Wikipedia Admins Support Banning Editors for Not Using ‘Preferred Pronouns’

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A long-time Wikipedia editor for over a decade, Guy Macon, retired from the site late June after he was briefly banned for not using “preferred pronouns” when discussing a ban appeal by former site administrator Ashley Van Haeften. Macon used Van Haeften’s username “Fæ” instead of singular “they” due to grammatical objections. Van Haeften and Macon previously fought over the former’s agenda-driven editing. Though the ban was lifted on grounds Macon was sincerely trying to respect Van Haeften’s wishes, some administrators still argued it was valid, citing the “code of conduct” recently imposed by Wikipedia’s owners.

Previously, Van Haeften chaired the Wikimedia UK chapter organization, which represents the British Wikipedia community of editors. He resigned his position in 2012 following an earlier ban that saw him stripped of his special administrative privileges.

Van Haeften was banned from Wikipedia indefinitely back in November for violating a restriction prohibiting him from edits related to human sexuality. He had asked several prospective candidates for Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, often likened to a Supreme Court, if they support the code of conduct then proposed by the Wikimedia Foundation that owns the site, specifically its provisions requiring use of “preferred pronouns” and otherwise validating LGBT identities. The indefinite ban was imposed after Van Haeften claimed to have not violated his restriction with those comments, a position administrators rejected.

Last month, Van Haeften signaled his intent to appeal the ban and invited users to ask questions before he proceeded. Macon subsequently raised a series of questions about whether Van Haeften understood the original restrictions he was banned for violating and what he intended to do after the ban was lifted. The questions echoed ones earlier from a member of the Arbitration Committee about whether Van Haeften would limit his involvement in controversial topics generally, though Van Haeften dismissed any concerns related to such edits.

Macon’s questions were promptly criticized by other editors, including administrator and former Wikimedia UK Chairman Chris Keating, as Macon had made a point of only referring to Van Haeften by his username “Fæ” instead of using pronouns. On his profile page, Van Haeften requests editors refer to him using the singular “they” pronoun on Wikipedia, though he does not claim to be transgender. Instead, he states that, while people may know him outside Wikipedia, this is different from his “on-project identity” and requests editors use singular “they” pronouns when referring to his account.

In avoiding the use of preferred pronouns, Macon cited a previous discussion where he had been reported for using the “xe” pronoun for Van Haeften and was told by administrator “Floquenbeam” that using any pronoun other than the singular “they” pronoun in the future would result in a ban of his account. Macon at the time stated his reason for using a different pronoun was because he considered singular “they” grammatically incorrect and thus chose a different non-gendered pronoun. Therefore, with the stated intent to avoid issues in his comment on Van Haeften’s unban discussion he simply used Van Haeften’s username.

However, Macon’s avoidance of pronouns was claimed by Floquenbeam to itself be “trolling” and he subsequently removed the questions stating as much. Floquenbeam then imposed a two-day ban on Macon’s account on the grounds Macon was “intentionally mocking someone’s gender” and warned any future ban would be indefinite. Macon had no previous bans. When one editor suggested the incident was a questionable reason for a ban, Keating intervened to claim Macon’s comment was “a clear breach of the civility policy and the Universal Code of Conduct” in defending the ban.

Responding to the ban, Macon erased all messages from his personal discussion page and announced he was quitting the site over it stating he was “blocked without warning for doing my level best to do exactly what I was previously ordered to do.” He still appealed the ban stating he “had a good-faith belief that completely avoiding all personal pronouns and only using the username was the right thing to do.” Macon stated as a high-functioning autistic person he was “very good at following clear instructions” and tried to do so in Van Haeften’s case. He added he would not resume editing Wikipedia articles regardless of the appeal’s result.

After several other administrators agreed Macon’s actions were not intended to disrespect Van Haeften’s claimed pronoun preferences and Macon agreed to a ban on interacting with Van Haeften, an administrator lifted the ban. Subsequent discussion about the ban on Macon’s page raised concerns about administrators being quick to impose bans over non-standard pronoun preferences with one arguing Macon leaving the site would be reasonable if using usernames instead of pronouns would get someone banned under site policy. Editor “Atsme” raised the concern that such changing standards “add a rather chilling effect to the [Wikipedia] working environment.”

Commenting to echo such concerns, Macon expressed having long supported the “LGBTQ+ community” and that his initial approach to gender-neutral pronouns was based on advice from a transgender friend. When his early efforts prompted controversy, Macon stated he came to believe “personal pronouns were a mine field” regarding Van Haeften and opted to avoid them entirely, something Macon had done in an earlier discussion without objection. Now learning this would also result in a ban, Macon expressed dismay stating: “I just know that however hard I try and no matter what I say, I am doomed.”

Due to this, Macon stated he would only resume editing articles if the administrator who banned him ceased being one, let other administrators handle such matters in the future, or if a community discussion was allowed to rule whether the original ban decision was invalid. However, Macon did not believe any of these outcomes were likely. Some editors argued for bringing the issue to the Arbitration Committee due to recent pronoun disputes, such as one earlier this year over the use of “tree” as a pronoun, which also prompted a controversial ban.

One editor suggested such efforts may instead get Macon banned again for “transphobia” claiming: “it’s very hard to think of someone who steadfastly refuses to use singular they as anything other than transphobic, and excuses for not using singular they based on age or autism or grammar only make it worse.” Claiming concern for Macon, the editor added this was “a real risk here if you don’t just capitulate, say ‘OK I’ll use singular they,’ and leave it at that.” The editor concluded: “I am sure that I’m not the only here who thinks outright refusal to use singular they to refer to a nonbinary person is morally indefensible.”

The pronoun issue was later raised at the personal discussion page for Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, where an editor citing Macon’s ban questioned why a community-made Wikipedia user interface did not have more “inclusive” pronoun options and treated singular “they” as a gender-neutral default rather than a specific choice. Not commenting on the specifics of Macon’s ban, Wales stated: “I strongly support that people should be called by whatever pronouns they prefer.” Wales also stated he had no real issue with singular “they” as a pronoun, including when preferences aren’t known.

LGBT issues have been a recurring source of controversy surrounding Van Haeften. In early 2019, Van Haeften got a satirical article about Wikipedia policy regarding non-standard pronouns in the Signpost community newsletter retracted claiming it “marginalizes and disparages transgender, nonbinary or genderqueer readers and Wikipedians.” Van Haeften’s current restriction against edits relating to human sexuality came about due to a discussion regarding an article on transgender activist Jessica Yaniv’s failed discrimination lawsuit against three women who refused to wax Yaniv’s male genitalia. Arguing the article was an “attack page” and should be deleted, Van Haeften decided to “prove it” by adding content he deemed “transphobic” to the page.

Other areas have also seen agenda-pushing from Van Haeften. Macon’s initial warning about using Van Haeften’s preferred pronouns came about in a discussion where he criticized Van Haeften suggesting an editor was sexist for noting a female scientist was complaining on Twitter about an attempt to delete Wikipedia’s page on her. In a reply to Van Haeften’s plans to appeal his ban, one editor noted his anti-Donald Trump agenda pushing on Wikipedia-affiliated image repository Wikimedia Commons. There Van Haeften argued in favor of allowing videos on the front page of Commons smearing Trump on his last days in office, though the proposed front page appearances were eventually rejected.

Before focusing on gender-related issues, Van Haeften was known for inflammatory editing regarding sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Previously editing as “Ash” on Wikipedia, Van Haeften was the subject of a discussion focused on his failure to adhere to site sourcing standards, particularly with regards to articles on gay porn actors where he was criticized for using unreliable sources to push for excessive numbers of Wikipedia articles on them. Before that discussion concluded, Van Haeften claimed to be “leaving” the site, but instead created the Fæ account and continued editing without disclosing this fact. A year later, Van Haeften deceived editors about his prior activity to obtain administrator privileges.

Eventually, Van Haeften joined the Wikimedia UK chapter organization’s board and became its chair in 2012. Another Wikipedia discussion cited Van Haeften dodging accountability by changing accounts, his deceit about it, and subsequent misconduct, to demand Van Haeften resign his position as administrator. Failing to resolve the matter, Van Haeften’s conduct was brought to the Arbitration Committee, which found he violated sourcing policies and illicitly used multiple undeclared accounts among other misconduct. Van Haeften resigned as an administrator and was banned by the Committee, with him resigning from the Wikimedia UK board shortly afterwards. The ban was eventually lifted with a restriction against certain edits about human sexuality, which was lifted in 2016 before his current ban on edits about the topic was imposed.

In the lead-up to his initial ban, Van Haeften sought to use Wikipedia policies on personal information to shut down discussion about his conduct and even brought concerns about the Arbitration Committee case to a Wikimedia Foundation staff member in what the Committee criticized as an attempt to seek intervention by the site’s owners. Van Haeften has exhibited a similar pattern regarding pronoun usage, invoking policies on “preferred pronouns” against critics such as Macon. Such use of left-wing identity politics standards to silence opponents was one concern editors have raised regarding efforts to impose a “code of conduct” on Wikipedia and other sites owned by the Foundation.

As with the feud on Wikipedia earlier this year regarding claims about actor Keiynan Lonsdale’s “preferred pronouns” being “tree” and “treeself” based on an old interview despite questions about his sincerity, those running afoul of pronoun standards often themselves favor a left-wing identity politics agenda. Given the site’s widely observed left-wing bias, criticized even by site co-founder Larry Sanger, the imposition of more radical standards only risks worsening a problem evidenced in multiple studies and analyses.

(Disclosure: The author has previously been involved in disputes on Wikipedia with some parties referenced in this article)

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.

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