 9 '16 at 3:14

I feel like the combative answers (and the ensuing combative replies by the OP) are more problematic than the original question. If you look at the original un-edited post, its tone is fairly neutral and it describes the author's specific situation and then very explicitly asks a general question:

So I am not necessarily soliciting an answer specific to my situation, but in a more general setting. If you witness a student engaging in a sexist behavior, would you call him/her out? How would you do this without making the student feel intimidated?

It also seems problematic to me that we're potentially retroactively identifying this as a question worthy of being put on hold. It's not unusual to see bad questions on hold within hours, if not minutes. This lends further evidence to me that the problem is in the answers, not the post. Also, from the help center:

But if you give us details and context, we can provide a useful answer.

Context is explicitly encouraged. However, it's not necessary to attack the OPs perception of the situation while still addressing both the actual question and the problems entailed in the context, which I tried to do in my answer.

In the future I think it would be useful to:

  • Flag and delete answers that only address the context, and not the question
  • Point out early in comments to the OP that context in a situation like this may distract from answers to their question. Or maybe that should be in the help center?

And then the bigger problem seems to me the way we moderate comments. I rarely see comments subject to much (perfectly possible I'm just missing that, so correct me if I'm wrong), other than getting moved to chat when there are too many. And yet here, most of the mess is in comments - there are only a handful of answers that ignored the question and only talked about the context. Just looking over our own guidelines, I feel like there's grounds to delete a ton of these comments.

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    I've deleted dozens of comments from that question and its answers, and left those that seem to be consistent with what comments are for. Do you see more comments there that should be removed, according to our guidelines? If so, please flag them. – ff524 Nov 29 '16 at 17:54
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    @ff524 Actually it looks like a lot of the ones I had in mind have been cleaned up since I last looked at it. I shouldn't doubt your moderating skills! But regardless, a lot of the mess came out of the comments. – Jeff Nov 29 '16 at 21:45
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    As a general rule, if anyone ever feels inclined to complain about "the way we moderate comments", go flag the comments you're about to complain about. Moderators are not responsible for reading and responding to every bit of content posted on this site; our main responsibility is to handle flags raised by users. (Reading every bit of content on this site is something I often do when I'm avoiding my real work, but every now and then I have to actually do some research or my advisor will get suspicious ;)) – ff524 Nov 30 '16 at 3:21
  • As I've searched around more, our problem seems more related to this: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3615/allow-downvoting-comments What we really need is a way to be more fine-grained in comment moderation, and a disincentive to post bad comments that will get downvoted. But that doesn't appear to be on the radar. – Jeff Nov 30 '16 at 15:23
  • Feel free to reraise that question... the post you linked is 7 years old. – user18072 Nov 30 '16 at 18:59
  • @djechlin It looks like it comes up regularly, and all of them get closed and linked as duplicates to this old one. – Jeff Nov 30 '16 at 19:01
  • @JeffL. since 2009? If you raise the question you will want to explicate what has changed since then. I'm not sure I agree with you and I don't think it would much have helped anything here, but I'm just saying you do have the option of bringing it up again. You can re-raise old issues but the burden is on you to explain what has changed (and if you post to academia.SE's meta there is no such burden). I'm not sure if you would want to start on a specific meta or post to meta.SE. – user18072 Nov 30 '16 at 19:03

I know I don't have much rep here, but I look up to this site as I work my way up college, and it was honestly pretty embarrassing to see the comments on that post. I left a few comments, but they're gone now, as they probably should be.

What frustrated me was two dozen people don't need to question the OP! I know it's nice to think that academia has no problems with sexism, but we all know that's not true.

Yes, it was easy to point to the older professor and say "Oh, well he was older, that's obviously 100% of the reason why the student respects him more than you! No sexism!"

But what annoyed me was that so many people felt the need to weigh in and make comments like "Wait ... where's the sexism here?" It didn't read like people questioning the premise in a rhetorical sense, it read like a bunch of people getting very defensive of accusations of mild sexism in a university probably hundreds of miles from them.

I know it would be frustrating as a man to be accused of sexism - especially when it is absolutely not clear the student was being sexist - but that's how the community should have responded, by politely pointing out other factors, not by dogpiling on the OP in an effort to prove how absolutely unimaginable it would be that a little bit of sexism occurred in the ivory tower.

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    Why do you only admit to the possibility that the student was not consciously sexist? Why stop there, and not give the student the benefit of doubt and consider that maybe, he was not sexist at all? Maybe it was not about the other professor being older either? Maybe there are perfectly valid reasons to retract a request after arguments against it have been brought forward, reasons that do not involve superficial properties such as sex, gender, and age? Noone claimed it was absolutely unimaginable that there is sexism. It's just that accusations are so much more than just frustrating – RQM Nov 30 '16 at 9:53
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    @RQM Why not give the poster the benefit of the doubt? – Jeff Nov 30 '16 at 16:52
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    @RQM You're missing my point. A dozen people responding indignantly to the OP can across very rudely. I don't blame her for throwing her hands up in frustration and leaving. The answers are all fine and well-written, I was addressing the comments. – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 30 '16 at 17:29
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    @RQM You're right, I removed "consciously." But your last sentence proves my point: Academia.SE focuses on how much it sucks to be accused of sexism, rather than how much it sucks to actually be a victim of sexism, which need not be overt. Don't get me wrong, I'm not convinced the student was motivated entirely by sexism either, but I wanted to address the tone of the community when sexism gets brought up. – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 30 '16 at 20:33
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    @Azor-Ahai: Warning people not to accuse others of serious wrongdoings without sufficient evidence and warning people not to be sexist are not mutually exclusive. In some cases, they even are the same thing. Regarding focussing on victims of accusations vs victims of sexism: most of western justice systems agree that it is more important to not punish those who cannot be shown guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, than it is to punish those who in fact committed wrongdoing. I think is this the right thing to do, even if it means some perpetrators go free. There is no absolute justice. – RQM Nov 30 '16 at 20:45
  • @RQM You articulated your argument well. Many of the comments did not, and that's what I was attempting to call out. It isn't helpful to be the tenth person to be unnecessarily snarky to an OP that is being sincere in her concerns. – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 30 '16 at 21:32
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    @Azor-Ahai I do have a lot of rep here and I found the comments on that question embarrassing. – Fomite Dec 9 '16 at 8:16
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    "I know it's nice to think that academia has no problems with sexism, but we all know that's not true." I don't think anyone suggested that. If someone says, "This specific instance does not look like sexism," that doesn't for one second imply that it doesn't exist. And maybe that's the real problem here: some users seem to find it unacceptable to say one specific instance of claimed sexism does not in fact appear to actually be sexism. – jpmc26 Dec 11 '16 at 7:14

It's not about academia!

The question is stated in some academic context, but that quickly becomes a backstory of the sexism related problem in the question. That is fine.

Sexism as a concept is not the problem. Differences in opinion are not the problem.

Sexism is hard to discuss

It is all about communication, discussion of differing opinions on the topic. And sexism is a topic that is hard to discuss, with a long, well known tradition.

So we can assume that the academia-related parts of the original question were actually meant as a context to express the communication in, a backstory.

So the original question is not much about academia, but about communication of a difficult topic in the first place.

My proposal is to move the question over to Interpersonal Skills SE.

They routinely help solving communication about sexism. Not only the one in the question, but also the much more intense one in the comment discussion. That flareup will not even start there. In part because they are beta, and somewhat small. But with high density of competence.

There, communication about sexism is one of the easier topics. They routinely handle things like family problems between three persons.


The more I look at this question, the more I think that plainly deleting answers or parts of answers that do not address the actual question won’t suffice to resolve the situation.

Most answers have been voted upon on account of their attack of the premises instead of the solution they provide to the actual problem (if any). Hence the mess could only be resolved by resetting all votes (which is not possible even for moderators and would yield more confusion and disturbance than anything else).

I therefore suggest the following course of action:

  • Let the asker re-post the question in its current state (without explicit premises).
  • Under all answers addressing the actual question, leave comments inviting the authors to re-post their answer on the actual question.
  • Delete the original question after locking it for a week or so for reference.

For future similar questions, we should take care to emphasise the focus early by editing the question accordingly and deleting non-answers quickly.

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    Answering OPs question turned hypothetical wasn't all that hard, I think most people got a bit too emotionally charged. Also, it didn't help that OP responded to some comments with "this is irrelevant" which to some would come across as argumentative. I do find it somewhat ironic that in a question on how to take on gender bias/sexism, so many would argue with the OP and seemingly show gender bias, even if it is subconscious. – NZKshatriya Nov 29 '16 at 15:23
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    It may take some luck for the OP to want anything to do with this community going forward. – user18072 Nov 29 '16 at 17:20
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    I wasn't trying to attack/insult the OP, but some of what was stated in the question was one sided, as in we only had OPs side of the situation. One cannot make an informed decision on anything without all information. Also, one described incident, lets call it a data point, is not sufficient to determine a pattern of behavior. If we all just thought a bit more analytically, than emotionally, I feel this entire situation could have been avoided. – NZKshatriya Nov 29 '16 at 17:28
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    Unfortunately I think @djechlin is right. On top of that, I feel comfortable defending the OP's original post, but the OP's follow-up behavior definitely made things worse. I don't think there's any fixing it now. Whether that means it should all be deleted or not... I think it might be least disruptive to just moderate until it dies, then try to keep future posts from devolving this way. – Jeff Nov 29 '16 at 21:38
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    There is nothing wrong with critisizing unreasonable premises (the OP of a question seeing sexist behind each corner when there are non for example). If you disagree with an answer just vote down as I did with yours here, and that s it! – Dilaton Nov 29 '16 at 22:50
  • Interesting idea. Since it seems unlikely the OP will re-post the question, I suggest you do the re-posting. – aparente001 Nov 30 '16 at 5:05
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    @djechlin - you must be the type of friend that gets pissed when someone tells you that you have spinach in your teeth and it looks gross. I have posted a few questions on several SE sites, where the consensus was basically "What the hell are you doing?" I was grateful that these people called me out, because being a dumbass to people who don't know you is nothing. If the OP is upset she should contemplate all of the responses more. – blankip Nov 30 '16 at 5:33
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    @blankip knock it with the random character jabs. – user18072 Nov 30 '16 at 5:55
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    @djechlin - not a character jab, it is called an analogy. You think the OP should be pissed because of the "backlash"... I am saying we are just telling her she has spinach in her teeth. Man this conversation is getting dense. – blankip Nov 30 '16 at 5:58

The general question

If the question had no context, it would be Too Broad and need to be closed immediately. I cite the What types of questions should I avoid asking? page:

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

I consider this to be self evident. These kind of open ended posts don't make good questions for SE's Q&A format.

Asking, "How do I handle sexist remarks in general?" is as vague and open ended as going to DBA and asking, "How do I index my columns, in general?" or to SO and asking, "How do I parse files in general?" or to SciFi and asking, "How do Sith win battles, in general?" The only reasonable answer you can give is, "It depends on the specifics."

The specific question

So the general question is unanswerable, but the user decided to provide some context anyway. On the other hand, the specific situation described is answerable. So as an SE user, you're left with two possible actions:

  1. Edit out the specific situation and close the question.
  2. Edit out the general question and answer in the specific context.

The first option throws away a perfectly good question. The second option salvages the question and creates a useful resource, but if you believe no action should be taken in this case, it probably requires a frame challenge. At a bare minimum, you'd have to say, "You shouldn't do anything because there isn't sufficient evidence of sexism here. Taking action is likely to be detrimental to everyone involved." But that isn't much different than the frame challenge.

So the answer to, "Why don't people stick to the question?" is, "Because they were trying to salvage the question and make it a useful resource." The only real failing on that front is that no one dared to edit out the "general" bits. Any issues with rudeness or arguing are a completely separate matter.

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