11

StackExchange generally requires professional, respectful discourse. As such, profanity is generally disallowed site-wide. But, this is applied differently on different sites: as noted here, for example, Literature.SE requires that "profane" words be spelled out in full when they are being discussed.

Here on Academia.SE, we last discussed this in 2014, and the consensus was roughly:

profanity should be edited out of answers; if impossible, the answer should be deleted.

Recently, there was a kerfuffle when an answer contained an anecdote in which the following line was added to a codebase:

# For fuck's sake, stop using anal as a variable or in a name!!

This was correctly flagged and edited (to remove the "f-word") according to the existing policy, but some users (not unreasonably, IMO) felt that our policy was too strict and should be relaxed.

So: should we allow profanity when non-abusive and germane to the topic under discussion? If so, what restrictions (if any) should there be on this?

To make this answerable, I strongly suggest that replies to this question should include a suggested update to our policy, along with the rationale. Any answer that contains a clear policy suggestion, does not conflict with a higher-voted answer, earns at least a +5 net score, and earns twice as many upvotes as downvotes will be adopted. If no answer containing a clear policy recommendation reaches this threshold, we will keep our policy unchanged.

22
  • 1
    Hmmm, according to the policy you link to and the answer given there you have just broken the rule in this post. See the first paragraph: meta.stackexchange.com/a/22233/361883 – Buffy Dec 20 '20 at 21:25
  • 1
    Yes, this is the SE-wide policy, but as I noted, it is enforced differently on different sites. It is possible the network will eventually "crack down" and require all sites to moderate all swear words, no exceptions. For example, the code of conduct is "non-negotiable"; all mods must agree to enforce it as written. But for now at least, we seem to have the latitude to decide how to enforce the profanity policy. – cag51 Dec 20 '20 at 21:31
  • You seem, in the last paragraph, to be asking for policy recommendations, but not allowing general discussion in answers. How is that useful? Any policy needs to be applied sensibly, not mechanically. Since this isn't a policy suggestion I'll give an answer here. If the OP of the answer quoted has instead written "For God's sake, stop..." it would be deeply offensive to some people, though not including profanity at all. You are opening a minefield here. Had the offensive word been used repeatedly for emphasis as a statement of the OP rather than once in a quote it would be a problem. Not here – Buffy Dec 20 '20 at 21:34
  • 1
    I asked for a proposed policy and a rationale; I am completely confident that this will lead to extensive "general discussion." Indeed, I'm not quite sure what other option there is: an answer proposes a particular course of action, the comments discuss it, and the votes judge it. An answer that does not make a clear proposal risks being so wishy-washy that everyone upvotes it but no one agrees on what it means. – cag51 Dec 20 '20 at 21:41
  • Hmmm. Do I seem wishy-washy to you? – Buffy Dec 20 '20 at 21:42
  • 1
    Not at all. If you want to post an answer that does not contain a policy recommendation, I will not delete it. I just caution that highly-voted answers with no clear recommendation cannot be retroactively turned into a clear policy after the fact. I have updated the post to reflect this. – cag51 Dec 20 '20 at 21:45
  • And you are including a mechanical rule for changing the policy. Now we've really gone meta. Rules have unforeseen consequences as does the current rule. They require deep thought, not five upvotes. – Buffy Dec 20 '20 at 21:50
  • 4
    Full of criticism today! :-). We have used this voting procedure before without ill effects; further, general policies usually leave room to be tempered by the community's judgment (in deciding what to flag) and moderators' judgment (in deciding how to respond to flags). I will also point out that in the original kerfuffle, I invited others to post on meta directly; the advantage to posting on meta oneself is that one has the freedom to pose the question as they like. – cag51 Dec 20 '20 at 21:58
  • Just for better understanding, as for English isn't my mother tongue and I barely know it. Are vulgarity and profanity synonyms? Because I always thought that profanity involves religious beliefs being scored or insulted, while vulgarity not. At least it is so in a literal translation prone to faux-ami mistake. – Alchimista Dec 21 '20 at 13:10
  • @Alchimista You're probably confusing profanity with blasphemy. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 21 '20 at 14:06
  • Update: this discussion is still open, but based on the preliminary results, I have uncensored the original post that sparked all this. – cag51 Dec 21 '20 at 16:36
  • @Massimo Ortolano I see, thank. Kind of faux-amis indeed. – Alchimista Dec 21 '20 at 18:10
  • @MassimoOrtolano: profanity still has a strong religious meaning. It was extended to vulgarity but the root is in religion (or actually being against religious things). In French the meaning is still very close to the original. It is interesting that in Italian it is much closer to the English meaning (volgarità) – WoJ Dec 22 '20 at 13:23
  • @cag51: I still liked very much my second version :) – WoJ Dec 22 '20 at 13:24
  • 1
    @WoJ Admittedly, also in Italian the distinction between profanità (the direct translation of profanity) and blasfemia (blasphemy) is a bit subtle. Blasfemia is related to what one says or the way one represents holy images to insult religion. Profanità is instead more related to actions, as I understand it. It's worth noticing that in certain Italian regions, especially Veneto and Tuscany, blasphemy is fairly widespread in the dialects and not uncommon in everyday conversations. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 22 '20 at 13:38
25

A French perspective on this predominantly US site, but also used by non-US users.

Our perspective on profanity and pornography is wildly different than in the US. We commonly use words such as "oh putain" (~"oh shit") in professional situations. Context matters very much - I just told my 14 years old son who was on a game chat that this is not acceptable.

Same goes for pornography. Watch the end of this gymnastics TV show of the 80's (NSFW and for puritan eyes outside of France I guess) that was broadcasted in the morning (around 10 am) on the second TV channel (out of the three we had): https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7ezxsx. What you see is from the archives of the official French institution that preserves TV programs (INA).

I was a teenager at the time and we got extremely interested in fitness, that we watched till the very end. Now, 40 years later, we enjoy the fact that we had such freedom (I am not even starting with what was at 19:45, right before the main news program of the day)

Academia is a site for grown-ups. Grown-ups know that words such as fuck exist and that people sometimes use them. When I quote General Cambronne who replied to the English "Merde!", I will not change it to "Selles!" (the medical word for excrements), or "M***e!" because everyone would laugh instead of understanding that it was a courageous act.

I am offended by some words (such as "homeopathy"). Does that mean that they should be either explained in an allegoric way ("medicine for idiots"), or shortened to "hom***" (and then be mistaken with "homophobia")?

There is a moment where an adult sees things that they do not like and the world will not bend to them. Including homeopathy.

My proposal: be strict on ad-hominem attacks, leave alone words because different people see them differently. If the words are really added for the sake of being vulgar that is something else. A comment like the one in the code was funny - there was no malice from the desperate developer who had to anal this and that.

You do not realize how the nipple-gate was seen here: as a sandbox fight between toddlers. It was not even funny, it was quite frightening that a breast seen on TV by accident raised to national issue and warranted a time shift in such broadcasts so that someone can press a button to avoid that in the future.

EDIT: I do not think that changing the rules will change much in reality.
People will still flag posts with "homeopathy" as vulgar (see, I am trying to decrease the tension here), and then what is left to the mods? To decide whether this is a really vulgar word, or a less vulgar one? Whether in that context it is acceptable? If I was a mod I would have a hard time deciding (I moderated plenty of wild places back in the 90's and was part of the Angel Team that fought with early pedo-pornography - so I have seen my fair share of dark and vulgarity). Especially on a site like Academia where real, intended vulgarity is not common.

23
  • 2
    +1, this is basically what I was going to propose. One suggestion: in the bolded part, maybe change "leave alone" to "leave alone (within reason)"? If someone writes a decent answer but puts "fucking" in front of every noun, I think we should consider forcing an edit in this case (indeed, we might get push-back from the network if we routinely had answers with this kind of "over the top" profanity). – cag51 Dec 20 '20 at 21:51
  • 1
    And requires judgement. That is where the original change went wrong. IMO it should be restored. – Buffy Dec 20 '20 at 21:58
  • 5
    As an Italian, for whom the perspective on profanity and pornography is very similar to the French one, I absolutely agree with your point of view. As a mod, though, I see the relaxation of our policy difficult to implement, especially when questions reach the Hot Network Questions list, attracting users across the whole network. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 21 '20 at 8:36
  • 1
    What do you find offensive or vulgar about the term homeopathy? I think there's a difference between words that collectively are acknowledged as offensive/swear words/etc. vs a random word that one person might find vulgar for some reason. – TylerH Dec 21 '20 at 18:52
  • 3
    @TylerH: while this was a joke (everyone has something that offends them, and is completely neutral for someone else), homeopathy is one of my personal crusades, together with other paranormal events that I used to actively track when I was younger. At some point I publicly stated (during a radio audition I was invited to) that I would immediately switch my PhD if someone could show me actual "paranormal activity" (because, you know, Nobel Prize). I ended without the Nobel Prize because everything I was shown was somehow not available when I was there. – WoJ Dec 21 '20 at 19:25
  • 5
    @TylerH (...)words that collectively are acknowledged as offensive(...)" → the problem is that this collectivity wildly varies between cultures. When I say "shit" or "fuck" in the US (at work for instance), people react. When I say "putain" or "merde" in France, nobody cares (when this is a natural reaction, not something intended to be vulgar) – WoJ Dec 21 '20 at 19:30
  • 3
    @WoJ People may not react in France, but I believe you recognize them as profanity/curse words, even if they are not taboo to speak in professional settings. The fact you tell your kid not to use them is evidence of that. It sounds like your issue is with the field of homeopathy and not the word itself. – TylerH Dec 21 '20 at 19:37
  • 3
    @TylerH: of course I recognize them as curse words, but they are part of the language. When the coder in my original answer used "fuck" it is because he meant it. he did not mean "please", or "would you be kind enough" bur "for fuck's sake". I quoted his desperation (which was with anal and all the things you do with it, of which nobody seems to be worried about :)). – WoJ Dec 21 '20 at 19:45
  • 8
    @TylerH (cont'd) The point is that hiding it behind "f--k" is so childish that it hurts. When I say "s--t" or "abor--on", or "g-d" (something I recently discovered somewhere) - is it less offensive? You do not recognize these words anymore? Or the fact that they are beeped makes them less offensive? (by "you" I do not mean you Tyler of course, it is a generic "you" or whatever it is called in English EDIT, it is actually called "Generic you", I learned something today) – WoJ Dec 21 '20 at 19:45
  • 1
    @WoJ I agree with the gist of your answer, I just think the reliance on a made-up, non-offensive term halfway through serves only as a distraction to the argument. – TylerH Dec 21 '20 at 20:01
  • 4
    @WoJ this is a good explanation of why many Jewish people omit the "o"; in essence it is because it is forbidden in the Torah to destroy the name of the Jewish deity, and written text is often transient. – DavidH Dec 22 '20 at 10:48
  • 1
    @DavidH: this is interesting thanks. I have nothing about people beeping-out words. I find it childish (except the reason you gave for Jews and similar ones - everyone to their own) but this is my problem. What I do not want is that someone else forces that on me because they are offended. – WoJ Dec 22 '20 at 13:28
  • 1
    @jakebeal: it will depend on the context. I work in high tech and research for 25 years, in very large companies. When the context is right (friendly environment, usually between French) you will hear some oh putain or et merde, there is nothing vulgar in these expressions when used in the right place with the right tone. – WoJ Dec 31 '20 at 16:37
  • 4
    As an Australian, I concur. The current SE policy is bloody ridiculous American puritanism. Oh, wait, am I allowed to say "bloody" on here, when it's not used that way by Americans? – nick012000 Jan 2 at 0:35
  • 1
    @jakebeal The key is to know the context. If I'm in the lab or a meeting with just Italian colleagues, my PhD students and such, I swear a lot. If I'm at a meeting with my international colleagues I don't swear at all because I know that it's less tolerated and, moreover, English swearing is not as fun as Italian's, which has some very peculiar expressions, especially those coming from the dialects. When I had lectures in Italian with Italian students, I'd sworn occasionally, now that I have lectures in English for an international audience I don't swear. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 5 at 17:41
15

A slightly stricter option.

Proposal: Profanity should generally be edited out of posts; however, it may be retained as needed to facilitate unredacted quotes (actual or hypothetical), or discussions about language.

Rationale:

  • The code-of-conduct requires that language be respectful and professional. Profanity is rarely necessary, and is often perceived as unprofessional or disrespectful (even if this is not the intent). Further, new users who see profanity may assume that "anything goes." So, answers like "hell no..." should be edited to "no..."; answers that cannot be edited should be deleted. This is largely the policy now.
  • But, there is no reason to avoid using profanity when it is germane to the discussion and used in a reasonable manner. On this site, that includes quotes (actual or hypothetical), and discussions about academic language. So, profanity in these cases will generally no longer be removed.
  • The other key change is the word "generally": individual cases may be judged individually. This does not mean that exceptions will be granted to anyone who complains; rather, we will consider each post's overall tone and the degree to which removing the profanity would weaken or obfuscate the post.
4
  • 2
    Summing up: Keep the language as clean as possible, but retain profanity where necessary. – iBug Dec 21 '20 at 9:37
  • 2
    Is there a distinction between profanity and abusive language, e.g. racial slurs? The latter can be (and recently has been) also used in a quote, but I'm not sure how much quoting a racial slur adds to the discussion. – DavidH Dec 21 '20 at 9:47
  • Good point. This answer only explicitly addresses profanity. Whether the second bullet should also apply to racial slurs is a question we could decide now (by adding an answer and getting it over the threshold) or we could leave it undefined and cross that bridge when we get there. – cag51 Dec 21 '20 at 16:31
  • The rationale does not match the proposal. Why should quotes be different from nonquotes? Simply being a quote does not make something "germane." Also, this proposal is ludicrously convoluted. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 22 '20 at 9:27
5

Not necessarily equal to my personal view, but this has been addressed on MSE before:

Are expletives (cursing, swear words or vulgar language) allowed on SE sites?

Quoting from Jeff's answer:

Using expletives is not acceptable behavior on any Stack Exchange site and is a violation of the Code of Conduct, even on Meta. There are a very small handful of exceptions (such as if you were talking about the word itself on a language site), but in general you should not use expletives anywhere, under any circumstances. If you can't effectively communicate what you need to say without resorting to lowest common denominator cursing, then keep it to yourself.

I think it's fine for Academia.SE to decide how we interpret the "exceptions" and that this interpretation could be quite broad, but we should also consider the broader SE policy for context. Yes, there is almost certainly a "industry/corporate US culture" assumption built in to this policy when that culture does not describe many of the users here, but also we are on a website principally operated by a US company.

3
  • 5
    It's worth noting that the US-centric view of Stack Exchange has been repeatedly criticised along the years (this one a recent example) and maybe local "rebellions" to parts of the policies might lead to a global rethinking. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 21 '20 at 21:58
  • 1
    +1 The last thing we need is a complicated rule for this. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 22 '20 at 9:35
  • 1
    @MassimoOrtolano I don't have any problem with SE being the private plaything of a few Americans who have the delusion that it is something important. Indeed, watching them play out their fantasies can be quite amusing at times. – alephzero Dec 27 '20 at 15:54
4

A subtly different suggestion from the previous proposals:

A similar take to cag51's suggestion, where profanity is permitted when it adds to the discussion, such as in a direct quote or if using a substitute would obscure the discussion significantly. However, profanity that does not contribute significantly to the question is edited out, as in general it is not helpful and breaks a good rule of thumb for clarity: not to use more words than is necessary to get the point across.

I would suggest, however, that the existing policy continue to be enforced in the case where the word in question has a history of being used to oppress and dehumanise a minority group. Examples include racial slurs such as "the N-word". This reflects policies that exist elsewhere in academia such as this policy from Cambridge University English department. Quoting from the linked page:

Offensive and highly charged terms (such as the n-word) can have a detrimental impact on the ability of BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] students to learn.

Though this site is not primarily for students, I think the sentiment can be transferred that the use of racial slurs, even in quotations, can have a significant negative impact on the ability of minority groups to have a pleasant and benificial experience on academia.stackexchange. For this reason, I don't think that the small added benefit of clarity is justified in the case of racial slurs and other charged language.

This is in line with the StackExchange code of conduct that states

When in doubt, don't use language that might offend or alienate.

4
  • 2
    I completely agree with the fact that ad-hominem attacks (and related terms) are not acceptable. My problem arose from the fact that "fuck" was edited out of a quote, where it was not only the artistic expression of a desperate dev, but also funny and not insulting for anyone. It is just a word which some population will faint on when it reaches their adult ears, and others just go on with their life. BTW I suggested in my answer of the initial question to change it if it bothers OP (and asking such a question means that it bothers them, which is enough to change even for selfish reasons) – WoJ Dec 21 '20 at 13:32
  • 1
    Then I think we are in agreement; I guess this post just clarifies that certain language can constitute an "attack" in pretty much any context. I agree that, at least as far as I'm aware, the word "fuck" in your example does not risk serious harm to any group of people. – DavidH Dec 21 '20 at 13:56
  • 4
    I don't understand this answer. As a hypothetical, suppose that a new user, a BAME undergraduate from the UK, posted a question regarding how to deal with the use of a racial slur by a lecturer, and included a textual quote that turned out to be essential to the discussion; the blanket ban as worded here would have a detrimental impact on this user's ability to get help from this site. (cont.) – E.P. Dec 21 '20 at 14:44
  • It will (should) be extremely rare that racial slurs (and other words covered by this answer) be 'needed to facilitate quotes or discuss language', and I agree that it's more than reasonable to heighten the scrutiny when words in this class are involved, but a blanket ban without any flexibility sounds liable to undesired effects. – E.P. Dec 21 '20 at 14:47
1

It is hard to state this in "policy language", but I think that such things should only be removed (other than when some abuse is involved), if they are unrelated to the "meaning and sense" of the post. If an expletive or other possibly hurtful language contributes nothing to the meaning, then it can be removed without changing the intent of the writer.

But English is, since its creation, a rather profane language. Even Shakespeare used some rather, for the day, harsh language.

But I'll also note that it doesn't have to be profane or abusive to offend people. Even a seeming innocuous phrase like "...thank God..." will be deeply offensive to possibly millions of people.

1
  • 3
    Actually, compared to Italian or possibly French, English is not in the slightest profane. But in any case, it's not clear what you propose. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 25 '20 at 23:35

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .